Words By Ben Stookesberry
Images By Ben Stookesberry and Josh Bechtel
Part1: A journey to JUNGLE BAY
Before receiving a brief yet fevered phone call from team Pyranha’s Josh Bechtel, my perception of kayaking in the Eastern Caribbean featured rum punch with paper
umbrellas served on an oversized yellow sit on top paddle craft. Maybe that is why it took Josh the majority of the conversation to convince me that he was not inviting me on another trip to the Dominican Republic, but to a similarly named but wholly different island far to the south in the Lesser Antilles. “I thought all of those Islands were too small to have runnable creeks let alone rivers.” Josh affirmed my suspicion that the island was in fact small (roughly the size of New York City), but that Grayson Shaffer (Outside Mag. contributing editor and the expeditions leader) had it on good information that the Island contains has a different river for every day of the year and is littered with waterfalls. Furthermore kayaking superheroes Brad Luden and Alex Nicks had already signed on for this wild goose chase. This was sounding way to intriguing to pass up; and as a result; some 700 precious dollars soon disappeared from my bank account in order to travel to the small Island of Dominica in early October of 2006.
My unfamiliarity with the Caribbean was becoming a bit embarrassing on the flight over as I chatted with the “50-something” middle American vacationers. These club med aficionados assured me that I would be much better off with a kayak in Honduras or Guatemala. They seemed genuinely concerned that I would not be able to use my kayak on any of the Islands of the Lesser Antilles. I assured them that at a minimum I would slide down the side of a steep embankment if there was no running water. Luckily the beverage service arrived and they lost interest in the interrogation. Relieved I turned back to the endless expance of blue that shimmered beneath our noisy little twin prop puddle jumper.
Dominica finally emerged, two hours after leaving Puerto Rica, as green folds of carpet seeming lost at sea shrouded by thick gray clouds. Dominica is the final out post of virgin rainforest in the eastern Caribbean, and it is commonly suggested that this is the only Island Columbus would still recognize today. My anticipation rose as we approached the island and the green fold of rug morphed into an impossibly steep spine of jungle. Getting close enough to see the trees, I could see descent size riverbeds hidden among canopy and cliff.
Despite the Islands small size, by all accounts I was entering one of the wettest places on earth. In the direct path of the fabled West African swells fueled by the westerly trade winds, the Islands rugged western slopes receive 12 feet of rain annually. On top of this October is the wettest month in the Eastern Caribbean so it seemed almost a sure thing that there would be plenty if not too much water in rivers. However to my dismay the rivers that we flew over on our final approach to tiny field looked low and clear. My kayakers alarm bells went off and I feared the worst: “Great just my luck. I arrive just in time for a drought on the wettest place on earth.”
To date there are not less than three major American air carriers that don’t accept “kayaks” as checked luggage… even excess luggage: Continental, Delta, and American Airlines. And with hefty fees and stingy regulations among your other would be choices, transporting your boat through the friendly skies could be the single most challenging logistic of kayaking abroad.
To make matters that much more uncertain, the rest of the group met me at the airport without any other kayaks. They had drawn the stingiest ticket agent at Denver International Airport, and the battle had been an uphill and expensive one from there on, ending in the detention of all four of their yaks in the Puerto Rico Airport. Grayson stayed behind to secure the kayaks arrival for the following day. At that point, I possessed the only whitewater kayak in the Eastern Caribbean (jk rocker).
In high Caribbean style a tall Rasta Man had been sent from Jungle Bay, to pick us up at the airport. Kayaks or not the jewel of the Caribbean was playing host to 5 dirt bag kayakers and I jumped at the opportunity to ride shot-gun for the journey down south to Jungle Bay. But something was wrong and I was sitting in the drivers seat and everyone was laughing. Irvin the rasta-man said “no problem man super Iree, but we be driving on the left side of the road ere in Dominica.” Cool, no problem, but at every blind turn on the steep, wet, narrow, jungle walled roads my senses screamed head on collision. And then we came to a screeching halt and Irvin grabbed fresh what not off the surrounding flora: nut meg, coco, grape fruit, mango, lemon grass, ect. “In America you be goin to da Super Market for your food, but down ere we just step into da trees for ours” Irvin quipped.
From the Airport in the north to Jungle Bay in the South, was a distance of only about 30 miles as the crow flies but the “highway” makes a major detour deep (5 mile) into the islands interior. First crossing the Melville Hall River, the size of Washington’s White Salmon, then turning up the Little White sized Pagua River, towards the center of Island to the countries longest river the Lyou. High up in the mountains (2,000 feet) it began to sheet rain and the Lyou’s many tributaries were suddenly swollen. Josh, Brad, and I were all pasted to windows planning our first first descents when the kayaks arrived. As quickly as it has started the deluge broke, and the clouds parted to reveal the countries second highest peak: a strata-volcano called Morne Trois Pitons elevation aprox 4600 feet.
Dominica is so rugged and thus distinct from the other Island in the Caribbean because it represents the apex of the Lesser Antilles Volcanic arc where the Caribbean plate is being subducted by the South American plate. Of the 17 active volcanoes in the Eastern Caribbean, Dominica is formed by the proximal confluence of 9. Although, there have been no major earthquakes since Columbus landed, signs of past and present volcanic activity are seen every where the torrential rains have washed away the jungle and Irvin comments “up in da mountains be an entire lake set a boil by da fire in da mountains.”
As we turn away from the Trois Pitons, and back towards the Rugged Atlantic Coast we descend into the Rosalie River, one of the countries largest. Irvin points back towards the mountains at the headwaters and we see the major challenge to accessing the steepest portions of Dominica’s Rivers: slot canyons guarded by impenetrable virgin jungle. “We need a helicopter,” comments brad, but Irvin assures us that he can get us into some of these places “but maybe not dat one… the Rivine of Two Gods. At 6:00 pm our 12 hours of tropical daylight had faded and we continue on into the darkness following a convoluted slot of pavement towards jungle bay. All told it takes 2 hours to traverse 2/3rds of the length of island and a dozen major river drainages, and we are all reeling from excitement, Jet lag, and motion sickness.
Part 2: First attempt, Sea Kayaking
Alex Nicks greets us on arrival having arrived earlier in the day, and is veritably un-phased by the news that we have only one of five kayaks in tow. News travels fast on a small Island, and he and Sam Rafael (the brain child and owner of Jungle bay) have already made alternative arrangements for the following days activities: a first attempt to sea kayak from the resort to grand bay 10 miles to the south.
We learn that earlier in the day, Alex had horrified the locals by leaping from nearby sea cliffs into a surging shark infested channel of Jungle Bay. Alex assures us that the sharks are of minimal concern and that he is thrilled to make the journey. For Alex this new type of sea fairing adventure has become par for the course. Since branching out from his ground braking offerings to the world of Big Water Expedition Kayaking (The Wicked Liquid series, Jehovah’s Wetness, and Tweaking The Nose of Terror), Alex has been filming sea kayaking epics for National Geo and PBS in places like Bolivia, Croatia and South Africa. Thus leaping into supposedly shark infested, walled in waters of Jungle Bay was nothing compared to be chummed off the side of a fishing boat without a cage in order to film a feeding frenzy of 600-pound tiger sharks in Baltic.
Grayson arrives early that morning to find the rest of us preparing for the voyage south. We find out quickly why Sam has not attempted this costal traverse from Jungle Bay. Three to six foot waves crash directly onto a beach of 20-pound football sized cobbles. Sam and Alex probe the beach exit first with Alex pushing off the stone beach balls and Sam paddling like hell to get beyond the brake between the sets of waves. Brad and Lizzy follow suit and make it look easy. Beyond the brake we all relax a little and I go over board to check out the sea life with some snorkel gear. Aqua marine, ultra clear water reveals all the usual suspects: Colorful schools of fish, sea turtles, and huge sub-marine rock outcroppings.
Looking back towards the Island, thousand foot sea cliffs are bisected by cascading waterfalls and fringed with thick greenery. This may have been the first voyage around the point to Grand Bay by leaving the cannonball coated beach at Jungle Bay, but we are certainly not the first adventures to make the journey into these rich waters. We spot local fisherman surfacing closer in with spear guns and a leash full of fish. We get close enough to watch these stealthy swimmers go under for minutes at a time descending almost beyond site to make their catch.
This adventure not withstanding, sea kayaking is for… well sea kayakers, and I was suddenly jonesing to see what the Islands rivers had in store for us. Irvin must have noticed this, yelling over from his yack “Titou Gorge is just over that mountain dere. We’ll be goin dere this after noon.”
Part 3: The Titou Gorge
By default the Titou Gorge is probably the most well known waterway on the Island since it marks the beginning of a 3 hour trek to Dominica’s most famous landmark (The Boiling Lake). However, the mouth of the Gorge is probably all that most people see of this one of a kind water way since the Boiling Lake trail snakes up and into the Jungle and away from the sound of its cascading water. Would be explorers of the Gorge are forced off trail and into the virgin forest to locate the crack in the earth that is the Gorge.
Dawning protective clothing for the Jungle’s numerous would be adversaries (poisonous insects, lizards, amphibians, snakes, spiders, and plants) I see Irvin rush ahead in bear feet and a pair of swim trunks. Although the locals of these Jungles and many others throughout the world have developed special adaptations to such inhospitable environs, the people of Dominica have a special advantage: This island ecosystem is completely devoid of anything poisonous. As I was soon to find out, there was barely a single thorn in this G-rated jungle. Enjoying a virgin jungle with no protective clothing is a luxury that might only be experienced in Dominica.
Aproaching the gorge after a 100 foot ascent on the boiling lake trail, we veer off towards the sound of a muffled roar of a thundering flow. By the sound of the river, the rim of the gorge wasn’t far off yet there was absolutely no indication of it in the crowded jungle ahead. No more than 15 feet ahead Josh hollers “holy shit” and woops with excitement. The gorge is narrow enough to jump across and more than 80 feet deep at our first vantage. Below us there is bearly enough light to see down into the insane crack in the earth, but everything that we can see appears to be runnable. After another 2 hours of scouting along the Canyon rim, we are satisfied and agree to return early the following day to make the 1.5km descent.
After a 45 minutes of yanking kayaks through the tangled forest, we arrive we descend to the river through a chink in its other wise unbroken gorge. As an effluent of the Country’s two principle freshwater lakes, the Titou contains a relatively constant flow of 70 cfs of the purest drinking water in the Caribbean. Unacostomed to the savage combination of heat and humidity, I am face down drinking my fill decreasing the flow by at least a few cubic inches per second.
Downstream the run is boney, and another 3 inches of water would have made it amazing
but impossible to stop. 4 rapids down, I am the last one enter an extremely narrow slot and I leave my beloved red Werner behind. Without hesitation Nicks makes like a spider in an effort to retrieve the forlorn blade. He snapped this shot of the paddle impossibly wrenched in between the canyon walls. This is certainly a testament to the strength of the classic Werner fiberglass blade and shaft!
The canyon is tunnel in the earth with long, rectangular skylight. In one particularly deep recess in the canyon wall we eddied out above sheer notch. Josh drop his boat a bit on the rock bank creating a thundering echo with another far more chilling shrieking noise. Within seconds the air was peppered with frightened bats, who spend the first few minutes of their frantic flight indecisive as to whether to flee upstream or downstream. Eventually the cloud lifts and we are able to scout downstream. Peering through the notch the canyon roars with as much noise as 50 cfs can create. This is the final section the gorge and the only part that we were not able to scout from above. We are 100 feet inside the chasm and it might be nice to have a head lamp to run the next 4 drops that will lead to our freedom. The last drop is a vertical 20 foot shoot that will require a hard left move to avoid the left wall.
In classic lemming formation we riffle through the final part of the Gorge. And complete our fist descent of the trip. The water runs supper deep and placid for another 100 yards before we reach Irvin where the Gorge finally opened into dense tropical heat.
For 13 years The Rio Tunuyan resisted all attempts to descend it’s grand canyon. Now an audacious group of river explorers takes up where the failed attempts left off in their bid to lay claim to this elusive first descent.
In early February of 1992 a fledgling group of rafters embarked on a 100km river trip with little more than yellow rain suits and a few river snacks. 7 days later, search parties found a severely dehydrated and mostly despondent group of rafters in the bottom reaches of the canyon. Stories of the ill-fated trip tempted a generation of local and international explorers alike with a first descent of epic proportions so close to Argentina’s main tourist attractions in the high Andes Mountains. 10 years after the first attempt Silvio Gurrieri a local raft guide and kayaker assembled an international group of kayakers to make the second attempt on the Tunuyan. This time prepared for five days in the canyon proper, the group covered little downstream ground in the first three days do to peak glacial flows in a continuously vertical walled gorge. Now Silvio has met up with fellow Argentinean standout Pato Valsechi and extreme kayaker Ben Stookesberry to make another attempt at completing one of South America’s last great whitewater expeditions.
From left to right: Silvio Gurrieri,Ben Stookesberry, and Pato Valsechi
∑ The order of the previously upright raft mixed violently in the recirculation at the base of the second falls.
∑ Winter breaks late and arrives early to a mountain range with many peaks exceeding 20,000 feet.
∑ With a vertical wall rising several thousand-feet from the rivers edge on the right and an improbably vertical scree slope guarding the left hand bank, Silvio says that this was the most frightening portage of the previous attempt.
∑ It is times like this when I can’t decide whether our sport epitomizes mental fortitude or mental masochism.
February 10th, 1992
Sage coated air vacillated between chilly breezes and icy gusts of wind at nearly 10,000-feet in the Argentinean Andes Mountains. A group of rafters donned yellow rain jackets and assessed the Rio Tunuyan crisscrossing the massive U shaped valley into the visible distance. The loosely informed yet audacious owner of Betancora Rafting, Fernando Cartez, had enlisted an unlikely group to attempt the first descent of a major drainage of the Andes Mountains. Cartez, his three fledgling raft guides, and three professors of physical education, made their way down to the river from the overlook. While the rest of the crew shared the burden of the inflated 16-foot paddle raft, Fernando carried the groups only provisions. Planning on a celebratory asado (Latin American style BBQ) to meet them at the takeout, he thought it necessary to bring only a few river snacks in anticipation of a 6 hour float.
Raul the shuttle driver had already spent a stiflingly hot day and an uncomfortably warm night at the Valle De Uco, the rafters scheduled take out. After leaving the group at the end of the road miles from the river, gauchos had transported the rafters and their gear over a high mountain pass to the put-in. Raul thought a full day of the trekking with mules and horses was a lot of work for a single day on the river, but he was happy to get paid for the work. It was three in the afternoon and the days heat approached another oppressive crescendo forcing the heavily set and heavily sweating shuttle driver out of the shade trees and down to the river. Raul fell to his knees in thick brown sand bringing ice-cold water to his face and neck. He imagined the group upstream hooting and hollering in anticipation of another chilly blast of glacial water. As Betancora’s only shuttle driver, he always felt a bit left out on the adventure, but soon consoled himself by settling into the cool grit of a riverside nap.
Pato contemplates a bad place for a raft in 2005
Crisscrossing the wide alluvial valley with surprising speed, the slate grey Tunuyan carried the raft playfully through a parade of small standing waves and gentle holes. After a chilly and somewhat anxious start, the rafters joked and laughed while casual paddling. The rafters took notice and as the entire valley swerved to the right and the meandering channels merged to one. The recently lively crew went silent as the river roared to life and accelerated their raft towards a constriction of jagged boulders. After a moments pause, Fernando screamed for everyone to paddle hard and oriented the raft to the river left bank. The raft connected with conflicting currents at the rivers margin and spun upstream, slowing just enough for one of Fernando’s understudies to jump free and anchor the bowline to a riverside boulder. The Tunuyan had presented the group a major obstacle. Ahead the river appeared to vanish into the valley floor. With a long scout from the bluffs above, they find a broiling mess of water entrenched 60 feet into the glacial rubble of the valley floor. Fernando’s team was not prepared for this, and there were murmurs of discontent from the relatively inexperienced crew. Fernando quickly pointed out the exhilarating and more runnable rapids that they saw downstream, and wrote this “nasty bit” off as an anomaly. They all agreed to portage, lining the raft down the long, steep boulder strewn nightmare. Taking an hour and a half to portage the cataract, the group faced the river below with an emerging sense of urgency.
Below the portage the raft continued without interruption, but the entire group was looking forward to the end of a non-stop procession of powerful rapids. Taking on a lot of water through a series of waves and holes, Fernando was again calling for everything the group had to escape the main current, aiming for an area of calm water along the right bank. Despite the effort, the waterlogged raft slipped past a last chance eddy into a series of three river wide falls hemmed in by now towering canyon walls. The raft sailed over the first ledge melting into the froth at the bottom emerging sideways at the lip of the second falls. With just enough time for Fernando to realize that one of the professors was already missing, the raft flipped hard. The order of the previously upright raft mixed violently in the recirculation at the base of the second falls.
Hours later, Raul awoke in the dark with mosquitoes buzzing in his ear. Embarrassed for missing the rafters’ arrival, he wandered back into the trees of the riverside camp to find no sign of the group. He knew that they could not have floated past with a small diversion dam blocking all downstream progress. Raul was accustomed to the roadside Rio Mendoza where he followed rafters’ progress from a conveniently placed highway. Emerging from a thought progression towards the worst, he chose the less drastic of his two options: wait. The following morning, Raul awoke early from uneasy sleep to pace the riverbank and fear the worst. By noon he was driving to a nearby town to spread troubling news.
The bleak propects of down stream progress sans raft
12 years 11 months later: January 3rd, 2005
A short, stocky Argentinean named Silvio Gurrieri has the miscellaneous audience of raft guides, kayakers, and a few of the day’s guests sitting on the edge of their seats with this tale. He is intimately connected to the Tunuyan’s lore having worked for Betancora on and off for 9 years. He was not on that failed first attempt, but instead organized the second attempt in February of 2002. Consisting of an international group of experienced kayakers, Silvio’s attempt had encountered peak glacial runoff forcing long exposed portages book marked by the most intense river running any of them had ever done. After three days and little downstream progress, they abandoned their attempt 35 miles from their would be takeout. In the traditional sense, a hike out was not an option for the group owing to the remoteness of the Tunuyan’s canyon. One might hike for 100 miles to the north, west, or south without encountering a single soul, let alone road. Thus the group toiled to the east, moving downstream on foot along the steep, exposed canyon wall thousands of feet above the river. It took them two days to reach a dilapidated refuge, and a concerned search party on horseback. Undaunted Silvio returned 14 months later to retrieve the kayaks and paddle the bottom portion of the river with flows greatly reduced by the freezing temperatures of autumn in the high Andes.
As Silvio continues the story with the rafters now desperate fight for life in frigid, turbulent waters; I wondered aloud, “How could Fernando have been so naïve to bring such an inexperienced group on a first descent, let alone to think they could complete 60 miles of river in a single day?” But wasn’t my own previous attempt on the Tunuyan just as ill conceived?
Upon arriving to Argentina just two months earlier with fellow class V nut Devin Knight, the Tunuyan was the first river to catch our attention on a recently bought road map. The map showed road access to an alpine river valley; after which, the river cut a course through a vast roadless section of the high Andes. Everything hinted at multi-day expedition. On top of this, we had heard nothing about this river, which made it all the more enticing. So we did what any young, self-proclaimed extreme kayakers would do: we bought a few days worth of food, packed a role of duct tape in lieu of a first aid kit, strapped the kayaks on the roof of our rental mini-van, and headed for the put – in. The truth is, our Hyundai minibus just wasn’t made for that kind of abuse. And once we reached an Argentinean army checkpoint an estimated 30 miles from the river’s put-in, our worst fears were confirmed.
Dev and I contemplate the the 14,500 foot pass Portillo Argentina in early November
In slow Spanish one of the officers explained to me that we were free to proceed, but the road went over a 4,400-meter pass covered in winter snow. With a bit of quick math, and a little head scratching, extreme kayakers had a revelation: “This will be like trying to take the Hyundai minibus over the summit of Mt Rainer in the springtime… sic!” The next question seemed to confirm to everyone in the outpost that we had absolutely no idea what we were doing. “How long should we wait for the snow to melt?” Now they were all shaking there heads, and I realized that we must need 4-wheel drive with clearance to make the drive. I signal towards their over sized army transport, but they were still shaking their heads. Running out of silly questions and bad ideas, Devin and I drove south. A month later Devin returned to California, while I boarded a bus and returned north to the Tunuyan.
“Maybe it’s because they don’t labled it the Grand Canyon of the Tunuyan on the road maps,” a now smirking Silvio responds. I am caught in a daydream, and the whole room is staring. I snap back to reality to agree that he has a point. I think Silvio considers me a bit of a cowboy at times, yet our destinies have become inextricably linked. We have just agreed to attempt the Tunuyan in two months time. That time flies by in a blur of fevered anticipation as we hash and rehash every detail of the planed descent down to the last gram of Gorp. With the addition of Pato Valsechi, one of the Countries most experienced and well-equipped adventurers, we are well prepared for the challenge.
2 months later: March 6th
I would like to think that the next 5 to 8 days will be little more than a formality to claiming our first descent of the Tunuyan, but the sky and my gut are saying otherwise. Winter breaks late and arrives early to a mountain range with many peaks exceeding 20,000 feet. Driving to the trailhead and first refuge, snow falls sideways. Pato Valsechi is behind the wheel of the Toyota helix calmly sipping mate (Argentinean style tea) while bouncing along the edge of a 2000-foot cliff. Pato’s brother Maxi, our shuttle driver, is sprawled out in the passenger seat refilling the wooden gourd, passing it always counter clockwise: next to Silvio, then me, and finally serving himself. Maybe it’s the anticipation of the river, the shear drop off to my right, the driving snowstorm, or the hyper-caffeinated sting of mate; but I’m practically jumping out of my skin. The Argentineans are quiet and meditative, and I try to fall into their pensive mood. I take solace in Pato’s cautious driving, and the cold weather that should eliminate any chance that the river will be too high.
Recently filled corrals and an ancient two-room stone hut signal the end of the road and the beginning of the trail over Portillo Argentina. We unload our gear into a covered stall with fresh meat hanging from the ceiling, while the world turns white outside. Maxi offers a few terse well-wishes before departing just as our last bag leaves the truck. He is anxious to return to Mendoza before the storm renders the road impassable. Maxi’s departure brings the cold realization of our impending isolation.
Inside, the hut is dank with the smoke from wood fire, red meat, and cigarettes. Tonight we share this refuge with the gauchos. There is a younger group of three that is drinking wine and playing cards in the bunkroom. These are the leaders of the mule team that will take our gear and us over the 14,400-ft. pass in the morning. Silvio made this journey with them once before, and they seem to admire his courage in leading another. They share their wine freely with all three of us. As the bottle makes the rounds, the young cowboys joke with Silvio and Pato about my status as the unwitting pawn in this whole affair. I don’t mind the jokes, and they make sure I get plenty to drink.
As they settle into their card game, we join the larger group of horsemen in the kitchen. These men welcome us in immediately and are quick to relate the history of this place. The trail that we are about to embark on was an important trading rout with Chile until a railroad connected the two countries moving most legitimate trade 70 miles to the North nearly 90 years ago. However, this trail stayed active as a major smuggling rout. When Silvio mentions the remnants of one such smugglers’ trails blasted into the canyon wall, the men take notice. “It is relatively easy to reach the headwaters of the Tunuyan from Chile because the pass is much less severe. So it makes sense that the smugglers would try to find a rout through the canyon, instead of having to deal with another more precipitous pass and army checkpoints to complete the Andean crossing,” remarks the eldest of the men. These modern gauchos are guides and porters as opposed to the smugglers and outlaws of prior generations; and therefore, have only hearsay awarness of the decrepit smuggling routs. Surprisingly, the eldest of these gauchos tells the story of Betancora Rafting’s failed attempt in 1992 as a prime example of the Canyon’s Taboo. As it turns out, it was his father that transported them over the pass 13 years ago. After a few hours of wine, steak, and drink they seem to be as apprehensive and excited for our attempt as we are.
At 11,000 feet the wind howls through the crowded, drafty hut as I search for, but do not find, sleep. We rise at first light the next morning to find a few inches of wind blown snow, crystal clear skies, and a socked in cloud mass covering the plains below. As we prepare for the days ride, our gauchos load irritated mules with kayaks, food, and river gear; all the while, the thick soup of clouds from below rises into our hanging valley. The thick fog engulfs our camp. Freezing temperatures turn the condensation to snow. We hasten to ready the remainder of the gear in an effort to race the frigid storm for the pass. Above the clouds, the day is stunning.
After riding for nearly two hours, there is still no sign that the pass is at hand. Colossal mountains soar to the heavens on all three sides of the stair stepping valley. Two hours pass and I am working out the last of my horse’s misgivings about his woefully inexperienced rider when we arrive at the base of a relatively low pass through the rim of craggy summits. The animals labour up steep switch-backs cut into a foot of fresh snow, but are unrelenting in their climb. Finally gaining the pass slightly ahead of the pack, we emerge through a rocky keyhole into a flat big enough for a very small picnic. Behind us the foggy soup has seemingly stagnated below. Ahead, the trail drops precipitously into a limitless expanse of Andean wilderness. Another, more significant weather system looms dark in the valley below. The moment my second thoughts begin to build, the mule train reaches the small landing forcing my animal off the other side. The trail ahead has been broken, but only by those just ahead of me. Two feet of drifted snow is caked to a 35-degree slope and my horse is doing his impression of a glissade. I decide that if there are any rapids on the river that are this dangerous, I will portage without hesitation. My animal eases his way through this nightmare while I am about to pass out from clenching every muscle in my body at significant altitude. A few hundred feet down, the snow and pitch gradually relent, as did my veritable bear hug on that wonderful animal. I pledge my undying gratitude to the warm fuzzy mule over the next few hours.
Through several hours of relentless riding through driving sleet and cold, I pull my focus inward stoking heat from memories of Mexico, Costa Rica and the like.
I emerge from my tropical manifestation, to bear witness to the entrance of a holy cathedral; beyond which, the next unknown journey lies just downstream. My first glimpse of the Tunuyan is emotional. Its a literal dream come true. I wipe away the tears and lead my weary animal by reins the short distance to the valley below. The sound of a patient river grows with every step.
Tonight we find refuge in the spacious Refugio Dominguez. By comparison to the mud hut at the trailhead on the other side of the pass, this old military outpost is the Ritz Carleton. Our land-based journey ends here, but will continue for our young guides who will return to the trailhead while the other group of gauchos continue on to Chile. Our three parties gather around a massive fireplace and contribute food and drink to a communal feast. Succulent bife de chorizo, fresh salad and bread, along with the warm intoxication of tangy red wine quell our collective angst.
The morning dawns far too early and our final preparations begin in earnest. I am delirious with anticipation and chastise Silvio and Pato for fraternizing with the gauchos when they should have been packing. I regret the unwarranted outburst and step outside to cool off.
The air is crisp and without movement beneath remarkably clear skies. Thousands of feet up into the mountains, yesterday’s snow blazes in the early morning sun as shadows recede across the valley floor. Pato and Silvio join me on the porch to marvel at our good fortune. Over the quarter-mile hike from the refuge to the first of the river’s braided channels, we discover the true burden of our mules. Hundred-pound kayaks tear at the flesh of our shoulders, and mock the thought of any impending portages. At the rivers edge, kayakers embrace horsemen and bid “suerte” for luck. We enter the Tunuyan’s shallow channels with high hopes.
Turning our backs on 21,000-foot Andean volcanoes of the Chilean border, we paddle quickly through a spectacular, but briefly meandering, Tunuyan. Just as Betancura before us, we are soon confronted with the stark metamorphosis as the valley bends to the right. Pato and I follow Silvio to the river’s edge to scout what lies ahead. Gaining just enough elevation to see downstream by standing on the bank in my kayak, I see the river constrict and accelerate. It seems to me that we might save some energy, and scout from a point further downstream. I wait for Pato and Silvio at the beached kayaks in protest of a premature scout. After 10-minutes, I am on the verge of suggesting that they defer to me to lead the descent.
Luckily, I kept my mouth shut as I realize the value of their reconnaissance. Reaching the point of my intended scout, I am already committed to what lies ahead in the now deeply entrenched channel. I am relieved to see Pato and Silvio as they fly by my precarious eddy dropping over a ledge and out of sight. By stopping just above this horizon line, I accept a distinct disadvantage in speed. Unable to quickly accelerate my overloaded kayak, I pay for my lack of momentum over the next quarter mile. I spend an uncomfortable amount of time buried deep under water through a seemingly endless series of ledges. I catch the bottom end of a flushing eddy immediately above a picket fence of jagged looking boulders that guard yet another horizon line. Silvio flashes me a knowing smile as I join him in the eddy.
“Hey Ben, are you ok man because it looks like you are breathing pretty hard” says Silvio, paying more attention to the next move then my disdainful expression. “Don’t worry” he goes on “we call this one The Asthmatic.” He turns quickly and peals out of the eddy with Pato close behind.
For the next half-mile we continue playing the Tunuyan’s high speed chess game, volleying from one side of the river to the other, lining up for ledge holes, avoiding pin-spots, and otherwise paddling for dear life. With the appearance of a downstream eddy, we seize the opportunity to call a timeout. While Silvio is thriving in the non-stop action, Pato seems a bit overwhelmed having escaped two near pins by the narrowest of margins. These challenging rapids are made that much more difficult by the weight of our kayaks.
The river soon relents into a more manageable, yet still exhilarating pace. We are only a few hours downstream; and already, this place reeks of absolute isolation. The once entrenched riverbed spreads to a more comfortable width, but valley walls morph into an ever-encroaching bedrock gorge. Without warning the river falls out of sight, and we exit the current at the last possible moment. Upon viewing the rapid, we are all thankful for the lower water that was not experienced on Silvio’s previous trip.
“What are now straight forward ledges, were massive river wide keepers,” remarks Silvio. “This rapid is called Physical Education for the first attempt where they lost the raft and almost drowned.” (On Silvio’s last attempt, they lost significant time here because the fore-mentioned “massive river-wide holes” guarded the entrance to a long vertical walled rapid; thus, they were forced to portage the entire section. This time we run the rapid and canyon without incident.)
After running two more of the previous trip’s portages, we face a rapid that Silvio has warned us about throughout the planning for the expedition. Silvio named this one Sin Paso or No Way Out because there is no good way to get around the cataract. The reason becomes readily apparent from our upstream eddy. With a vertical wall rising several thousand-feet from the rivers edge on the right and an improbably vertical scree slope guarding the left hand bank, Silvio says that this was the most frightening portage of the previous attempt. However, an initial survey of the rapid reveals it to be of marginal navigability. We soon deem the rapid less dangerous than the portage, and opt to run it. Once headed down the tongue toward a pile of what Pato calls Garbage rocks, our scout becomes almost meaningless. The garbage rocks had concealed a sticky hole that lurked just downstream. We all struggle in the hole and lose momentum over the ensuing 8-foot falls. Pato suffers the worst, surfing the hole before melting into the base of the falls only to be violently spit out offline and into a veritable graveyard of sieves. Silvio and I battle through 2 more falls before seeing Pato slip though the only possible exit of the nasty jumble. Despite Pato's sketchy line, we all agree that the rapid is one of the best so far and is much preferable to a two-hour portage. Our exuberance is palpable, running the fabled river without portaging to this point. Silvio soon tempers our premature back patting by mentioning, “from here the river’s intensity will only build to the real crux sections of the Tunuyan.”
We finish the day several hours later with an exhaustive effort, having run 31 km of the estimated 91 km of the Tunuyan without a portage. Having already gained two of its principle tributaries (the Rio Salinas and Rio Colorado) just upstream of our camp, the flow of the river has more than doubled. We catch an hour of late afternoon sunlight, and bask in what must be 70-degree weather. We attribute the increase in temperature to a significant drop in elevation (nearly 2000 feet) that is also reflected in a change in vegetation. Cactuses and small trees are evidence of this, but we also see signs of warming at higher elevations where snow had fallen the previous day. As sun sinks into the upstream canyon, the river changes color from slate grey to chocolate brown. To our relief, the morning reveals only a small rise in the height of the river along with more perfect weather.
Just as Silvio prophesized, day 2 begins with more intense white-water that is locked between vertical canyon walls. Not even an hour after putting in, we encounter the most significant drop so far. The river drops 15 feet through massive hydraulics. We make our first portage with little effort, but Silvio warns that we are quickly approaching a mandatory portage and a box canyon.
Downstream the canyon opens slightly allowing a magnificent vista of snow capped peaks more than 10,000 feet over head. The respite is short lived. Hotel size boulders constrict the rivers flow to a boiling frenzy. Towering gorge walls are visible just downstream as we measure our progress carefully, moving downstream from eddy to eddy. Last chance eddy hopping can become a macho style game of Russian roulette, and I fold first opting to look at the maelstrom ahead before proceeding any further. Silvio looks on disapprovingly as Pato quickly follows suit. From shore I can see that Silvio is contemplating yet another downstream move into a tumultuous eddy above certain death. I shake him off from shore, but he seems sceptical of my signal. Half of me wants to tell him to do what he pleases, but downstream a thousand CFS go subterranean at the entrance to a towering box canyon. I repeat my signal to come ashore. Our side of the river offers absolutely no chance of portage, and I want nothing to do with the death sieve. I decide to hike back upstream of this overgrown boulder garden to scout and/or portage from river right. Pato is on my program, but Silvio resists my initiative yet again. There is more than a bit of tension between the two of us, and I fear the situation will come to a head.
According to Silvio this is the first of two crux sections and is the site where his first attempt ended with a long, gruelling hike downstream. After a laborious scout of the box canyon, we set our sites on the massive portage at hand. Misgivings between Silvio and I fade during the subsequent two-hour portage. Exhausted we find a river emerging from the impressive slot gorge only to sieve into more dangerous boulder gardens. We portage for another half an hour at river level until we are literally forced off the bank by more vertical canyon walls. The rapid we will be forced to run is dicey at best. However, for the first time on the trip, we enter a discussion as a team, and take a long break to consider how best to proceed.
In this portion of the Canyon, both Silvio’s last trip and the Bantancora rafters were forced thousands of feet up onto the Canyon walls in an effort to hike out. In a severely dehydrated state, one of the professors on the first attempt, nearly fell to her demise when crossing a steep slope of loose rock exposed over a thousand foot cliff. Luckily she caught hold of a bush to escape the deadly plunge. For these rafters, this was their fourth day spent hiking in the canyon after losing the raft, but the group felt renewed hope upon hearing planes making several passes over their position. They waved their arms in hopes of signalling would be rescuers, but they were the proverbial needle in the haystack in the profound depths of the canyon. As the light began to leave the canyon, they found themselves stranded for yet another bone chilling night without bag or blanket. They retreated to the river to wet cracked lips with muddy water. The next morning only brought the chilling obligation to head straight back up the canyon wall a thousand feet to continue the hike.
Through a gruelling patchwork of portages and must run rapids, we finish our second day having covered only six miles of river in seven hours. From our second camp Silvio points to the second major crux of the Tunuyan just downstream. We are tempted to abandon the river level attempt of the vertical walled corner, and make a gruelling portage over a high ridge that bisects the river bend. We put off the descision until morning turning our focus to the evening show. The canyon blazes red and then fades to grey in the setting sun. As the twilight settles into darkness, a river of stars runs thick overhead. We say silent thanks to continued clear weather.
We rise to prehistoric Condors circling overhead as sunlight breaks into the upper reaches of the Canyon. Silvio is convinced that our good weather will soon break as these Condors are searching for food in anticipation of a storm. I hope his prediction is flawed, but wispy cirrus clouds streaming overhead forebode his conjecture.
With the impending bad weather, we make a collective decision to continue on at river level in order to expedite downstream progress. Our morning hours are spent eddy hopping through a maze of powerful chutes in between massive boulders. We are again tiptoeing on the brink of something more significant. Boiling and quivering above smoking horizon lines, the Tunuyan seems to resist the next downstream passage.
From a vantage atop a three-story boulder on river left, we see crazed currents running head long into another unseen mist laden falls. Below a relatively placid pool beckons our passage. Silvio spots his line and goes for the smallest of eddies just above the downstream falls. I have great respect for Silvio’s abilities, it is hard for me to watch his attempt at the precarious downstream eddy. After days of toiling through this expedition, I want nothing more than to see our take out with the whole crew safe and sound. This is not, however, an unwarranted risk as there are truly no other good options for continuing downstream. Silvio paddles with conviction through the initial gauntlet, knifing through conflicting currents to the rivers opposite bank, he exits at the precarious brink. It is times like this when I can’t decide whether our sport epitomizes mental fortitude or mental masochism. Regardless, Silvio has saved Pato and I similar torture standing ready to pull us ashore if needs be.
Below the crux we are making good down stream progress for the first time since day-1, with kayaks made significantly lighter by two and a half days of food consumption. However, Silvio seems possessed by the impending storm, and it is all I can do to keep him in sight. I am caught between a downstream charging Silvio and the lagging pursuit of Pato. With a mix of anxiety and excitement I paddle hard after the fiery Argentinean through an endless barrage of class-five rapids. For the ensuing hours, the canyon pulses between black sheer walled gorges, and massive amphitheatres of red rock. I want to stop at the end of every rapid, but the sky is turning black before its time and Silvio proclaims a small covered refuge around every corner.
7 days after losing their raft a famished, dehydrated, mostly despondent, but very much alive group of rafters was found just above this same small, dilapidated refuge. They had made the 50-mile downstream hike aided by a single throw bag and mortal motivation. From the few points along the trek where they could actually see the river, they deemed the river unrunnable and felt blessed that the debacle had not lead to a much greater misfortune.
Three days and more than a vertical mile below the Tunuyans Alpine valley, our jubilant albeit dead tired group of kayakers arrives at this historic point of passage to the Rio Tunuyan. A partially intact tin roof of a stone structure that brought salvation for the two previous attempts now provides much needed refuge from the onslaught of a major Andean downpour. Were it not for Silvio’s single mindedness, we would have weathered the monsoon in the unprotected reaches of the upper canyon. More over, we awake in the morning to find a river that had tripled in size to a massive muddy flow, with heavy snowfall visible in the canyon upstream. We paddle the final 15 miles of river in a little over 4 hours through huge rain swollen cataracts. As the Tunuyan exits the last of it’s canyons and spills out onto the plains, we enter a wooded park with a small diversion dam just down stream.
A two car caravan awaited our arrival on a dirt road just a short distance from the rivers edge. Silvios father was the first to spot us emerging from the trees and onto the road and offered us an enthusiastic “hey hey!” The rest of the welcoming party emerged slightly less enthusiastic, yet still full of Argentinean hospitality.
After the trip, I lingered in Argentina for another month riding the high of our accomplishment as far as it would take me. The river had finally relinquished its prohibition on successful descents, setting the stage for all attempts that will inevitably follow. In retrospect it was a miraculous convergence of circumstance that allowed us to pass unscathed through the Tunuyan’s depths. More importantly three individuals entered an unknown journey and emerged on the other side as a team.