As the Everest season winds down and climbers scatter for other destinations, we’re revisiting a different type of Himalayan mission First Ascent sponsored this past fall. For this high-altitude epic, an elite rafting crew from Idaho completed a descent of the Dudi Kosi, the silty river that drains Everest. Not only did the four-man, one-woman team from Idaho’s Payette River Company complete the two-week descent of a powerful river that starts on the Khumbu Glacier, they also ticked off first raft descents of the Modi Khola and the Thule Bheri, tallying a total of 32 days of Himalayan first raft descents. This is their story. -EB Editor
Words by Sean Glaccum, Images by Ginger Glaccum
Every fall since 1997 I have travelled to the Himalayas in search of rivers that have never been kayaked. I’ve completed first descents of rivers that drain Kanchenjunga (3rd highest peak), Cho Oyu (6th highest peak), Dhaulagiri (7th highest peak) and Annapurna (10th highest peak), but the river than drained the big one has always exerted a special draw. I’d run it twice before, the last time in 2002, but never in a raft. So our team from Idaho’s Payette River Company hatched a plan to paddle raft the silt-laden whitewater of the Dudh Kosi River, which drains Mt. Everest and whose headwaters start from the ice melt of the Khumbu Glacier. But it was a bigger mission than we expected that took every ounce of our energy and oxygen.
We started the pre-trip preparation with the famous class V North Fork Payette, the Golden Canyon section of the South Fork Clearwater, and even made a first raft descent of the remote and difficult Secesh River. This past fall, our crew—including Dak Helentjaris and Matt Jost as paddle crew, Pat Riffie as safety kayaker and my wife Ginger as team photographer—made the preparations then packed up a 13-foot Maravia paddle boat and a Pyranha Everest kayak, a boat made in honor of the team led by Mike Jones who made the first kayak descent of the Dudh Kosi in 1976 in 13-foot fiberglass Pyranha kayaks.
After a long flight, we warmed up outside of Kathmandu on the Bhote Kosi, a river swollen with monsoon rain. We were then flown to the Lukla airstrip for our hike up the Dudh Kosi. A Sherpa porter named Ang Kami was hired to carry the kayak up to the 12,000-foot put-in and four other Sherpa men split the rafting gear. It was slow going for the porters with the heavy loads on the small exposed trail. We also had to—lets say, “persuade”—the park officials to allow the raft and kayak into the park since extreme sports had been banned from entering just a few years before. After gazing at the summit of Everest, we found a place that the river was large enough to raft. We started at the 11,700-foot confluence of the Dudh Kosi and Cho Oyu’s Bhote Kosi.
A very late monsoon meant the river was much higher than the two previous times I had run it. The power of the whitewater was nerve-wracking and I was thrown from the raft only a few minutes after putting on. Pat darted through the waves, holes, and rocks looking after us in the Everest safety kayak he described as a whitewater battle tank. Every eddy that the raft had to catch took all we had, due to the powerful current and the difficulty of paddling at altitude. But rapid after rapid our team pushed our way down river, dawn till dusk.
At night we feasted on a special Nepalese rice-and-vegetable dish called Dal Bhat and hot, spicy Tibetan momos. Each morning we were stirred awake by the roar of the Dudh Kosi bouncing off the steep river canyon walls. Most of the rapids were several hundred yards long with multiple must-make moves and little time in between drops for stopping. Scouting each long rapid took lots of time and energy with a few drops being too choked with boulders, forcing us to portage. The last time I had run this section in 2002 we had no portages. But after a “G.L.O.F” (glacier lake outburst flood) that came off of the flanks of Ama Dablam (6856m) in 2008, the riverbed was scoured with the high-volume flood, putting many house- and car-sized rocks in the newly altered path of the Dudh Kosi.
After two weeks of the same exhausting routine, we completed our goal to paddle raft the high-altitude river that drains the highest mountain on the planet. Totally exhausted from giving everything we had to not make any mistakes, getting back down to normal elevation was a relief for our bodies. But after a few days rest we started to plan two more expeditions to rivers that had not yet been rafted.
Our Idaho team traveled first to the town of Pokhara, one of the world’s whitewater wonderlands to attempt another two first raft descents. We started with the Modi Khola in central Nepal, which drains Annapurna and is one of the classic rivers for visiting kayakers. The river was not nearly as far of a trek as the Dudh Kosi, and wasn’t in our initial plan but the allure of a first raft descent changed our mind.
Steep, rocky and nonstop must have been the reason rafters had steered away from these rapids. The river was mainly continuous, strong class IV with a few dangerous bigger drops. Our team spent two days on the river to complete the mission and found it less powerful than the Dudh Kosi but more fun. It was a relief not worrying as much and just enjoying the whitewater. With no major incidents we caught a ride back to town to get ready for a trip to western Nepal.
The final journey took us to the Thule Bheri River, an extremely remote region with less people and few rural mountain villages. Instantly the trip changed and we went from a 40-minute flight to a daylong jeep shuttle and four days of trekking. Exhausted by almost two months of Himalayan travel and sick from local cooking, we arrived at our put-in at the confluence of the Barbung Khola and the Thule Bheri. It took just as long to descend the river as it took to walk up the trail and the rapids tested the remainder of our strength. Working our way downriver we scouted every rapid and decided on a route. Read the rapid, run it and forget it, read it, run it and forget it—the routine was now second nature after checking hundreds of rapids during the expedition. Sixteen days later we completed the Thule Bheri and re-entered civilization.
After a trip like this, where you feel like you have come back from a battle with Mother Nature, there is a strong bond for the feeling of accomplishment as a team. As we started flying, one by one, back to the states from Kathmandu, we were all much thinner but also changed as a team. All of the struggles, mental challenges and close calls are locked into your memory and collectively strengthen your love of whitewater—tempting new dreams of chasing that amazing thrill of huge whitewater, just like the first time.
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