Thursday, January 3, 2019

The Grand Canyon of Argentina

Our trip down the Grand Canyon of Argentina (on the Rio Grande) actually was born 3 years ago when our great friend Kiwi Andy Windle decided that he wanted to go big for his 50th birthday and do a trip with a bunch of friends down the Rio Maranon in Peru, which turned out to be a smashing success.  Ashley thought that was a great idea, so for her 50th she wanted to do the same on a different river.  Our great old friend Rocky Contos has been exploring rivers for decades and told us that the Rio Grande was one of the best and the best time of year for it was our late fall through early winter, which worked well for us.  and thus it came to pass that a dozen gringos blasted down to Argentina in mid-December for a South American river trip adventure.  

Argentina is a big country, and most of its size is in it's length:  2200 miles.  The Rio Grande starts inconspicuously in the Andes near the Las Lenas ski resort and is generally in the middle of the country, and runs hundreds of miles going mostly south.  It's a little confusing because there's not only another Rio Grande in Argentina (in Tierra Del Fuego) that is a famous trout fishing stream but also a town of the same name, and after this Grande meets the Rio Barrancas it becomes the Rio Colorado, which goes several hundred more mostly-flat miles before plowing into the Atlantic in northern Patagonia.  The access to the river is via the city of Mendoza, the capital of the state of the same name, and the nice smaller town of San Rafael 3 hours south, and both are famed for their Malbec wines, if that's the sort of thing you are into. Mendoza is also the jumpoff point for people to slog their way up Aconcagua, the nearby volcano that at almost 23,000 feet is the highest point in the western hemisphere (and, if you chose to climb it with RMI - as a guy we met on the plane is doing as we speak - it's only $6600!).  

Our crew met at Luciano's (Lucho) house, where his garage serves not only as the family t-shirt screen printing business but also as the warehouse for Rocky's Global Grand Canyons river gear. At least, most of us were there; Kiwi Andy's main bag didn't make it with him to Mendoza so he and Sara were hanging there to see if it would arrive; in the meantime the travel insurance that he had bought told him to just buy whatever he needed to replace it, so he went into a Mendoza mountaineering store and made those folks' day by buying nearly everything he needed (except a dry top, which would prove to be a challenge later, but fortunately Andy's pretty tough....).  And since the put in was basically in the middle of nowhere, Rocky blasted back up to Mendoza to meet Sara and Andy to help them tell a taxi where in the middle of the Andes he needed to drive.....

The adventure got going not long after we left the pavement:

Bridges are overrated. 

so too are bumpers!

a broken trailer hitch posed a good problem, but the creative and industrious locals got it going, and fortunately we had a lot of bodies to lift the gear trailer back into place. 
 And soon enough we were at the put in, nestled amongst some impressive peaks:

But we had an extra day to wait for Rocky, Sara, and Andy, so while Mike Brehm had many glorious hours to himself rigging his raft just so, the rest of us went out in search of some hot springs that were said to be in the area.  The hot springs were a bit weak:
but the bonus was getting up close and personal with a family of Andean Condors:

According to the Wiki, the Andean condor "is the largest flying bird in the world by combined measurement of weight and wingspan. It has a maximum wingspan of 3.3 m (10 ft 10 in).  And they were indeed impressive.  Here's a tighter pic poached from the web:
Though they are more plentiful than the only 76-odd California condors that soar around Zion and the Grand Canyon, the Andean birds are also threatened, so we felt lucky to see these (and a few more as we floated down the river).  

After some fits and starts our wayward threesome made it, and there was much rejoicing:
And after a second chilly night:

We were ready to hit the river (and lose some elevation to get warmer temps!)

Rocky has been bold enough to not only create operations around the world (two in Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Myanmar, and China, but he's also been importing his own rafts from a Chinese factory.  They have now gotten to the quality necessary, but some of his first-gen boats are still in use and need some TLC now and then:
a bit of put in patching, and relace the floor. 
We had the added interest of a nearby volcano eruption:

We didn't really know if this was "news" to the outside world or not nor if it would affect us (sizzling lava flowing into the river, creating huge new waterfalls!) and I later found out that there are volcanoes going off all the time (of course, that department is shut down because of Trump's stupid fucken Wall).  But soon enough the truck was unloaded, the trailer had broken and been fixed again, the boats were rigged, and we stepped into the river.  

The last couple of trips that I did with Rocky were with nice folks, but they weren't our good old friends, and it was a good reminder of how important it is to do a big trip with people you like.  We had put the invite out to a lot of folks and there were many who were keen and were on the trip only to be daunted by either the time, cost (flights aren't cheap), and  -mostly - the fact that the trip happened over the holidays, which is good for some folks but realistically not good for most due to familial obligations.  So here's a quick intro to our crew:
Ken (Kenito) Bender was one of my first paddling mentors way back in the day in Oregon
I met Blair about 3 eons ago skiing in OR, and he's always game for a good adventure, but we haven't done enough of them together!  
As Rocky's better half, Barbarita tries to keep him on track, and Ralph is the former mayor of Salt Lake and never-former phunhog (and purveyor of quite stylish attire).  
My lovely dork of a wife!

this hunk o' burnin love is Kiwi Andy

Mike Brehm celebrated his 60th Feliz Complenanos on the rio with Rocky's south american right hand man Pedro Pena as the lead pastry chef. 
Elise is Mike's daughter and a Malbec-in-a-cutoff-water bottle afficianado.  
Sara is Kiwi's better half, and she never took off her hat/glasses and buff long enough for me to see her face!
Kate Kopishke kooling off; Kate is Ralph's better half and has spent a good chunk of her lift gallivanting around the globe saving indignenous people from encroaching governments and corps. 
Fico Gallese is a Peruvian rafting legend; he did a zillion Bio Bio trips before it was inundated, and has continued on rivers all over South America since. 
and Luciano - shown pointing out the blowing volcano earlier, is an enthusiastic kayaker and aspiring river guide in Mendoza  

Ok, back to the river!  The first day of this trip was probably the most action-packed in terms of rapids; we had a fair number of class 4's and though the trickle that we started on barely floated boats, lots of tribs came in so the water got pushier quickly.  We didn't take too many pics since everyone was pretty focused on safe navigation, but for most of us who hadn't been able to paddle for months, it was a good splashy wakeup!  And for a coupla folks who anticipated warmer air and water temps  -and, in Andy's case, actually anticipated having a dry top - it was pretty chilly as well.  
Not a rapid shot, but scenery rivaling anywhere...
Argentina is famous for its carne, and there were enough vacas on the banks of the rio - even in the remotest places - that my typical cavalier attitude of drinking river water was dulled.  
This rapid caught a couple of us by surprise, as it was swift current around a corner and had a big hole at the bottom.  
Rocky getting in the last stroke before the hole

the hole had a little less oomph on river right, so I charged that way

and plunged right through

I found a cool new effect on my camera that sorta emphasizes the contrasts

and then the river gods gave us a sunset show:

Ash had told Rocky that we wanted to do a lot of hiking, and we gave it a go a fair bit, but it was challenging hiking: the fauna that thrives down there is so tough and spiky that it makes our Southwest desert vegetation look lush and friendly in comparison.  
Ash gamely trying to avoid getting shredded hiking up a side stream
Mike was so impressed by the stickery bushes that he worked on creating a Thorn Gallery

but we did a layover day to get up to a waterfall that first involved wading a river channel
 and the ensuing hard hike up a trib creek to a great waterfall and a welcome pool
Hunky boy strutting again....can't take that guy anywhere!  

the windswept plain (tho much of the time the wind blows downstream).  
Ash got her bouldering fix in:
I swear that the camera isn't tilted!

My one addition to the Thorn Gallery
The river backed off in difficulty, but not scenery:
white pumice at the base of basalt columns; blown in from volcanoes? 
but there were two significant challenges ahead.  The first was a point where the river got constricted into a crazy narrow basalt gorge for a mile:
it mellowed a bit at a bridge:
where I met a coupla Korean lads who were on a big adventure of their own:

The van once again made the long journey to connect with us to help us portage:
And we enlisted the help of a local with a pickup:
Who was also keen to make us a chivo (goat) feast!
Baaaa-aaaa!  Mike is ready to dive in
And his granddaughter was ready to give this rio-runnin' a go:
this portage was about halfway down the run, and the next big challenge - a class 5+ rapid in a tight gorge  - lay not too far downstream.  But this post is getting too long, so that tale will be told in a follow up post!  

1 comment:

  1. Appears you and the gang had quite the adventure! Just love your posts/recaps, sorry we missed out this go around, maybe the next!