Saturday, January 5, 2019

Argentina's Rio Grande Part Dos

A day or two below the first portage came the second significant obstacle we faced.  Like the first, the river entered a tight basalt gorge that's about a kilometer long, but this one was wider and was mostly easy but contained one short, big, and violent rapid, which made it unrunnable for our crew.  However, once again our local support team (and chivo chef) showed up to help us out, and at the head of the gorge we pulled all the bags off the rafts, piled them in the pickup for a couple of runs down to the end of the gorge, where we hauled them back down a gully to the river.  The boats - with coolers, dryboxes, and oars strapped down tight - were then sent on unmanned on their merry way through the rapid, to hopefully be retrieved at the bottom. 

A side note here:  In the US raft companies sometimes run challenging rapids (on the Gauley, Gore Canyon, Cherry Creek on the Tuolemne, etc) but almost always with a moderately strong paddle crew and only on day trips, so there's no gear.  Classic American river expeditions are almost always on Grand Canyon, Salmons, Selway, Rogue, etc. that do not have any class 5 rapids on them, so it's rare that US-based rafters get the opportunity to deal with rafts and unusually big rapids.  But as Pedro pointed out, particularly in Peru, they run trips all the time down rivers that have class 5/6 rapids and have to deal with getting rafts through/around them, which we experienced three years ago portaging the infamous class 6, kilometer-long Wasson's Slide and I experienced last year at the Gauntlet and Black Wall Cavern rapids on the Blue Nile.  So for those guys this wasn't a big deal, but for those of us who had maybe kayaked plenty of challenging whitewater without rafts and/or had only done relatively uneventful raft trips, the concept of lining, portaging, and ghost boating rafts is a bit of a different deal (last year I was on the end of a line holding the raft and basically held it too tight and the raft flipped!  But at least I shredded my hands in the process; much to learn for this gringo rafter...).  

So after a couple of hours of moving and sorting, we were finally ready, and Rocky sent the first boat bobbing sans capitan down towards the entrance to the gorge:
Hoping that it won't eddy out or get caught on any rocks, which one did, for a while.
Sitting in my kayak the eddy behind a wall that blocked my view upstream I watched Pedro closely as he stood on a rock across the river.  He held his hand out in front of him, palm down.  We hadn't discussed this signal before, but I knew that it meant that our first "ghost boat"that was running the class 5+ rapid by itself, without anyone in it, was still upright.  But abruptly his right hand flipped over and his other hand clapped his forehead.  The boat had flipped:

which we knew would make it harder to get it out of the swift current below the rapid to the shore where most of the crew waited with the pile of gear that we'd portaged around the rapid.  Moments later the overturned boat came into view, and Lucho and I peeled out of the eddy and gamely tried to push the ponderous beast into the eddy.  However, the boat was determined to head downstream and we couldn't get it to shore, so we floated downstream around a wall that separated the eddy where the crew was and finally - after switching directions to push it to a closer eddy on the opposite shore - we were able to muscle it to shore.  We were only a hundred yards or so downstream of the crew and all were safe and accounted for, but this was a bad sign; if we couldn't get the remaining rafts to the eddy with the people and gear, we'd have a huge cluster on our hands.  Here is a drone shot of our vain attempts:
Lucho and I secured the raft and knew that it was unlikely that two of us would be able to flip the boat over with the full cooler/dry box on it and prepared to portage our kayaks back upstream to try the strategy again with the next boats, when Pedro paddled up in another kayak and said "Those coolers are full of food and might not be watertight.  We gotta flip that raft back over or we could lose a lot!"  Once again, my lack of experience with rafts was offset by Pedro's foresight.  But if two of us couldn't get that raft over, three of us was not much more likely.  But we gave 'er a go.  

Our first attempt was pretty weak; we only got it to about 45 degrees before it flopped back down.  We took a few seconds to rest, reconfigured ourselves a little to get more leverage, and lunged into the flip lines that Mike Brehm had kindly brought down and mounted on his raft.  We quickly got the boat to 45 degrees, then hauled harder and inched it up to 60, 75....and started to fade.  But at 75 degrees we were so close, so we kept straining, but we couldn't rest at all to make that last lunge or it would flop down, so imagining ourselves as mothers lifting the car off our babies, we gave one last oomph and pulled the boat vertical and it flopped over.  Even above the rapids we could hear the cheer of the rest of the crew anxiously waiting upstream!  (note:  yes, we coulda set up a z-drag, but ironically I had given my kit to the eddy crew, and as above, time in the water was of essence). 

We carried our kayaks upstream and hoped the next raft would be better.....and it was.  The raft came through upright:

I quickly learned (more raft expedition education) that "plowing" a kayak against a raft is not as effective as coming in hot with a direct hit to the tubes, and we were able to get that boat into the eddy where the crew waited.  And the same was true for the next two rafts as well.  Shortly the three rafts were re-rigged, the gear and crew made it down to the wayward raft, and we were on our way again, all the wiser.  And for what it's worth, Rocky has designed himself some "auto rights" for his rafts along the lines of the "Creature Crafts" that he thinks will run that rapid just fine (I agree). 

Downstream lay the best play spot on the run, and even in creek boats we were able to have some fun.  

Ash and Andy surfing it up:

'til we realized we could get some sick old school enders:

Andy executing a perfect pirouette

Pedro was looping this Nomad, but nobody got him upside down. 
Downstream were a couple more rapids that were much more runnable and fun, and the crew did great.  Magma was in a wide spot but went over a 10 foot ledge so it felt big, and Zeta didn't have as much of a drop but was constricted enough to be quite turbulent.  
Some Magma pics:

Andy pointing out to Ken exactly where the beat down zone is
Then Andy got this shot of Pedro demonstrating the aforementioned beat down. 

for the rafts it was no problem....
Tho Blair chose to kiss the hole:

Some Zeta pics:
Ash on the entrance

And charging through the crux
Packraft boy gave 'er a go:
it doesn't look like it, but I'm paddling hard!

taking the hit

gamely trying to brace to keep myself upright

And almost rolling  -even with my head way out of the water! - but bouncing off the wall and ultimately swimming out into the tailwaves below, but not til after I got sucked deep by one of the boils, to the point where I grabbed my chest to make sure my pfd was still on!  
And with the biggest rapids and portages and such behind us, there was much rejoicing:

And we even did a Burning Man to celebrate:

The rapids mellowed a bit after this but the fun did not let up, but of course I got carried away enough on this post that I need another'n to finish it up.  


  1. Awesome update, T-Dawg. Your adventures are always inspiring - where's the next one?

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