“Eric Hertz and Robert Currie have devoted their lives and their company’s resources to saving some of the world’s last great white-water, wilderness rivers."


“The absolute mastery of Robert Currie guiding in the back of the raft made every element of the Futaleufu river seem heightened, perfected, colorized, almost virtual."


"Earth River is the premier river runner in the world. Their staff includes the finest guides to be found."


“Earth River is more than a great whitewater outfitter. Their contributions have made a real difference in our efforts to preserve some of the world's most beautiful rivers in Chile and Canada."


"I want to personally thank Earth River for helping us stop the hydro-electric projects on our land preventing the destruction of one of North America's last great wildernesses."


“I’ve rafted with Eric Hertz down some tough rivers—the Futaleufu in Chile, the Colca in Peru. He's one of the best in the business—obsessed with safety."


Why is our trip different?

We offer the only continuous, top to bottom, multi-camp, wilderness river expedition in Patagonia. We limit our "multi-camp" wilderness trips to 16 clients and individual travelers get private camp accommodations at no additional cost. Using rafts and trails rather than buses and roads allows our groups to experience the magnificent Futaleufu canyon in a way only Earth River can show you. Each day brings a new, exclusive wilderness camp destination complete with every conceivable multi-sport activity including; canyoneering, mountain biking, horseback riding and climbing as well as amenities like wood fired hot tubs, flush toilets, hot showers and tree houses. By staying at three of the four private wilderness camps multiple nights there is half the packing an unpacking associated with a regular multi-camp expedition like the Salmon or Colorado Rivers.  We also offer a "base camp" trip based out of the spectacular Mapu Leufu Cliff Camp. 

(See what Outside Magazine says)

Acclaimed Camps

Our four, fully outfitted camps offer everything from tree houses and stone shelters with fireplaces to river carved stone hot tubs. The unique combination of an expedition style trip with fully outfitted private camps, affords our guests the unique experience of being in the wild while still enjoying the comforts of beds, hot showers, flush toilets, hot tubs, a masseuse, Chilean wine, and incredible food.  These camps are the exclusive use of each group of 16 guests on our multi-camp expeditions. The remote and secluded Mapu Leufu Cliff Camp, used for our base camp trips, sits on a 100 foot offering an unparalleled river view. 

(See what American Airlines Magazine says)


We have made first descents and pioneered commercial rafting on a number of now classic rivers around the world including Quebec's Magpie, Peru's Yavero, Tibet's Po Tsangpo and Patagonia's Futaleufu.  Not only was the Futaleufu considered unraftable when we did the first complete raft descent in 1991, but no one in the whitewater community believed the rapids could ever be safely negotiated with commercial guests. We literally had to invent special boats and a saftey system that is still being employed on the river today.  We were running the river for three years before another outfitter began running the river.  

(See what the New York Times says)

Safety / Guides

Earth River introduced the rafting safety techniques currently being used on the Futaleufu including the use of oar-paddle hybrid rafts, a class 4 training day including swim test and flip drill and the use of safety catarafts (the first time they were employed in this fashion anywhere in the world). We also figured out the safest raft routes in the rapids,  set up the river’s original water level gauges and the corresponding high water safety cuts offs for the different sections of the river.  Our 3-1 client/guide ratio on the Futaleufu is the highest in the industry and we are the only company in the world that uses 2 safety catarafts (rather than one).  In 23 years of rafting the Futaleufu and other challenging rivers around the would, our safety record is impeccable. Earth River guides are hand picked and among the most accomplished in the industry.  Beyond their honed river skills and sound judgement, they are unique individuals as demonstrated in the "Personal Reflections" link beneath each guide's bio. 

(See what the Boston Globe says)

We care

Since 1990, Earth River has been leading or participating in conservation campaigns to protect wild rivers in North and South America.  We have planned, funded and run over a dozen environmental awareness trips on the Bio Bio and Futaleufu Rivers in Chile, the Great Whale and Magpie Rivers in Quebec and Yosemite like Headwall Canyon in British Columbia. We have made a concerted effort to hire and train (from scratch) local guides on the Futaleufu. Three of our past Chilean guides have moved on to start their own day trip rafting companies on the Futaleufu. 

(See what NRDC says)

Your Earth River trip makes a difference

Since our conservation work is self funded, it is actually our guests and their patronage who by joining our trips have helped us fund important river conservation work including the Earth River Land Trust on the Futaleufu which has already preserved over 15 miles of this irreplaceable treasure.  

(See what International Audubon says)

TRIP INFORMATION > Magpie Letter Test



"Rapid Descent"

By John Bowermaster
November, 1996
(First Descent)

The blinds are drawn in Eric Hertz's hotel room in downtown Kunming, China, though it's nearly noon. The 40-year-old river outfitter from New York State badly needs rest. His eyes are bloodshot from jet lag and worry, and his face is darkened by two-day-old stubble. ?     

“I'm scared,” Eric says. “Too many things can go wrong on this trip. The best maps we have are 47 years old. We weren't allowed to scout from the air. We could get in way over our heads.” ?     

I've rafted with Eric down some tough rivers—the Futaleufu in Chile, the Colca in Peru. He's one of the best in the business—obsessed with safety. Coming to China was his idea. First thing tomorrow morning we plan to set out for the Shuiluo (scway-lo), a wild tributary of the Yangtze, or Jinsha, River whose 150-mile-length, locals say, has never been run before. Paralleling the border of Tibet and Burma, the Shuiluo carves a deep gorge through a series of 16,000-foot mountains. The few hundred ethnic Tibetans who live nearby hunt wild goats and sheep, grow wheat, and pan the river for flakes of gold.

For many years this region was off-limits to outsiders. Only recently have Chinese officials relaxed control, sensing perhaps the public relations value in allowing expeditions to discover its striking wilderness. Truth is, the chance to make a first recorded descent, rather than the majestic scenery, has drawn me here. Fewer and fewer rivers in the world have never been run. Yet first descents are risky. Once on the river, our biggest concern is getting trapped in one of the many canyons. If anyone gets badly injured, help will be out of the question. Chinese officials forbid us to carry radios. 

As the organizer of our trip, Eric has been losing sleep over such worries. 


We reach the Shuiluo at noon on October 20, 1995, after a year of planning and three days of hard driving from Dayan (Lijiang), a prosperous frontier city of 39,000 in northern Yunnan Province. The rainy season has ended, and golden poplars climb the hills as we drive to where we put in, about 80 miles above the Shuiluo's juncture with the Yangtze. This is the first navigable section accessible by road. We pass blue trucks loaded down with logs, and yaks carrying freshly cut kindling. 

“It's more water than I hoped for,” says Joe Dengler, frowning at the deep blue waters rushing by. A descendant of a scout on the Lewis and Clark expedition, Joe is our team leader on the river. Six feet tall with short black hair and blue eyes, the 30-year-old guide from California is hard as an ax handle but gentle in spirit. He estimates the flow as 1,200 cubic feet per second—20 percent more water than we'd expected. The stretch of the Shuiluo we're running drops 3,000 feet before joining the Yangtze, but we don't know whether it descends gradually or in a series of steep waterfalls. 

We've brought two kayaks, two 14-foot rafts, two 12-foot Shredders (black pontoons connected by a rubber floor), and a 16-foot "cataraft" (two yellow pontoons attached by an aluminum frame). There are 18 of us, half professional river guides and half experienced amateurs. We're taking food and fuel for ten days as well as ropes and gear to climb out if necessary. 

It's late afternoon by the time we paddle away from shore. Children chase us along a trail beside the river, racing past white prayer flags on poles. For the next two hours we ride gentle rapids, then stop to make camp. A local hunter has told our Chinese teammate, Zhang Jiyue, that a waterfall waits just ahead. Jiyue is not worried. What looks like a waterfall to the hunter may be a rapid we can easily run. But we are all concerned by how slowly the river is dropping. It means there are big falls ahead—somewhere.

Late the next day, just past a tributary that nearly doubles the volume of the river, we enter a deep gorge where the water picks up steam. As ebony granite walls rise 200 feet on either side of us, I realize there's no place to pull over. Ahead the river disappears to the right into blackness. I can hear the roar of a big, big drop. Just like that—in less than a minute—our worst fear has been realized. We're trapped in a canyon with no escape but downriver. 

Determined not to round the corner blindly, Joe steers our boat to the right side of the river, where I grab onto the slick wall. As I cling to the granite with my fingernails, Joe climbs 20 feet straight up the cliff to scout ahead. 

“Looks like the river turns hard right, then goes left over a ten-foot drop,” Joe shouts over the roar.

“We've got to hug the right wall, then paddle straight over a big rock. We can't allow the boat to be sucked left!” If we do, the river's powerful hydraulics will yank it under, tossing us all into the river. 
The other boats stack up behind us, rafters paddling furiously against the current, as we head into the violent rapids. Grunting and groaning, we sink our paddles deep into the froth, trying desperately to keep to the right. As we drop over the waterfall, the front of our raft gets sucked under, burying all five of us at once. It feels as if somebody has dumped a swimming pool on top of our heads. We keep paddling and pop out like a cork at the bottom of the rapid, where we pull into a shallow alcove. Eric's Shredder, taking the same plunge, flips as soon as it hits the big drop. "They're over," shouts Marco Gressi, one of our two scouts, paddling his kayak 60 feet below the rapid. 

Eric and his raft mate, Henry Black, are tossed into the water, which churns like a washing machine. From down river the kayakers can see Henry's orange helmet bobbing, his eyes wide open, arms striking out for the walled shore. Eric is trapped at the bottom of the waterfall beneath an overhang. In high school Eric was a champion wrestler, but nothing has prepared him to fight a waterfall. 

As Eric struggles, the second Shredder enters the rapids and flips, landing almost on top of him. One paddler clings to the boat, while another struggles toward the slick wall. Now we've got four swimmers. 

“Grab him!” Marco shouts as Henry floats past the first raft. A rafter reaches out to pull him in but can't. The river is too swift. Seeing him drift almost out of reach, Beth Rypins, a river guide from San Francisco, makes a last stab over the stern, seizes him by the life jacket, and wrestles him into the raft. The next swimmer floats by, hanging on to the overturned Shredder. Then Eric and another teammate appear, looking like waterlogged cowboys riding the other Shredder.

We are all safe for now. But it's getting dark, and we can't stay here. As soon as we push away, however, we come upon another blind turn 60 feet downriver. We steer back toward the right wall and grab onto the rock again. Joe and Beth climb above us for a look. 

 “No problem,” Joe says. “Just one big drop.” His words ring hollow. I've seen Joe in enough tough spots to know he isn't telling us the whole story. He gives me a tight smile and tugs on his helmet strap:

“Paddle hard, but be ready to throw your weight to the center if we drop off something big.”

The next half hour is terrifying as we run one Class V rapid after another (on a scale where Class VI is virtually unrunnable). Rounding turn after turn, we run smack into six-foot waves. Finally, about 7 p.m., we spot a rockslide on the right, where we pull out for the night. Exhausted and cold, we haul our boats onto the rubble. There isn't a flat spot in sight. Not wanting to carry extra weight, we haven't brought tents. We unroll our sleeping bags onto sharp rocks. Dinner for 18—freeze-dried noodles—is prepared over a small propane stove. Our mood is as dark as the moonless night. 

"We couldn't see a damn thing,” Joe admits over our meal. “But what could we do? We had to run it.”

“Man, I'm lost,” Joe grumbles on day three as he studies one of our maps, a muddy photocopy of a 1948 Russian topographical map. 

“If I'm right, we should hit a flat section soon where we can make up some time.” 

No such luck. As soon as we emerge from the steep gorge that just tried to swallow us, we find ourselves facing a half mile of rock-choked canyon. Boulders as big as mobile homes block the middle of the river, followed by two waterfalls beyond, one tumbling 15 feet, the other 20. 

Beth, Joe, and a few others hike down past the lower falls and toss a couple of small logs into the waves. The logs submerge instantly, disappear for 30 seconds, then shoot back up, minus the bark, into the cauldron of white water. 

"They didn't plan those rocks well, did they?" Beth says. 
     It takes Joe only ten minutes to decide this stretch is unrunnable. Moving gear around the rapid, however, takes us nearly all of day four. We're still 55 miles from the Yangtze, and our kayakers, scouting ahead, report another stretch of boulders in our path. 
     “It's even worse than before,” Marco says. 

Pushing and pulling our boats along the rocky left shore of the river, we reach a 40-foot waterfall where the river disappears into a narrow canyon—certain death for anyone swept inside. There's no room to hike farther on the left side. We'll have to cross the river. That night we make camp less than half a mile from where we spent the night before. None of us sleeps well. 

Sitting stiffly on the cold bank of the river as dawn breaks, I sip warmed-up goat stew and watch a flock of starlings slowly rise into the sky, their wings silvered by the morning's brightness. Pillowy clouds hover over the golden peaks as a single shaft of sunlight spotlights the forested slopes. 
Joe and Eric have come up with a plan. Paulo Castillo and Joe will carry a 200-foot-long rope to the other shore on Paulo's cataraft, the only large boat nimble enough to keep from being swept over the waterfall.      

A white-water rafter since he was a teenager, Paulo is more at home on the water than off. As he prepares his gear, Paulo changes from sandals to running shoes, a sure sign he's taking the crossing seriously. I've never seen him wear sneakers on the river before. 

“As soon as we bump the rocks on the other side, jump off and pull us in,” he tells Joe. “I don't want to have to make the approach twice.” 

With a big push, the pair launch the cataraft into the crystal blue water, and Joe mounts the bow like a bronco rider, gripping the frame with one hand, a red-and-yellow rope slung over his shoulder. The pulsing current pulls the boat down the left side—the wrong side. But with a half dozen strong strokes, Paulo propels the craft across the lip of the falls and into the rock-laden eddy on the opposite shore. Joe leaps off, stumbles briefly, then pulls the cataraft to safety. We all whoop with relief. 

Though it has seemed like hours, the nerve-racking crossing has taken all of 20 seconds. We spend the rest of the morning rigging ropes and pulleys to pull the rest of us across the river. 

Once we're together again on the right side, we begin a two-hour portage-from-hell around the falls, climbing boulders and hacking through the brush along the shore. In the midst of our labors, we discover a human body draped over a log crammed between two rocks. The back of the man's head was fractured, his shirt stripped away by the rushing water. He must have gotten too close to the river during the spring melt down and been swept away. Tanya Hrabal, one of the team's two physicians, estimates that he has been dead for several months. We soon find two more victims of the same fate. 

We begin day six with a sense of euphoria—the sun is bright, the rapids are runnable, and the canyon is starting to widen. But shortly after noon we hit yet another steep drop that requires pushing the boats up and over 20-foot-tall boulders. We camp alongside a long, unrunnable rapid squeezed between a field of rocks and a wall. That night by a roaring fire Joe announces to the group that he and Eric, as the trip's leader and organizer, have decided to end our journey at the next village, one or two days away, 30 miles short of the Yangtze. Three thousand feet above the village is a supply depot and a road, he says, the last place for us to hike out. From there, we can hitchhike to Dayan. “I know you're all disappointed that we won't be dipping our toes in the Yangtze,” Joe says. “But if we hit another gorge, it could take us ten days to finish, and we're running out of time and supplies.”

It's a difficult decision to accept.

“I've never quit anything I've ever started," says Jon Dragan, a seasoned guide from West Virginia. 

“I agree,” says Henry Black, a veteran rafter from California. “You don't get many opportunities in life to go into the unknown. I think we should keep going.” 

I'm tempted to argue for staying too, but I know that we are exhausted and several of us are quite sick. 

“None of us wants to die on this river,” Eric argues. “We were lucky to have survived the first gorge. We might not be so lucky a second time.” 

The following day is the most fun, running Class III and IV rapids under a hot sun as the valley spreads out on both sides. We stop for lunch on a broad beach opposite a small gold mine. A surprise to us all, at day's end we arrive at the bridge that will lead us by foot out of the canyon. We spend our last night on the river sleeping on sand brightened by the glimmer of gold flakes. The next morning, October 27, we roll up the boats, load them onto pack mules from the mining camp, and climb the steep trail back into the world. 

Eric's premonition back in Kunming has come partly true. The Shuiluo has proved more jumbled and more difficult than he expected. But with skill and a little luck, we're leaving it alive—if disappointed. 

As we cross the narrow bridge over the Shuiluo, I look upriver at the tall mountains we've passed through. From this perspective I can see how far we've come. The river dropped 2,000 feet during our seven days on the water, and we've seen sights no outsider has ever seen. Then I turn my head and gaze downriver, where the Shuiluo twists and narrows into yet another mysterious canyon, disappearing into the unknown.


Return to Exploratories

"Rafting the Po Tsangpo"

By Michael McRae
April 2000
(First Descent)

Trip Note: The first descent of the Po Tsangpo chronicled below was a success and Earth River planned to run a commercial trip the following year.  Unfortunately, later that year, a massive landslide took out the access road to the put in forcing Earth River to cancel the trip. It was years before the road was repaired and we never had the chance to bring another group down this remarkable stretch of river. 

Since 1992, when the Chinese began admitting foreign adventurers to Tibet’s “Great Canyon.” The chasm’s whitewater rivers have acquired a sinister reputation. The Yarlung Tsangpo has so far claimed the lives of two kayakers attempting first descents: Yoshitaka Takei, a Japanese man who vanished in a monstrous rapid in 1993, and Doug Gordon, a virtuoso former U.S. Team member who disappeared under similar circumstances in October 1998. Other world- class paddlers who’ve challenged the lethal currents of the Tsangpo (in the upper gorge) and its tributary, the Po Tsangpo, have come away humbled, and some have declared the rivers all but unboatable. But this same river system that is only now revealing its dangerous power is also, incongruously, giving hints of what some believe to be enormous recreational potential. Last October, after two years of scouting, an international team led Earth River Expeditions safely completed a four- day, first rafting descent on the upper Po Tsangpo. Afterwards, the expedition leaders announced that they believe the stretch of the Po Tsangpo they had completed is viable for commercial led rafting trips.

If that turns out to be true, that would be major news for proficient recreational boaters with dreams of pioneering select portions of one of the world’s last great untapped river systems- provided they are willing to take the significant risks necessary to do so. The heart of the system, which is in southeastern Tibet at the eastern terminus of the Himalaya, is the 200- mile long, 16,500- foot deep Yarlung Tsangpo canyon, the world’s deepest river gorge, and one of the least explored, The canyon’s upper reaches contain rapids that even the daring expeditionary Scott Lindgren characterizes as “right off the Richter”. Everyone who has sized up this forbidding stretch of the Yarlung Tsangpo agrees that it will never see guided rafting trips. The river descends an average of 65 feet per mile- eight times the rate of the Colorado through the Grand Canyon- and portions drop more than 250 feet per mile. Many consider the inner gorge an impossible run for even the most seasoned professional paddlers. The Po Tsangpo, however, which connects to the main river below the inner gorge, contains stretches that are, by comparison, manageable. Earth River Expeditions plans to run commercial trips on a 50 mile section that averages a steep but sane 30- foot per mile descent with mainly Class IV rapids.

“The Po Tsangpo is the most spectacular river I’ve ever been on,” says expedition coordinator, Steve Curry, a 30-year veteran of wilderness rivers from Alaska to Asia to Patagonia. “You look ahead at one 23,000 foot snowcapped peak, turn around, and two more are on each side. Your neck gets sore.” Eric Hertz, the president of Earth River Expeditions, likens the scenery to “Mount McKinley rising out of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River,” and ranks the Po with such epic rivers as Chile’s Futaleufu, the Grand Canyon’s Colorado and and Peru’s Colca.

“The Po Tsangpo has the potential to become one of the world’s greatest whitewater trips,” Hertz says. “To find a river like that nowadays is almost unheard of.”

But Richards Bangs, a founding partner of Mountain Travel-Sobek, was less effusive. “Eric has a vested interest in promoting the river that way.” Says Bangs, who has led trips on more than 35 of the world’s great rivers in the past 30 years. “Look at a map of western China. There are hundreds of rivers to be run there alone, most of them with huge tributaries that also haven’t been done.”

Few of those rivers can match the raw power of the Tsangpo system, though. Originating in western Tibet, the Yarlung Tsangpo flows wide and muddy across the breadth of the Tibetan Plateau before pouring into a canyon scarcely wider than Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue.  At its narrowest, steepest point, the Tsangpo crashes between the adjacent peaks of Namche Barwa (25,446) and Gyala Pelri (23,462), who’s glaciated summits are only 13 miles apart. Then the river enters the so-called Great Bend, where it joins forces with Po Tsangpo, doubles back on itself, and continues crashing down through a sub-tropical jungle.

It took extensive planning and scouting to locate a stretch of the Po Ysangpo that were deemed safe enough for commercial guided trips. The first mission, in April- May 1998, Scott Lindgren, and Charlie Munsey planned to kayak the Yarlung Tsangpo canyon from top to bottom, portaging around the worst rapids and waterfalls. Yet as soon as they were able to scout the waters from the banks at river level, they realized how foolhardy this would be. Rapids that had appeared from a distance to be Class III turned out to be explosively powerful Class V+, Lindgren said.

The boaters then approached the bottom section of the Po Tsangpo, a large tributary of the Yarlung Tsangpo and found it to be nearly as intense as the main river. They had thought it might be possible to run down the confluence, hang a left, and continue to the Indian border. “It was chaos as soon as we got onto the river,” Munsey said. Crater- like “death holes” cluttered the mid channel, and the current there was so violent that Munsey said “it would have humanly impossible to hang onto your paddle and stay in your boat.” Video footage shows Lindgren’s and Munsey’s tiny kayaks dwarfed by waves standing 20 feet high or more. It was all the two could do to stay upright and avoid catastrophe. “If you made a mistake and slid into the wrong hole,” recalls Munsey, “you were done”. (That is exactly what happened to Doug Gordon some six months later, when the flood-swollen Yarlung flipped his boat and sucked him- still inverted- into a hole from which there was no escape. His body was never recovered. After being beaten up for about seven miles, the two gave up to investigate the upper Po Tsangpo, above the road connecting Llasa, Tibet, to the province of Sichuan, China. The water there was just as angry. “ We were still facing must-make moves and places that were just out of hand. We knew there was no way to take rafts commercially on that part of the river,” said Munsey.

With the Yarlung Tsangpo being virtually impossible to do commercaily, attention switched to some of the larger tributaries like the Po Tsangpo. Jeff Boyd, a mountain guide and emergency physician from Banff, Alberta and Boyd’s partner, Anne- Marie Fisher, scouted the the Po Tsangpo up to its source at a lake called Ngan Tso, 12,500 feet high on the barren plateau. The couple came home from a fall 1998 trip enthusing about the possibilities on the upper Po. “It’s solid Class V water, but by avoiding the worst rapids and unscoutable gorges, you could kayak from the plateau all the way down into the jungle,” says Boyd.

Seeing Boyd’s report, Steve Curry, a veteran river runner from Idaho, teamed up with Earth River Expediitons and Jiyue Zhang, Earth River's Chinese partner to launch an expedition. Jiyue secured the necessary government permits and organized the land logistics. The trip would be led by Earth River's Vice President, Robert Currie. The other two boats would be guided by Earth River guides, Stephen Mahan and Ben Fadeley. The group included six paying Earth River and Steve Currey clients with Class V experience. They were all from the US and ranged in age from 24 to 59: three doctors, a son of one of the doctors, a building contractor, and a retired cabinet maker.

The team gathered in Llasa on October 19, 1999, around the time that water levels on Tibetan rivers typically are dropping, and reached the put-in, above the military outpost of Tangmai, two days later. (For Tsangpo trips, timing is essential. Generally speaking, river levels in the Himalaya are at their lowest- and thus safest- from October through March.) As the expedition’s paddle catarafts were being assembled, Colorado orthopedist Peter Weingarten and his 24 year old soon Jed, a 200 day a year paddler, took off in their kayaks to investigate downstream. “My dad and I were apprehensive about the trip,” confessed Jed. “I’d seen a video of Scott and Charlie on the lower Po, and I knew what happened to Doug Gordon.”

At the first bend in the river, the two encountered a huge rapid. Jed negotiated it successfully, but the elder Weingarten “flipped and was being pulled upside down towards the main current,” Jed says. “I was thinking, ‘this is how Gordon died’, but my dad rolled up on the first try.”

The pair paddled about eight miles farther and was forced to portage twice. Based on their recommendation, the catarafts were dismantled and moved downstream to a safer put-in. After launching the next day, the team members found themselves in what they considered to be Class 4-5 Shangri-La. “It was awesomely fun whitewater,” says Peter, “and it was a thrill to be making a first descent.”

After four days, the crew had knocked off approximately 50 miles of river and found a place to take out.  While the rapids were impressive, the run was relatively straightforward, mainly class 4, compared to the treacherous sections immediately downstream, where the river’s translucent blue waters burst through blind canyons with an average nearly twice what they had just run.  Nonetheless, the boaters did not downplay the section of river they had successfully boated. “There’s nothing in the US I’d compare it to,” Peter says.

Trip leader, Robert Currie is similarly careful with his descriptions of the Po. “The power of the river is not to be taken lightly,” he says. “You can look at it from shore, but you can only get a true perspective of it from a boat. Rapids you thought were a certain size turned out to be bigger then expected.  The water lever was nearly perfect and we happened to catch it at a perfect level, and it was dropping. I would not have wanted to run it at even two feet higher.”

After leaving the rafting river, the group drove an hour downstream and trekked to the confluence of the Yarlung Tsangpo and Po Tsangpo. “That was the hairiest part of the trip,” explains Currie. “We had to crawl on our hands and knees across a landslide of unstable scree. One slip and that would have been it. I’ll take Class V rapids any day.” A plague of leeches set upon the group, and Matt Bergey, a 24 year old contractor from Oregon, got into something similar to poison oak, which he says caused his face to expand to ‘the size of a basketball’. One eye was swollen completely shut.

“It got to the point where I was taking two steps with the eye open and two with it closed,” says Bergey. “My foot went over a cliff, but fortunately a porter was right there- a 15 year old kid who might have weighed a hundred pounds wet but was unbelievable strong. He yanked me back up on the trail like a rag doll.”

Given the killer whitewater and treacherous jungles, the Great Canyon is not very likely to be overrun with adventure tourists. But Earth River Expeditions’ Eric Hertz think its potential for rafting and trekking is wide open. Earth River Expeditions plans to offer a run on the upper Po this year.


Return to Exploratories

The Colca Plunge

by Jon Bowermaster
September 1994
First Commercial Descent

At Pope Paul II Falls—a torrential spill at the bottom of one of the world's deepest canyons—they sat cross legged and prayed for a safe journey. You need all the help you can get when you pierce the Andes by raft. ?     

“See those?” The Peruvian gas station attendant is pointing at the yellow running lights rimming our over loaded bus. ?     

“They will be perfect target for the Sendero.” ?     

The Sendero Luminoso, that is: the Shining Path, who has frightened away tourist expeditions like ours for nearly a decade. At least the Sendero helps to keep our minds off the equally notorious challenges of the river we intend to float, the seldom-navigated Colca, which plunges through one of the world's ?deepest canyons.

Our group, organized by Earth River Expeditions, includes some of the best kayakers and raft guides in the States, as well as a handful of intrepid paying passengers. We've been lured to Peru by the Colca, but most of us could have been attracted to this country by any number of other baits. Those who do make it down here succumb to an incredible array of temptations: the planet's driest desert (the Atacama, where there is no recorded rainfall); its highest navigable lake (Titicaca, 3,200 square miles of water lying at 12,508 feet); the longest left break known to the surfing 
world (up to three-quarters of a mile, at Puerto Chicama); the headwaters of the world's most voluminous river, the Amazon; 
the archaeological wonders of Machu Picchu, to name only 
the country's most famous site; some of the world's finest mountaineering, in the Cordiller Blanca; and innumerable lakes proffering trout fishing comparable to New Zealand's. 

Some scientists break the world down into thirty-three major ecosystem types—of these, twenty-eight exist in Peru, a country twice the size of Texas. Peru may not contain the highest peak in the Andes—that honor goes to Argentina's 22,835-foot Aconcagua, but the country can boast of a higher concentration of 20,000-foot peaks than any place outside Central Asia. Just sixty miles from the sea, base altitudes in Peru (that is, the bottom of mountains), typically lie between 10,000 and 14,000 feet. But as the mountains build, water goes to work tearing them down. Scattered among the high peaks and plateaus are some of the world's deepest and most vertiginous gorges. Which brings us back to the Colca Canyon, the reigning queen of crevices, and the Colca River, whose siren calls have drawn here from the other side of the equator. 

We have decided to enter the Colca at the only reasonable point of access within the canyon proper. Reaching the river requires a hiking descent of 6,000 vertical feet—from 10,600 feet to 4,600 feet. We leave the dusty town square of Huambo with burros loaded with personal bags, food, rafts, and kayaks. The upper part of the trail passes through pastures verdant despite the moon like aridity of the surrounding landscape. An ancient, elaborate irrigation system brings water down from the melting glaciers and snowfields at 20,000 feet. In the near distance we can see barren hills striated with scree slopes of sandy black gravel.

Once we leave the terraced fields the path becomes increasingly littered with sharp rocks threatening to puncture the soles of our shoes. Just sixteen degrees off the equator, the Peruvian sun wilts whatever it touches. The funkiest-looking cacti I've ever seen—half-dead from lack of flu ids—line the path. The deeper we get, the windier it becomes, threatening to blow the uncareful down the near-lifeless slopes. When the river finally appears in the distance, looking like a brown ribbon threading through a crack in the canyon's wall, we can also make out a small village. 

Canco is comprised of just six families, all of them living off the corn, wheat, and cane they grow and the fish they catch. These campesinos ("country people"—the term "Indian" is considered 
offensive) have seen adventuring gringos like us before, but it's still a rare event. 

Even from a distance we can tell the river is running high. Its chocolate color is not a good sign either, implying recent rains. If the river has a volume above 2,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), we expect the big, technical rapids downriver will be hard—or impossible—to run. 

When we reach the river, we quickly ascertain it is running high. A long, nervous guides' meeting begins. There are few options: we can wait here a couple days and hope the water level drops; we can hike back to Huambo; we can set out and pray the river doesn't get any higher. None are particularly attractive. 

All are set in the context that once we set off into the canyon, for forty miles there is no reasonable way out but downriver. Our deliberations take place against a backdrop of massive scale and raw power. I am sitting in the shade of a 10,000-foot wall listening to the rush of the muddy river and watching a trio of Canco's fishermen cast their nets. Standing waist deep, the fishermen are easily caught by the river's swift, unpredictable power; every ten minutes one of them is swept downstream and has to thrash his way back to shore. Across the river to my right is a huge, seemingly vertical scree slope of black-and-tan gravel. I'm surprised it hasn't slid and completely dammed the river. To my left, tan hills seared by v-shaped striations stack higher and higher until I can no longer see their summits. Invisible around the bend rise active volcanoes, Coropuna (21,079 feet) and Ampato (20,702 feet), and the Chili Range, featuring 18,363-foot-high Mismi. 

Giant saguaros and drought tolerant brush cling desperately to the sides of the canyon, while strange flora flourish in spots rich in volcanic ash. Huge rocks balance precariously over the river like enchanted castles. The 236-mile-long river begins at 15,000 feet and drops to the Pacific. 

Its headwaters are formed by a fan of tributaries that spread in an arc for more than forty miles over the Andes. Even among the world's most experienced river-runners the Colca is regarded as nearly inaccessible and highly technical. Marked by sharp, undercut rocks, this is a river where you do not want to fall out of your boat. 

But what truly sets the river apart are the imposing walls. At points the river narrows to eight feet wide, with steep walls rising 12,000 feet on one side, 10,000 on the other. The sun sets at 6:30 on our first night on the banks of the Colca, and most of us are trying to sleep by seven. The mood-setting last words of the evening are uttered by Duilio Vellutino, a young Peruvian kayaker who has already kayaked the Colca. 

"You haven't seen anything yet," he says melodramatically, pointing downriver. 

"The Colca lives down there." 

When we wake, the river is still muddy, high, and fast. At 1,400 cfs it is twice what it was reported to be a week before. The boatmen put on confident faces, but I know they are apprehensive. Once we leave this first camp the only way out is down. Climbing up 10,000-foot walls of crumbling stone to get out of the canyon, then walking across god knows-how-many miles of desert would take, at the minimum, tremendous endurance. None of us are anxious to be so tested. 

The day begins with a hike upstream to Pope John Paul II Falls, a torrential spill of roaring brown muck. Here the river is split by amonstrous rock, three stories tall. The left side of the river cuts hard around the central pillar, then disappears under a ledge, emerging in powerful jet and joining its other half now pouring over a sixty foot drop. Where they meet is a tumult of pounding, spraying, brown backwasbelching sounds like those of a crashing freight train. Duilio climbs dow to the edge, sits cross legged, and offers a silent prayer. I follow his example, sending my own best wishes to "Apu," the god the local campesinos regard as supreme being and creator of water. The Christian name for this maelstrom was conferred by a 1981 Polish team, the first to run the river, in honor of their recently anointed countryman. 

At ten o'clock we launch our four rafts and three kayaks. The first rapids are short, laden with rocks hidden just beneath the surface, obstacles not even the best river readers can predict. The rocks grab at the boats and stall them, tossing paddlers forward (but not overboard) and boats off course. These are particularly tough conditions, requiring tight, specific maneuvers that are repeatedly foiled by unseen, underwater boulders and "river snakes." 

By noon the wind in our faces has become so strong we are forced to quit. The wind establishes our pattern for the week-long trip—we will enter the river by 6:30 a.m. so we can hope to camp before the wind has gained Herculean strength.

Our second day's adventures begin with a warm-up ride over a string of class III and class IV rapids, followed by an extremely technical class V(class VI, the top of the "navigable"-river rating scale, is almost by definition a near death experience). This particular class V rapid involves two big drops that plunge through a narrow channel capped by an overwhelming hard left turn that threatens to slice—or decapitate—bodies on the left or right of the boat, depending how the craft emerges from the second of two "holes"—forward, backward, or tea kettled (upside down). If the boat were to flip, its passengers would be tossed into a swirlin miasma of undercuts and life-sucking holes.

At twenty-seven the youngest of the four guides and the most eager, Joe Dengler volunteers his boat to make a test run. His four-man, self-bailing boat nearly sinks as it spins around out of control and submerges before being pushed violently out of the channel. Head boatman Mark Kocina goes next, suffering similar, if different, results. All paddlers stay in both boats, but barely. After watching the near calamities of the first two rafts, the rest of us decide it isn't worth the potential swim and carry our boats around the rapid. 

Joe's day takes a turn for the worse around the next bend. We come upon him and his three paddlers stuck in an unenviable position—standing on the apex of a small rock, mid-river, their l ,000-pound rubber boat having completely disappeared beneath the surface. Only a glimmer of yellow underwater—where the boat has wrapped itself around the rock they are standing on—tells us they haven't lost the boat completely. Dispatching his mates—actually pushing them gently into the rapids, from which they can easily swim ashore—Joe stays tippy-toe on the rock as throw lines are tied together and a human chain is assembled onshore. With one end attached to a D-ring on the boat's bow, the onshore pullers strain on the rope. As we lean back, pulling against the push of the river, the nose of the boat comes slowly, slowly to the surface and the same power that imprisoned the raft eventually pushes it free. Joe hops on, bronco style, slightly embarrassed by the miscue and happy that the only damage appear to be a repairable tear in the bottom of the boat. 

While the Colca once ruled undisputed as the world's deepest canyon, some explorers-cum-geographers have recently declared Tibet's Brahmaputra to be deeper still (though the exact definition of "canyon" is open to dispute). 

Most guidebooks avoid the controversy by calling the Colca "one of the world's deepest canyons." What is irrefutable is that the canyon cuts over 10,500 feet into the earth's crust, twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, and slices through 500 million years' worth of sandstone, limestone, slate, and quartzite. All this is capped and interlayered with volcanic effluents. 

The remote valley immediately upstream from the canyon proper was a productive farming area even before the Incas claimed it. During the Incan period, the Colca Valley, to which was added a sophisticated network of irrigation canals, proved vital to the Empire. We can still make out remnants of steep stair ways cut into the bare rock walls during this time. When the Spanish reached the valley they found terraced fields and thriving herds of llamas and alpacas. Later, when the valley became part 
of the route linking the silver mines of Bolivia to the coast, farmers were snatched from their homes and forced to work in the mines. 
Eventually, however, the new railroad bypassed the Colca Valley on its wayto Arequipa, and the region fell into near total obscurity. 

Until the 1970s, that is, when a massive irrigation project was conceived to service the barren Majes Valley on the far side of the mountains. The Majes is one of the driest deserts in the world, but with water, it was reasoned, it could be made to bloom. That necessitated constructing huge dams across the Apurimac (the source of the Amazon River) and Colca rivers and building more than sixty miles of tunnels through the mountains, along with 250 miles of service roads. While 150,000 acres of desert are now fruitful, the controversy over the environmental and social consequences of this massive project are hot enough to drive a turbine. 

Down on the canyon's floor, the incredible display of geology continues to stagger us. It is four in the afternoon and we're camped beneath a football-field-sized overhang across from the 1,500-foot high CondorFalls. One of the canyon's most dramatic sights, these "bridalveil" falls tumble in three distinct sweeps. Blown by a steady breeze, the last spray to reach the riverbed creates a perfect shower for six, which we take full, naked advantage of. As we shower a shout of "condor" goes up and we jump out and stare at the sky. We've sighted four already (as well as lots of osprey and otters but each is an event. The one above has a wingspan of more than ten feet. Known to the campesinos as "Lord and Master" of the Colca, the condors find that the canyon's structure creates perfect thermals for soaring. 

The canyon recently has been named a national sanctuary for their protection. We watch from far below as the condor drifts, soaring without moving its wings, circling, then disappearing over the next ridge. On day five we're drifting between rapids, studying the tall walls looming above, when Duilio says, "Look, look how grows the river!" He's pointing to a crevice in the mud-colored cliffs, where—fifty feet up—is crammed athick stack of uneven bamboo sticks and odds and ends of driftwood. When the Colca runs high and fast, starting in January, this section of the river rises as much as 100 feet. Evidence of massive flooding isn't the only sign of violence in the canyon. Giant cracks are everywhere, created by the tearing, wrenching, stretching of the earth. It looks like the whole place could split wide open and swallow itself, the entire canyon altered by a single shudder or a heavy downpour. I would not want to be anywhere near this place during a heavy rain or an earthquake. 

Each day we are amazed by what the Poles did in 1981. During the first descent of this river they had little knowledge of what lay around each turn. They carried too much gear, no river maps, and had only rough-hewn river skills. They must have been as brave (or fool hardy) as John Wesley Powell on the first descent of the Colorado River. At any moment they could have rounded a bend and found them selves squeezed into a box canyon, with up the only way out. Soaring canyon walls and forbidding desert could have made escape impossible. Or, for all they knew, they might have been swept through a series of big rapids too big to pull out of, and then been launched over a 100 foot waterfall. 

The half-dozen descents since then have benefitted from the maps made by the Poles. That hardly means the trip is a cinch, however. Water can rise big rapids can cut boat or man, undercuts can suck either down under, and anyone seriously injured would be hard pressed to escape. Even last year's map of the river means little, as the crumbling walls overhead change the river's structure annually. 

Today's rapids are fast, bumpy brown tongues lapping over steep drops, winding through gardens of big boulders. Midday we pass through a thin chasm that reduces the river to about eight feet in width—about the width of the boats. We squeeze through by aiming straight for the slot, then lifting paddles out of the water and throwing all our weight toward the center. Beth Rypin's boat gets stuck between the opposing walls; she likes her boats hard and the heavily pumped Princess is just a couple inches too fat to fit without some wrestling. 

During the night a rockslide on the far side of the river bolts everyone awake. The rumbling only lasts a minute, but it feels like an eternity during an otherwise silent night. Sparks light up the darkness as the avalanche crescendos before dropping into the river. Those of us sleeping nearest the water drag our tents and bags higher up the bank. The intrusion is made more ominous because in a few hours we are to meet the biggest navigable rapid on the river, the Reparaz (named by the Poles for Peruvian geologist Gonzalo de Reparaz, who mapped much of the canyon). 

We'd been dreading and preparing ourselves for it during the whole trip. Just above Reparaz we pull the boats out of the water and scout. After an hour of pondering we choose a complicated course: after squeezing through a narrow slot that drops four feet, we need to paddle hard to an eddy in order to line up for the next slot-drop. From there we must paddle hard to river left, push the boat over a short, unrunnable drop, and then backpaddle like madmen—just to reach a point from which we can properly address the main drop of Reparaz itself. 

Mark's boat doesn't backpaddle fast enough and slams into the biggest rock, throwing everyone out of the boat. One passenger comes up gasping for air; another bumps up under the boat several times before emerging. 

Next to launch, Beth's boat doesn't quite make the upstream ferry and gets hung up on a big underwater rock. For fifteen minutes they rock madly, attempting to dislodge it. Finally, with the help of an onshore throw rope and tug, they're off and safely through the meat of the rapid. 

Our four-man crew is next and, thankfully, we go through without incident. When Captain Steve Jones shouts "go, go, go," we paddle furiously upstream, positioning the boat to be swept through the tight channel. We drop hard left, then hard right between big rocks before exiting over a third steep, ten-foot drop. 

The next morning, our last on the river, dawns bright and blue. After a smoothly organized, two and-a-half-hour portage through Poles Canyon we run the last big rapid on the river. It necessitates tipping the loaded rafts onto one side in order to squeeze them through a narrow slot, then poising atop a rock before plunging into the rapid. Once in we throw all our weight to the left, then to the right, then left again, then put paddles out over the bow to pull the boat over the six-foot drop. We do it with just three men in the boat, one of whom weighs 100 pounds dripping wet. 

The rest of the day to the takeout is thankfully anticlimactic. We spend it "reading and running," bumping over long trains of bumpy, shallow boulder gardens. Fun, but jarring. When we clear the last canyon wall, grassy plains spread out before us in a tableau like a soft watercolor. There are a few whoops of joy, but most of us are quiet, tired, reverential. 

The following morning it feels odd to wake beneath open skies. For a week the view above had been limited to a sliver of blue or a slice of stars above the tall canyon walls. The ability to roll our heads from side to side and see blue sky for 180 degrees above—as well as the view of the dusty panorama of mountains we've left behind—seems both luxurious and unreal. We've grown used to the confines. The closeness of the canyon had enveloped us, held us, and then kissed us out safely at the bottom. Among us there is a feeling more of loss than reward at bringing to a close our week of survival in the Colca's rugged depths. For many, it was the closest we would ever come to experiencing the earth in its most exposed and evolving state. For each of us the Colca will forever occupy a place in our memories—remembrances deep and raw, silent and magnificent.

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