ADVENTURE

Chuting the world’s wildest white water

Kayakers take on tumultuous rivers of Himalayan foothills

Michael Clugston January 12 1981
ADVENTURE

Chuting the world’s wildest white water

Kayakers take on tumultuous rivers of Himalayan foothills

Michael Clugston January 12 1981

Chuting the world’s wildest white water

Kayakers take on tumultuous rivers of Himalayan foothills

ADVENTURE

Michael Clugston

"Nan aste.” The Nepalese greeting means “I salute all the goodness within you,”a charming sentiment that seems fitting amid the delights of such a country: the meeting place of two great religions, Hinduism and Buddhism; two races, Caucasian and Mongol; and two civilizations, Indic and Tibetan-Chinese. And, of course, two massive plates of the earth’s crust have rammed together there and pushed the ancient ocean floor into the sky—the highest land on the planet. The Himalayan peaks themselves are the obvious destination for men eager to know this clean, ascetic world. But in the past four years a new attraction has been found in the tumultuous rivers that hurtle down through the foothills. The meltwater of glaciers and blizzards mixes with the monsoon rains of summer and early fall to gorge the river valleys with continuous rapids which have shaped the new frontier for an international coterie of adventurers given to stirring their adrenalin with kayak paddles.

It is only since the mid-’50s that, with tough Fiberglas boats and schooled techniques, paddlers have been rewriting the definition of “navigable” on the world’s rivers. The first Himalayan trip, in 1977—a descent of the Dudh Kosi River, flowing from Everest—was run by a team of seven expert British paddlers who left behind a trail of broken boats, but no bodies. Since then, there have been descents of three other Himalayan rivers, not all as forgiving as the Dudh Kosi. In 1978 a torrent on the world’s second-tallest mountain, K2, drowned pre-eminent British paddler Dr. Mike Jones.

But now it is autumn, 1980, and another Himalayan river team of paddlers from Canada, Holland and the U.K.—the “first British expedition to Annapurna”—is about to begin its descent of a river called Marsyandi (which means “angry”). After seven days of lugging equipment and food up to 3,600 metres, where the river collects itself at the base of the massive Annapurna range and begins its race down to the Ganges, the expedition is ready to start. (It is actually barefooted porters, small men who shiver in the morning mists in their threadbare, grimy blankets, who carry the loads—60 pounds of gear plus their own food for $2 per day. Their average lifespan is 44; their per capita annual income $84.) Three years have gone into the planning and organization, $45,000 has been scraped together to make a television film of the trip, and the paddlers have spent months preparing for this moment. “I came to push my paddling skills and muscles to the limit,” says Bob Smith, 25, a technical representative from Bristol, England.

The first morning of the descent begins like any other morning, a breakfast of hot porridge and pashupati biscuits taken at the portable dining table, while villagers—adults and children—stand and stare from three metres away. Pashupatis find their way into grimy little hands and threadbare pockets. Then it’s time to warm up the muscles and break

out the gear. The Nepalese look on in happy perplexity, shaking their heads in the characteristic crooked waggle of Nepalese bafflement—half nod, half broken neck: “ ramro” (good, pretty), they murmur, fondling the colorful boats, helmets and life jackets strewn in the sand. After a careful scout, the first rapid of the day is summed up: a technical grade four on a scale where grade six is madness. The adrenalin begins its slow drip and instructions must be shouted over the roar of the rapids. The paddlers have all read of Himalayan rapids, where the water moves at 30 to 40 km per hour; the frigid cold of glacier meltwater; and the scarcity of the calm stretches needed for rescues.

Gerry Collins, 27, the Irish champion of the early ’70s, is easily the best paddler on the team. He peers at the Sbend rapid that forces the entire current to crash into a house-sized rock then immediately into a “hole,” a sucking deep trough in the river that can grab and hold a boat like a great white hand. An Irish lilt can make almost anything sound attractive: “Oi ’tink de line,” Collins concludes, “is to break out on de lef’ above dat rock, ferry over to de wee eddy above de hole and drop tru’ dat chute dere.” Hit the rock or the hole and your $275 boat is a write-off. The paddler, too, will suffer.

Collins slips into his four-metre “Everest” model kayak—green, with a shamrock on the deck to match the one on his helmet—snaps on his spray cover, a rubber apron that keeps the river out of the boat, and shakes the tension out of his hands. Another paddler is ready downstream with a rescue rope. Forty onlookers—white and brownwatch tensely. One last squint downriver, and with two easy strokes Collins peels confidently out into the current in an exhilarating sweep, carving through the surges of the crystal, coruscating flow.

Large, fast rapids can appear unremarkable from the shore, especially when dwarfed by the incomparable Himalaya. So Collins has no sooner broken into the current than he faces a mystery, his clear “line” obliterated by the surprisingly high waves and unexpected scale of the river up close. A confusing panorama of spray, exploding waves and glistening rocks rushes up at him. A savvy guess in dodging a crosscurrent, a drawstroke to the right, a sweep on the left to miss a hidden rock, and 18 metres of river have flashed past. His boat shoots past the “house” rock at 30 km per hour when a reflex wave catches the edge of the kayak and instantly flips it upside down. He tips into the swirling, jarring world where wild currents have their roots. There is no up, no down, no more noise, just the helmet trying to yank free from its chin strap and the paddle, like a great captive bird, pulling wildly and urgently away from his grip. His nose is forced full of icy water just as he sweeps the blades around and breaks surface again with an Eskimo roll—a racer’s quick recovery. His stern clips the edge of the hole as he is swept past. A close call.

The rest of the rapid is easy, but there are still 12 km before camp—and 130 km to the end of the river. Collins waves the next paddler on with a grin as the Nepalese clap their hands, laugh and shout ubadhi, badhi” (more, more).

High above the river, on the rim of the hill, the expedition’s porters move along under their loads. One is carrying the 15 spare paddles, worth about $75 each. A $30 helmet bangs against his old black cooking pot, in which the man’s inevitable rice and millet meals will be cooked: the trappings of poverty clanging with the trappings of frivolity. The little brown men, barefoot and bent under the packs, pass over the hill and out of sight.