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AREA ADVENTURER FACES TOUGHEST TEST.

Byline: Holly Edwards Staff Writer

SANTA CLARITA - For more than a decade, Steve Colf has traveled the world in search of high-risk adventure.

He has been trapped in the Himalayas by a blizzard and spent weeks at a time alone in primitive mountain villages.

But the 56-year-old Newhall rancher said his trip last month through the remote Copper Canyon region of Mexico was so dangerous and terrifying, he briefly considered giving up high-risk adventure travel altogether.

``I came back from that trip thinking I wasn't going to do it anymore because of the ripple effect it would have on the family if I died or was seriously injured,'' Colf said.

Colf traveled to the area with his 35-year-old son, David, a military weapons consultant from Valencia.

During the two-week trip by mule and horseback, Colf was knocked off the side of a canyon by a mule, traversed a flooded river by foot, repeatedly got lost, and helped rescue a man in the group who was seriously injured when he and his horse toppled down a ravine.

The Colfs' ill-fated trip to Copper Canyon began, ominously enough, with the father and son trying to cope with the most severe flooding the region had experienced in decades.

Train tracks were closed due to landslides, so the Colfs took a commuter plane, a bus and a Chevy Suburban to meet their travel partners at a ranch in the area. The trip, which normally takes six hours, took them three days.

``We were supposed to have two days to get used to the horses and get organized, but that didn't happen,'' Steve Colf said. ``It was our first validation that this was going to be an adventure.''

The group included Doug Rhodes, a friend of the Colfs who lives on a ranch in Mexico; Rhodes' stepson; a female friend of Rhodes; a free-lance writer from New Mexico; and David Nelson, a free-lance photographer from New Mexico.

Because of the flooding, the group had to cross a river in an unfamiliar area and quickly became lost. Fortunately, a 10-year-old boy riding a mule in the area found the group and led them a nearby village.

The group slept in an adobe hut that night, sheltered from a torrential rainstorm that lasted from midnight until almost 8 a.m.

The next morning, they got a late start but decided to push forward into the rain-soaked canyons anyway, knowing they had a 10- to 12-hour ride ahead of them.

The decision would almost cost them their lives.

About mid-afternoon, as the group crept down a steep, narrow trail winding through a canyon, Nelson's horse suddenly went berserk.

``The horse went off the side of the mountain and went bucking down the slope,'' said David Colf. ``The horse rolled and somersaulted down the hill and David was squished between the horse and the trail. I thought for sure he was dead because I didn't think anyone could survive that.''

Nelson quickly checked his fingers and toes to make sure he wasn't paralyzed and then remained motionless for several minutes, trying to recover from the shock. Though he didn't know how badly injured he was at the time, he later learned he suffered three broken ribs.

The group had a first aid kit, but soon learned it was virtually useless.

``All it had was diarrhea medicine and ointments,'' Colf said. ``There were no ace bandages, no triangular bandages and even no Band-Aids.''

Though both horse and rider were able to move, Colf said it was nearly dark by this time and the group was in one of the most remote and heavily wooded areas of the region.

They would have to make the precarious, four-hour walk back to the nearest village in pitch darkness. Clouds completely obscured the moon and the group could not use flashlights because they could frighten or temporarily blind the horses, Colf said.

Nelson was placed on a mule, which has a smoother gate than a horse, and the group started walking their animals back down the narrow trail in darkness.

By this time, David Colf said he was terrified.

``I was really afraid it could happen to my horse and I was starting to really get concerned about getting back to see my wife and daughter,'' he said. ``I was the most scared I've ever been in my life, and I prayed we'd all make it back. I knew I didn't want to be on a mule injured and groaning like David.''

David Colf's fears were well-founded. About an hour and a half later, as Steve Colf walked his mule down the trail, the animal suddenly swung his head and knocked Colf off the side of the canyon.

``I grabbed ahold of a mesquite bush and the dirt kept falling away from under my boots,'' Colf said. ``I'm hanging there in pitch darkness and I don't know if I let go whether I'll fall 10 feet, 100 feet or 1,000 feet. And I can't in good conscience call out for help because it would be too dangerous for anyone to try to turn around on the trail.''

By staying calm and digging his toes into the dirt for support, Colf eventually was able to hoist himself back up onto the trial. No one in the group knew anything had happened.

Hours later, as a final challenge of sorts, Colf's mule darted across a swollen river without him and he had to wade across the raging water on foot.

Eventually, the group reached their destination - a small adobe hut with no windows or doors and no running water, but equipped with a Direct TV satellite dish offering 150 channels.

The Colfs bedded down in a chicken coop for the night, and Nelson was placed on a cot in the living room.

The following day, Nelson traveled back to the hotel by train and the Colfs took a day off with the rest of the group.

Despite the terrifying ordeal they had just survived, the adventurers decided to continue their journey on a treacherous trail none of them had been on before.

``It was billed as the toughest trail in North America, so we knew we had to do it,'' Steve Colf said. ``We were no longer sore and no longer tired. We were ready to go again.''

Clearly, for the Colfs, going on vacation doesn't mean sipping umbrella drinks on tropical islands.

``There's an addictiveness in adventure travel, and I always go into these things with the attitude that I'm going to come out alive,'' Colf said.

And though traveling through the wilderness of a strange land is risky, Steve Colf said it is the most spiritually fulfilling thing he has ever done.

``In this particular life, I'm given a finite period of time and I want to see every corner of the world I can,'' he said. ``There's something magical in these untouched corners, and I feel a closeness to my maker that I struggle to get when I'm here.''

David Colf said he has a new appreciation for the luxuries many of us take for granted.

``These kind of trips just have a way of recentering and humbling you,'' he said. ``People tend to get prideful and boastful of their material goods, but this made me realize how similar we all really are.''

CAPTION(S):

2 photos

Photo:

(1) Steve Colf of Newhall, on lead mule crossing river, challenges the inhospitable terrain of Mexico's Copper Canyon, where he and his party suffered swollen rivers, torrential rains and primitive lodgings.

(2) Newhall rancher Steve Colf, left, and his son, David, prefer vacations battling the elements to relaxing in comfort.

Shaun Dyer/Special to the Daily News
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Nov 27, 2000
Words:1283
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