25 years ago to bag a cutting edge first D in kayaking all I needed was to have a crack crew of boaters a taste for adventure and be able to figure out the put in and take out bridges and set your shuttle. 15 years ago we would break out the chainsaws and find tributaries of creeks that required days or even weeks of cleaning to open up a runnable path through the waterfalls and rapids to nab the first descent. In the past decade finding a first D has meant hiking ungodly amounts of miles up and over mountain passes carrying kayaks weighing in at 100lbs with food and gear to cover the team for days on the river. Today our sport has progressed (or has become saturated) to the point where bagging a cutting edge first descent now requires a much bigger skill set than just moving your kayak around a new set of drops.
Our team leader Ben Stookesberry has been travelling the world in search of the steepest mile of kayaking. Sounds kind of crazy at first, but then after dwelling on it and measuring sets of super steep ¼ and ½ mile stretches that have been run it seems like it would be easy to find a steep mile. Ben said all we need is a mile of 40 footers with no more than 40 feet between the drops and we would have the perfect runnable mile in a mile. Only problem is after searching Africa, Asia, Europe, and South America he hasn’t been able to locate the dream mile. Until now! Right here in North America and right here in our backyard in Sequoia/Kings National Park just south of Fresno, California.
California has become known as the absolute hotspot for Steep runnable creeks in the US over the last few years. Runs that were firstD’d almost 2 decades ago and known as deadly portagefests have become completely runnable classics with todays modern equipment and techniques. Modernization has opened doors to boaters below the top echelon of expert kayakers. Many of these runs are reasonable when tackled with a strong team who know the run well and can coach the weaker members through or around the hardest drops.
The Marble fork of the Kawea River was stacking up to be everything Ben had been searching around the globe to find. It definitely has the gradient! Next is to find a runnable flow, too high is certain death by getting dragged into unrunnable drops, too low and you are out of luck until next year. The Marble Fork is a creek that actually dries up during the year giving us access to any flow from high to low if we are patient enough to wait and catch it at the precise level desired. Our timing would have to be perfect. We are pretty familiar with the neighboring rivers so we had a pretty good guess of river flows barring unseasonably hot or cold weather. During our recon it went from snowing in the Sierra to 100’ temps making the desired flow very tricky to hit.
Ben had 2 of the 3 pieces to the equation. He found the river and the approximate timing for when to run it. The last piece needed was to figure out a team to crack the puzzle safely. Of course you need top kayakers but getting them to California and cueing them up at the top steepest mile precisely on the 1-2 day window of optimal river flow was more difficult than solving a rubiks cube. Ben has the uncanny ability to get people believe in his vision. People who know him well call it the Jedi mind trick like Ben Kenobi telling the stormtrooper that R2D2 isn’t the driod they are looking for. When I got the phone call from Ben It was sort of a vague plot to kayak and rappel through a 1,500 foot deep gorge made out of marble. After being on many kayaking adventures with Ben I know what to expect so I was a little bit apprehensive. Ben knew that most of my kayaking over the last decade had involved insane amounts of hiking to access the rivers so he closed the deal with one sentence “The put on is at a bridge!! “ What?? To me it seemed impossible for there to be an unrun river left in the lower 48 with car access. In Hindsight I now realize why nobody has ever considered putting in at that bridge. Once Ben told me Jared Johnson, Eric Seymore and Chris Korbulic were in and I knew that there was no way I could miss this adventure and happily agreed. My number one priority is to be with a crew that I trust and enjoy regardless of what river I’m kayaking. I couldn’t miss out on a fresh new adventure with such a close group of friends.
Friendship among kayakers has a different bond than almost any other sport. Few sports require you to put your life completely in the hands of your friends. Or more precisely kayaking requires you to put your life on the line to save your friends life at a moments notice. This is what differentiates it from sports such as climbing where you trust your belayer but he really doesn’t need to have much skin in the game to do his job. Unfortunately this is a hard and cold fact of kayaking at this level. Every single kayaker that I boat with has lost more than one friend to the river. Over my almost 30 years of kayaking my lost friend tally is firmly in the double digits. Dangerous rivers magnify the team aspect since the consequences are so high. Each and every team member and their contribution to the success and safety of the trip has to be considered. All of these guys are the very best at expedition kayaking and I was honored to be asked to join such a strong crew.
Jared Johnson and I are also expert rock climbers which on this expedition proved to be essential to the success of completing the gorge. Climbing skills come in handy on occasion with portaging in and out of gorges and around waterfalls so most kayakers have some basic abilities in this area. For the most part you just try to walk or use your 70’ throwbags to get around most obstacles but in this case the goal was to avoid the logical portgage of the 1.500 foot deep gorge and to tackle it head on at river level as much as possible.
Our plan was to recon the gorge with telephoto lenses from both river right and river left as much as possible prior to dropping in. This was easier said than done. The rock gorge itself was deep within a super steep gorge of terrain resembling the green cliffs seen in Hawaii. Super Steep covered in trees and cliffs not meant for humans. If you do find a spine to climb out onto there isn’t any way to see past the thick jungle foliage. So the only vantage points we could get would be from climbing extremely dangerous terrain out onto a rock spine that would offer tiny glimpses of the gorge we wanted to traverse. The best vantage was found from a 5 mile hike on river right to a panorama point over ½ mile away nearly 2,000 up on a spine of rock. We later found out from rangers that this is such a remote inaccessible portion of the park that drug cartels grow crops out in this region and gunshot are occasionally reported. Chris spent 3 nights alone out here during our climbing portion of the expedition. He saw 3 bears on his hikes in and out and had a 6+ foot rattlesnake that he said lazily slithered away from him in the morning when he went to roll his bag up. As extra credit the entire trail was covered in poison oak and ticks. This vantage point permitted us a video map in our cameras that we would analyze at the campfire deep in the gorge to figure out how we could get through the gorge.
After a few days of recon we packed our boats with more gear than any of us had ever tried to manage on a run this steep especially entering the unknown. The first 2 days proved to be a boulder choked sieve fest requiring so many portages that we would pray to be able to boat for even 100yards just to get a rest. We knew we were paddling towards a 1,000 foot drop so the entire time we had to be extremely careful not to just paddle blindly around a corner or it could spell certain death if it was the wrong one. At one point in time our entire party was sitting in an eddy waiting for Eric Seymore to come back from his 2 minute scout. We were all praying he would be giving us directions on how to run the steep rapid below us that we couldn’t scout from our boats. He kind of smiles at us so I’m thinking it’s going to be a steep but fun drop and I say is it good to go. He looks at us and says the river is dropping off the face of the planet into sieves. More Portaging!! On one serious portage where you were holding onto poison oak branches to keep from plummeting 100’s of feet to the rocks and cascades below our party sort of became separated. Jared had carried his gear ahead on the recon so he only needed to carry the empty boat across this treacherous terrain. I tried to do it all at once but nearly dropped my boat which would have left me boatless and forced to hike out of this monster gorge alone with no equipment. Dire consequences. Holding onto the boat would mean I fall 100’s of feet with my boat. I was able to arrest my fall by grabbing a branch which luckily was alive and held my weight. I emptied my boat and carried the boat and gear in 2 loads like Jared. By the time Jared and I rappelled the last 100 feet to the river we noticed that Ben and Eric had found a sketchy little gully that placed them 100 yards upstream only ½ way through the portage. They liked the idea of running the bottom half of the portage to meet JJ and me. They both pulled it off but not without very close calls and nearly flipping in a no flip get your head torn off zone. JJ and I were extremely glad to have not run that drop. At this point in time we all decided to make camp and call it a day. We made our way downstream on foot and by boat for the next ½ hour scouring the gorge for a flat spot 8 feet in diameter for the 4 of us to lay down. There was nothing. Finally JJ found an old sort of high water pocket filled with trees and leaves and decided we could dig it out flat enough to make camp. The more he dug and flattened the more snakes and critters he would uncover. Finally we said uncle and just decided to lay down our bags on top of the leaves and hope no new little friends would join us. When we were packing everyone decided to bring a puffy coat and no bivy bag to put over the sleeping bags. My puffy was a Costco North Face from 1999 and actually took more space and weighed more than my bivy so I was the only person with a nice barrier between me and the critters. This meant I was elected to block the entrance to the alcove. As I drifted off to sleep I had brief visions of the cougars and bears the rangers warned us about. Everyone survived the night and we were reenergized for some more fun rapids and portages. The river actually relented enough for us to make some good time and get us to the entrance to our objective by lunchtime.
The lip of the gorge had the same sort of a horizon line you would see from the summit of a major formation in Yosemite. Nothing but air and tiny tips of pine trees way way below. Ben insisted on me and him swimming across the river at the lip of the falls to scout the gorge wall from the other side since there was a better vantage point over there. We tied our lifejackets to a rope and trusted Jared and Eric with our lives as we swam across the current to the other side. The plan was to have them pull us back in if we started to get swept over the water fall? Sounded kind of reasonable? In the end the current was manageable and we both made it there safely. The wall looked impossible! Steep, Loose, Wet, with giant waterfalls looming just below that were so loud you could barely communicate. The walls vibrated. Really intense and hard to hold onto your chicken and keep comb. At the fire that night Jared and I decided the trip was over and there was not any possible way to navigate through that crazy Marble Gorge of stacked Jenga blocks. There were no cracks and that sort of blew our minds. We expected to be able to climb up cracks put in some gear maybe do a few pendulums and be fine. We explained this to Ben and Eric and they agreed. So Eric and Jared decided to try and hike out in the morning and find a route to get our stuff out while Ben and I poked around the gorge some more. In the morning Ben and I woke up early and decided let’s give it the full bore 110% go and see if we can blast through the gorge without anything except the shirts on our backs just to see the inner drops at river level if possible. This actually involved climbing up a few hundred feet before being able to traverse over and start rapping down into the heart of the gorge. After pounding in a few little 5/16” bolts that I bought at Home Depot we were able to install reasonably safe anchors to fix our 600’ of 8mm bluewater canyoneering rope. It was definitely scary doing a single line rap on such a skinny line over such razor sharp edges. At one overhang I actually took out my wall hammer and beat the edge for 5 minutes to round it out for our future ascent back up the line at the end of the day. By the end of the trip these ropes survived over a dozen rappels and ascents including our kayaks getting dragged and lower on the lines. They definitely had lots of fuzz and wear on the edges but held up fantastic thank god. It was pretty nerve racking using 2 ropemen with no backups or ability to tie in short since the lines traversed so much and we had to clove hitch it to gear. In the end we were still about 40 feet short of the river and had to downsolo to reach the very bottom. This was a little bit scary since the bottom 40’ was super slick and wet and we were concerned if we couldn’t get back up we would be stuck in there. Everything went fine and by dark we were climbing back across the final upper traverse to the rappel which put us back to the start of the day at the top of the falls.
Ben and I spent the night alone at the campfire discussing how to get the boats across the wall to river level. I only had a 10 day window before I had to return to Boulder and this was day 9 with my flight leaving at 5:00 pm from Sac Town. There was no place else on the planet that I would have liked to be but as a regular working Joe I had commitments to attend to Monday morning. Ben understood and thanked me for sticking it out to the bitter end. In the morning JJ and Eric appeared out of nowhere and told us they had found a bear trail to the road through the maze of cliff bands that involved no ropes or technical rock climbing. Eric agreed to lead me out so I could catch my flight while Jared went back in with Ben to get the boats through the gorge. I ended up getting to the airport with 15 minutes to spare before my flight left. Jared and Ben were able to successfully get 2 boats across and down the wall into the inner gorge to the river. Jared and Eric hiked back out and completely around the entire gorge to get photos of the exit waterfalls from river level. Armed with this and the view of the entrance to these drops from the base of our rappels Ben decided to give it a go in the kayak. By this point in time Chris Korbulic who was videoing from the panorama point for the last week decided that his shoulder injury from a mountain biking accident a few weeks earlier was healed enough that he wanted to run the gorge. So after a day of rest Chris and Ben traversed the climb to the bolts and rapped down the fixed lines for the last time to join up with the 2 kayaks that had been portaged there the day before. Jared and Eric in the meantime had hiked out to the panorama point to shoot the descent first thing in the morning. The timing was perfect. Jared and Eric were able to perfectly capture the descent of the steepest mile in kayaking as Ben and Chris dropped 100’s of feet in their boats in a matter of minutes. By the end of the day Chris had a minor injury on his hand where he punched a wall and Ben had some bruised or separated ribs from another drop but other than that they came out perfectly intact. Many boaters end up with more bumps and bruises from their local backyard run on a normal outing. Jared called me from the point as they finished their run and said I want you to be the first person to know that we did it!! All of us and it couldn’t have been done without each and every one of our contributions. I was a world away in my office in Boulder Colorado but felt that connection over the airways to Jared and the rest of them as if I was standing right there. I told him to give everyone a big hug and Ben a punch in the ribs from me as I clicked back to my conference call.