By Dave Costello
A border patrol agent in army fatigues is riffling through my drybag, awkwardly straddling the three 12’ 6” rental standup paddleboards (SUPs) hanging out the back of our short-bed pickup. The nearest water is at the U.S.-Mexico border 30 miles away on Lake Amistad. A five-year drought has left the reservoir on the Rio Grande nearly bone-dry. The nearest surfable waves are 300 miles away in the Gulf of Mexico. I can’t blame him for thinking that three dudes with boards in the middle of the desert look a little suspicious. We do. But we’re not after waves. We’re looking for rock.
I’d been tipped off that the climbing in the Lower Pecos River Canyon was first rate, and mostly untouched, since it could only be accessed by water—not to mention its close proximity to the Mexican border. So I called up two of my old climbing buddies, Wes Walker in Jacksonville, Fla., and Greg Petry in Duluth, Minn., and convinced them to meet me in Austin at the end of March. The plan: Pick up rental boards, drive six hours to the boat ramp at the confluence of the Pecos and the Rio Grande, and paddle upstream for four days, camping and climbing until we’re too tired to lift our paddles.
We got stopped and searched by border patrol twice before making it to the river. Then a thunderstorm hit. So we spent our first night under the awning of the public restroom at the boat ramp, drinking whiskey and watching the lighting crack above the canyon walls.
The Lower Pecos River Canyon is a lonely 55-mile-long, 200-foot-deep hole in the earth a couple hundred miles west of San Antonio. The water is green and warm as it meanders slowly through the canyon’s bright limestone cliffs, streaked white, black, red, and gold. And almost all of it has never been climbed.
I try to appreciate the view while hanging by two fingers from a small, sharp, vertical crack 20 feet above the water. I look down at Greg, who’s holding onto a ledge at water level on his SUP. He’s keeping track of my board and paddle. He looks small, and I decide I don’t want to fall, even though I know it’s inevitable at this point. We’re deep-water soloing—climbing without a rope over water—and even if I make it to the top of the cliff, I still have to jump back down. The system is simple: Paddle up to the wall, step off board and climb, jump or fall back into the river, repeat.
Midday, 40 mph gusts of wind hurtle us upriver faster than we can paddle. We have to stand on the tails of our boards to keep the noses, loaded with drybags filled with our gear, from sinking. We look for a place to pull off, but we’re entirely cliffed in. I begin to worry— there’s no chance we can paddle back. Eventually, we find a side canyon, protected from the wind. It’s only 100 feet across at its widest, winnowing to slots where there’s barely enough room to float our boards through. The walls are a ghostly white, and worn into Dr. Seuss-like overhangs, columns, spires and caves— all glowing gold in the diminishing light. We immediately begin to make plans to set up a high-line for slacklining over the mini gorge.
We pull our boards into a cave with walls so sheer, there are no beaches. A massive flock of swallows erupts from the entrance, their nests plastered across the roof of the 50- by-15-foot cavern. We’re thankful that the two MSR NOOKs we packed along have small enough footprints to fit side by side. If it weren’t for them, we would have been eaten alive by mosquitoes, long before the trip was over.
Each day is, in many ways, a repetition of the one before: Wake up, paddle, climb, eat, and sleep. The weather stays constant. Wind all day, an evening thunderstorm, just before dark, followed by a star-filled Texas night, and hoards of mosquitos.
We drink the last of our whiskey, cheering our first of many successful SUP-climbing trips to come, discussing similar expeditions on Lakes Powell and Tahoe. A few hours later at 3 a.m., we wake up before the swallows to pack in the dark. The water is like glass beneath the stars as we paddle out of the side-canyon, back onto the Pecos. We hardly speak during the two-hour paddle to the boat ramp. An orange burst of light appears to the east. I feel the wind pick up—a soft howl—and enjoy, for a few more minutes, the feel of my paddle in the water, my feet on my board, and the hard-won dirt beneath my fingernails.
Gear, if you go:
– Old, ratty climbing shoes you don’t mind getting wet/destroyed.
– MSR NOOK 2 person Tent, which actually fits in the cliffside caves and will help protect you from mosquitos.
– MSR Whisperlite Universal, because it’s lightweight, efficient, and easy to field repair.
– SUP rentals from SUP ATX, because they’re awesome, and also the closest place to rent standup paddleboards. Just try not to return the boards with as many holes in them as we did…
Time lapse video: http://vimeo.com/49330181