Friday, October 31, 2008

Río Mapacho: V - Day 4

The gettin´ gits good!

As we staggered into camp the previous afternoon exhausted from portaging half of the last three km, we were pretty unenthused to see the next rapid. Just below camp, the river divided around, under, and through more big boulders in a steep drop. It seemed like the seives of Orange Canyon continued for quite some distance. Upon closer inspection, however, the rapid looked very manageable. We got to start our day off with a steep class V, one of the best rapids of the trip.
The rapid, dubbed ¨Buenas Dias,¨ was particularly intimidating because our warm-up consisted of a dicy seal launch and paddling around in a 20-foot pool above the rapid. The twisting channel was only about 5 feet wide and required a couple boofs into cross-currents, the second one landing between a sticky hole and an undercut. In the end, we all made our way through the rapid unscathed with big smiles, and started looking forward to the day to come.

Peruvian topo maps are most widely available in the 30´quadrangle series. The entire run on the Río Mapacho spans five of these maps; we were able to get one of them. Conveniently, we arrived on the map the day before, around lunchtime. The map indicated that our gradient was tapering off from the afternoon before, but we still had five kilometers to Puente Sahuay, the landmark indicating the end of Orange Canyon. In spite of a great wake-up rapid, we were fearing a torturous morning of portages.

Below Buenas Dias, the river indeed opened up. We took turns leading through class III boulder gardens until a horizon line where one of us got out to scout. It turned out to be another clean class IV with a great boof. Such was the character of the river for the next several miles. The enormous orange boulders disappeared and gave way to black gorge walls. We saw fewer and fewer undercuts and, to our delight, not a single portage.

Mike and Kase below Orange Canyon. You can sort of make out the elevation drop of the rapid hidden behind the river-right wall

We had a few more scouts and plenty of good class III/IV whitewater leading up to the welcome sight of the Puente Sahuay bridge.
The road doesn´t cross here, but does come within a few hundred feet of the river on the left. From here it switchbacks up and out of the canyon, into the neighboring Yantile River valley which is more populated. This is an optional take-out/resupply/evacuation point, but traffic is non-existent and the hike out would be....long.

Zak at Puente Sahuay

Below Puente Sahuay, we enjoyed several more miles of continuous, mindless class III boogey water. We were all able to relax a bit and pound out some much needed miles (We were already a full day behind the 7-day schedule.) We left Puente Sahuay around 10:30 and by noon, we were cold, hungry, and opted for a long lunch break. It may not have been the best time to subject ourselves to food comas, because some of the biggest whitewater of the trip waited just downstream. Just before lunch we stopped briefly to talk with a local who was setting up his fishing lines. He gave us a bunch of fresh oranges and avocados. When we inquired about what lay downstream, ¨mas saltos,¨(more waterfalls) he said. ¨Mas saltos.¨

We didn´t really know what to expect, but the topo map indicated a single kilometer dropping 50m, a gradient of 250 fpm. Shortly after lunch we saw why. We arrived at a major horizon line, with no view of the river below, except for the huge boulders and narrow canyon. Scouting looked great on the left so I made my way over to an eddy. Kase and Dave on the other hand, seemed to be considering boat scouting. Kase hovered just above the lip of the drop giving it a close look, then looked at us with a big grin and disappeared over the edge with a right boof stroke.

I didn´t know what to think, but Kase seemed to feel it was good to go. One by one, Dave and Zak followed suit and vanished. I joined Mike in the ¨scouting¨eddy and was able to see the rest of the team down below. About 20 vertical feet below. Intimidating as the gradient was, we were getting hand signals that it was clean. Mike dropped off next leaving me separated from the group by a steep, unscouted class V drop.

Mike on the entrance ledge. The boulders obsure the view of the bottom half of this drop.

From the pool above I couldn´t see much of the first drop, but they said boof left. I could see that the second part was a slide with a tight line between piton rocks and the right wall. After that, no ideas. So I took a couple breaths and went for it. I got a running start towards the lip and launched off the ten-footer with a hard boof. I kept the boat flat in the air, landed with a loud splat and started driving right for the next slide.

I don´t even remember the rest of the rapid. I went screaming past the other guys in an eddy below the slide and I vaguely recollect going deep into a pillow and resurfacing like a breaching whale, only upright. Or perhaps it was more like a dolphin saying ¨so long and thanks for all the fish.¨ Anyway, I kept the upside up and parked in a pool below feeling elated with what was by far the largest drop I´d ever run blind.

Mike on a rapid shortly below the big one

For the next half-mile or so, we continued to run class IV+ and V rapids without scouting, thanks to incredible probe work and good communication from Kase. Eventually the class V´s vanished and we kept momentum going through several miles of good class IV whitewater.

Mike evading focus but nailing a boof

Around three in the afternoon, we started looking for a camp and quickly stumbled upon a great beach hidden by boulders. We lost a lot of elevation today, and the canyon was starting to show signs of the jungle. Namely, a banana tree in camp, a small plot of coca (as in cocaine) plants, and spiders the size of my hand.

Río Paucartambo/Mapacho: V - Day 2

The Fun Begins.........Then Ends Abruptly

If you haven´t read it, start with day 1.

We woke up in the morning, did our morning business, and eventually had our boats loaded up and on the water. Right out of camp we rounded a corner, passed under a swinging footbridge, and left the arid braided river valley for good. The vegetation turned distinctly greener, but was of course nothing compared to the jungle to come.

The river flowing through a greener canyon

We also got to some of our first rapids. The morning was mostly manky class III/IV with a few fun moves and no scouts. It proved perfect for our team to learn to paddle with each other and get used to the heavy boats. Since all the weight was in my stern, my Hero actually boofed pretty well several times, so I had that going for me.

One of the earlier boulder gardens

The day wore on slowly with more boulder gardens toward the afternoon. The whitewater already didn´t match the description we brought with us at all, but around 2 pm we arrived at what we presumed was the ¨first class V.¨

At our flow it wasn´t too difficult, but extra manky. The river divided and dropped steeply through a boulder garden with tight channels. We started boat-scouting through the first few meters. Kase and I went for a channel on the right while the other boys went left. I hung out in an eddy while Kase probed and soon he was out of sight.

I never saw him again to get beta and couldn´t tell if he was safely through the rapid. Dave on the other hand, was through and Mike gave me a signal that his side was fine, so I made my way back left. When I got there, Mike was out of his boat scouting. Zak seemed to be portaging. Dave and Kase were out of sight. Mike told me the line was scrapy, but fine and pointed me through a good channel to the next eddy.

Mike finishing off the steep rapid

I hopped out to scout the next drop while Zak continued dragging his boat around the drop. When Mike caught up to me, he filled me in on the situation. Zak had probed, gotten pinned, and dropped his paddle. It had taken off downstream so Dave and Kase had given chase looking for it.

Mike and I finished off the rapid, met Zak below, and got out Mike´s breakdown for him. The three of us then charged ahead, running one more scrapy class IV rapid before catching Dave and Kase. They hadn´t seen the paddle either. We doubted it could have stayed far ahead of us and imagined it was upstream still: in an eddy or pinned under a rock.

It was already 3:00 so we decided to camp there and search for the paddle for the rest of the afternoon. We split up to both sides of the river, leaving one person at camp to watch the river, and hiked back upstream. It was only a half-mile back up to the rapid, but still took us over an hour to scour the eddies. After thorough searching, we ultimately returned to camp defeated and prepared another dinner.

Gearing down at the end of the day

So there we were. After only eight days of paddling in Peru, we had already broken/lost two paddles between the four of us. Both of our breakdowns were now in use and we still had eight more days of reportedly difficult whitewater ahead of us with only a couple of known bail-out options. Kase still had a spare paddle, but I still went to sleep that night wondering if this Paucartambo mission was really such a great idea.......

on to day 3

Río Paucartambo/Mapacho: V - Day 1

A Grand Farewell

It´s not like we knew any of them, but we seemed to be pretty big news for the residents of the colonial pueblo of Paucartambo. Hundreds of people gathered on the historic stone bridge and the village flood walls to watch our departure, ignoring the local parade a couple blocks over. Here were five gringos sitting in colorful plastic potatoes talking about travelling by river from their mountain town to the jungle 8,000 feet below. Since its first descent in 1986, there have likely only been about ten complete descents of the Paucartambo River, several of which have started further downstream and the end of the valley. It´s entirely possible that many of these locals have never seen kayakers before, hence their excitement to play with our equipment and wave us off into the canyon.

Anticipation for this trip had been building for over a month when we first discussed this run amongst other Peruvian destinations. Initially, I was only moderately serious about considering the Paucartambo. The three pictures I´d seen looked pretty, but write-ups warned of strenuous portaging over unstable landslides, continuous class V dropping 250 feet/mile, and something about an unscoutable, unportageable class VI gorge. However, as our team assembled and we acquired more beta, our hopes rose and we started planning our entire trip around running the Paucartambo before the rainy season hit.

This river goes by many names. Road maps and kayakers refer to it as the Paucartambo. Locally, it´s known as the Mapacho for much of its length until the final stretches where it winds through the jungle under the name Yavero. Our put-in was at nearly 10,000 feet above sea-level and over the course of 230 km (140 miles) the river drops to around 1,500 feet near the edge of the Amazonian Rainforest. Other teams had completed the run in five to eight days with full days on the water and strong teams. This is a full-on expedition with some fairly daunting statistics indeed.
Zak marvels at a trash avalanche into the river, reminding us that we´re still roadside

With our group of five, we chose to pack for ten days, nine nights on the water and take it slow, especially the first couple of days. The quantity of food in addition to our camping and emergency gear meant the heaviest boat I´d ever paddled. I had a trash bag full of bread sitting in my lap just to make everything fit in. Fortunately, the first day didn´t challenge us with any real whitewater.
Mike draws the attention of more locals downstream in the valley

After leaving the crowded bridge at Paucartambo, we started working our way through the 15 miles of braided channels and gravel bars in the lower end of this agricultural valley. After an hour or so, a local farmer waved us down to chat. We told him what we were up to and he offered us some of the hot boiled potatoes he was having for lunch.

Around 3:00, we had passed the town of Challabamba and the end of the real road, so we decided to call it a day. We found plenty of firewood to cook up our no-frills meal of soup and lentils, then got some rest for the next day´s whitewater.

on to day 2

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Week 2: So far so good!

We´ve been so busy getting used to Peru for the last couple weeks that I don´t even know where to begin. Our biggest obstacle with this entire expedition so far was just getting our boats down here. Most airlines accept large, fragile packages as excess baggage, but explicitly refuse to take kayaks. And as such we spent several hours at LAX trying to get around the regulations. Ultimately, after going through four levels of upper management, one mighty strong cocktail, plenty of sweet talking and much demonstrative boat kicking, we got on the plane.

Upon arriving in Lima, we were pleased to see that our boats had made it on the plane too. We were quite displeased, however, to see Lima. After we the plane decended through the clouds but before touching down, we all agreed that we needed to leave that city!

The climax of our time spent in Lima

We spent the day enriching ourselves in the culture with some Dominos Pizza, sprite, and scotch. The following morning, we were in the air again and bound for Cusco, one of the whitewater (and as it turns out, tourist) capitals of the country.

Cusco was much more in line with what we wanted out of a town. The hostels are abundant, restaurants cheap, and it has been easy to move around on foot. The local economy is also quite used to gringos and most people speak slowly and simply. Not that it helps me understand them, but is certainly an endearing gesture.

Mike and Zak enjoying the view of Cusco

By our second day in Cusco, Mike, Zak and I were packing for a three-day trip on the Rió Apurímac, one of the classic Peruvian whitewater trips. We were treated to excellent food courtesy of Mayuc Expeditions and had a terrific introduction to paddling in Peru with loaded boats.

A typical view on the drive to the put-in

Upon returning to Cusco, we were joined by Dave Kashinski, a friend of Mike and Zak´s from their previous trip to Chile in ´05. We quickly put together a day trip on the upper section of the Apurímac, known as Black Canyon. Our beta was limited on this section, but we scouted lots and had another great day on the water.

Plenty of good boating down here!

After our Apurímac exploits, we were invited back with Mayuc for the Tambopata river, a 6-day trip through the jungle. The Tambopata is a logistical nightmare and a terrific wildlife trip with minimal whitewater. Unfortunately, the aforementioned nightmare got in the way and we never got the opportunity to see said river. Instead we grabbed a cab to the Sacred Valley for a couple days of boating on the Urubamba.

A roadside view into the sacred Urubamba Valley

Somewhere along the line here, I looked up at the night sky and realized that every single star is new to my eyes. Still, the stars are about the most familiar sight down here. The change of scenery has been more than refreshing and the spirit of vacation has taken over. I´ve lost track of days of the week and even how long I´ve been here. Half the time we´re on the river. The other half, we´re figuring out how to get back on the river. Cusco has been a fun town to hang out in, but we´re all just about ready to leave.

Packing boats for overnighters

The entire gringo culture here is about going to Machu Picchu and the local culture is all about selling us things. The ¨handmade 100% alpaca¨ blankets are obviously fabricated. One woman sits on the stairs with the same half-knit sock each day to make it look like she´s making what she sells. Every ten steps someone is heckling us: selling paintings or weed or massages or suggesting the best bar for the night. But I don´t intend to trash talk Cusco. As I mentioned earlier, it has been very approachable for us. I´m just tired of explaining that I don´t want my shoes shined. They´re flip flops for god´s sake!

Zak getting ready for another day on the river

As I write, the other boys are back at the room packing for our next adventure, which may turn out to be the climax of our entire trip down south. Tomorrow we launch on the Río Paucartambo. The Paucartambo drops 8,000 feet of elevation over the course of 230 kilometers. It is likely that fewer than 20 teams of kayakers have ever completed this run. It´s not epically difficult, but has its fair share of challenges. We are planning on a 9 to 11 day trip, which is more than twice what any of us have done without raft support.

More beautiful and comitting canyon country

So for the next two weeks, no news is good news for us. We have spent lots of time preparing for this expedition and it promises to be one of my most memorable adventures. And on a completely different subject, no wonder south american teams always kick our asses at soccer:

This field is in the middle of nowhere at 14,000 feet. It looks like you could kick a ball off the edge of the world from here.