Photos: Ginger Glaccum
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Idaho team notches thee firsts on the top of the world By Sean Glaccum
t all starts with an adventurous dream. As soon as I graduated high school, I followed my dream to the world’s highest peaks. The chance to safety kayak for Equator Expeditions opened the door to Himalayan travel, to explore rivers that had not been kayaked. I traversed from drainage to drainage looking for that perfect unknown run. One decade, 10 trips to the region and 14 first descents later, I decided it was time to make my living on the river. Having guided since age 18, it only seemed natural to purchase a rafting outfit on Idaho’s South Fork Payette. But with all my time devoted to making the business work, travel became nonexistent. Owning and running the modest Payette River Company with my wife, Ginger, and a three-guide staff has me guiding, a lot. And raft time has taught me one thing: teamwork. It’s made me realize how much of a one-man struggle kayaking can be. The other guides and I found that by combining our skills we could run harder sections than our bread-and-butter commercial run on the Class IV South Fork Payette. It didn’t take long to head up the North Fork. We tasted larger rapids on the North Fork Payette’s lower five miles and we were surprised how well our team could maneuver our 13-foot Maravia Ranger in pushy, chaotic whitewater. After a couple runs, we started to test the upper sections, where only a handful of paddle-rafts have ever attempted—and only at lower flows. After three seasons paddling together, and a few
Getting High: The author and a sherpa approach the Dudh Kosi at the foot of Everest. Opposite, making miles on the Thule Bheri.
close calls, we felt strong enough to run the entire 18 miles of Class V at over 2,000 cfs. Some kayakers called us crazy, even saying we had a death wish. But we were in love with the thrill of being in the same craft, experiencing extreme whitewater with the same goals and expectations, working to meet them as a team. Over the next few seasons, we kept pushing our skills on other rowdy Idaho rivers. After our first raft descent of the Secesh River, a serious Class V wilderness stretch, I couldn’t help it any longer: “If we were in the Himalayas, we could rack up some first raft descents on really challenging whitewater,” I told our crew. With each campfire story told and old photo unearthed, another dream was born: three remote rivers on the other side of the planet, each from a different region of Nepal, and each draining one of the Himalaya’s grandest peaks. First up was Mount Everest: the glacier-fed Dudh Kosi, draining the highest peak on Earth. Second, the Modi Khola, from the shadow of Annapurna, the world’s 10th biggest. And finally, the Thule Bheri, draining Mount Dhauligiri, No. 7 on the list. PRC guides Dak Helentjaris, Tim Ball, Matt Jost and I would raft, Pat Riffie, a fellow Payette guide, would safety kayak, and Ginger would be the team photographer. We arrived in Nepal during the last week of September 2011, warming up on a monsoon-flooded lowland river, the Bhote Kosi. After a backcountry flight into the Everest region in eastern Nepal, we hired porters to carry the raft and safety kayak two days up to the village of Namche Bazaar at around 12,000 feet, just above the Dudh Kosi put-in. The river was much higher than when I’d kayaked it 10 years ago: boulderinfested, continuous, and technical. We planned to overnight at local villages, meeting up with the porters carrying our personal gear, but with the Dudh pumping with siltladen glacial runoff and the rapids stacking up, I doubted if we could even make the eddies at some villages. Tim opted to join the ground crew. I reassured the remaining raft crew, now down to three, that we could do it.
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Thin Air, Cold Strokes: The crew makes history on the Dudh Kosi.
minute after pushing off, we slammed into the entrance to a set of rapids that ejected me from the raft. After that, we boated as cautiously as possible, scrambling to scout every horizon line or unknown bend. As Pat ran his Pyranha Everest safety kayak and Ginger relayed info by VHF from shore, we hopped rapid to rapid in the fast and furious flow. The altitude began to take its toll. Fatigued, and after almost two weeks of trekking and rafting, we made it back to Lukla, almost 3,000 feet later. The hard-earned miles left us feeling like a part of the history of Everest whitewater as the first to successfully paddle-raft the stretch pioneered by the legendary 1976 British kayak descent led by Mike Jones (and famously documented in the film Dudh Kosi: Relentless River of Everest), followed by a 2003 Russian team who navigated this rock-infested ditch in a strange Bublik craft.
Ready for the warmer temps and thicker air, we bused down to Pokhara, just south of the Annapurna range in central Nepal for our next mission on the Modi Khola. Heat and insects, not to mention the river’s steep, rocky and nonstop characteristic, have given rafters plenty of reason to avoid this classic jungle river. We spent two days completing the continuous Class IV section, enjoying the technical drops with more air in our lungs and power in our strokes. We needed the morale boost for our final leg into western Nepal’s Dolpa region, extremely remote and populated with sparse villages of culturally Tibetan subsistence farmers. Even seeing other travelers here is rare, as the Nepalese government only opened this hidden land at the base of 26,795-foot Mount Dhauligiri in 1990. We brought water filters and rehydration salts to the villages. Ironically, clean water is hard to come by in this ancient land, despite the glacial meltwater coursing down the Thule Bheri. Unlike the first two rivers, which I’d already kayaked, this run was a complete unknown to all. Just getting to the put-in was an ordeal. Days of high-mountain fog grounded our flight, leaving us with a wild Jeep ride and four days of trekking. We were almost two months in, sick from rural village cooking, when we arrived at the put-in confluence of the Barbung Khola and the Thule Bheri. Slowly working our way downriver, we scouted every rapid. It was now second nature: read, run, forget, repeat. After four days, our final stores of energy were gone, but the journey complete. The 11-hour
Fatigued, and after almost two weeks of trekking and rafting, we made it back to Lukla, almost 3,000 feet later. The hard-earned miles left us feeling like a part of the history of Everest.
Jeep ride flew by as we returned to Pokhara to gorge our starving bellies. We needed it. The two months had thinned our bodies and nerves, pushing our physical and mental stamina to the edge. But it felt good. The team had bonded as if we’d been to battle together. Our whole team shared the accomplishment. We’d all been in it together, and our conversations centered on what happened to “us” instead of the “did you see me” stories that came out of my kayak trips. As a new guiding season begins back Idaho, the minute I look into a campfire, I go right back to the struggles, mental challenges, and close calls locked into my memory. They only strengthen my love of whitewater, fueling new dreams of chasing the thrill all over again.
Idaho team notches three firsts on the top of the world. By Sean Glaccum, from Canoe & Kayak magazine's 2012 Whitewater annual.