Mountain Biking The Trail of Death

An interesting turn of events while mountain biking some Copper Canyon singletrack.

Trail of Death 1-03
The Trail of Death

Afterward, we began to call it the Trail of Death.

For the longest time, Batopilas, Mexico was connected to the small town of Cerro Colorado by just a little bit of dirt road and seven or so miles of trail, just barely wide enough for local burro traffic. Then, a few years back, that same dirt road was bulldozed all of the way from Batopilas into the little Copper Canyon town, although the last mile or so of the old trail still exists where the road took an easier route. The part of the trail that remains is a testament to human ingenuity and persistence and literally clings to the rugged mountainside, almost 100 feet above the intermittent waters and ever-present boulders of the Rio Cerro Colorado.

While extending the road did make it possible for people to drive a vehicle into and out of Cerro Colorado, it made hiking or mountain biking into the dusty outpost significantly less interesting. For years, riding bikes out there and back had been a good day trip for many of our groups. We’d ride out from our hotel in Batopilas after breakfast, enjoy a nice mountain bike ride on a mix of single and double track, and then arrive in Cerro just in time for lunch. Once there, we’d eat a typical ranchito lunch prepared for us by one of the local ladies, Senora Perez and served in her house. It was an opportunity for many of our group members to both experience real rural Mexican culture first hand and ride an historic trail that was interesting, void of long climbs and good fun for a wide variety of riders. It simply made for a great day trip.

On this one particular trip, things did start smoothly. The ride out went like clockwork. From Batopilas, we first followed the old aqueduct as it headed out of town, then joined the combination gravel and dirt road as it crossed the Rio Cerro Colorado, and then followed it to the shortcut/old trail for the final approach to our destination. We ultimately rejoined the road near Cerro, just a bit before it became “Main Street” and it was just about at that point that things started to get a little off-kilter.

Just as we rode up a small rise and entered the town outskirts, we were met by an unorganized herd of pigs meandering around in the middle of the road and blocking our intended path. Our organized entrance into town instantly became a confused mess. We were able to close ranks and within moments pull it back together as we rode up in a sort of formation and stopped outside the tidy casa where we were set to eat. Senora Perez waited with serving spoon and dishrag in hand, just as the radio in the nearby store began blurting out the high noon chiming. At least we were on time, I concluded.

After leaning our bikes against her fence, we went inside the house and had an enjoyable meal. Life was good and simple, or so we thought, as we got up from the table, walked outside into a pleasantly warm mid-afternoon sun, and got back up on our bikes. We then turned them towards Batopilas and rode off, ready for whatever might come our way.

We took the shortcut/old trail again, as it forked off from the road just outside of town. Right after the turn-off, the dirt and rock path lazily skirted a pasture for a few hundred yards before beginning to narrow and weave its way through various shallow desert-like gullies (or arroyos as they’re called down there). The arroyos progressively steepened and eventually became small canyons, which forced the five-foot-wide pathway to mysteriously defy reason and cling to the rock part way up the canyon wall. That whole rocky section is a simple marvel and more than once on previous trips I’d pondered how it almost seemed to be carved into the solid rock cliff side. In a short space of time and distance, the riding went from relaxed and casual to something more on the tricky and difficult end of the spectrum.

Since I was the leader of the group and one of the few that had any idea about where we were going or what we were doing, I rode in front. Our group of 11 had spread apart as we rode out onto the trail section and by the time we reached a particularly significant cliff section, we were all separated by 20 or 30 yards.

The trail had never seemed all that technical before, although in retrospect I will say that parts of it are (technical, in this case means rocks, uneven terrain, and exposure to big drop-offs). The riding was enjoyable and became exciting as we rode out onto the rocky part. I knew better than to look at anything other than the trail and kept my eyes fixed on the ground in front of my wheel as we rode along. A few hundred feet into the steepest and most exposed section I rounded a curve, rode up and then over a small rock hump, and finally into a more mellow and predictable stretch.

As I entered the more moderate section, I allowed my mind to wander a bit and for some reason began mentally re-riding the rocky curve and hump. I’d never paid much attention to that particular rock or turn before, but there was something about it on that particular ride that was causing it to stick in my mind. About 200 yards after past it I rolled to a stop, could resist the urge no longer, and looked back at it across the canyon. From my vantage point, I could see how the whole curve complex just seemed to jut out of the cliff. And then, as I watched, the whole thing became almost magically highlighted by a beam of intense sunshine. It was right then that Rich came around the corner, rode up onto the top of the rock, and then crashed and fell off of the cliff.

It was simple and straightforward. Initially, I was paralyzed and gazed motionlessly at the curve. My biggest fears were confirmed as I heard his bike crashing and bouncing its way down the cliff and come to a suddenly silent and abrupt stop at the bottom. How, why, and don’t were words that came to mind and my world went into slow motion as I let my own bike fall down onto the trail and headed back toward where he had once been. I had no idea about what to do in that sort of situation, but felt the need to go and do something. I glanced back across at the rock one more time before taking off and saw the trail, rocks, and distant mountains filling-in the background, but no Rich. The sight of what wasn’t there caused a rush of adrenaline to begin free flowing into my head. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, he just reappeared, climbing up onto the cliff edge of the trail. Yes, like falling off it was a seemingly simple and straightforward occurrence. I was excited, confused, and intrigued all at once—but the fact was that he was there across the way, standing by the rock in question, and apparently in the flesh.

I kept my eyes on him as I continued walking his way and watched as he just brushed himself off and began talking and gesturing to other nearby group members. I had the thought that if I let him out of my sight, he might actually just disappear again, and I certainly didn’t want that. So, I just kept looking at him as I walked.

It would be an understatement to say that I was overwhelmed and I can likely speak for everyone else who witnessed the event by saying that they were as well. It’s just not that often that you get to watch someone fall off of a cliff and then reappear.

When I got to Rich, he recounted what’d happened. He’d ridden up onto the rock, lost his balance, and fell to the cliff side. I can only imagine that he’s still reliving that moment of whatever it is that goes through your mind as you’re falling toward certain death. In his case, he fell onto a sizable ledge that was some eight feet below the trail. Somehow, he came unclipped from his pedals, untangled from his bike, and literally stuck on a flattish spot while his bike bounced on down to the bottom.

My first thought after hearing his story was that eight feet is a long way to fall, but soon concluded that eight is way better than a hundred. He was bruised, scratched, and dirty, but had very much survived. It was hard to come up with conversation or things to say that seemed relevant and I was almost thankfully distracted from my attempts to do so by a Tarahumara local who just appeared right in front of us with the damaged bike in hand. He recounted how he’d seen the whole thing unfold while walking along the creek below and saw Rich end up on the ledge while the bike crashed onto the boulders at the bottom. He’d walked over to it, picked it up, and had at that point brought it back.

Eventually, it was time to move on. Everyone, except for Rich of course, was particularly careful about how and where they got up onto their bikes. A few of the riders who hadn’t ridden the rocky curve yet opted to walk their bikes through that entire section. Rich walked all the way back to Batopilas and while it’s true that his bike was messed up, I don’t think he would’ve ridden anyway.

As the trail turned into road and the route became less dramatic, I had a bit of time for reflection. There’d been a lot that had happened in those few minutes at the rocky curve. I tried to put myself into Rich’s shoes, figuratively, but was unable. I set that aside for pondering later on and turned my focus to trying to comprehend what the Tarahumara must’ve been thinking, but that didn’t go anywhere either. And so, I looked down at the ground, which kept relentlessly disappearing ahead of my front wheel, and just rode.

Mountain biking the Colorado Trail in the Fall.
Mountain biking the Colorado Trail

Author: David Appleton

I was born and raised in Texas and currently live in the Texas Hill Country, spent some 30 years living in the smack dab middle of Colorado, and have spent a lifetime adventuring and leading others on adventures in many parts of the wild world.