Wednesday, January 8, 2014

A Peruvian adventure

I had an adventure about a year and a half ago that I wrote up at the time, but a computer meltdown took the written version with it.  Which is probably a good thing, since it was probably way too long anyway, and now – with the passage of time and the feebility of mind – I can drive to the essence of it without the boring details!

As I have mentioned a couple of times in the past year, my old friend Rocky Contos has been most recently taking his passion for river-seeking down to Peru, and this has led to him finding the new source of the Amazon, which is a fairly big deal to people who care about this sort of thing.  Having read “Running the Amazon” (a great book about an epic 1983 descent of the Rio Apurimac – the former source – by Joe Kane) and doing a bike tour in the central highlands of Peru about 10 years ago where we would plunge from the mountains 7000 feet down to big, beautiful rivers I’ve always wanted to go back down and do one of those big rivers, and once Rocky focused his laser on Peru I decided to jump on the opportunity to join him there in his adventures. 

After a couple of days of administrative stuff and gear gathering in Lima Rocky and I leapt into a rental car 

with his new friend Rodinson, a great guy who lives near the Lima airport and was keen for an adventure and who would drive the rental back to Lima after we got on the river.  

Rodinson with his trademark grin, filling up the rental with gas via a pitcher....
We drove into the Andes and spent a few days scouting the headwaters of the river that Rocky felt was the longest.  That little adventure is worthy of a tale in itself, but that can be saved for later.  Here are a couple of pics:
a couple of intrepid adventurers

Football-sized chirimoyas??!  We were so in!  

Rocky waxing poetic about his tramps around the Andes looking for the source of the Amazon 

the roads were unkind to sketchy cars
Suffice to say that after about a week in Peru we found ourselves on trickle of water just barely sufficient to float a kayak in a riverbed that was about 40 feet across.  Mighty Amazon indeed!  I had to keep reminding myself that this water was going to travel over 4000 miles and was part of what is by an order of magnitude the largest-discharging river on the planet (7 times bigger than the next biggest!).  However, at this point – at 11,000 feet - I didn’t really have to worry about flipping over, because there wasn’t even close to enough water to do so!

We waved goodbye to Rodinson 

and headed on down.  After a couple of hours we saw a couple of locals and chatted them up.  Have any kayakers been down here before?  “Oh, si, si!”  Really? When, and how many?  “Oh, there were two in 1997 and one in 2005!”  Ok, so not so many!

The river meandered along nicely for about a day and a half, with mostly class 2 and 3 rapids snaking through the deep valley.   An abundance of small tribs came in to add a bit of volume, and there was enough water to not bounce off the rocks and have fun running the occasional class 4ish rapid.  

We knew – according to the topo maps  - that this was not to last, and sure enough about midway through our second day the walls reared up high and we saw an ominous horizon line ahead. We scrambled out to take a look, and it didn’t bode well; in fact, I’d never really seen anything like it.  It appeard that most of the mountain had fallen into the valley, and for almost a kilometer the river pretty much just disappeared under gigantic building-sized boulders.   
Yep, that cave back behind me....
We scrambled through them for a ways to try see if it wasn’t quite as bad as it appeared from above, but what a surprise, even the portage was class 6 for as far as we could see.  We went back up to the boats sitting on the beach, fully-loaded with our camping gear and a week’s worth of food, and decided to have a snack to lighten the load a hair for the inevitable lug-fest.  As we sat, three lithe teenage girls showed up to see what was up with the loco gringos.  “Is there a way through that?” we asked, pointing at the mess below.  “Oh, si si!  Esta sendero.” (trail).  Really?  Ok, they’ll show us their route.

As it turns out, a “sendero” through a maze of gigantic boulders well known by local barefoot girls is a bit different than the sendero we were envisioning.  While the girls could indeed practically run over these rocks and squirm through the holes between them, Rocky and I couldn’t keep up even with our sticky paddling shoes on and it was clear that getting our boats through there was dangerous and wickedly time consuming at best, so we again retreated to our boats. 
part of the "sendero"

our intrepid guides

Not very conducive to carrying heavy boats most of the day
However, during our absence there appeared in the hills above us a couple of…..burros!  We had sort of decided that our only option was to go up the 2000 feet to what we thought was an old road, and suddenly there were a couple of burros and a shepherd, who indeed was willing to strap our gear onto the burros, so all we had to carry was our boats.  
He liked being skritched, apparently. 

Carrying a boat 2000 feet up a steep, trail-less hillside is challenging itself, but renting the burros – for a small fortune in those parts – enabled us to do it only once, as opposed to taking the time to doing the arduous trip twice.  
Hoping my L5 disc stays put

it was a pretty good haul

happy to be on top
By the end of the day we had made it to the end of that infamous kilometer, wondering how many more of those we were going to have?

plunging back down towards the river
scouting our re-entrance rapid

However, the gradient eased back again with no more landslides and we made pretty good time, for a while.  Soon enough we were surprised to hear a motor echoing off the canyon walls and came around a corner to find a bunch of folks sluicing gold using “rafts” made of barrels and innertubes and they vectored back and forth across the river using ropes and cables, and also using tethered guys in wetsuits gear rolling rocks off the bottom to stir up the silt to get gold flecks.  “This is kinda cool”, we thought, not necessarily anticipating that where some folks think there’s gold, there are likely others who think the same.  After snapping a few pics and chatting with the folks, we floated around the corner and were pretty much confronted with a web of bank-to-bank ropes that we had to negotiate in addition to the class 2ish rapids. 

 Anyone who has spent time on rivers knows that fixed ropes, flowing water, and water craft don’t tend to go together very well, and the navigation under and over the ropes catching/bouncing in the current and hovering taut at about neck high was unnerving at best.  But at least this went on for about a mile! 
Not hard rapids, but with taut, hard to see lines across the river it intensified the class 2 a bit
Whenever I do adventures in developing countries I am amazed at how hardy the locals are.  The gorge where we were was as steep, deep, rocky, and unforgiving as any river gorge anywhere, and yet there were literally a thousand or more people down there given’er super hard to get that gold.  Their “camps” were tarps strung over rocks on the banks, and they were at least a couple thousand feet down a super-steep hillside from a primitive road, yet they had diesel engines, sluices, scuba gear, and all their living stuff – including their little kids – in a really challenging environment, to try to eke out a few pesos of gold. 

With the Gold Rush behind us we carried on, knowing that we had another steep section that was a likely portage ahead.  This time, however, it was near a road bridge, and at that bridge was a also a lot of construction activity that – we learned – was siting work for one of the first of many dams planned on the Rio Maranon.  Which was a bummer, but we did take the workers up on their offer to throw our boats in one of the trucks and drive us the mile to the end of the portage! 

Of course we hate dam builders, until, that is, they can give us a ride, saving us hours of carrying 90 pound boats
We had another day of good, fun, easy water in the beautiful canyon that got more remote below the bridge.  
some great riverside camps
some fun easy rapids

Rocky in his element
some beautiful little gorges
We knew from topos that we had two more likely portages; one relatively short and one again quite long.  

Soon enough the walls again rose vertically and the telltale monster boulders loomed ahead.  A quick scout indicated that indeed, this was probably only a quarter of a mile and even with our still-heavy boats would probably be an hour at most.  We carefully made our way along the broken bank, hauling the boats up and over boulders, lowering them down, using them as “ladders”, helping each other out, etc.  
waiting to receive a boat
At one point I was about 10 yards behind Rocky when I heard a yelp and the dreaded sound of resounding “thud, thud” of plastic bouncing down rocks, followed by a big splash.  Rocky had set his boat on a boulder to scamper down below it and yank it off, and though he tested it before he let it go, the polished limestone provided no friction and the boat simply bounded back into the river.  It actually landed in an eddy between big drops, and by the time I had set my boat down (and ensured that it was secure!), grabbed my rope, and scrambled down Rocky was waist deep – with his drysuit unzipped with the arms tied around his waist! – with his hand on the grab loop of the boat trying hard to pull it in.  The eddy was mellow enough that for a second I thought he actually could indeed pull it in without me, but suddenly, as it was at the lower end of the eddy, the bow tipped down as it got sucked into a sieve, where the water was basically flowing down into a toilet-bowl hole that wasn’t wide enough to let the boat pass through.  Rocky had to let go and swim in with his drysuit bottom nearly full, and suddenly…..we had an issue. 

Our situation was ironically both hopeful and fruitless.  We could touch the boat, so we could attach lines to it and Rocky was actually even able to get into it enough to drag his drybags and array of expensive recording equipment out of the exposed stern of the boat.  However, it was fruitless because it felt as though the bow of the boat was encased in concrete: we spent half a day trying every mechanical advantage technique we had to pull the boat out and pulling it every different direction, hauling on ropes until our hands were bloodied and our bodies exhausted (it’s rare I’ve been that blown and not moved at all!). 
If it had just drifted a little left it would have bobbed through the final drop of the rapid, that we would likely have paddled through anyway. 
 Fortunately, a nice beach lay a hundred yards down at the foot of the rapid, and we were able to camp comfortably that night and discuss new strategies. 

The next morning we employed our new strategies.  An idea Rocky had was to drop logs and rocks into the hole in the hopes that the water would stop flowing into the hole and thus easy the pressure on the bow.  We threw all sorts of riparian debris in and saw that the water level rose on the cockpit some, so we threw more in encouraged that we were “damming” the hole, but the boat very much stayed put, and we began to realize that we were actually putting more water pressure into the boat, not bobbing it free, as we had hoped.  We also decided to combine our ropes to make one long line all the way across the 200-odd foot eddy to the rocks on the upstream side of the eddy, where we set up another Z-drag.  We pulled almost 20 feet of line in, and with the line under extraordinary tension were somehow able to re-anchor it, eagerly clambered over only to see that we had just pulled the stern under water and it hadn’t moved; that entire 20 feet was simply rope stretch (and we were likely in danger of breaking the lighter line under that load). 

As the sun rose high on our 2nd day of effort, we finally had to accept the inevitable truth; we were not getting that boat out, so we had to do something else.  We retreated to camp to literally lick our wounds and chill, and after a bit I did some scouting.  We were in a gorge with vertical to overhanging walls, and scrambling back upstream I saw that it might be possible to exit back upstream, but it involved a couple of ferries back and forth across the river; problematic with one boat and two people, especially when the ferries were in the middle of the maelstrom we had been portaging in the first place.  Upstream wasn’t going to happen. 

Downstream, however, was another story.  We couldn’t see around the corner, but it was generally flatwater below the rapid and portage, so while I scouted upstream Rocky paddled out into the current, saw that indeed it appeared the gorge walls rescinded, and we might be able to exit.  

We knew that 3000 feet above was a small road and a very small village, and according to the topo lines if we could make it the first few hundred vertical the gradient eased back.  So that night, Rocky said “what are our options?” To which I responded, if memory serves:  “If there’s only one option, is it indeed ‘an option’?”  The only viable solution was for both of us to hike out, get to the village, where Rocky could get a resupply of food, return to the remaining kayak, and continue the journey alone, while I start the long journey overland using public transportation to retun to Lima

In the morning we packed the lone kayak as full as possible and I got into the boat and Rocky sat behind me holding the remaining gear and paddle and we awkwardly paddled into the current.  It remained flat as we rounded a bend and were able to head for a beach.  We pulled in, untangled ourselves, and hauled the boat up onto the beach where we saw…..footprints.  Indeed, now we are good. If there are footprints here, it means someone came down from on high, which means we can get out.  
Just above the cliff that created our 'gorge"

scrabbling our way up
marching out in the heat

It was a long climb
Some full value bushwacking and somewhat desperate clinging to branches of plants that were equally desperately clinging to the cliffs and sure enough, the gradient backed off and eventually we were able find game trails that turned into cow trails that turned into a person trail that finally led to the village. 
checking in with the locals.  "Can you give me a ride to Lima?"
Rocky holding court.  clearly, the road isn't very busy, since we are all in the middle of it
The adventure wasn’t over, however; “the truck” in the village had left a couple of days prior and wasn’t expected back, so we paid a guy to put me on the back of the village’s lone motorcycle and drive me an hour to the next village. 
It's a long ways to Lima.  And this guy turned out to be a bit of a psycho, despite the fact that we had him well-lubed with Peruvian beer.  
 We arrived in the next, bigger village only to find that village’s truck was also gone for the day and it might be another day or two to get out.  So quite a few more pesos encouraged the kid to keep driving, with me struggling to hang on, for another couple of hours.   At the next village I gratefully got off the moto and after an hour of bumbling around was summoned to stuff myself into the far back of a Toyota wagon – the 7th person in the car – where I sat curled up for the next 6 hours as we wound our way up and down the Andes to get to a town that was a full-day’s bus/taxi ride from Lima. That journey has its own tale, of course, but I’ll leave that to another day. 

Rocky, true to form, was able to buy some nuts, carrots, and potatoes, return to the remaining kayak, and take another couple of days to paddle out, negotiating the hardest portage yet by himself.  But he’s good for that; there are few as intrepid and as capable as Rocky Contos when it comes to exploring challenging rivers.  So while the trip ended a bit prematurely for me, generally speaking it was still a success in that we all returned to tell the tale, with the price being one more solid donation to the river gods. 

thanks to Rocky for being a good pard and taking all the pics! 

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