Story by Chris Korbulic
Class five is elastic. Just like the “edge” of any extreme sport, it is in constant evolution with new creative personalities, equipment and mindsets always swirling into the water. It’s complicated, really, and as much as we try to quantify and define the edge, it eludes us in a sea of dull, rusted subtleties. While there are a few things that have not been repeated, the general “extreme” from 15 years ago is the norm today; the hardest run then, a weekend hotspot now. Of course, any paddler can find exceptions to this, so it’s tough to say with certainty what is really pushing the limits, especially because the “edge” refers to so many different aspects of kayaking (waterfalls, expedition, playboating, etc.). Location and exposure are huge factors in defining the difficulty of a run, and rivers of the High Sierra of California have long been helping define class V. For lovers of wilderness, the High Sierra is the greatest landscape in the country, sprawling and open juxtaposed against the sprawling, urban landscape of California’s mega-cities.
Outside of the few crowded tourism centers of this 500-mile long range (Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, Mammoth), the North Fork Mokelumne River corridor is one of the greatest regions of the High Sierra. First descended over five days in 1984 by pioneers Chuck Stanley and Lars Holebeck et al., the river was considered the high end of difficult, inaccessible and dangerous sections of river in California, thought to be rarely repeatable. They called it Fantasy Falls. Five years ago, I made my first trip between its canyon walls, and there found a door to a new world. It was the most difficult thing I had done, and it opened my eyes to the possibilities of expedition paddling. It became my favorite river in California and I have paddled it every year since, taking three days to complete its 26 miles, but always wondering if it could be done in one day. This year, Ben Stookesberry and I took to the challenge, spending a whole week on the river, completing four laps in our residence there, including a one-day run.
A few days after Fantasy, I joined a group of five paddlers on a river that was first run fewer than 10 years ago, with a massive rapid, Graceland, run for the first time just four years ago. In an outstanding example, all five of us ran it, myself and another paddler walking up to run it twice.
On a roll and with first descents in mind, Ben and I began looking for something new: a tall order in the highly explored High Sierra. There are firsts remaining, but they charge high entrance fees. We settled on Falls Creek in the Tuolumne River watershed, flowing into Hetch Hetchy reservoir in Yosemite National Park. We joined Jared Johnson and Forrest Noble, two in a very select group of paddlers with the shared skill set of class V paddler and proficient Yosemite big-wall climber, a key attribute when portaging and climbing could be more a crux of the river than kayaking. After a 10-mile hike and late-morning thunderstorm, we were graced with another glorious Sierra day in which we dissolved and descended into the unknown. After three days, we emerged at the lip of 1,500-foot Wapama Falls cascading into the once-beautiful Hetch Hetchy Valley, now inundated by San Francisco’s municipal water supply. Some proponents claimed the valley would be more beautiful with the “lake,” but John Muir, staunch defender of the High Sierra, said, “Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.”
Sometimes pushing your limits means pushing others’ limits too. The time of easy first descents in California is over, but they are here, creativity and willingness to work the keys to access. Falls Creek was 90 percent runnable with much class V, and while I doubt it will become a classic like Fantasy Falls, it’s a step in the evolution of domestic-expedition kayaking. At the far end of the spectrum was our next adventure on Piute Creek, first descended the week before by Cody Howard, Macy Burnham and friends. The same epic snowpack allowing snow-philes to ski and ride into August has been melting slowly, allowing paddlers to enjoy the steady runoff late into August as well, making these descents possible.
Expedition paddling requires self-support in the wilderness, and in keeping with our general goals of improved fitness and novel experience, Piute was a welcome option. We hiked 18 miles to put in, paddled little, and saw what could possibly be the next level of steep-creek kayaking, all marginally runnable. This is where things get complicated; when one form of pushing the blurry edge mixes with another. Combining the exposure and self-reliance of expedition paddling and the spectacular, steep, and dangerous falls of Piute Creek could be where kayaking is going, but I doubt it. There are a few bright stars who might return to paddle down what we walked our boats around, and maybe someone will eventually paddle that “next generation” gorge.
Fifteen years ago when Fantasy was still an uncommon run, I doubt anyone thought it would be run four times in a week. Now, I doubt many will return to Falls Creek, classic as it was, or run much of Piute, with its daunting hike/paddle ratio. The rivers do not change much after their first descent, but the evolution of kayaking certainly makes descents like these possible. Setting standards and cutting edges? I don’t think so, just a representation of our individual interests about what challenges to face. There are plenty of edges to tiptoe around, and it is pretty much anarchy out there, a bunch of creative savages trying to be first to complete their own challenges. The times are changing, and a new breed full of creativity, innovation, and surprises has all the potential in the world. For now, the rivers are calling, and I have to go!
Photos by Jared Johnson, Nick Murphy, William Pell and Barney Young
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