Sunday, September 8, 2019

Middle Kings - on the water.

John  Baker cooly paddling away from a nice drop in the heart of the canyon.  This pic and all the rest are by Dan
The moment had come; we’d hiked way into the Middle Fork of the Kings river with our boats, there was enough (too much?) water, the crew was psyched, and it was time to blow up our boats and get on the water. 

Despite the thunder of the waterfall and the adjacent hard granite slab we were perched on that had a pretty decent slope towards the waterfall (watch your rollable gear as you pack up!) we all had slept well, and we hiked the remaining mile or so up towards the confluence of Dusy and Palisade creeks where the Middle Kings officially begins.

As we were geared up and ready to put on, Dan – being the Swiftwater Rescue instructor that he is – suggested we have a discussion about safety.  Dan, Jeff, and John have paddled together a lot on challenging rivers and know each others’ strengths and characteristics well, but even though I’d paddled with Jeff this summer it was still a new dynamic, and I was happy to oblige.  Of course, we’d had two full days of hiking to chitchat  - and I do that a lot! – but trudging along a trail is a far cry from firing down a steepass river in the middle of nowhere, so it’s good to establish strong connections, communication, and expectations.  And I won’t hedge here; I was nervous.  It was pretty clear to me from our hike up that this was going to be the Real Deal trip; even though there was a nice trail along the river, this was a strong team that was capable of paddling a lot of it and was intent upon that, I hadn’t done a river of this magnitude in a long time (I had mentioned this to Dan and John a coupla times on the hike up, and they no doubt were wondering “well, what the hell are you doing here then?”  which would have been a fair question!). 

With that, we put on.  As with every challenging river, we simply worked our way downward in the typical fashion:  peering over horizon lines, getting out to scout, setting safety for the bigger ones, and firing down a lot of great rapids.

The drops were big, but were of the granite slide type that Jeff and I had done on our upper Cherry and upper Merced runs, so we had a better sense of what rapids would go and what the friction/speed would be like with our pack rafts.  However, like those runs, there was enough water that the hydraulics at the bases of the slides were pretty meaty, and while the packrafts can be good at skimming over holes if you can keep the bow up, they also descend slides more slowly than hardshell boats and naturally buckle a little when they hit holes and this combo can buck the boat back into the hole, so we had to adjust our expectations of success accordingly, which generally worked out well. 
Me keeping my bow up!
As I expected, Dan and John were very solid paddlers and Jeff  - as the only non-hardsheller in the group – continues to ascend a steep curve of super strong pack raft paddling, and things generally went well, though we all took our own swims; we all have fairly solid pack raft rolls, but the occasional hole thumpings, head/shoulder rock bashing, or up-against-the-wall roll attempts brought us out of our boats, fortunately only briefly with no lost gear. 

John was willing to give one of the biggest slides a go, and it was an impressive mount up:
We were all concerned about the hydraulic at the end, but there was a weakness in it that seemed bustable, and combined the speed of the concentrated flow at the bottom was impressive:
But indeed, the hydraulic was powerful, and it's tentacles pulled John back into the hole from 10 feet away despite his strong exit strokes
a challenging rodeo ride.
A notable section is Waterfall Gorge; a half-mile long section with 4+/5- drops that ends in a picturesque waterfall:
I was a little spooked by the holes in the upper drops (especially the last one above the falls) and the commitment level of the gorgette, and just below this falls was a gnarly little slot, so I portaged the whole thing.  However, Dan and Jeff fired it up and it went well, tho I didn't think to bring either of their cameras and John - with a sweet camera - has been busy preparing for a big move and hasn't been able to deal with his pics yet, so you'll have to imagine Dan/Jeff firing over the lip of this beauty!  

California is known for it's big, marquee pool drop rapids, but the Middle Kings is different in that there are innumerable STEEP and complex boulder gardens.  The going was slow with long scouts:

and some creative portaging:

But we were able to paddle some of the best rapids we'd ever done:

Occasionally the gradient would taper off for some relaxation:
Until it picked back up

Eventually the mighty Tehipite Dome came back into view:
And we knew that we were nearing the beautiful Tehipite valley that signaled the end of the pretty steep and challenging section and the beginning of the really steep and challenging section.

We camped at the base of the dome and I did a lot of pondering.  What we had done so far was incredible in many ways:  beauty, high quality of rapids, challenging but paddleable.  The infamous "Bottom 9" (9 miles, actually more like 8, with a half-mile of that being the flat Little Tehipite Valley" lay downstream, and we had little information on it beyond "very steep and challenging with lots of complex rapids and portaging."  I'd been having fun and paddling just fine, but realized that virtually all of the hardest rapids I'd paddled in a pack raft had been over the last couple of days, and I wasn't sure I was ready to take it another potentially big step.  The trail that we had come in on was right there, and once beyond it there was no exit for that steeper section.  I had taken a pretty big rock hit on my ass on a slide and slipped once while portaging and banged my quad hard, and the non-Vectran (ie less durable) boat had taken some damage on the sharp granite.

But mostly I was nervous; the increased gradient and Willie Kern's warning of potential sieves gnawed at me, and by the time I awoke I realized that I was out.  It was difficult; as Ashley knows well, I get FOMO as much as anyone, and I like to think of myself as game, tough, and resilient, but I also have learned - mostly from backcountry skiing - that knowing when to back off engenders longevity, which is really the most important thing.  I was super psyched to have made it down that far, and as the boys rigged up and I bid them adieu, I was ok with my decision.

Of course, trudging hard for 7 lonely hours up out of the steep Tehipite valley and rolling back through the boring woods gave me plenty of time to kick myself for being a weenie as well....

As it turns out, my pards of course made it through the bottom 9, and indeed they said that it was even more of the Real Deal than the sections above.  Below that is the 14 mile Garlic Falls section - that I paddled a few eons ago - that is famously aesthetic:
But also provided a fair bit of challenge, especially since the volume is doubled with the addition of the South Fork of the Kings.   But all went well, and thus the first pack raft descent of the Middle Kings was completed (though Dan had the good point that distinguishing between pack raft descents and hardshell descents just tends to create more unnecessary differentiation).

Huge thanks again to Jeff, Dan, and John for letting me join their posse and being super solid partners for a challenging adventure, and thanks very much to Dan for all of this post's great pics. 

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Middle Kings - an even bigger pack raft adventure!

We’d been at it for four longish days:  two days of hiking about 20 miles each, then two more days of paddling  - and portaging - some of the hardest rapids we’d ever done in pack rafts, deep inside the Kings Canyon National Park Wilderness.  The scenery alone was worth the journey; we were less than a hundred miles from Yosemite in a valley with essentially the same geologic makeup, with a white granite dome that soared a higher-than-El Cap-3500 feet over the steep river valley we shared with exactly….no one.   We were slowly working our way down the Middle Fork of the Kings river, and camped just above the most notorious section of the canyon, with an exit possibility.  I’d been paddling at my limit and having a nice time doing so, but with 2700 feet to drop in ~8 miles my limits were going to get pushed. Do I take it the exit or forge on downstream? 

In August of nineteen hundred and ninety seven I bumped into the mighty Kern brothers: Johnny, Willie, and Chuck, at the summer Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake.  They had driven hard across the Nevada desert to reach the show in time to work it  - as some of the early “professional” kayakers getting sponsorship - after doing a descent of the Middle Fork of the Kings.  It may have been only the second descent; the first was done by Reg Lake, Royal Robbins, Doug Tompkins, and Newsome Holmes in 1982, where these extraordinary first descenteers (not just here, but all over California) declared it the hardest run they’d done.  

A fun pic I got a few years ago at the OR show:  Reg Lake is far right, with other legendary kayakers (l to r) Chris Spelius, John Wasson, and Rob Lesser
But it was a new era of shorter boats, better plastic, and more honed skills, and no doubt the Kerns and their pards likely did first descents of most of the rapids the pioneers had portaged.  

 The numbers were impressive:  12 mile hike in over 12,000 foot Bishop pass, 44 miles of river, an average gradient of over 200 feet/mile, and a few miles over 400 feet/mile.   These guys were the best in the world, and they said the Middle Fork Kings was pretty mindblowing in many regards, including of course, difficulty.  Not long afterwards was the release of one of the first of the new generation of kayak videos called “Liquid Lifestyles”, made by Scott Lindgren, one of the Kerns’ go-to pards, and I was absolutely stunned by the magnitude of the whitewater.   I was paddling some of the garden-style class 5 California rivers at that time, but this was clearly a big - and probably insurmountable - step up for me. 

In the ensuing 22 years the Middle Kings has become world famous among the gnarly dood (and doodette) kayak world, and John Muir Trail and Pacific Crest Trail hikers have been surprised in the late summer to see people lugging hardshell kayaks that tower over their head and are filled with camping gear and a weeks worth of food up and over Bishop Pass.   Images and videos of epic-ly long granite slides and huge drops in steep gorges against a stunning backdrop pepper the interwebs.  I didn’t think too much about it; my class 5 exploration days had kinda waned due to drought, pards that faded away and (mainly) living in a desert, but then pack rafts came along.  Since pack rafts are great low-water crafts more people have been able to paddle them on runs that are typically done in hardshells at much higher flows.  After a fortuitous bump into Willie Kern a year or two ago I followed up with him via email and asked him what he thought the Middle Kings would be like at low flows.  His answer:  still hard, probably pretty laced with sieves (where water rushes through rock gaps that a kayak would not fit through; sub-optimal for the craft’s captain).   Made sense to me, so I kinda forgot about it again. 

Until this year.  After two trips to California where I was able to join pack rafting Wunderkind Jeff Creamer (Jeff is no doubt the best never-has-hardshell-kayaked pack rafter in the world) for trips down the upper Tuolumne, upper Cherry Creek, and upper Merced it began to seem reasonable that the Middle Kings might go as well.  So when Jeff said that he and two super-solid pards of his from Durango were going to give the Middle Kings a go, I decided somewhat abruptly to jump on board. 

I will admit I had a fair bit of trepidation; Jeff’s thought was to head in when the Kings river gauge was dropping below the low side of medium, which was definitely not “low”.  Based on this, we would likely have between 300 and 500 cfs, which turned downhill steeply enough (like 2-500 feet/mile), can create some ferocious whitewater.  However, Jeff’s unusual idea to take advantage of the hikeability of the pack rafts by walking in from the West instead of over Bishop Pass (thereby taking the shuttle from 8 hours to a couple) and then walking upriver would give us a chance to scout the run as walked up, and since I knew the valley would be magical, I figured at worst it would be a great backpack trip (albeit a heavy-ish one, with the boat and assorted paddling gear). 

In addition to the rapidly-improving Jeff, his pards from Durango were equally strong lads who could not only paddle, they could march as well, which is important in pack rafting.  Dan Thurber has been paddling since he was a kid in Eastern Oregon and has spent many years at the class 5 level in a hardshell and teaches swiftwater rescue classes, and John Baker is another strong class 5 hardsheller who’s paddled all over the world.  Both have taken to pack rafting and have been pushing the limits of the crafts with tons of laps on Vallecito Creek, and the three of them have had recent impressive descents of Colorado’s Los Pinos Creek (jeff Video) and Wyoming’s Bull Lake Creek (Dan’s blog).  It didn’t take me long to recognize that these were young, talented, interesting, and solid guys to head out on an adventure like this one.

The hike in rolls through surprisingly (for the Sierras) nondescript terrain for about 13 miles to the edge of the canyon, but the view from the edge makes up for the previous dullness.  The view of the 4000-foot deep valley that sprawled below the soaring spire of Tehipite dome was simply outrageous:

Even though the view kept up on the descent down into the canyon, we couldn’t really look up at it; the super steep gradient of the trail that was covered with slick oak leaves over a decomposed granite surface with poison oak lacing the edges of the trail demanded full attention, and by the bottom my quivering, quaking quads were the focus of my energy. 

At the bottom we had a bigger perspective of Tehipite Dome:

and while typical national park trails look like this:

Our trail was a bit more primitive!
We had to be attentive to actually stay on the trail as we headed upriver, and lost it more than a coupla times, tho the bear scat helped keep us on track, since clearly bears like trails too.

As we climbed we had periodic views of the river, and what we saw was actually pretty encouraging, with a fair bit of what appeared to be class 4 boulder gardens:

Of course, rapids always look a lot easier when you aren’t geared up and about to peel out of the eddy and commit to the looming horizon line! 

We did see some of the infamous meaty rapids that we assumed would be portages once indeed we were geared up and heading downstream:
And we were psyched to be able to have boats for a mandatory crossing of the river:
This was probably thigh deep; not a big deal but enough that walking across with a heavy pack would have been a challenge in the middle.  In anything other than summertime flows crossing the river in this meadow would be a bit desperate; perhaps that is why our trail was very little used!
Another full day of hiking upriver brought us to a beautiful granite slab adjacent to a long thundering slide, about a mile below where Dusy and Palisade creeks combined to form the Middle Fork proper, and where the John Muir/Pacific Crest trail combo passed by on their way to the LeConte ranger station. 

Once at camp, Jeff and John decided to quickly gear up and head upstream for a half-mile of paddling back to camp to get a sense of how the river was, since the short bit above camp looked promising.  They arrived back at dusk, with a report of “yah, it’s pretty real!”  With that experience and comment resonating in our head and the white noise thunder of the huge slide just feet from our feet, we went to sleep wondering how the next few days of paddling the mighty MF Kings was gonna go. 

to be continued....

thanks to Jeff Creamer for the pics...

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Upper Cherry Creek - a pack raft adventure

We'd already had a long day of running long and continuous slides, rapids, and waterfalls littered with holes that were amazingly powerful considering the relatively low amount of water that was flowing.  We'd had innumerable scouts, lots of short portages, and a couple of long, hot carries around the infamous Cherry Bomb Gorge and much of Waterfall Alley.  Now we had a little over an hour of daylight left, but were still deep in the middle of yet another granite gorge of big drops, steep high walls, and potentially skitchy portages on steep slabs that ramped down to the river.  However, we didn’t have much of a choice; we had to press on through the gorge. 

Upper Cherry Creek has, over the last maybe 15 years since it was "discovered", become a global phenomenon for the relatively small elite kayaking world.  While there are steeper creeks, more difficult rapids in longer gorges, and more arduous approaches into more remote areas, there are few that have that combination in such density and there is no doubt that the setting  - in the Sierras' iconic white granite alpine vastness - makes it unlike anything on the planet (at least, according to a very credible source:  me!).  Although there appears to be a gauge where Cherry Creek enters Cherry Lake, the gauge inexplicably doesn't work (if only I knew someone who knew anything about river gauges!), so it seems that the exclusivity of The Club that gets to actually paddle this gem has tightened up some, even in the social media era.  The Club seems to be the domain of hard shell class 5+ kayakers, but every trip account from its members is rife with accounts of the sufferage associated with the dozen mile hike in with 9 foot long, 45 pound boat that is then loaded up with camping gear and food for 3 days up a long, hot, south facing ridge.  

A long hike for a scenic float typically makes a natural destination for the (relatively) effortless hiking afforded by a 9 pound pack raft, but there's a slight disincentive: in 11 miles the river drops 2400 feet, and with one of those miles relatively flat, that's an average gradient of almost 250 feet per mile.  Not a crushing gradient, but that's still pretty damn steep, especially with the reputation of walled out gorges. Jeff and I had warmed up the day previously on the upper Tuolomne's slides and drops
above the huge waterfalls that end up plunging into the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne
 and thought "hey, that was fun; let's go bigger!"  We'd heard that the consensus was that upper Cherry was still too high due to the near-record Sierra snowpack, but that it was "fun" if one wasn't committed to running the big-step-up Cherry Bomb Gorge that itself was portage-able. We gazed at the night sky and saw that a few stars were mostly aligned, so off to upper Cherry we went. 

I was a little surprised that there were no kayaker-looking rigs (Toyota Tundras with racks and Immersion Research stickers) at the trailhead and there'd clearly been very little use on the trail this year, which considering that this was a global destination with a narrow window of flow paddle-ablity was a sign that indeed The Club figured the flow was still too high.  With a vow that if our first visual indicated that the creek was cranking we'd just treat it as a backpack trip with boats, we shouldered our packs and marched up the trail.
flowers along the trail
At what I’m sure is the only place called “Lookout Point” in the world, the otherwise-nondescript wooded ridgeline gave way to our first view of the creek far below:
the gouge is Cherry Bomb gorge
Soon we arrived at Styx Pass

(If the creek had been discovered by kayakers in the 80’s I’m sure that the rapids would have monikers inspired by iconic Styx songs that beg to have rapids named after them:  “Grand Illusion”, “Renegade”,  “Fooling Yourself”, “Lorelei”, and of course the truly weird:”  Mr Roboto”)

Soon enough we were at the creek’s edge, and to our relief it actually looked a little low for the first small drops below the put in, and we had no problem rigging up and putting on the river, which – if nothing else – was a great refresher after the sweaty hike.

We had heard that the first coupla miles were “fun class 3-4 slides”, and sure enough, they were great.  It was still somewhat slow going since the slides were long and to get a feel for the creek we proceeded pretty cautiously and portaged a few times to avoid the sticky holes at the bottoms of some of the slides.

As we slid onto a huge flat granite slab that would be our camp for the night we were thrilled that we’d been able to paddle most of what we’d seen, especially in such a remarkable setting. 
We had a lovely sunset from camp
 But given the gradient of the creek downstream we knew that our progress would be slowed by ever-increasingly-big rapids and many more portages.  

Just downstream was the “Class 4 Gorge”, which – at our relatively high flow – was more of a class 4+/5- gorge, and it took us hours to scout, run, and/or portage the many big rapids that incised the granite.  By late morning I glanced back up the gorge and said “well, we’ve been at this for hours, and we’ve gone almost a mile!”   On one hand it didn’t bode well for the far steeper gorges downstream, but knowing that we planned at least one portage that would bypass a lot of the gradient made us hopeful that indeed we’d make it down to the end of the canyon before we starved to death.



Upper Cherry Creek has a pretty big reputation, and much of that is a function of the crux of the run:  Cherry Bomb Gorge.  One website called it “the most committing place you’ve ever been” with a 30’ falls and many other big drops with steep ledge holes, one of which resulted in a 2016 fatality.   We had no intention of running it anyway, so we didn’t need to take the time to scout and deliberate, regardless of water level.  So we just threw our boats on our shoulder and portaged (the typical scout is to the left, but from Lookout Point we’d seen a long slickrock ramp on the right so we portaged on that side). 

It’s a dramatic place:

At the bottom are a few big falls known as the Teacups that  - relatively speaking – are more benign drops than those in the gorge itself, but again being wary of bottom-of-big-falls unintentional surfs, we opted to portage, as we did for most of Waterfall Alley, which I called Portage Alley. 

I feel like I’m still working on determining the limits of pack rafts; they are so buoyant that they love to stay on the surface of big holes and they do boof well enough to keep the bow up and get nice flat landings, but they are a little slower than hardshells and hole-riding is trickier without the ability to sort of cartwheel your way out.  We probably could have fired up more of the bigger drops – and gained more confidence as we did run more on downstream, but the remoteness of the run and the close proximity of the drops to each other made me  -at least  - inclined to portage if I wasn’t pretty certain of successfully blasting out to safety below the drops.  We scouted....a lot:
me taking a look at a dinky little rapid.  You just never know....
But we got in some fun drops:

A different kind of "white room"
We continued to carefully pick our way down, and while the intensity lifted somewhat, there were still plenty of gradient, big drops and two more gorges to navigate before the placid waters of Cherry Lake.  The Red Rock Gorge was the next major obstacle, and we picked our way down, again running what we could and portaging what we weren’t willing to run.  It was here that my hunger pangs and mental tenacity started to wear on me, and after a long day I was getting a little concerned that either fatigue or impatience might lead to some mistakes that would be unaffordable with an hour or so of daylight left. Some of the bigger drops looked pretty good, but even as Jeff was talking about mounting up for them, I found myself scanning the slabs for body-sized pockets that were flat and wide enough to contain a sleeping person.  However, Jeff pointed out that a long quarter mile and a hundred vertical feet below it appeared that the walls fell away and the white granite gave way to tall ponderosas.  So we came to an easy compromise: Jeff agreed to portage the biggest drops, and I sighed and agreed to push on through the gorge.  Keeping the game on, we ran the last few drops and indeed gratefully paddled through a nice pool below the last rapid in the gorge onto a white sand beach at the foot of some huge trees, and I admitted that this was a far better campsite than a slopey hard slab perched above a class 5 rapid. 

Upper Cherry doesn’t give itself up easily, even at the end.  A tantalizing glimpse of the shimmering lake below:

 is tempered by the reality of more big drops:

I'm quite proud of this shot of Jeff; I assume it'll be in the 2020 Alpacka calendar!

and yet another gorge stuffed with class 5 rapids leading into the lake.  Again we portaged the entire section, and then even the last 3 foot ledge held the only logs we’d seen on the river.  So we just chugged overland and flopped directly into the lake for the mile+ paddle out. 

It’s very possible that hard dude kayakers may be a bit disdainful of what may – or may not! – be the first pack raft descent of Cherry Creek since we portaged much and didn’t tackle the marquee gorge, but we didn’t give a shit; it’s one of the most incredible creeks on the planet, and we felt fortunate to be able to dunder down it any way we could, and the fact that we were able to paddle as much as we did made it that much sweeter. 
camp in the lower right corner
 Thanks to Jeff for being a great pard for this adventure, and for taking the time to set up and take all of these shots; his camera prowess almost matches paddling skills!   Here's a great video he put together: