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Kaiak Crew Ticks First Descent of the Rio Jaromillo in Southern Patagonia
Posted on June 12, 2015

Korbulic on the descent. P: Stookesberry

Another season, another epic trip report from Ben Stookesberry and Chris Korbulic. That is what we’ve grown to expect as our adventure kayak team targets some of the most remote whitewater rivers on the globe, then almost always returns with incredible tales of another first descent. They so rarely get shut down that it surprised us when the infamous Patagonian weather forced them to alter their objective on a recent Southern Hemisphere mission in Southern Chile. But the story—and the photos—are as mindblowing as always. And the result was a first descent of an entirely different objective. Of course.—LYA Editor

Korbulic at camp on the Ano Nuevo mission. P: Stookesberry

Words by Ben Stookesberry, Images by Chris Korbulic, Ben Stookesberry and Pedro Oliva

Since first starting the Kaiak TV series in 2010, we have been on an unprecedented roll of first descents that definitely have been the highlights of my career. From some of the biggest waterfalls ever run in a kayak in Mato Grosso, Brazil, and in Hawaii, to major first-descent expeditions on rivers like Caroni in Venezuela, the Sarfartoq in Greenland, the Iso Gorge in Papua New Guinea, and the recent Nachvak in Labrador, Canada, it seemed like we would always find a way…that is, until we met our match on a river in Southern Chile.

But if you’ve ever taken even a few steps off the beaten path in proper Patagonia, a region defined by big mountains capped by the only significant non-Antarctic ice fields in the Southern Hemisphere, you already have an idea of what could go wrong. Gushing rivers fueled by snow, ice, and hundreds of inches of precipitation per year carve insane gorges into the glacially sculpted landscape that are so pronounced that the words “canyon” and “gorge” do not do them justice. The locals call them “candongas,” and above the rock walls, these latitudes similar to the northern U.S. and southern Canada foster dense vegetation that is nearly impenetrable in places for those seeking ingress to or egress from the often unnavigable waters below.

 

We knew all of this coming into our somewhat foolhardy attempt on the Rio Año Nuevo. But as has been the case over the last five years of expeditions with Chris Korbulic and Pedro Oliva, things just kept going our way. For example, the place where we had imagined it would be possible to make a long-distance bushwhack into the river’s headwaters actually had a 25-mile trail maintained by an old-school cowboy (called a gaucho here in Southern Patagonia named René. We called him the “last real gaucho” because he was the real deal. When he slaughtered a sheep with a knife pulled from his belt and slung it over his horse, we knew the expedition was on. I can’t honestly say that we wouldn’t have tried without René’s help, but I can say that we probably wouldn’t have made it very far…which, in retrospect, may not have been a bad thing.

Over five days we followed René, his protégé Jona, and his horses up through the 2,000-hectare swath of mountains that he calls home. At the trail’s high point, we had climbed 4,000 vertical feet above the valley of the Rio Baker, where we had started our trek. On the other side, the Año Nuevo flowing south into an even more remote portion of the region gave us pause, just looking into the abyss of the mountains and ice that hemmed in the river we imagined was below. This is where the gaucho dropped us, our gear, and ten days’ worth of food. And indicated with some vague directions and a weathered finger the route that would take us to river level.

 

To be perfectly honest, we never actually got to river level. The next day we got close, and then the first real storm of 2015 pinned us down in the tent for three days. When we emerged, the only view of the river was frightening. A report from our DeLorme inReach indicated another week of bad weather. For me at least, it wasn’t a difficult decision to hike out. I couldn’t envision anything but life-or-death scenarios down in that river.

As for the hike out, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. It would be like hiking out of California’s Middle Kings with no trail, but instead of hiking to the trailhead, we would hike to the headwaters of a steep river that we had seen on the way in.

In the end, the failure of our mission was measured with an unanticipated success: A failed attempt on Rio Año Nuevo became the first descent of the Rio Jaromillo. Two weeks after leaving on a lonely trail out of René’s backyard, we returned on the river and caught sight of the last real gaucho, cleaning a goose in the river like he had known all along we would be showing up for dinner.

Sunset in the southern land of big vistas. P: Stookesberry

 

 

Author: - Friday, June 12th, 2015
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  1. Anthony Grennes

    Only a few people in the world venture out in the way that Chris and Pedro do. Most people take the beaten path or go to rivers that are paddled constantly. Equipment failures, running out of food, storms and many other possibilities turn the best laid plans to waste.

    I have been to Patagonia. There are places where you are just on your own. No support, no back-up. Technology can not save you. It is just you and nature. What an adventure. Thank you for sharing. Tony G.


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