The MONTAÑAS de COLÓN: Reminiscences of Things to Come
The Sutawala Valley, portal to the heart of the Montañas de
The following collection of images was acquired on four trips to the
Montañas de Colón made by geologist/caver Ric Finch during the
summer of 1983 while working for the Dirección General de Minas e
Hidrocarburos of the GOH, and again for the DGMH during the summer of 1984, and
later that same summer on an exploration project for Amoco, and finally in Dec.
1984 with a group of cavers. Although most of the photos were taken by Finch,
some were taken by Tom Weiland and others by Ed Yarbrough; apologies for not
giving specific photo credits. Some of the shots seem to have a number of
buzzards and even the occasional condor in the sky; I take the blame for not
finding my air brush to clean these slides before scanning them.
The Montañas de Colón (henceforth, MdeC) comprise a belt of
folded limestone mountains extending SW-NE along a section of the border of
Honduras with Nicaragua in the Honduran portion of La Mosquitia. The
Cretaceous age carbonate formation, the Atima Limestone of the Yojoa Group,
is thousands of feet thick, is highly karstified, and is covered with dense
tropical hardwood jungle.
Finch's geological work in the area gave him an opportunity to recon the karst
area using helicopter support, and also a chance to get familiar with the
Sutawala Valley area on the ground, and make some useful contacts. Later in
1984 Finch organized a group of Tennessee cavers to make the first attempt by
cavers to explore this karst area. The Tennessee contingent consisted of
Finch, Trent Carr, Elwin and Debbie Hannah, and Ed Yarbrough. Caver Larry
Cohen, then with the US Embassy in Honduras, Economic Section, aided the
group from Tegucigalpa in many ways, and also joined the venture in the field.
The target area was the Sutawala Valley, which transects the MdeC through
some of the most spectacular karst. This valley forms the only feasible
path for crossing the range, and the Sutawala Valley trail has undoubtedly been
used by the natives since time immemorial. The cavers hoped to use this valley
as a route into the heart of the karst.
The logistical problems of getting cavers and gear to the target area were, and
still are, a major difficulty to the success of any caving trip to this area.
Once in the area, getting around from place to place and finding any caves is
yet another difficult problem. Unfortunately, exploring any caves found
turned out not to be a problem for the 1984 group.
The following selection of images will show the area and some of the logistical
problems to be dealt with. It is hoped that the members of the 1984 trip will
enjoy seeing these pictures and remembering some good times had, and that the
cavers preparing for the 2001 MdeC odyssey will benefit from the preview of
challenges to come.
Good Caving to All--
Ric Finch, NSS5560RL
Montañas de Colón Photo Album
Topographic map of target area; C.I.= 20 m;
confluence of Ríos Wampú and Patuca, far left; Cerro Wampú
lower left; Sutawala Valley, center.
Río Patuca and the MdeC front near the
north part of the range; from helicopter, view southward.
Río Patuca, view upstream along the
MdeC front near the Sutawala Valley; Cerro Wampú is the sharp ridge on
the right in the background; you can just make out the Sutawala River coming
in on the left, just along the near margin of the old agricultural clearing.
The very straight course of the Patuca here is fault-controlled. Low water
conditions expose outcrops of a sheared shale with blebs of tectonically
intercalated limestone. In stereophotos limestone beds along the mountain
front can be seen to be truncated. Finch interpreted this fault to be a
strike-slip fault, based on the rectilinearity of the river course and the
presence throughout Honduras of a suite of large-scale strike-slip faults
trending NE. Rogers later reinterpreted this fault as a thrust, based on data
not available in 1984: thrusts found in seismic profiles and two deep
hydrocarbon test wells drilled in the Ahuás area. Finch now concurs
with the thrust interpretation. This fault contact places a limit on the
karst area, as the bedrock to the NW consists of clastic strata and lava flows.
MdeC front and entrance to the Sutawala
Valley, Río Patuca in foreground.
Confluence of the Río Sutawala with the
Patuca; the Sutawala can just be seen winding through the trees on the
far side of the old agricultural clearing.
The Sutawala Valley viewed from a
helicopter; an unbroken jungle canopy save for an occasional vertical cliff of
Atima limestone along the valley walls. The Río Patuca once flowed
through this valley to join the Río Coco to the SE; the evidence for
this is the size and morphology of the valley itself-- too big to have been
eroded by the Sutawala, and the presence in the valley alluvium of large,
well-rounded stream pebbles of quartz that had to be transported into the
valley from without, i.e., the Río Sutawala has no source for such
clasts. The Patuca probably shifted to its present course due to uplift of
Cliffs of Atima limestone along the rim of the
A side valley extending NE from the
Sutawala Valley, and passing through km sq 27/54. This flat-bottomed valley
is floored with shaly beds. Rogers believes the limestone on the right wall of
the valley to be a thrust repeated section of same limestone exposed further to
the NE (left) of the valley; dip is to the right (SE). Whether the valley
wall-floor contacts are sedimentary contacts or faults, they might well lend
themselves to the development of contact caves.
Rugged karst in the limestone highlands
along the south side of the Sutawala Valley.
"Helicopter Sink", a 2-km long sinkhole just
SW of Cerro Tirisne ("Kirisne" on the map), km sq 23/51.
Ahuás airstrip, twin engine Azteca
taking off. The 1984 caving group chartered this plane to bring them, in two
loads, into Ahuás, as the strip at Wampusirpi was too short to
accommodate a twin-engine plane, and using a single engine plane would have
required too many flights, at too great an expense.
Motoring up the Patuca in a rented 41-foot
long pipante; from front to rear: Ric Finch (unseen photographer),
Debbie Hannah, Trent Carr, mound of caving gear and camp supplies, Ed
Yarbrough, Larry Cohen, and Elwin Hannah at the helm of the 5 hp outboard,
brought by the cavers for the trip. The trip upstream from Ahuás to the
Sutawala Valley took on and one-half days: one day to reach Wampusirpi to
overnight, and a half-day to reach the Sutawala campsite from there. This
photo was taken on the second day upstream from Ahuás; on the first
day, from Ahuás to Wampusirpi, this pipante had carried, in
addition to six cavers and gear, a Honduran man, woman and child and their
Finch acting as bowman in the pipante
headed upstream. A pipante has a squared off bow and stern; the bowman
stands on the bow platform, which typically has a small round hole in it,
through which the bowman's staff is thrust to anchor the pipante at
muddy landings. The bowman's main job is to tell the motorman which way to
steer to keep off shoals, and secondly to use his pole to fend off floating
debris and snags when he fails to warn the motorman in time; a highly
necessary job on the Patuca which is shallow in many stretches when not in
Poling up the Río Sutawala, note how
clear this karst stream is compared to the silty brown Patuca. It is possible
to take a pipante up the Sutawala for a couple of kilometers, until the
first travertine dam blocks further upstream passage. At this point, the main
Sutawala Valley trail comes close to the river on the right-hand (southern)
bank, and there is a good flat site for a base camp on the left-hand (northern)
side of the Sutawala. Although camp can be set up more-or-less out of sight
from the trail, it would probably not be a good idea to leave the camp totally
unattended at any time.
Hauling the pipante over a fallen tree
en route up the Sutawala to base camp. All the gear load and passengers had to
be removed to slide the big pipante across this obstacle.
Nicaraguan refugee camp along the Sutawala
River during the Contra War. The Sutawala Trail is the only land connection
between Honduras and Nicaragua in this region, and during the Contra War
refugees from Nicaragua used it to enter Honduras, and, apparently, return to
Nicaragua with relief supplies. How much use the trail might see during
peacetime is hard to predict.
Bringing in the sheaves of palm leaves to floor the
campsite. It should be drier in April and May than in July, August or
December, but the first thing to do in setting up camp is to floor the area
with leaves to keep the amount of mud down. These leaves get worked into the
mud and have to be replenished frequently. Fortunately, supplies are handy.
Note the sunburn acquired on the trip upriver.
Sutawala base camp for the 1984 cavers;
Larry Cohen on left, Trent Carr writing up the day's experiences in his journal,
Debbie Hannah in background.
Guatuza ready for the pot! A native
was hired to hunt for the caving party, given some shells for his .22, and this
was the first bag. Guatuza (agouti in English) is a common forest
rodent and pretty good eating with rice or pasta.
Mono cara blanca (white-faced monkey)
was also brought in by our hunter, somewhat to the chagrin of the cavers, as
this species is not so common as the mono araña (spider monkey).
Of the cavers, only Carr and Finch partook; the rest decided this was
a bit too close to cannibalism, so the native hunter received most of the
carcass to take home.
A good-sized boa encountered on a mass of
flood debris lodged in the Sutawala River upstream from the first travertine
dam. This snake, probably about 10 inches thick in the body and at least 10
feet long, was exceptionally beautiful with colors strong and shiny
(unfortunately this does not show on the duplicate slide from which this scan
was made). Perhaps it had just shed its skin recently? It was sluggish and did
not move until touched gently on the tip of its snout with the point of a
machete, at which time it backed up, moving its body backwards through the
exact curves in which it lain undisturbed on the logs, as if it were a train
backing along the tracks! Amazing! The native guide wanted to kill the snake;
when asked why, the answer was not that he thought it poisonous (Honduran
campesinos tend to think most all snakes are poisonous), but that he
wanted to eat it. Undoubtedly, this was a lot of pounds of meat, but
permission to kill the snake was denied, so the magnificent creature got away--
As for poisonous snakes, this region is home to the barbamarilla, a type
of fer de lance that is quite venomous, can be fairly large (like a
diamondback rattler) and said to be aggressive when annoyed. On the 1984
caving trip a black and red banded snake was found in camp one night; pretty,
but we couldn't determine whether it was dangerous or not before it got away
into the thick foliage.
Using the big pipante as a bridge
across the Sutawala from camp to the Sutawala trail.
Squishy Sutawala trail with a Nicaraguan
refugee woman, barefoot and ever with a baby on her back, slogging towards
Nicaragua. In the rainy season this trail is a quagmire of boot-sucking mud;
the more it is traveled, the worse it gets. In the dry season, and perhaps
without refugee traffic, it should not be so bad.
Crossing a stream on a log, but why bother
(other than to show off), since you're going to get your feet soaked anyway if
the trail is muddy.
Nacimiento Tirisne a spring near
the base of the Tirisne cliffs. Danta (tapir) tracks were seen in the
mud here. This spring is one of two resurgences along the south wall of the
Sutawala Valley visited by the 1984 cavers. No enterable cave at either.
View out from Cueva Jabalí, or
Javelina Cave, near the base of the Tirisne cliffs. Here the 1984 cavers found
several hundred feet of low cave, and the bones of one or more peccary, which
obviously had used the cave as a shelter...wouldn't want to catch a live one at
Climbing up the south wall of the Sutawala
Valley to reach the high karst above the valley. Note almost directly
above Finch the pink shirt of one of the natives hired to guide and cut trails.
Yes, it's steep!
Getting ready to load the pipante
for the return trip. Note the freshly cut limbs wedged into the bottom of the
boat; these are essential to keep gear up out of the water that is invariably
The 1984 cavers, left to right, Trent Carr,
Ric Finch, Ed Yarbrough, Larry Cohen seated, Debbie and Elwin Hannah. We
didn't do much caving in the MdeC, but we had a great adventure. Our lack of
success in finding caves we attributed to the short time allotted for our
stay. Of course, the difficulties of the awesome terrain contributed, too.
The caves have to be there-- who will find them?
"Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the ranges.
Something lost behind the ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!" --Rudyard