Saturday, December 15, 2012

Rocky Contos' First Descent of the Amazon

In August I went to Peru for a little kayaking expedition with Rocky Contos and had a great adventure.  As I was awaiting my flight for a day in Lima on my way home I wrote up a long story about our adventures together; however, as I tried to save it Rocky’s mac froze up and it’s still in a deep freeze, so that story is yet to come. However, I thought I’d go ahead and talk about Rocky’s other forays down there, since they are pretty fascinating and have enough adventure and intrigue to warrant an article in the Outside Magazine issue that is just hitting the newstands. 

For those of you who don’t know Rocky, he has established himself as one of the premier whitewater expedition paddlers in the world.  He has over 100 first descents in Mexico, many of them very long and difficult, and most of them were done solo.  In addition to that, as a neuroscientist he exposed a fraud case involving his advisor at the University of Washington who happened to have won a little award called the Nobel prize for physiology.  And not surprisingly, with these fascinating and disparate resume’-building facts, he’s quite a character as well.    For more info on Rocky specifically here’s an article I wrote for American Whitewater a few years ago:

For the past year Rocky re-trained his sights from Mexico to Peru, a country that arguably has some of the best whitewater rivers on earth; most are tributaries of the Amazon that start high in the Andes.  Part of his enthusiasm is due to the fact that Rocky has an unusual passion to do rivers and from as high as possible to as low as possible, so the Amazon -at over 4000 miles long – represented literally the world’s best opportunity to do that.  So last winter he started researching what he’d do in a multi-month adventure there.  And it’s here that the story gets interesting.

The Amazon is generally considered to be the 2nd longest river in the world at 3976 miles, just behind the Nile (4132 miles) and just ahead of the Yangtze (3914), but in terms of discharge it dwarfs those two (it’s actually has more than the other biggest seven  rivers combined).  And as one of the Great Rivers there has been huge efforts over the years to not only determine “the” source of it but also to find that source.  Initially the Rio Maranon was the longest, then the Rio Urumbamba  - that flows past Macchu Picchu was the winner (with expeditions launched to both), but about 80 years ago or so the Rio Apurimac was determined to be “the” source of the Amazon.  An $11M expedition by Jean Michel Cousteau in 1982 detailed it with explorations of 18,000+ foot Nevado Mismi, whose rivulets and trickles off the snowfields and glaciers were considered to be the highest/farthest-from-the-mouth contributors to the Amazon.   In classic Cousteau fashion, a six-hour documentary of this expedition was produced (here’s some more information, and here:  This was again reconfirmed by satellite in 2001 and 2007. 

Around this time an international team of paddlers/rafters, funded by an enthusiastic but woefully under-skilled South African did a memorable first descent of the entire Amazon (via the Apurimac) from the Andes to the sea that Joe Kane documented in his excellent book Running the Amazon.

Fast-forward to 2012. Rocky Contos, ever-the-scientist, has studied maps and Google Earth at his San Diego home very carefully, and after double and triple checking, looked up from his Mac and exclaimed that actually another river extends up the Amazon 80km farther than the Apurimac!  There are very few people who can decipher fraudulent scientific information at the Nobel level and refute hundreds of years of expeditions by world-famous explorers and satellite imagery, but Rocky is not one to take science lightly, and when he went to Piotr Chmielinski – who was the defacto captain of the Running the Amazon expedition and is considered an expert on the subject, Piotr agreed that Rocky was correct: history, scientists, expeditions, and satellites have indeed neglected Rocky’s discovered river as the source of the Amazon.  Chmielinski has maintained ties with National Geographic in the years following their descent and contacted them with this the news that there may be a new source of the Amazon, with the added feature that the extra distance may make it actually longer than the Nile.  Piotr personally helped Rocky out with a $2k donation and connected Rocky directly with National Geo, which committed money as well, but is waiting to announce the news until   a peer-reviewed geography journal verifies and accepts the fact.

In the meantime, Rocky was prepping himself for 4-6 months of expedition kayaking and rafting in Peru.  In addition to planning on doing the first source to sea trip starting on the new headwaters of the Amazon, Rocky wanted to do all the others too:  the Urubamba that makes the Macchu Picchu tourists shudder in their train cars, the Maranon with its 400+ mile section of Grand Canyon-style, raftable big water, the Apurimac’s fearsome Black Canyon and even-more fearsome and committing Acobamba Abyss.  He lined up partners for many of the adventures (including Erik Wiehenmeyer, the blind guy who among other things has summited Everest, and Piotr Chmielinski) and in April finally headed to Lima, where – in an understatement, Rocky paddled all of the Peruvian Amazon’s major rivers, including the Maranon with me, the Apurimac, the Urubamba, and the Mantaro.  

Coincidentally, two other expeditions were being mounted/executed.  One was a young South African with no whitewater experience who, after summiting Nevado Mismi worked his way down into the flatwater where he ended up being inexplicably shot by indigenous fishermen:   The other was conceived and mounted by a guy named West Hansen, a Texan who has had considerable success in epic flatwater racing. West called his trip the “Amazon Express” -  with goal to do a speed descent of the Amazon from source to sea, in “60 days or less”.  West was another guy with minimal whitewater experience, so was looking for experienced partners to help get him through the tough sections in the Andes. West had lined up an Epic kayak for his trip and some other small sponsors, but was still looking for bigger sources of funding for his trip when Rocky contacted him in March. West was impressed with Rocky’s accomplishments and soon invited him to join his team and descent of the Apurimac, promising Rocky funding (if he could get it).

The presence and goals of Hansen’s Amazon Express created a bit of a quandary for Rocky; West was of course planning on doing the Apurimac, since that was considered the source, but his “success” in the eyes of the world would be compromised if news of his “record” coincided with the global publication of Rocky’s new-found source info. So Rocky wondered, should he tell West about his discovery?  Maybe it would be good news for West that he wouldn’t need to run infamous class V-VI cataracts of the Apurimac, but perhaps it would be bad news given a largely unknown river that might turn out to be just as tough. Rocky decided to tell West the news and offer to combine resources, since Rocky could use the extra funding, and West of course, could use the extra kayak support as well as the information on the new river.  Rocky’s requirement was that West promise beforehand not to tell anyone about it or change his river plans without Rocky’s approval and inclusion. Rocky, being ever so careful to protect himself, recorded the conversation. All seemed well as they agreed to work together. 

Rocky and I up high in the Andes bumbling around

After Rocky started his trips in Peru the communication stream from West suddenly went stone cold.  Hansen simply refused to answer any of Rocky’s emails, phone calls, etc - with no explanation. West got his Nat Geo grant – but didn’t include Rocky on any of his correspondence with them or tell him about it – it was Chmielinski who told Rocky what West was up to. It seemed clear to Rocky that the only reason West’s grant was funded was because of Rocky’s discovery of the new Amazon source. So now finances were becoming a big stake in the game – in addition to the potential fame that might come from a first complete descent of the Amazon. 

 In the meantime, West was clearly scrambling to change his program from the Apurimac to the new river.  But there was no mention of this on his website or any of his blog posts (actually, his wife’s, who was communicating with him via sat phone), despite the fact that the Apurimac was still “up” on the site as the river that they were doing.  So only the few people who knew the area understood that he was doing the river that Rocky had said was actually the source, thereby fulfilling his obligation to Rocky to give him credit in a very backwards way by not actually mentioning it (but fundamentally breaking his vow to include Rocky). 

To his credit, despite the fact that he remains a beginning whitewater paddler, West made it through the difficult whitewater of the true Upper Amazon, albeit with a lot of support and in far more time than he anticipated.  Eventually he hit the flatwater and as expected starting making up time.  Rocky and West’s philosophy was different; doing the whole thing under his own power was clearly very important to West, to the point where his nights were spent on his support boat that was moored on the bank versus drifting in the current while asleep on the boat.  Despite Rocky’s comparable and unusual prowess at flatwater paddling, he didn’t have a support crew and he didn’t want to take the time to paddle the whole thing himself, but he did want to complete the entire descent of the river, complete the first ever GPS measurement of its length, and have the cultural experience of travelling the river the way the locals do – and do it all before West.  So Rocky boated down the rest of the Ucayali and Amazon, but with a motor and a captain at the helm. And that trip was full of adventure itself; he was robbed a couple of times – once at gunpoint – and had many memorable experiences of the deep Amazonian jungle. 

As luck would have it, Rocky and West hit the Brazilian border at the same time and Rocky hunted him down in the town of Santa Rosa.  As Rocky put it:  “He wasn't particularly friendly to me, probably because he knows he went against his word to not run the new Upper Amazon without my permission (permission I withdrew based on how he was treating me).  And he did not mention our meeting in his blog.”  In fact, West never mentioned Rocky ever in his blog. Something like Stanley and Livingstone, but not quite.  West Hansen’s journey actually finished December 5th after a total of 109 days, far longer than his initially proposed “60 days – or less”.  Here’s the link to his blog:

So now Rocky is back in San Diego, downloading the innumerable photos, videos, notes, gps stats, etc from his adventures, and will likely start his book “First Descent of the Amazon” soon.   It should make for a fascinating tale:

He recently put up a few pictures from the Marañon and Urubamba too:

I'd insert the pdf of the Outside article, but I  am not sure how to do that....will work on it.  And hopefully soon to follow is the account of our own adventure on the upper Rio Maranon. 

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