Just found this magazine article in an old folder. It dates from 2005 and was published in the now defunct ‘Playboating’ magazine. It describes an unpleasant incident whilst exploratory river running in Bolivia. The rest of the expedition was much more successful and enjoyable, thankfully.
(first published in ‘Playboating’ Magazine)
Seven of us in a gorge on a difficult and exotic river. Clear water, big boulders, steep. We are experienced, skilled, sharp, focused. Loving it.
We stop above a horizon-line. Inspection reveals two routes, separated by a midstream rock. River left plunges off a three metre waterfall into a walled-in stopper, which can’t be protected. Nearer to us on river right, a powerful current piles against a rock and forms a sticky stopper. I make my choice quickly; the river right channel. My creek boat powers through cleanly and I break out on the river left bank, twenty metres downstream. I look back and see Andy appear on the lip of the river left waterfall; he has opted for the necky line. But he’s in the wrong place, above the worst towback. He grinds to a halt on the shallow lip, and can’t boof. He slides off completely vertically. He vanishes.
I wait a few seconds, expecting to see him backloop up and get a working. Nothing happens. Seconds more. I am out of my boat onto a rock. I now assume that Andy will pop up swimming, and begin unbuckling my waist throwline. Nothing happens. Nothing appears. Our mate is drowning.
Simon appears on a rock on the opposite bank, nearer to the spot where Andy vanished. By frantic pointing and shouting, I indicate that Andy is underwater. Due to the river right channel and central rock, Simon can’t see or get close to the spot. Only I have line of sight, and there is no way I can paddle up to it. I throw my rope, but its hopelessly out of range.
I attempt climbing along the cliffed opposite bank to the waterfall, but its not possible. Simon starts throwing his line over the centre rock; despite not being able to see where he is aiming, he lands it right on the mark first and every time. Nothing happens.
I stare harder at the point where Andy vanished, and I think I understand what has happened. There is a particularly violent boil just below the fall at this point, presumably formed by a large shallow rock. Andy will be under that rock. Time is running out. He’s a strong bloke, if anyone can fight his way out it’s him. But nothing happens.
By now, Simon has gathered everyone on the rock opposite. Every few seconds, throwlines are rhythmically landing on the spot where Andy vanished and are being drawn back in again. I’m the only person in a position to see the whole scene, but I’m unable to participate. I have never felt so useless in my long useless life.
I can tell that the rescue team are flagging slightly; presumably each one is privately pondering the futility of continuing what they are doing. My eyes meet Simon’s across the river. We both shake our heads imperceptibly; we have paddled together long enough to understand one another instantly.
Staring at the fall, I spot something new moving behind it; it is Andy’s kayak, getting dragged into the fall from behind and bobbing on end. I deduce that it has freed from whatever siphon it was trapped in, and that Andy’s body may still be in it. I point and shout what I can see. The answer comes back, “Can you see Andy?”; I shake my head. However, the rescue team seem revitalised, throwing their lines with renewed vigour to where I am pointing, right into the fall this time.
Its taken me a lifetime to think of it, but I am now tying my spare throwline to the original line. I fumble the knot and can’t focus; filling my mind, blotting out all rational thought, is the fact that I’ve just watched a mate drown.
One of the lines snags on something and goes taut. They all haul, and as if by magic, Andy’s boat slowly emerges. As it swings out downstream, it begins to roll upright. I am moving towards my boat, ready to paddle out and retrieve its contents. I am trying desperately to recall the CPR sequence; was it three or four breathes first? But the cockpit is empty. I literally see everyones shoulders slump.
I am climbing into my boat. I shout my intentions across to the others; I’m going to search for about a mile downstream for the body. But they shout back for me to hold on, to wait. They are newly animated and throwing lines more frenetically than ever. They know something.
Another rope goes taut. They haul, and a very familiar red helmet pops up on the end of it. Andy is alive, clinging to the rope and swimming vigorously. My eyes cannot believe what I am seeing. As he swings into the view of the others, they cheer loudly. As soon as he is safely at the bank, I turn away and burst into uncharacteristic tears. When finally I get a grip on myself, I can see I am not alone; others have their heads in their hands, shoulders racked. Our mate is alive.
The only person not particularly fazed was Andy himself. Unlike the rest of us, he never for a moment believed he had died! He misjudged his lead-in to the waterfall and was pushed offline. He buried deep into the drop, but instead of pinning under rocks as we assumed, he popped up alongside his boat in a tiny cave hidden behind the fall. For a while he was thrashed around in this room of doom. Eventually he spotted a log jammed in the airspace above his head, and recalled that he had a sling and krab in his BA pocket. Clipping himself to the log, he was stabilised and (apparently) quite comfortable. He tried to push his paddles through the fall to attract attention, but couldn’t reach. Instead, he pushed his boat into the fall repeatedly (which I saw) and in due course, ropes began to land within reach. After a few close misses he managed to grab one and clipped it onto his boat; he wanted to watch his boat and check that the route out was safe first. When the others hauled out the boat, they – realising that dead men don’t use krabs – knew Andy was alive.
In all honesty? We have no idea what the lessons to be learned from this incident are. Draw your own. We simply pray that in your entire boating lives, you never ever have to experience an eight minutes as unpleasant as this. But if you do, we pray that it ends as ours did. Thats all.
“I never thought I’d say it Andy, but I’m actually quite glad to see you”.
We were deep in a Bolivian gorge, looking downstream at a rapid which appeared to disappear around a blind corner and off the edge of the world. We spoke by radio to our support crew who were several hundred feet above us on the road, but they also couldn’t see if it was safe for us to continue. The gorge walls were too steep to escape from the river at this point, so in any case the choice was made for us.
Chris gave it a shot first, cleanly boofing the top drop, heading down the rapid and around the blind corner which none of us had been keen to ‘test’ first. Thankfully he eddied out and his thumb went up to let us know that it was fine. We followed down and pulled ashore at this eddy, the very final point before the river really did disappear into the bowels of the earth. From here, it looked possible to climb the scree and loose earth up to the road.
It took us over three hours to get 300 feet up the slope, and darkness fell long before that. But that is another story…
We miss him always.
This article was published in 2005. Our trip to explore Bolivia’s rivers was perhaps the finest white water trip I’ve ever been on. Amazing rivers, scenery and culture – but best of all, great times shared with great friends.
The Tibet of the Americas
– White Water Bolivia
“Where am I? Oh man, my head is fuzzy. I seem to be in a rather chic Salsa club, wow those folk can really dance. But why do I keep walking into walls? Must be something to do with this stuff I’m drinking. Why am I panting and out of breath? Who are all these people with me? That’s Andy, Chris, Kev etc…the usual boating crowd…but who are the well dressed folk who’ve actually washed? Oh right, I remember…they’re from the Bolivian Ministry of Tourism. What’s it all about? What in the name of surreal experiences am I doing at high altitude in a trendy Bolivan nightclub, beered up to my eyeballs with posh people? Oh, it’s all coming back to me now. I’m on an EXPEDITION.”
Why Bolivia? It doesn’t appear on any whitewater wish lists that we’ve ever seen and when the place was first suggested, we weren’t entirely clear which corner of the globe it could be found in. Reaching for an atlas, we had a hurried self-taught Geography lesson. We discovered that Bolivia lurks in the centre of South America and it’s the size of France and Spain combined. It’s landlocked but contains Lake Titicaca, a vast inland sea. Titicaca and the capital La Paz are perched at a dizzying altitude of 13000 feet above sea level, on a desert plain called the Altiplano (‘High Plain’). The Andes are close to hand, with peaks stretching 20000 feet into space. Behind the Andes and three vertical miles below is something quite large, called the Amazon Rainforest. All rather impressive, but the most intriguing thing was numerous blue and brown lines wiggling all over the atlas page…rivers and contour lines combined. This was good enough for us. We booked flights.
The following Easter. We stepped onto a plane, leaving behind a cold and agonisingly dry whitewater season back home. We then stepped off the plane, to be confronted by the searing heat of Bolivia at the tail end of the rainy season. By some unseen logistical miracle, our eight creek boats had turned up too and our two vehicles and drivers were waiting for us. After hasty introductions with Gary and Renaldo, we loaded up their 4WD’s and sped straight out of town to find ourselves a river.
Culture shock! Lonely Planet had breathlessly described Bolivia as the ‘Tibet of the Americas’ and they may well have a point. We were indeed breathless (no oxygen!) and our atlas page assumed dramatic 3D real-life proportions as we drove up above 15000 feet, over the Andes. When we weren’t fixated in terror by the tiny gap between our wheels and the cliff ledge, we were gobsmacked by the locals. Women wore traditional dress of bowler hats and garishly coloured shawls slung across their shoulders, usually with a baby and/ or the week’s shopping propped efficiently underneath. Llamas were ten a penny, big hairy loping things not unlike a cross between sheep and giraffe. They looked pretty cool, and made for great knitwear and steaks. If you got close to them they spat at you with impressive range and accuracy, not cool. Anyway, you get the gist…Bolivia was something very different.
Enough of culture, we were there for the paddling. En route down to the jungle, we detoured to inspect the Rio Unduavi; one of our drivers reckoned had been paddled before. It looked terrifying, falling out of the sky…what exactly had we got ourselves into? Even more worrying, the river valley was improbably steep-sided; we realised that getting in and out of Bolivian rivers was going to be a mission in itself. Our pre-planning had involved identifying vaguely intriguing rivers using charts obtained from the US Military. These small-scale maps only depicted objects visible from Mars…so I suppose that we shouldn’t really been surprised to discover that Bolivian ‘road-side’ boating heavily involved ropes, machetes and vertigo.
Back on the road, in darkness. Kevin – the team’s doom-monger – was helpful enough to inform us that we were driving along the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Road’, based on the number of vehicles that fall off every week. Just then, our Landrover slid off the road. We’re here to tell the tale as a luckily-placed cliff stopped us from toppling over completely. Later on in the trip after crossing it numerous times, we’d become immune to the WMDR and joked merrily about it. That was, until the day when we were press-ganged into a rope-hauling crew, retrieving corpses from a car wreck down in the abyss. That wasn’t funny, and they didn’t smell too good.
We warmed up on the easy Rio Huaranilla and progressed to the Rio Choro. Accessing the Choro involved hauling boats up and down the cliffs, in sweltering jungle heat. I learned that leaning on a tree swarming with bull ants is a bad idea, and Andy L gashed his hand on a rock, putting him out of boating action for much of the trip (no worries, he’s a bit of a museum connoisseur anyway). The Choro proved to be a superb Grade 5 gorge, more than enough to justify the entrance price. However the pattern established here was to become familiar; fantastic boating coupled with access logistics strenuous enough to generate more than one hissy fit. Ever seen a grown man fling his beloved kayak off a cliff in beat-down despair?
Staring at the Rio Unduavi again, it still looked heinous. Some of my ‘friends’ salivated at the super-steep gnarl, worrying. I whipped out my GPS gadget and proved that the river below was insanely steep and we were all going to die. Phew, sanity prevailed and we launched a few miles downstream. Our Rio Unduavi mission was on, what a river! Kevin inspected the first gorge and confidently dismissed it as “flat”. Whilst being smeared all over it, I recalled that everything looks flat from a hundred metres above! All good fun. A few exhilarating hours later, we found ourselves fighting for eddies…we whipped out the walkie-talkie. High above us, our drivers confirmed that the gorge ahead was Grade 6 and unportageable. Two hours of daylight left, a perfect point to call it a day and climb out. Except that, we couldn’t. We headed off in various directions up scree slopes, and one by one we all ground to a halt. The problem was that the scree was steep and terminated in cliffs. We were stuck. And it was now dark. Oops. Blessed salvation came unexpectedly. A Bolivian fellow and his family popped up from nowhere and ran off with our boats. Yes, they ran right up the scree which we couldn’t climb. They returned and guided each of us to the road, one by one. The relief of reaching safety was tempered by the humiliation of being rescued by a small children and grannies, none of them taller than our chests. Gary had been pretty concerned about us, and presumably wondered about the calibre of the men he was driving around. “Guys, I have to ask…is this normal?”
Somewhere up north, we gained permission to sleep in a school. The school kids were outside with their faces pressed to the window, entertained and bewildered by our cooking efforts. We were just as bewildered, cooking for ourselves was a new one on us. We discovered; vacuum-packed pre-cooked expedition meals, bad, dried expedition meals, really bad, Andy Mc’s Scottish porridge, terrible. We now knew for sure that we were on a proper expedition; the clues were the inedible food and the scary fact that ‘Lonely Planet’ didn’t know where we were. We did locate our river though; the following morning found us all white-faced and bug-eyed on the Rio Camata. This sizeable river was a bit too sizeable, with a slight excess of water and a tendency to head downhill quite vigorously. The Camata was certainly democratic; everybody got pasted sooner or later. Amazing stuff…break out and brace for the ‘kick’ of the current, pray it carries you past those holes and deposits you in another eddy…because you sure won’t get any say in the matter! By the end of the day we were shamelessly portaging as much as paddling, and a little rain overnight meant that the following day was even more humbling.
Our bruised egos needed a massage; and we got it when we explored the nearby Rio Calaya. On paper, it was a ludicrously steep no-go but the Rivergods smiled upon us. We discovered a perfect water level and endless clean drops, adding up to one of the best sections we’ve ever done. Bring it on!
We’re none of us survivalists; sitting in a puddle in a rain sodden jungle trying to light a fire isn’t our idea of fun. But there we were and so it was. This was our mission to conquer the Rio Zongo, but it was conquering us. A fabulous journey from La Paz had seen us climb to lung-shredding altitudes, glaciers almost touching the road. There was barely time to admire, the bottom dropped out of the road and it plunged 12000 feet in switchbacks. At the road’s end, the Zongo looked gorged-up and pretty feisty. Hmm. We loaded the boats for several days and followed a self-appointed local guide into the gorge. An hour later he was still claiming “Just twenty minutes further”. Harsh words were muttered as we abandoned him, climbing down a gully to the river. With minutes of daylight left, we had to ferry across the river, lash our boats to trees and then wade, armpit deep, to a tiny camp spot. Directly downstream, a rather lumpy Grade 5 rapid made us wonder what we’d taken on. Perfect, just perfect. Did I mention, it was raining, too?
…and they all lived happily ever after. The following morning really did turn out perfect, if we forget the porridge. The fear of a few days spent blubbing with terror whilst running unportageable gnarl had made us seriously consider jibbing out (yup…12000 feet up and over the Andes again) but our fears proved ungrounded. We paddled around the first corner; the gorge opened out at once, the rapids were friendly and all was well! We knocked off the Zongo in one outstanding day, gradually easing through the Grades from 5 to 2 along its 35 mile length. Our lunch stop provided a Comedy Moment. Bizarrely, our sweaty thermals were swarmed by millions of bees. We had to abandon them and make a run for the boats. Ten miles downstream, we were still extracting angry bees from under our sprayskirts. How we laughed.
Back in La Paz, it was time for reflection. Over llama steaks and ‘Pascena’ (the local excuse for beer), we counted up the scores. In a hectic fortnight, we had managed to paddle on all except two days, enjoying (or surviving, depends upon your perspective) nine different rivers. At least two of the rivers were probably first descents but more importantly, the quality of the paddling was usually very high indeed. Put another way, Bolivian paddling is fantastic…just remember take the GPS, rope and machete! Anyway, the ‘Pascena’ flowed and the evening took a weird turn. The ‘Viceministerio de Turismo’ turned up and interviewed us about Bolivia’s potential for river-running tourism. It then emerged that our driver Gary was her boss! We’d been sleeping rough and sharing awful porridge with the ‘Director-General de Turismo’. My memory gets hazy from that point, ‘Pascena’ isn’t very strong but sure packs a punch when combined with altitude. We were dragged by our Ministerial chums off to tour the nightlife of La Paz…which is where I think this story began…
Mark Rainsley paddled with Kevin Francis, Marcus Holborn, Andy Levick, Andy McMahon, Ferdinand Steinvorth, Chris Wheeler and Simon Wiles.
More info on boating in Bolivia can be found at www.ukriversguidebook.co.uk
The crossing from Land’s End (the south west tip of Britain) to the Isles of Scilly is nearly 30 miles, heading straight out into the open Atlantic. You cross strong tides at the start, and then two busy shipping lanes. If you are going to attempt this, then choose really solid companions.
On this day I was joined by Kevin Francis, who a week previously had never been in a sea kayak (or indeed any kayak longer than 2.3 metres), and had never paddled more than a few miles in a straight line before. What could go wrong?