September 13, 2012
This summer, I was originally planning to kayak Hell’s Canyon on the Snake River as part of my training for the Grand Canyon, But my friend Rocky Contos at SierraRios Adventures contacted me about some trips he had planned in Peru. As you may recall, In January, a group of us joined Rocky on a descent of the Usumacinta River in Mexico. We had such a good time that I didn’t hesitate to go on another adventure with Rocky. To say Rocky is an interesting character is a huge understatement. He is a scientist by training, with a Ph.D. in neuroscience, but his passion is kayaking. A fruitarian and health nut, he has paddled all the rivers in Mexico—many of which were first descents. Now his goal is to kayak all the headwaters of the Amazon in Peru: Apurímac, Huallaga, Mantaro, Marañon, and Urubamba. He’s almost achieved this goal. One of the things I like about Rocky is that he is very detail oriented when it comes to organizing his trips. Yet once you’ve set out, he is totally laid back and easy going. Unlike many commercial river outfitters, Rocky lets you make your own decisions about which rapids to run or not. For instance, on the Usumacinta, there was one intense section we were debating whether to kayak. In typical Rocky style, he said softly. “It’s a long rapid. There are some bigger waves and some big whirlpools and some canyon walls you don’t want to get pinned on. A few of you will most likely swim, but I don’t see why you shouldn’t try it.” His trips are true adventures too, not just packaged river runs where the guides know the rapids like the back of their hand. The five-day section that we ran through the Black Canyon of the Apurímac had seen very few descents. The water was running lower than we expected so everyone had to help drag the rafts through rocky sections. On one rapid, a raft got pinned against a rock and took a couple hours, with ten people pulling hard, to unstick. To our group, this really adds to the fun since we are part of the adventure. My daughter Emma wasn’t amused though since her gear bag got flooded and all of her clothes were soaked. My friend, Skyler, actually got a bit more adventure than he wanted in one Class IV rapid. He flipped in one hole and got sucked down into another hole as he was trying to roll back up. After getting thoroughly washing machined, he cracked his head on an underwater boulder and ended up with a huge lump despite wearing a helmet. I kayaked a lot of Class III rapids on that trip but after a couple hours, I’d be mentally exhausted from trying to execute on the rapid voice commands getting fired at me, knowing the consequences of a mistake. At the beginning of the Apurímac in particular, the river had a lot of rapids with rocks and tight passages that required quick and instant maneuvering to navigate. In fact, within the first two minutes of getting in the water, I hit a little pour over sideways, flipped and couldn’t roll back up so I ended up swimming. Definitely not how I wanted to start the trip! Rocky had run the Apurímac once before in a raft so he was familiar with the river at a higher water level. But it wasn’t like he had every rapid memorized—there were easily 30 rapids every day, one every couple of hundred yards. To confront this uncertainty, we came extra prepared. In addition to my normal guide team of Chris Wiegand and Rob Raker, we added Steven Mace, son of my climbing partner Charley Mace. Steven, a class VI boater, came aboard in a safety kayaking role, often getting ahead and waiting for us in areas where I might spill and have some carnage. Despite a few misadventures, I did make some progress in my training on this trip. In particular, I’m getting much more confident in my rolling ability. One day there were a number of Class II rapids where I would purposely flip in the middle of them to practice my roll. In fact, compliments to my Go-Pro, you can see my roll on this clip.
It isn’t easy on my guides either. In one III+, Chris, an expert kayaker, was guiding me from behind. He did beautifully getting me on to the perfect line down the tongue and big drops. When I was through the hard stuff, I wondered why I didn’t hear Chris anymore. And then I heard Rob yelling directions from my side. I was a little confused since Rob was supposed to be out in front picking the best line for me and Chris. Rob yelled, Eddy out left,” and I grabbed a rock and sat tight knowing something was askew.
Turns out that Chris, in setting me up on the perfect line, drifted into the bigger waves and swirls on the side. He dropped into a rather big hole sideways, flipped upside down, and his skirt imploded. He wound up swimming, coming up sputtering with Rob helping him to the side. He hadn’t swum in seven years. The take away for me is that It aint easy guiding a blind guy since it doesn’t give you a lot of focus on yourself. I really appreciate the difficult job that my guides have and respect them for being a part of this little experiment to see how far a blind kayaker can take it.
Another great thing about this adventure is that I could bring my family and make it a cool tourist trip. We had people on rafts and inflatable kayaks as well as our crew of hard-shell kayakers. My oldest brother, Mark, passed away six years ago, and his daughter, Gabrielle, now fifteen years old, came on her first Weihenmayer adventure, paddling with a huge smile on her face through the big rapids. Sounds like we may have a future extreme athlete in the family. And my wife, Ellie, ran her first class IV in a tandem inflatable kayak, punching through a big smacker of a wave. Before the river, we went to Machu Pichu and other ancient Inca sites, like Ollantaytambo, and we were all blown away by this ancient people who cobbled together dozens of other civilizations to form such a sophisticated empire. The huge dwellings were made of perfectly stacked rock, like a real-world Lego set. Some temples were perfectly circular, a testament to what humans can achieve! My favorite part of the Sacred Valley was Moray, a series of amphitheater-shaped terraces in the high mountains. It probably served as an agricultural laboratory and seed cultivation site, but our kids had a blast racing from the bottom to the top along what are called, “sky steps,” precarious stones jutting out into space which run diagonally connecting each terrace. Julio Comacho was our tour guide and expert on the Incan empire who really made that part of the trip a delight. After the Apurímac, we headed to another river, the Yanatile, which had a lot more volume. The first day of this trip was constant Class II with rapids that lasted for twenty minutes or more. It was scary not to be able to escape and eddy out when I wanted to. This river flows into the Urubamba, which is the major river coming down from Cuzco. At this point, the river becomes very big and powerful and I was a little panicked trying to get through the massive powerful eddy lines that came close to flipping me. Despite the oozing festering bug bites that dot our arms and legs and serve as reminders of our campsites, it was an awesome adventure, and I’d like to go back next summer for other stunning rivers waiting to be descended as well as mountains waiting to be climbed.