Call it "Eugene Buchanan and the Search for Inca Gold," or maybe "Eugene Buchanan and the Death-Defying Canyon."
Midway through his amazing Indiana Jones-esque adventure in Peru's Colca Canyon, Steamboat Springs' Eugene Buchanan was sure only that he wanted to be somewhere else. But even as the expedition drew to a close and he climbed with a group of seven other explorers toward the rim of one of the deepest canyons in the world, he said he realized how special of an adventure he stumbled into.
The trek in Peru was the second part in a round-the-world wonder trip for Buchanan, a Steamboat outdoor journalist who has traveled the world for kayaking adventures. The experience began with a trip to Beijing, where he worked with NBC to broadcast the kayaking events in the Summer Olympics.
That stop brought close encounters of the celebrity kind - he got a seat courtside to watch LeBron James and the Redeem Team, sprinting phenom Usain Bolt and American golden boy Michael Phelps.
And that was all before he even landed in Peru to join an expedition that hoped to become the first to navigate roughly 20 uncharted miles of the treacherous Colca Canyon.
As deep as it gets
Colca Canyon lies in the Arequipa Region of southern Peru, in South America's great mountain range, the Andes. It's arguably the deepest canyon in the world, with massive peaks rising up from each rim to tower over the Colca River.
The region perhaps is best known to tourists for the Andean condor, which often can be seen soaring near the canyon walls.
Buchanan was roped into the trip when confronted by his long-time adventuring friend and mentor, Yurek Majcherczyk from Poland.
Majcherczyk and his team of Polish kayakers became well known in the 1980s for making first descents down many of South America's rivers, including the lower portions of the Colca River.
The Polish explorer's most recent goal was to knock off the section of canyon he missed in his previous trips. Buchanan said their mutual friendship and his expertise, both with a kayak and in the media, earned him a ticket.
"He put this trip together as the final condor feather in his cap," Buchanan said. "He wanted to explore the whole drainage. He also brought geologists to take rock samples and engineers to get GPS coordinates and map it for the first time ever."
To the bottom of the world
Buchanan didn't have to wait to figure out how intense the six-day excursion would be.
"I flew straight from Beijing. I flew into San Francisco, to Los Angeles and to Lima at 1 a.m. I flew out of there at 3:30 a.m. to Arequipa, where some guy met me in a truck at 5:30 a.m.," he said. "We then went six hours over a 16,000-foot pass right to the edge of a cliff where I rappelled down, into my waiting kayak."
The trip didn't get much easier from there. There was far more water in the river than was initially expected, and Buchanan was the only one equipped with a kayak. The group's supplies were packed in two rafts, but no one had drysuits or lifejackets up to the task of the deeper water.
"All sorts of stuff went wrong from the get-go," Buchanan said. "It was supposed to be more of a canyoneering trip where people wear wetsuits and kind of swim along in shallow water. It became a lot more of a boat trip, and since I had the only kayak, I became the point man, going ahead to look for a way through, then going back to help pull the rafts."
Race to the bottom
One thing Buchanan thought the group knew for sure about the trip: its eight members would be the only people around. Even that myth was burst one day, however.
"Turns out there was another Polish group ahead of us that had caught wind of our operation and put in two days ahead of us," Buchanan said. "It became a Polish race to the bottom of the earth."
Winning a race to the bottom of the world wasn't the only prize, either. In addition to simply wanting to check the upper stretches of the canyon off his "things to do list," Majcherczyk had ambitions to find treasure hidden in the rock walls. He hoped to find leftover loot squirreled away by the ancient Incas.
Much of that went by the wayside when the going became rough. The crew often had to portage its supplies over rocky patches, then rappel to get around waterfalls and other major obstacles.
"Thankfully, we had a good boating year here in Steamboat to help me prepare," Buchanan said.
The trip wasn't without a few more moments that'd make Harrison Ford proud. Buchanan's group finally caught up with the other Polish explorers on the fifth day. The groups then decided the trip had been too exhausting on supplies to continue for the remaining portions. They joined forces and climbed out together.
On the way out, they found a cave with eight ancient mummies.
"We thought it'd take four to six days to get through, but by day six, we were only at six miles," Buchanan said. "More importantly, you measure your progress there by vertical drop, and in the next 12 miles, we would have had to drop 2,800 vertical feet. To that point, we had only dropped 1,200 feet."
Buchanan said he hopes to give a presentation on the trip in Steamboat later this year, to benefit the youth-related Everything Outdoor Steamboat program, and he also plans to use it as a part of an upcoming book.