Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Drinking from the Fire Hose in California

Last year, I had been set on going to California for at least a week of kayaking.  Unfortunately, a weak snow pack and scheduling issues killed my plans and I missed out on a great Middle Kings trip.  This year despite the low snow pack, I was going to make it happen.  So despite the hearsay of no California season, I convinced my favorite boating partner and brother Tom that we were going.  In late April we decided that the snow pack looked nearly identical to the previous year, so I booked a plane ticket and Tom got off work for the second week in June.  All there was left to do was hope for the best.

As the trip approached, our group began to round out and then bloat as I recruited Knoxville up and comer Ben Warf and Tom recruited every class V kayaker in Colorado.  The week before the trip was a mess of logistics and arguing about water levels, as the things we had are eyes on (Middle Kings and Upper Cherry) were still too high and a heat wave followed by a cold snap were expected for our chosen week.  For better or for worse the Colorado contingent steered the group to heading straight for the Middle Kings upon arrival.

As usual, my flights out of the Southeast were delayed and I didn't arrive in Sacramento until midnight.  Ben picked me up, and the drive began, destination South Lakes trail head.  By the time we rolled into Bishop the dawn was just starting to wake and was in full affect by the time we reached the trail head.  The Colorado boys (minus a couple stragglers - JJ, Oliver, and Rolf) were all asleep so we grabbed a few hours of less than satisfying rest.  As the sun hit they decided they were taking off, but the stragglers and shuttle drivers still hadn't showed so we rested a little longer.  The shuttle drivers rolled in but the stragglers still hadn't.  At 10:30 we decided we better go if we wanted to make it to Leconte Canyon that day.  It turns out the stragglers showed up just after we left and the shuttle logistics all got sorted.

Things were going well on the hike early despite it being extremely hot.  Then, shortly after paddling across Long Lake I felt a twinge in my quad.  It had been years since I had cramped up but I knew it was coming.  I tried to drink as much water as I could to rehydrate, but by the time I was at the base of the switchbacks up Bishop Pass, I was laying on my back with legs spasming.  There was nothing else to do but fight through it.  JJ and the stragglers caught us at the top of the pass, and he threw some Cliff Bloks my way.  We stopped at the top of the pass to eat lunch and enjoy the epic views.  I was struggling bad and forced some food and a lot of water down despite having no appetite.  Apparently trying to hike a kayak over a 12000' pass with no sleep or altitude acclimatization is a bad idea.
Ben Warf Cruising Across Long Lake with Bishop Pass Waiting
Sean Over Bishop Pass and Heading Down into Dusy Basin
Ben and I were the last to leave the pass.  As we proceeded, he was struggling and I was starting to recover.  About 30 minutes down the pass I was feeling back to my normal self (thank for the Bloks JJ).  Soon, Ben started to get his second wind too and we were cruising across the magnificent Dusy Basin.  Soon, however, we caught up to Tom and Sean who had left over 2 hours in front of us and were not feeling great.  As we kept moving across the basin to the brink, the struggle just got worse for the boys.
Ben Taking in Leconte Canyon From the Brink
We took a nice long break to enjoy the huge rock walls igniting in the evening light before it was go time.  I was still enjoying my second wind, but the 2 Colorado boys were not, and I stayed back with them, along with Ben.  We were about half way down the brink with darkness approaching and stumbled into a nice campsite.  Sean and Tom were stumbling pretty badly at this point so I convinced them not to continue into the darkness.  Ben had blown through and finished the hike down to Leconte Canyon and the rest of the group.  I forced myself to eat a huge steak I had carried in but Sean and Tom could barely stomach anything.  Then we passed out.

The next morning we finished off the rest of the switchbacks down to the river.  The morning wasn't too bad, but overall it was the hardest hike in I had ever done.  It was beautiful, but I was glad to have it done with.

Half of the boys were already geared up when we made it to the river.  They decided they were gonna do the run in 4 days of paddling and the rest of us decided we were on the 5 day plan.  That was the last we saw of Brad, Jason, Oliver, Rolf, and Tyson.  So that was that, our group was down to Ben, JJ, Joel, Sean, Tom, and I.

After lazing around for a bit more we geared up and hit the river.  I was prepared for quite a bit of mank the first day, but after a short while we were through it and the quality really picked up.  Somewhere early on Joel sublexed his shoulder and made what must be one of the toughest decisions ever, he shouldered his boat right back to the trail head, where no shuttle vehicles were waiting since they had all been taken to the take out.  I still haven't asked him how the hike was or how he got home, but I know he made it.
The Author Taking in Leconte Canyon from the River (Photo TJ)
Ben Dropping into an Early One (Photo TJ)
Down to 5, we continued on as the quality increased.  We walked a couple but ran a whole lot of great whitewater in the most magnificent surroundings in the Sierra.  Money drop was the highlight of the day, and the high water made it downright rowdy.  JJ went first and was lucky to end up in one piece, barrel rolling off the right hand side.  I decided to run the meat of the lead in, getting a little lost and going deeper than anticipated.  Fortunately it came together out of the right eddy and I was able to send a huge boof and not get my deck wet on the final off vert plunge.  The stoke was high and the boys followed quickly pretty solid lines, although we had to patch Sean's lip up after he caught it with his paddle.  The rest of the day was a barrage of beautiful high water slides with huge holes.  We decided to camp high on left just above a little waterfall before the ledge gardens.
Sean Plunging into the Money
That night we all rested hard, waking ready for battle with some of the toughest on the Kings.  Unfortunately the water hadn't dropped, but there was nothing to do press on.  After the 12 footer at camp and a few hundred yards of fast class IV we were at the lead in to the ledge garden.  After a quick scout, Tom and I proceeded while the others started their portage.  We took a good look at the ledge garden and the following Werner Paddles drop.  Both looked huge and good, but the holes and consequences were just saying no, so the portaging amongst house side boulders began.  We put back in for the lead in to the huge slide.  What is normally class III was a class V scramble for an eddy, and the slide didn't look any better.  The diagonals that normally take a boater safely to the left were blowing through and the next two holes downstream had terminal tendencies.  We walked again, moral falling fast.

Once the boulder gardens picked up, Ben and Sean hit the trail.  JJ, Tom and I boated down to the top of the waterfall gorge.  It was one of the most beautiful, tempting, and terrifying pieces of whitewater I'd ever seen.  Every drop had at least one pocket that could swim you and they were all flushing straight into the next.  The kicker was the waterfall had become completely crucial anything but the purest of lines would lead to a first d of the awful boxed in drop just downstream.  It started raining and we started walking.

We kept going, eating lunch above Raw Dawg Falls in a grove of huge trees.  Huge bear scat was everywhere.  I almost stepped on a Rattlesnake.  We were defeated.

After a good scout of the Vallecito-esque Gorge (I know you Californians love it when your whitewater gets compared to Colorado), we decided to leave our boats and camp at the bottom, hopeful for the stoke of lower water and empty boats in the morning.

Our great camp was so nice that a bear even decided to wander in and check us out in the morning.  Fortunately, it had also served to rejuvenate us from the despair of the previous day.  The sun was shining and the stoke had returned to high.  After some high quality warm up, we committed to the gorge.  One quick portage around a sieve and some great boofs and we were at the exit with spirits soaring.  It's amazing how it can turn around in an instant.

We ate lunch in Simpson Meadow, basking in the sunshine, before making our way down to Tehipite.  The boulder gardens were great with the extra water.  The Big Bad Beaver looked much better than I had imagined, but it was still easy to walk on by.  After what ended up being a pretty long day, we arrived a Tehipite, settling in early in preparation for big next day in the bottom nine.

Our predicted early start didn't pan out.  Tom was feeling nauseous so we took our time getting ready.  Despite still feeling like he was going to vomit, he finally decided it was time to put on a little after 10.  It gradually built as we left Tehipite.  At some point it was on and it didn't let up.  We ran a lot of great whitewater and walked quite a bit too.  We all had good lines and bad lines as we battled downstream.  As long as the focus remains, it's one of the best days of paddling anywhere.  After about 7 miles our collective concentration and energy was waning, so we camped at a nice spot on the right just below a big slide into a hole backed up by a huge undercut on the left, relaxing and fishing as a scrawny bear came down to visit.
Tom in a Nice Bottom 9 Rapid
The Crew Chilling above an Unusually Flat Section
The next morning, it was immediately back into the action.  I ran a slot backwards in the second drop of the day, breaking my back band and requiring a 20 minute repair break.  We had a swim shortly thereafter but we cleaned it up well considering the possibilities thanks to a little luck.  After a much longer morning than expected, we reached the confluence.  The bottom 9 is a fantastic stretch of whitewater, as long as you stay present in the moment.

After a quick lunch above the start of the Garlic Falls rapids, we were set to finish this one off.  Most of the crew was beat down and portaged and picked their way down, but for those who still have the fire, this section is most excellent.  The big launch into the fluff at Cassidy Falls is one of the best moves of the whole trip, and the rest isn't bad either.  After Garlic Falls and Rough Creek Falls the rapids start to taper off, and the mad dash through the paddle out was on.  Going from the spires of Bishop Pass to the dust at the end of the road in the Valley leaves one with a serious sense of accomplishment.

While a trip down the Middle Fork of the Kings often marks the end of a California season, we had thoughts of adding a Cherry on top.  After a few phone calls on the way back into Fresno, we had confirmation that Upper Cherry would be somewhere between medium and low and certainly not too low.  Sean and JJ had other obligations, but Ben, Tom, and I had 3 more days to make it happen.  While a rest day would have been nice, water levels and plane tickets dictated that we would be hiking in the following day.  So, after a big meal and a night in the sketchiest Motel 6 around, we were headed off to Groveland.

A slow start and a long packing session had us heading up the Kibbie Ridge Trail just before 1.  Somehow we had convinced ourselves that after the Kings hike, the Cherry hike in would be easy.  It's easier, but 10.5 miles with a kayak on your back is brutal anyway you slice it.  Again, Ben charged ahead while I stayed back with Tom.  He hadn't been feeling well the whole trip and this hike was no exception.  Still he sucked it up and made it happen.  We rolled into lord meadow just after dark, crashing directly into our sleeping bags.

We awoke to several crews of paddlers getting ready for the day.  We ended up teaming up with Evan and Wes before heading down for the put in slide and into Disneyland.  It quickly became apparent that the water was lower than Tom and my first time down, but it was still enough to have some fun.  With the low flows, we made good time down the moonscape to the entrance gorge to Cherry Bomb.  We had a little pow wow and convinced the first timers that it was low enough that we should press into Cherry Bomb without a scouting hike.
TJ with a beautiful line at the Put In Slide
The Author Applying a Little More than the Desired Boof (Photo: TJ)
The lead in gorge was relatively uneventful, although one of the drops get sketchy at low water, and we quickly found ourselves at the portage down to Cherry Bomb Falls.  As we approached the falls it became evident it wasn't going tot be a quick trip through the gorge, as a huge group had just started their runs.  Not wanting to disturb their flow, we spectated while they slowly dropped in.  I won't go into too much detail, but they nearly had a huge debacle right in front of us.  Most of them had good lines but one got potholed and swam.  His boat got beat in the weir hole until someone was able to get a rope on it.  Then when they were pulling it free they lost control of it and it floated downstream.  In the process, another boat got kicked in the water and things were getting exciting.  Fortunately, things stabilized there and the water was low enough that recovery from that point was relatively uneventful.
A Nice Line From the Group In Front
The Clean Up from the Mess in Process
Having enough of the spectating, we dropped in with 5 solid lines.  After a quick regroup to make sure everyone knew the lines, we routed the rest of the gorge as the first group finished cleaning up their mess.  Coming out of the confines, we bid Evan and Wes good day before routing down the Jedi Slide and Teacups.  Too much fun, so we hiked back up for another quick lap before continuing down to Double Pothole where we enjoyed a great camp under the stars.
Wes About to Take Flight in the Cherry Bomb Gorge

The Scary but Oh So Smooth Cali Groove Tube (Photo: TJ)
TJ Droppin' Perfect 20 while Ben Watches from the Cave
The Author Leading the Charge Off Double Pothole (Photo: Ben Warf)
Double Pothole Under the Stars
Needing to get moving to catch my flight, we were at it early and into the Waterfall Alley.  Even with low flows it's perfect.  Feeling the stoke, I decided to give Kiwi a good look and liked what I saw.  The cave looked quite a bit less threatening at low water, but fortunately I didn't have to find out as the perfect reconnect on the right sent me sailing downstream.  The seal launch at Dead Bear didn't look appealing so I portaged over the sieves and down to the bottom.  From there on out, the run was fun but quite abusive in spots as the low water didn't fill the boulders quite so well.  As we approached the lake, Upper Cherry made its final stand in the Nozzle Gorge.  Just like the the last time, the Nozzle stomped me, although at least this time I was upright and forward before getting back endered into a nice little pocket beat down.  A few more drops and we walked around the log jam to the lake for our flat water workout, followed by our final bit of California kayak carrying in the blazing sun.  Fortunately, there was a nice German kayaker who took pity on us and drove our shuttle and gave us a beer when we really needed one.  Thanks!
The Author Starting Day 2 in the Waterfall Alley (Photo: TJ)
Coming in Hot to Kiwi in a Pocket (Photo: TJ)
And Exiting Just as Planned (Photo: TJ)
And then all that was left was a quick drive to the Sacramento Airport, where a red eye flight to get me home in time for work Monday morning awaited.  And that was it, as much California adventure kayaking as I'd ever want to try to squeeze into 1 week.

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