First Ascent expedition kayakers Ben Stookesberry and Chris Korbulic have run some isolated and burly rivers in their day. But the first descent of the Marble Fork of the Kaweah River in Sierra National Park was another level of badass entirely. The mission involved a eight-day vertical epic of putting in a sporty big wall traverse with the assistance of Yosemite-tested climbers Forrest Noble and Jared Johnson then a five-hour descent into a never-before-run, two-thousand-foot deep canyon with no potential for escape—at exactly the right flow in a section that was long considered un-runable by the kayaking world. Collectively, Stookesberry and Korbulic survived a highly technical portage around class 6 waterfalls, a separated rib and the sketchy 100-foot gnar of the Twizzler, to complete a first descent on a section of isolated whitewater that Stookesberry called the hardest river he’d ever run. Images of their impressive mission and sequence have already been featured on Outside and National Geographic, but this is their full story. -EB Editor
Words by Ben Stookesberry, Images by Chris Korbulic, Jared Johnson and Eric Seymour
Since moving to Northern California 12 years ago, I have considered the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California my back yard. At more than 400 miles long when measured from north to south that is a big back yard. Calling the far northern end of the mountain range home, I let the canyons of the Kaweah River slip off my radar until 2009. This was a gross oversight on my part because the Kaweah is without a doubt the most pronounced portion of the entire range, flowing from over 12,000 feet in elevation to near sea level in less than 30 miles. That gradient combined with a snow pack that averages more than 30 feet deep above 6,000 feet—and melts in the torturous southern California sun—has carved canyons into the glacially sculpted 100-million-year-old bedrock that are simply unmatched anywhere in the world for whitewater kayaking.
After more than three decades of kayaking, one last stretch of the Kaweah River was still left un-run. Possibly the last major first descent left in the entire Sierra, Nevada the Marble Fork and it’s 2000-foot-deep marble canyon was as close to an impenetrable canyon as anything else in North America. According to the Kaweah River page that tracks the history of kayaking on the Kaweah, the Marble gorge on the Kaweah River was, “un-runnable and would probably never be run.” This is exactly the reason why I made a point to check out the Marble Fork during my first trip to the area in 2009. When I first saw the impossible gorge I recognized both the alluring possibility of kayaking massive waterfalls and the daunting challenge to get there: Class Six waterfalls high up in the gorge would necessitate a portage unlike anything that had ever been done with a kayak.
Since 2009 I have dreamed about making a real attempt on the Marble gorge and planned to make an attempt some day when the time was right. The time was right this spring. Coming off one of the driest winters on record, the river remained at runnable flows much longer than usual. Normally, the massive snowpack fuels the entire Kaweah River to rise to an un-survivable torrent and then drop out to an un-navigable trickle with only a few days on either side of the spike to attempt something as steep as the Marble Fork. Yet, the spring of 2012 saw one of the lowest snowpacks on record. This meant the Marble Fork would have a runnable flow for weeks instead of days. Most importantly, I had convinced big wall Yosemite climber and Colorado kayaking pioneer Forrest Noble to make a plan for a serious attempt on the gorge.
Forrest Noble could be called “King of the Weekend Warriors.” That moniker makes him sound like an amateur or part-time pro, but in reality he is a multisport monster. Forrest started climbing with his brother in 1979 and he has been going hard ever since. He has climbed the Nose on El Cap dozens of times and has pioneered many routes in the iconic Eldorado Canyon near his home in Boulder, Colorado. In a kayak, Forrest is three decades deep in the sport, with a past that includes having trained in slalom on the Potomac with Eric Jackson and Olympic gold medalist Joe Jacobi. Forrest’s biggest claim to fame these days is his 10-year-old daughter Stella, the reining National junior Champion in sport climbing.
After studying photos and Google Earth imagery, Forrest compiled a laundry list of gear more fit for doing a first descent on the big walls of Yosemite: 700-feet of mixed dynamic and static line; two complete climbing racks of aid gear; three sets of lightweight Ropemen ascenders; a bolt kit including 25 red head 5/16th’s bolts, seven drill bits, and two hand drills; and enough slings to anchor every shrub from Fresno to Mojave. Forrest was taking this as serious as I was but the difference was he actually knew what he was talking about when he said, “technical portage.”
Along with Forrest I completed the group with my kayaking partner Chris Korbulic who was uniquely suited to the big waterfall challenge that we went after in the gorge. Also joining us was Forrest’s long time climbing and kayaking partner Jared “JJ” Johnson, and my long time friend and fellow kayaker Eric Seymour. Unfortunately, just weeks before the descent Chris suffered a nasty shoulder injury from a mountain bike crash and was relegated to photo and film work on the Canyon wall while Forrest, JJ, Eric and I enter Marble Fork at the last lonely bridge over the river before its dramatic plunge through the big gorge.
The scale of this place came into view, while driving beyond the first small foothills just after our group met in the 100-degree heat of Visalia. The mountains climb straight up over two vertical miles and remind me of the front range of the Himalaya. We were entering the canyons of the Kaweah and Sequoia National Park where tourists from all over the world flock not to see the river or rock—like in Yosemite—but instead to see the singular largest trees on earth the Giant Sequoias. Just through the park gate the highway switchbacks straight up for nearly four thousand feet before arid plant life like poison oak, giant yucca, and Manzanita give way to the massive Sequoias.
We then turned left on a lovely paved side road marked Crystal Cave that gently descended to a bridge over the Marble Fork. Beyond the bridge, the road heads to a lonely unmarked trailhead and the best view of the Marble Gorge. After an hour of hiking and descending to the tip of a marble monolith overlook dubbed Admiration Point, we start at the crux of the Marble Gorge. Doubt surfaces in the group immediately. JJ is convinced we need to make a portage by hiking around the canyon and then try to access the falls from below. Forrest on the other hand is intrigued by the possibility of roping and climbing through the first part of the gorge but is not at all confident that it is actually possible. Meanwhile Eric Seymour stays on my side of the disagreement and thinks we should give it a shot.
Fourteen years ago I started down this road of extreme kayaking with Eric Seymour or, more precisely, because of Eric Seymour. By inviting me to the Colorado River to be a raft guide in the summer of 1998, Eric is who made me who I am today by eventually teaching me the foundation of all great kayakers: the Eskimo roll. Looking at our biggest challenge to date, he says very little other than that we should definitely stand at the top of those falls. Once Eric has fully endorsed the mission, the expedition was really on, but we still proceed to argue about the actual size of the falls we would be forced to run if we were actually able to get into the gorge. The bids start at 30 to 40 feet and go all the way to a solid 100. The true scale is deceiving from a half mile away. After a few hours of observation, speculation, and argument, cool heads prevail and we decide to just take it step by step and commit to not getting overcommitted in a vertical walled scenario.
Back at the bridge the next morning Eric, JJ, Forrest and I pack boats made 100-plus-pound heavy by camping gear, climbing gear, and ropes. We agree on four days so, we have all packed to survive for eight. Chris is putting a good face on the situation, but it obvious that he wants in… no he needs in. The previous day during our scout from the point he stayed quiet only commenting that it looked amazing but that a small part of him was glad to be staying behind… a very small part and not the part that a class V kayaker usually listens to. Chris is in the top tier of young, bold, and talented extreme kayakers called “hair boaters” and is the only one I have ever me that equally shares my curiosity for untested and often unknown rivers. But he made the decision to not to risk his shoulder and he was sticking to it.
The river looks low relative to the evident 10-meter scour… and that is good. If the flow looked fun at this stage the game would have been over. As just downstream of the bridge the river is super steep, tipping the gradient scale at over 500 feet per mile with much of that gradient made un-runnable as it flows under and haphazardly over massive granite boulders—all the time locked in by vertical walls that seem to build. We end up spending our first nine hours on the river navigating the 2-mile lead into the gorge. Often forced out of our kayaks, a portage-fest ensued, which was not the sort of thing that gave us a lot of confidence for the gorge downstream where the gradient would more than double and slick marble walls soared to the sky.
The Marble Fork of the Kaweah is located only a few hundred miles north of the US/Mexico border and we are reminded of that as night falls and we prepare for camp. Clearing a singular piece of flat terrain in the canyon of forest debris, we unearth a full range of snakes, spiders, and other unsavory insects. The Kaweah is much more like a jungle, than the temperate forests found to the north. All the more reason to stay in the canyon and out of the thick snake, spider, and poison oak infested jungle that beckons from above.
Although we camped close to what our maps told us was the gorge, we still had a few more hours of toil to reach a marble staircase-like entrance to the vertical walled corridor we had seen from above. We spent the rest of the day just poking around, not quite sure where to begin. Leaving our boats at a place where we thought a hike out of the river was still possible, we spent 12 hours swimming then climbing, then traversing, and finally getting to what we all thought was a dead end. High up on the canyon wall, a mostly blank, vertical, and otherwise ultra exposed looking traverse headed out of view. I was the last to climb out to that dead-end and clearly remember saying to myself “I’m not ready for this… maybe after a few years of training, but not now.”
For some reason on my way back to camp that night I decided we needed to try harder and that we should at least drill one bolt. I ended up discussing then arguing with Forrest and JJ into a bit of a stalemate. They thought the route possible but too dangerous and not really worth it, because they questioned whether the waterfalls below were a go. Part of me was crushed knowing defeat was at hand and the other part of me was so relieved to have a good excuse to call the attempt off. There was no denying that both the portage and the waterfalls below presented massive still unknown risk. To be sure, even the small attempt that we had made that afternoon had taken us across a greyhound bus sized “detached block” that Forrest kept likening to a game of JENGA and JJ kept referring to as a house of cards.
But on the morning of third day on the river, Forrest decided it was at least worth another try. Forrest is not at all accustomed to giving up and 99.9 percent of the time he is the one trying to convince the rest of the group not to be distracted by doubt and that something is possible and. He likes to tell stories about high water canyoneering trips in Zion where local guides terrified his would be team with promises that they would be swept away or drowned in recirculating cauldrons of high water; and yet, Forrest persisted finally convincing a single partner to join him for the attempt. This time and maybe for the first time Forrest was the one getting “worked on” to give it a shot and that in and of itself was concerning. Everyone else was out so to make it happen I would be the one following Forrest into the canyon. I had never done a multi-pitch climbing route before and that was exactly what we had on our hands. I was over my head to be sure but somehow we had to try; and this was the only way.
While JJ and Eric hiked of the Canyon to resupply, Forrest and I climbed to that massive, creepy detached block perched on the side of the canyon wall then Forrest went out on lead scaling around an ultra-exposed sloping ledge that he had called a “little move” the day before, all the way to a point he planed to use a bolt. For the next hour Forrest drilled three inches into 100 million year old bulletproof bedrock persistently tapping a manually gripped drill bit with a hammer. All the time led out 20 feet above a jagged overhanging ledge. Finally he was able to set the bolt and have the first good anchor in 100 feet of climbing. From there he was able to look out over the hidden overhung rock face and spotted something that he thought he wanted to rappel to. No one rappel off a single bolt though; especially a 5/16ths red head from home depot, and he spent another hour installing a second bolt.
Finally Forrest sent our single 8mm line over the edge and disappeared with it leaving me to follow. I have done plenty of rappel on portages but never off freshly installed bolts. Otherwise there was no real reason for concern… that was until I began to rappel over the overhanging rock and see exactly where I was going. 100 feet below me the rope moved side wise held away from gravity by loosely slung bushes and bits of climbing aid gear like tri-cams and nuts. This was not only a rappel it was a rappeling down climb to sketchy traverse… “F**k”… “Forrest what the f*ck do I do” I yelled to nowhere in particular. From somewhere below and to my left I heard Forrest yell back over that it was all good and I was tied off, so just follow the rope and to clip the anchors around my line. Sure… no problem….
We spent ten hours on the wall that third day with Forrest establishing a route to exactly the place where I had wanted to enter the canyon. From there we could say the entrance to the first falls at not much else. Again I remember thinking “This is enough, we set the bolts, got into the canon, had a look now let’s go home!” It took another 2 hours for us both to use the small sketchy rope ascending devices on our small sketchy 8mm line exit the canyon and get back to the camp. Exhausted I began to forget about how scared I was roped into the gorge wall on our freeing line and the only thing I could think was “holy shit it’s possible! But it’s going to be insane getting boats down that line!”
Forrest had done his job perfectly and at age 45 he wanted no part of the waterfalls that would lie ahead. The portage route into the gorge that we had set would put you in a place where you would be required to kayak three big waterfalls in order to exit the Canyon. The first complex sliding to vertical and still over 100 feet tall, the second a must make line over a 50 foot vertical falls, and the third a big 90 + foot tall slide. “If only Chris was down ready to go”… I thought to myself.
The next day Eric and JJ were back in camp now ready to give the Canyon a second look with the story of our success. But despite my best effort to convince Forrest to stay a few more days, he was dedicated to getting back to work and family knowing that he had really shown us the way if we wanted it bad enough. He hiked out of the Canyon following Eric who had hiked out the day before following a fresh bear track to the main Park Hwy 1500 feet above. For his hard work I promised I would deal with Forrest’s boat figuring at some point I would have to hike back in in order to get the boat out of the gorge. That same day JJ agreed to help me get my boat into the gorge if I was ready… The clock was ticking and I jumped at the offer.
After another 12-hour day we had delivered my boat to a ledge just 200 feet above the river, again ascending back up the thin white line to our base camp above. We found Chris and Eric making a fire when we came back to camp. Chris had spent the last 5 days up on the same Admiration point tourist overlook filming our progress through the gorge. Chris never saw any tourists but he saw plenty of snakes and bears, and when he found out that Forrest had established the portage into the gorge and then hiked out of the gorge, he couldn’t resist any longer the allure and now real possibility of kayaking in the Gorge.
The next morning Chris began by descending the entire entry series of rapids and falls to the point where he and I would begin roping one more boat into the gorge. This time around, finally dialed into Forrest’s rope system, it took us only six hours to get his boat to the same ledge and again ascend out of the gorge. On this our third round trip on our white lifeline the rope had already worn to the core after skittering and sliding along the jagged edge of the first overhang. We pulled the rope up enough to move the wear spot beyond our anchor bolts and hoped for good luck in the morning. JJ and Eric had already decided against the descent and would wait for us up on Admiration point to take photos, film, and otherwise be our spotters in the event something went wrong. Chris and I hiked back to camp that night with the bittersweet sensation of being almost totally committed to the biggest mandatory canyon of our lives.
In California the summers are the driest and climatically most stable time of the year and our seven days in the Marble Fork up to that point had been one cloudless day after another so when we got the weather report over our Delorome Sat Comms that there would be a significant change in the weather, I tried not to think about signs or any real significant problems like rain.
When we went to be that night it was already misting hard and the clouds had literally descended into the canyon. In the morning it seemed our worst fears had become reality as everything was dripping wet and visibility was 50 feet. It would be impossible for JJ and Eric to track our progress from the viewpoint and I shuttered to think about how slick it was going to be on the gorge wall on our way back into the river.
By 11 AM we were seeing minor improvements in visibility and we received a radio call from Eric and JJ that the forecast was favorable, with low clouds and fog predicted to burn off. We were literally down to our last tin of smoked oysters and decided to make our move. By 6 PM after five-and-a-half hours of descending our fixed lines for the last time, we were at river level now locked in and committed to the unknown falls ahead.
Chris agreed to paddle first into the unknown through a drop we had been calling the Twizzler since seeing from the gorge lookout eight days before. It’s one of the biggest sliding falls in California and near the end it drops 30 feet hammering the right wall halfway down. Chris spent another half hour free soloing up onto the Canyon wall to try to get a better glimpse of the final slot. Hey came back nervous but absolutely ready to go. In the tricky boulder strewn entrance Chris pinned briefly then shot out into the main slide using the gentle corrective strokes that made the gnarly gauntlet look somehow controlled. But the narrow sluice took the bow of Chris’s boat right into the wall at high speed and then threw him back into the left wall for an intense impact. But there was really no alternative other than take the hit and roll up at the bottom.
I was so spent after the previous five days hung out on that wall that I felt I had no adrenaline left and very little fear. I would take the hit ahead a million times over before thinking about the possibility of losing it up on that wall. Some how after rocketing down the slide I was up right and smiling next to Chris in the pool at the bottom. Battered or not he was in the zone and was over the next horizon line after a few last minute instructions. Chris had been scouting the lines for the last five days from a few thousand feet above and he new what to do: “Be way right and move left at the last minute!”
This was the drop we called the spout and getting left was not an option it was required. The 50-foot falls visibly splatter off a rock shelf on the right side. There is no option for error here and we both new it. We both nailed the line because we had to.
Unlike the walled in grotto between the Twizzler and the Spout, we could get out of our boats and get a visual on the last falls dubbed Yule Creek. Almost as tall as the Twizzler but way more vertical with minimal aeration at the bottom, I new it was going to be a big hit. I went first and found out just how big. A big spraying ledge in the middle sent me sideways into the pool below and I immediately felt my rib separate. Luckily this is not catastrophic, but it is extremely painful with still plenty more to do until we were safe and sound back at the cars just two-and-a-half miles down stream.
Chris came next because that was really the only choice, but his line through the massive sliding falls was a vision of perfection, threading the needle at the top and rocketing straight as an arrow into the pool below. We had both taken our hits but some how it was fitting for what we had just done. We had kayaked through a place where no kayaker should ever go again and came out the other side ready to kayak another day.
We spent one more night in the canyon shivering and sore under a clear, cold sky surrounded by white marble and massive flowering yucca. Of every river Chris and I have descended none begs this question more: Was it worth it? For the moment I didn’t want to be anywhere else on earth and somehow that was enough.
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