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First Ascent Kayakers Attempt Three River Descents in Four Days Near Yosemite
Posted on August 16, 2010

First Ascent kayakers Chris Korbulic and Ben Stookesberry set out to kayak down three rivers in the High Sierra wilderness—just outside Yosemite National Park—in four days.

By Chris Korbulic

Just before sunrise, it was a picture-perfect summer morning. I hiked up the Kibbie Ridge trail, 10 miles toward the put-in for Upper Cherry Creek outside Yosemite National Park. I was trying to keep up with Ben Stookesberry as the brisk air lost out to his unrelenting pace. We were moving fast and feeling good about our ascent to the top of the trail. Our adventure would not end with this hike, but just begin with our push to paddle three High Sierra wilderness rivers in four days!

Upper Cherry Creek is a California classic, and undoubtedly one of the best stretches of rivers in the world. This area is relatively well known, and sees quite a bit of traffic. The North Fork of the Kings and the North Fork of the San Joaquin were both descended for the first time one and two years ago, respectively, and remain obscure to all but a few people. All require more than 10 miles of rigorous hiking to access. We knew it was bold to attempt all three in a blitz, but we were also inspired by the challenge and training it could afford.

We packed relatively light for our two-day ascent of Upper Cherry Creek, but our boats still weighed about 65 pounds, loaded with equipment you might take on an overnight backpacking trip. Teetering on one shoulder at a time, they slowed our progress on the trail, challenging us to push slowly up hills and bounce uncomfortably downhill. Morning light had turned into harsh afternoon heat on the shade-less trail descending to the river, and we rinsed off streams of sweat once we reached the cool river.

The rapids were calm at first, sliding over slabs of bedrock and through meadows, allowing us to take in the impressive scenery. What an amazing place! The canyon was wide here and nearly treeless—a vast expanse of glacier-carved granite. It was like paddling on the moon, grey rock painted with streaks of colorful lichen. There were the big rapids and falls, the fun and excitement that lured us here.

One of the first and more intimidating series of rapids was Cherry Bomb Falls, where the river was blocked by a rock fall and forced onto the smooth canyon wall. We portaged the rock fall and slid back into our kayaks in a surging eddy. There was little time to take a couple precise and powerful strokes before entering the current and careening toward the falls. Everything happened in an instant: sliding and bouncing off the rock into space, flying toward the pool, and then skipping across it toward the gorge wall.

Brief moments of excitement punctuated the long days of wilderness descents and were especially appreciated on speed descents, like our next one-day trip on the North Fork of the Kings. After another grueling 10+ mile hike, we arrived at the river where the sun and snowmelt played on the clean granite and enticed us to enter after a brief rest. Soon we were scouting and running the difficult, remote rapids filling the river from top to bottom, which challenged us to keep our speed downstream to finish before dark.

The North Fork Kings left us blistered and sore, but we continued to the North Fork San Joaquin to finish our mini-expedition. It was late in the morning by the time our sore bodies allowed us out of bed to go toward the trailhead. Shortly after starting the hike, Ben’s blistered feet were paining him too much to continue. I was left to make a difficult decision, which is either to turn around and go home, or continue on alone through the wilderness to finish the run. Talking it over with Ben, I decided to go ahead and finish the run and challenge myself on a new scale of exposure.

Confident yet humbled by the wilderness I’m entering, I hiked with ferocity, knowing it was already later than I would like to be starting. I covered ground fast, moving up toward the heart of the Ritter Range of the Sierras. I arrived at the river sooner than I had expected. Part of the fun of kayaking is from the real danger the river poses, and nothing lets you enjoy the river and perceive its consequences like paddling solo. I progressed downstream quickly, remembering lines and getting into the flow, one move sweeping right into the next, fully engaging me in the play between skill and the river’s power.

After I finished the run, I met up with Ben near the bottom, and completed the triple-crown by once again changing gears and hiking three miles up and out to the cars and comfort.

The point of these trips was not to fling ourselves off huge drops, but to learn to treat each moment with care and skill. The key to having a safe and successful trip is learning to deal with each new situation. These four days of hiking and paddling provided a great opportunity to stay sharp and prepared for the next expeditions.

Author: - Monday, August 16th, 2010

  1. Jonathan

    Awesome blogs Chris and the other guys from the team. Thanks for sharing the epic adventures! Keep em coming!

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