Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Paddling Into The Abyss

Since coming home from Peru in August of 2007, we have had various bits of media trickling out about the trip. By far the most anticipated being the release of VTH HUALLAGA by John Grace of PENSTOCK PRODUCTIONS...which FYI is now shipping. TRL is anxiously waiting to see what Grace has concocted from our HUALLAGA DEALINGS

I figured that sometime about now we would drop the story on TRL's post-Huallaga Peruvian adventures. It was delayed a few weeks cause we have been busy slaying the epic powder conditions privy to us Northwesterners this winter. We have been receiving foot upon foot upon foot upon foot of snow. Unbelievable. This equates to less time bloggin' about kayaking and lots of more time keeping the goggles from foggin'. Please except our apologies for going over a month without a post! We live in the Northwest after all and have OBLIGATIONS to take advantage of water in all of it's forms.

Just to give you a visual...Lise-Anne Beyries rippin'!

Despite our distractions, the emails from loyal TRL desk jockeys desperate for a kayaking media fix have not gone un-noticed. So go grab a latte' or something and dig into this post about the Abysmo!

Contemplating one of the many mine fields deep in the Abyss

Photo by Andrew Oberhardt

After we left the Jefe's deep in the depths of the Huallaga and made our way back to civilization, we were faced with an interesting dilemma. We still had over two weeks left before flying home, but we no longer had boats. While it seemed a bit harsh at the time, I remember telling the team that there were only two options in my mind. Fly home early or figure out a way to keep paddling. Sight seeing in Peru with 3 other dudes was not an option on this trip. Keep in mind that we were absolutely beat down from the Huallaga and decision making with a group of guys is always challenging. Fortunately Piero chimed in with the solution. Bus back to Lima, Fly to Cusco, stay with him and his family at the TERRA EXPLORER PERU HEADQUARTERS, outfit ourselves into a Jefe, Nomad, H3, and Diesel, and go paddle the Rio Apurimac. Within an hour he was on the phone with his travel agent booking flights for us. Decision made.

We arrived in Cusco and immediately started to plan the next mission and decompress from our challenges in the district of Huanaco. Drew had been ill and that was now seeping into Shane's bloodstream. It seemed like this revolving door of only 3 capable team members at any given point. Piero was running a trip for BIO BIO and his intial suggestion was to run the Black Canyon above the commercial stretch and then keep paddling through the commercial stretch. Then he mentioned the Abysmo. We did a little investigative work on Kurt Casey's site PERU WHITEWATER. and found descriptions like "The run features several days of relentless, big, pushy whitewater in a spectacular vertical walled canyon" and "a thundering descent into the chasm formed below the snow capped peaks of Salcantay and Quishar which form the backbone of the Cordillera Vilcabamba." We started to migrate towards this option despite being warned by Piero that it was considered one of the hardest stretches of whitewater in Peru, chalked full of sieves, and we might have to wait over 24 hours at the take-out before finding a ride. With Shane laid out, Drew, Todd, and I did some last minute food shopping and the next morning we were on the bus with the Bio Bio clients heading for the Rio Apurimac. We would paddle 3 days with Piero and Bio Bio and then our food for the Abysmo would meet us at their take out and we would continue on for another 4-5 days.

For me paddling the COMMERCIAL STRETCH was really about two things. Enjoying the company of Piero's crew and getting to know Marc Goddard of Bio Bio and contemplating the team, balls, and stamina necessary to pull the trigger on the Abysmo. At the start of the trip Shane was ill and Todd, Drew, and I were still cool with attempting the Abyss as a three some. By day 2 on the commercial stretch, Todd and Shane shifted roles. Todd had become so ill that he was being fed Cipro by a doc on the trip rather than the gourmet meals Piero and crew were spoiling us with. The illness situation left all of us individually calculating what it would take to push on and if we should.

Then our decision time came. We reached the take-out of the commercial stretch at noon on Day 3. We were fed our last home cooked meal and we said our good byes to the clients and very unfortunately to Mr. Gillman as well. So it was Shane, Drew, and I ready to keep paddling on. All we knew is it would take somewhere between 3-5 days before we would hit the next bridge...Puente Pasaje. We paddled the remaining half day of flat water before arriving at one of the most stunning and committing canyon landscapes I've ever laid my eyes on. All three of us instantly knew that there was no turning back.


photo by Andrew Oberhardt

We were tested right from the start.

photo by Andrew Oberhardt

Because of our lack of preparation compared to the Huallaga we had a limited understanding of how significant the run was both in terms of exposure and difficulty. However the fact that it had been successful run a few times before somehow gave us a sense of security to drop in. We were still very much prone to the unknown, the hazards, beatdowns, and challenges inherent in any attempt of the Abysmo, but because people had passed from start to finish it left us confident that we could do the same.

After 5 days total on the Apurimac we were so deep in the Cordillera Vilcabamba that campsites were becoming very limited and the sense of scale was overwhelming. It was clear why this section of the river had been named the "Abyss". Drew, Shane, and I were all starting to feel physically and mentally exhausted. We were getting everything from boat scoutable big water, to half hour scouts, to 1 hour portages, to the most endless horizons of gradient and canyons any of us had ever experienced. It just kept coming and coming and coming. Ever time it opened up a little it would quickly box back up and we would have to raise our guards. We were incredibly stoked to be where we were, yet scared out of our mind with what it was going to take to reach Puente Pasaje.

Camping on a small pebble beach below a towering canyon of sculpted granite.

photo by Andrew Oberhardt

The relief in all directions was a constant reminder of how committed to the river we really were.

photo by Andrew Oberhardt

Shane "waking-up"on the start of Day 6.

photo by Andrew Oberhardt

One of the hundreds of waterfalls.

photo by Andrew Oberhardt

On the 6th day (second on the Abysmo) we started to hit the wall. I look back on it now and can't believe we don't have more pictures and video of this run, but physically and mentally we were so taxed it was impossible to concentrate on much more than hitting our lines. There is a real difference between being able to paddle a big trip like this and being able to paddle and film everything as well. We would shoot the first couple hours every day and then the river would take over with it's unpredicatable nature. We would be able to read and run, drop into a few things and then the river would disappear around a corner or horizon and force a scout. Once of us would hop out and it would look good for a few moves, but then sieve out in the rapid below. With only three of us and an unkown distance to the take-out we would almost always opt out of media opportunities in favor of covering distance.

Shane...lots of pillows and paddling in this one.

photo by Andrew Oberhardt

This pictures gives you a feel for how difficult it was to scout and navigate. The boulders were giant and the river was wide enough that we were constantly presented with challenges of seeing far enough ahead.

photo by Andrew Oberhardt

Our real estate on the 7th night out...no shelter necessary.

photo by Andrew Oberhardt

On the 7th day we figured we would hit Puente Pasaje for sure. We were being pushed hard and were executing every step of the way, but we were ready for the river to end on Day 7. Unfortunately it never came. If anything the river was boxing in more and we were gaining significantly more volume.

Starring downstream at another serious of canyons at the end of Day 7...check out the high water mark.

photo by Andrew Oberhardt

After being on the water for 8 days our food was starting to get pretty tight and we still were unsure of how much further we had to paddle. We had made some very questionable decisions to before continuing into the Abyss. We had left with very limited beta, no topo, no shuttle arranged, a very small crew, and just enough food. While it kept us incredibly focused on the moment, it taxed us mentally and left us zero options other than successfully completing the river. On the 8th day when Puente Pasaje came into our view we all felt instant relief. Little did we know, the adventure was just starting.

Hanging with the coffee growers at Puente Pasaje

photo by Andrew Oberhardt

Setting up base where we could not be missed by an passing vehicle.

photo by Andrew Oberhardt

Shane and Drew's Spanish was pretty much nil, so I instantly became the point person to try and figure out how we would be able to get out of the valley and move towards Andahuylas about 12 hours away. From there we would be able to hire a vehicle or take a bus another 6-8 hours back to Cusco. The coffee growers said that they may have a truck coming through the following day, but it could be as long as two days. An unknown departure combined with scorching heat, sand flies, and a dwindling food supply that consisted of some dried beans, well fermented cheese, and chocolate did not do much to boost moral. Piero had warned us of this very situation and even a sat phone call to him left us with..."have fun boys, you will get out of there eventually, take any ride you can get and insist".

The reality of a no-sock set-up with sand flies.

photo by Andrew Oberhardt

I walked up the road to a small village of about 3 houses and managed to score some banana's, mangitos, and 4 eggs while Drew and Shane filtered some water. Pretty much everyone I spoke with had a different story and estimate of when the next truck would be coming through. One man told me it had been 5-6 years since he had scene anyone arrive by paddling through the Abyss. He offered me more bananas and wished me luck saying it could be days before we got a ride out of the valley. The coffee growers would likely be our best bet. They seemed to have the best pulse on vehicular movement through the area.

Lots of work goes into getting coffee beans to North America's latte craving culture.

photo by Andrew Oberhardt

Raw beans

photo by Andrew Oberhardt

The coffee growers had taken to our company and even created a big padded area for us to sleep on that night. They piled up a bunch of burlap coffee bags and insisted we stay with them. The good thing about this was that 2 trucks showed up in the middle of the night clearly associated with the coffee growers. I immediately sprung to my feet and tried to have a word with one of the drivers. Doing the best I could with my Spanish I insisted that he take us, but he was not happy about the kayaks. He kept telling me that he "might" be able to take us, but it would depend on the load. They sort of fought amoung themselves, pissed on the bushes, and then they just left heading the opposite direction saying they would be back in the morning. While it seemed like a step in the right direction we were far from loading our boats on the truck and moving towards Cusco. For all intensive purposes we remained stuck with the bags of coffee at Puente Pasaje.

Shane sitting on hundreds of pounds of Peruvian java.

photo by Andrew Oberhardt

The truck arrives late in the afternoon!

photo by Andrew Oberhardt

It was challenging to follow the Spanish that the "Jefe" of this operation was speaking. The guy that was clearly in charge was not interested in my constant efforts to move the boats towards the truck and he kept giving me a funny smurk. There was basically no way that truck was leaving without us. After they loaded thousands of pounds of coffee our moment came. We finally got the go ahead to load the boats.

Tying the boats on top of the load.

photo by Andrew Oberhardt

We then switch backed up the side of a mountain for the next several hours climbing 10,000 feet in just over three hours. The view from on top of the coffee looking East into the Amazon basin blew us away. As the sun set, we scambled for sleeping bags and all the warmth we could muster and settled into another 6 hours in our truck top digs before arriving in Andahuylas. From there we would easily find our way back to Cusco.

Not a bad view.

photo by Andrew Oberhardt

And a bit of VIDEO to pull it all together...

Pretty stoked that Shane has also done an interview with Fitz Cahall of DIRTBAG DIARIES that will be launching here soon. I think it will ad a lot more to what we were all going through on the Abyss. Go check out the site if you have not already, as Fitz has some other really cool podcasts as well.


Hale said...

F@%#% Bitchin! I check your guys blog almost daily. I was a little worried but the new post was well worth the wait.

Great video Brian! I want to travel and kayak again soon. I have been applying for teaching abroad in central and south america. Of course one of my criterias for moving abroad somewhere is: Rivers to explore.

Your video got me excited about the possibilities and kayakingin general.

Great post it was a highlight for the day, well that and fifth graders eating their fortunes out of their fortune cookies to make them come true. Have you ever heard that superstition?


Anonymous said...

Nice vid TRL crew! I am very much looking forward to receiving my copy of the Huallaga.
And yes, I too check this site way to often. OCD!

brian - who was the spanish style music on the video?

Keep the updates coming!

Bryan Smith said...

Glad that we had not lost you all forever! Like I said we have just had lots of snow, limited water, and not a whole lot to report on. Everyone seems to be feeling the stoke of the boating season that is right on the horizon now. Love that. We are already talking big for the coming season. Gonna have to go big as this years melt is going to be massive.

Music...Yerba Buena/President Alien/Guajira

Anonymous said...

That looked like an awesome trip! Thanks for sharing the video...can't wait to go out and paddle.

How scary was that coffee truck ride?

Thanks again.

Paul G

Anonymous said...

I've missed you guys!!! Thanks for coming back and stepping up with an awesome TR!!! Looking foreward to more stories from your adventures this year.


Jason Aytes said...


Shane Benedict said...

Nicely done fellas. Thats one I have always wanted to see and do. Thanks for helping with the first part. The update was awesome.

Anonymous said...

One more question......How did Robinson win the rights to paddle the Jefe? Was that his only condition? :-)
SR - shoot me an update from those boards you've been using!

Anonymous said...


Great TR! Amazing place, amazing journey!

One of my old buddies, Chuck Carpenter was on the first descent back in '75. He worked for my family in the Grand Canyon for a few years in the early '70's and remains good, though distant, friends with my dad and me. He lives in Alaska now and makes competitive ice carvings... seriously! Check this out...


His is #3. Let me know if you want to get in touch with him. I think I have some contact info somewhere, although I can't seem to find it right now.

Kyle K.

christ said...

Very nice post! I just finished sending Piero an e-mail about doing some boating around Cuzco. Then the next thing I do with my valuable Peruvian soles is check out TRL, and finally theres a post, and it´s on Peru rivers...sweet!

Shane Robinson said...

Topher ... actually I let Todd have the Jefe rights until he was too sick, then I was quick to retain 2nd possession :) The boards are amazing! Most fun piece of gear I have ever owned! Now get back to work ... and don't forget to vote sucka!

Bryan, nice work getting this posted!

Chris, go get some! And tell Piero to return an email!

Alex said...

Wow...great to see the pics and vid, Bryan, I'm impressed you were able to take the time to get any footage up against all that. Really cool stuff, keep it coming.

Elliot said...

Thank God you guys are back up. I was actually getting some work done this past month. Congrats on an awesome journey, keep 'em coming.


ravil said...

hello! I am a leader of russian extrem whitewater team. We are goind to Apurimac (to Acobamba Abyss) in June with two catarafts (8 men). We would like to ask some questions. Can you give me your address or write me please: ravilajb@mail.ru

H.B. Clemmons said...

Just saw that Chuck Carpenter died in August. Worked with him on the Salmon River in Idaho back in 70-71era. Taught me a LOT. Was planning on looking him up next time I was in AK...All the good people are going...