Northwest mountain icon Fred Beckey calls the Napeequa River Valley the most interesting valley of the Central Cascades. Flowing from the Butterfly Glacier in the Glacier Peak Wilderness, then exiting into the White River after crossing the White Mountains and Chiwawa Ridge, it is geologically unique, extremely remote, and accessed via passes that are collectively more than 6,000 feet high. It also is a river that had rarely, if ever, been run in a kayak—until Chris Korbulic got word of its existence. He originally had planned to run it with a partner, but when the plan became a much longer epic, Korbulic ran it solo—ticking a likely first descent of a legendary Northwest river. Not only did he accomplish the feat solo, but he also captured the images and the story to tell the tale. We’re running his images, context, and Ben Stookesberry’s report on the endeavor below. —LYA Editor
Words by Ben Stookesberry, Images by Chris Korbulic
In 1971, Dr. Walt Blackadar took the niche sport of kayaking to the forefront of American adventure with a hair-raising solo first descent of Alaska’s Turnback Canyon. Since then, other epic solos and soloists stand out famously and infamously in our sport. In 1992, Doug Ammons soloed British Columbia’s Grand Canyon of the Stikine, which to this day stands as the most difficult stretch of whitewater ever run alone. Fast-forward two decades and the story of the second solo attempt on the Stikine is forever lost with the tragic failed attempt of highly regarded professional kayaker Jeff West. The dangers of a solo are not only perceived but actual: you are alone and if something goes really wrong, ,no one else will ever know what happened. That’s probably why solo Class V kayakers are a niche within a niche, whose reasons and rationale vary as widely as the rivers they choose to run alone.
For Chris Korbulic, the stark, unforgiving risk of the solo comes with pure, uncompromising intention. “You’re not trying to impress anyone out there. My goal was to simply and safely move downstream.” Chris should know: he just took on one of the last remaining unrun rivers in the Central Cascades solo. But Chris never planned on running the Napeequa River alone.
In fact, the Napeequa River attempt wasn’t even his idea. (Napeequa is a Sinkiuse-Columbia native word meaning whitewater place.) Kiwi Jordy Searle has been living in and around the Cascades for years now, and the phenom paddler is an expert at sussing out untested, outstanding rivers. And the Napeequa is exactly that: untested and outstanding. Flowing out of one of the most remote wildernesses in the U.S. Northwest, the Napeequa must be accessed on foot over a high mountain pass. So when Jordy showed Chris satellite imagery of the Napeequa’s 20-mile cascade into a 4,000-foot-deep canyon, the mission was on!
The pair initially considered tackling the Napeequa in mid-May, but decided to delay the attempt after hearing reports of still deep snow with considerable avalanche conditions. Three and a half weeks later, Chris and Jordy were finally on their way, hiking out of the Chiwawa River towards Little Giant Pass and the gateway to the Napeequa. They carried their boats through patchy snow to the base for the final climb to the top of the pass: a steep, snow-packed ascent measuring over 2,000 vertical feet. When the trail disappeared beneath deep snow, so it seemed did their hopes of reaching the Napeequa. With only a few hours of daylight left, Jordy began to gather firewood and set camp at this final patch of bare ground. But Chris stood there staring at the immense snowfield as if trying to melt away the snow to find a buried trail. A few minutes later, Chris turned to Jordy and told him he was going to take a look and see how far he could make it up the pass without a boat.
Whether Chris seriously planned on carrying his 80-pound boat through sometimes waist-deep snow without snowshoes, crampons, or any other seemingly crucial snow gear wasn’t clear until the following morning. Having summited the pass in just an hour and a half the night before, Chris woke up convinced that the entrance to the Napeequa was open for business. Jordy, on the other hand, was convinced he was out. They had already spent 24 hours more than anticipated on the hike and he had a hard deadline for finishing the mission. It also probably didn’t help that Chris Korbulic has a reputation for being one of the most savage hikers in expedition kayaking. Frankly, the thought of following him a few miles and thousands of feet up through deep snow and exposed icy terrain is about as nasty as it gets in my book.
But that’s the beauty of expedition kayaking. Well before we’re responsible for each other, we are responsible to make our own decisions: whether to even be there in the first place, and whether to now hike back to the car or to continue on alone. Chris chose to continue on alone, a decision that seems about as far from premeditated as possible. Premeditated or not, Chris would spend the next four days alone in a wilderness where only animal tracks marked the landscape, and bear and elk were the only big animals around. He went alone to dance with the Napeequa.
A note from Korbulic:
I’ve wanted to get on a mission in the North Cascades for a number of years, but never took time to do the necessary research. Finding a previously unrun river in this part of the world is actually a very significant challenge. Exploratory whitewater kayaking has deep roots in the Cascades, and many generations of paddlers have pushed deeper and deeper into this spectacular mountain range.
Last year, paddling with a friend of mine, Jordy Searle, who has spent a lot of time around Seattle in the last couple years and is similarly bent on trying things nobody has done before, introduced me to the idea of the possible first descent of the Napeequa. The scale, hiking access, and unknown of the prospective trip had me hooked on the idea. When Stookesberry and I visited in May, the timing wasn’t right. There was too much snow, water, and not enough time.
I planned to return in early June with Jordy and complete the trip together, but when we reached snow 1,000 feet earlier than expected, our timeline immediately lost its 24-hour buffer, and Jordy had to make it out for a flight to another first-descent mission in Indonesia.
Check out the First Ascent gear Korbulic used on his solo mission at eddiebauer.com/firstascent
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