Todd Swain: Our Trad Version of Indiana Jones.
Todd does these trips, and we can never believe what he’s been through. It’s a cross between Great Gatsby and Indiana Jones. And he does it all for fun. Read on:
My wife, Donette, and I just returned from our third trip to the Central American country of Belize. Like the previous two trips, our goal was to create more climbs that could be used by Belizean adventure guides for instructional and guiding purposes. We arrived in San Ignacio, Belize on Christmas Eve, after traveling from Joshua Tree via Las Vegas and Cancun, Mexico. Like the three wise men (even though there were actually only two of us), we bore Mad Rock shoes, harnesses and quickdraws for the Belizean guides.
On Boxing Day we met up with one of our Belizean guide friend, Diego Cruz, and headed off to a new area between Belize City and the Belize capitol of Belmopan. We drove into a huge farming operation and then transferred from the SUV into a trailer on the back of a large farm tractor. We were then taken about 1.5 miles out through the fields to the end of the road at the edge of the jungle. It was still incredibly muddy (the rainy season had just ended in November) although they have an excavator working on the road digging drainage ditches on each side to ultimately dry things out.
By April the road along the fields will be well drained, rock solid and passable by SUVs. As we neared the end of the road, we entered an area of karst formations. There were dozens of them within 100 yards of the tractor road, all with exposed cliffs (photo from the tractor at right).
We then hiked out an initially bog-like trail for about a mile up and down some very steep hills. The local farm workers had spent three weeks chopping this trail thru the jungle in anticipation of our arrival. We eventually dropped down into a valley filled with mosquitoes, caves and cliffs. The valley was ringed by limestone crags up to 150 feet high and in one corner, a huge arch and a subterranean tunnel (round like a lava tube, but clearly formed by water). This tube was roughly 200 yards long with the bottom being flat soil so that you could walk its entire length without effort. There were plenty of bats and at the entrance we saw a small non-poisonous snake. The valley had great rock and given enough time, 100 or more routes of all grades could
be done here.
We then set to work establishing some routes. I first started up a slightly left-leaning groove that while overhanging, looked to be moderate. About 15 feet up, I placed a bolt in a huge block that seemed to be solidly attached to the cliff. As I was pulling past, the top of the block snapped off, placing two toaster-sized chunks in my chest. Donette darted out of the way as the rocks slid past me and impacted the ground where she had been standing. The climbing above was strenuous (especially placing the bolts), but on top rope afterward, not nearly as bad as it had seemed on the lead. We then got some bolts installed on a superb 5.10 route before calling it a day.
I was pretty pooped from the heat and humidity, making the hike up and down over the steep hills back to the trailhead a chore. When we reached the road, we learned the tractor had broken down, so we walked about an additional half mile through calf deep mud until the farm workers arrived with a Mule ATV to take us back to our car. A shower while quaffing a Belikin stout got us ready for some Chinese food and the end to another day of climbing in Belize.
Each day of the trip was pretty much the same – up at 6am; to bed at 9pm with a whole lot of sweating, panting, grunting, cursing and laughter in between. On the 27th we climbed a very cool line up a large free-standing tufa (stalactite). Once I got it completed, a local guide and one of the farm workers who came in with us followed the route. The farm worker, Hayro, was overjoyed at the opportunity to climb and quickly ascended the route wearing rubber boots (not surprisingly, his nickname among the farm workers is “chimpo”). On the hike out we saw several coatimundis. These critters were scampering up and down trees like jungle cats (we didn’t realize they climbed trees). The first day we hiked in, Donette caught a glimpse of some spider monkeys passing thru the canopy.
One of the best parts of each day was the ride back to the car in the Mule ATV. We sat in the back seat, holding onto the grab bar as we plunged thru mud holes and over bumps. Anytime we gained some speed we were peppered with bugs. It was very much like a ride at a theme park, but for real.
We got two more excellent routes done on the 28th, including the second best climb we have yet done in Belize (an overhanging 5.9 on perfect rock; photo above).
After four days at the backcountry crag, we moved to a cliff closer to the road that would be easy to access with groups. Donette, Diego, Hayro and I spent the day on rappel removing loose blocks and dirt (surprisingly, we only uncovered one scorpion). The cleaning revealed a fantastic face for guiding and beginner climbing.
We returned to the guiding wall on the 31st. The only difference from the previous day was that it poured upon our arrival, soaking everything and making the rest of the day “steamy.” We removed lots of debris from the base of the escarpment that we had knocked down the previous day and the farm workers felled a gigantic dead tree that was near the cliff. Portions of the dead tree were turned into benches in the clearing below the crag.
On the way out, the usual muddy areas had increased in size as a result of the rain. The combo of a 20 year old driving and excess mud provided us with a late evening archaeological project as we were given the opportunity to unearth the Mule. It takes some effort to bury one, but the driver succeeded. The front right portion of the buggy was completely submerged in mud the consistency of cake batter. With brush stuffed under wheels for traction and a log as a lever, we eventually liberated our transport and made it back to the farm. Prior to the “dig,” we would have been about as dirty as we had ever been. With the added layers of mud spattered all over us from the aggressive ATV driving and rescue effort, we can safely say it was the dirtiest we had been in all of 2012!
As we drove from San Ignacio to the job site on January 2nd for another day of construction, the sky looked grim. Mucho mud appeared to be in our future.
The drive from the farm to the trailhead was treacherous, as the rain had made even the once stable dirt slippery for the Mule. Both Donette and I were pleasantly surprised that we didn’t get stuck on the way in.
When we arrived at the cliff, it was sopping wet and the clouds overhead made it look like it would stay that way. Despite the gloom, we started work, hoping this was our last day on the project as we were sick of mud and wet rock. By mid-morning, the sky had cleared and the rock immediately started drying. By lunch, the cliff was dry and our mental state much improved.
Diego and Ricardo (one of the farm workers) worked on the center portion of the cliff all day. This was the last remaining section that needed extensive cleaning under our previous “Plan A.” Because there was a continual shower of debris coming down in that area, Donette and I decided to clean an area on the right side of the face to see if we could get in another line. I swapped off with Hayro excavating dirt, chopping brush and cleaning holds. By the end of the day we had
uncovered the best route on the cliff. It goes through two big overhanging sections on gigantic jugs that make for fun but not too difficult climbing (5.6).
By the end of our fourth day there, we had nine routes cleaned and bolted that are perfect for guiding. Combined with the other backcountry routes we did earlier on the trip, we established 16 climbs at the new area (more than any other single area in Belize). The guides and landowner were very pleased and asked that we return in April.