Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Anatomy of a Debacle (on The Middle Kings)

The Middle Kings

The Kings River has always held the highest place in the sacred rivers of my life.  I first got in a kayak when I was just 12 years old on the lower Kings River in the mid 1990’s.  My parents and their boater friends told many stories of what lies upstream, mostly second hand.  The take-out for the Garlic Falls section, where great kayakers sometimes perished, ended at our put-in and we once found a boat while rafting the lower, folded and full of holes, presumably from some mishap upstream.  Then even higher in the drainage, there was mysterious Middle Kings, where only the best of the best dared venture.  The folks I grew up with, who taught me how to roll, eddy out and surf, spoke of the Middle Kings as the pinnacle of stupidity, a near-sure death trap where only those with an immense amount of skill and even bigger balls would ever dare venture.  So of course, I always wanted to go there, and it became my personal holy grail.

Before the River, There was the Bowl

That's Me!

Lower Kings Fully Loaded

My Mom!  I Learned in that Boat!

Fast forward to 2013.   I’ve been kayaing class V for many years now, and the Middle Kings is finally in reach.  Unfortunately,  the snowpack in the Sierras is dismal, and all the California classics are due to come in much earlier than usual and will be hard to predict.  Still, Dan McCain, a superhero among rafters and river types of all kinds, gives me a call, leaving only this message “Matt, we’re going to the Middle Kings, you’re coming.  Don’t tell anyone.” 

That’s where it all started.  Dan wanted to get the first decent of the Middle Kings, and was worried that someone might go in there first if they heard he was going to do it.  I’m pretty sure that nobody else is willing to carry a raft over that pass, but hey, it’s been done!

At first we had a solid crew, Dan and Jeff in the raft, the Dinsdale Brothers and I in kayaks.  With the flows somewhat on the high side of good, and the weather report calling for a mild heat wave, we decided to go anyway.   We should have known better.  Dan wanted it so bad, nothing could talk him down, and I was in the same boat. 

My family, and many of the family friends who introduced me to whitewater, were going to be on their annual Kings River camp out, spending their days rafting from the take out for the Middle Kings.  How great would it be if I could paddle into their camp, near sunset, coming off the holy grail of kayaking, and have a beer and trade stories with all of my mentors.  Plus they agreed to do our shuttle!

We made the final call to get in the car and go.  On the way down, we found out that Willy and Ben ended up having some trouble on Upper Cherry, and were both incapacitated for the time being.  The rafters and I still decided to forge on, despite having lost a day figuring out what had happened to the rest of our crew. 

We met at the trailhead, got our gear together, and started the long hike.  
Dan the Mule Going Up

And Up
And Finally Over the Pass, Over 12,000 Feet
It’s a hard walk, with lots of elevation gain and lots of miles with plenty of weight on your back.  Somehow the beauty of John Muir wilderness and the high sierras trumps the pain, and the hike went by fairly quickly.  Maybe it was also that Dan was having a much harder time than me, so I felt lucky to just be carrying my kayak!
Me teaching Dan how to Click the Camera 
We made it up and over the pass, spending the night in Dusy Basin, about 6 miles from the put-in, with a lot of elevation drop.  The next morning, we got back to it, made the descent down to river level, and put on around noon.  
Jeff Going Down.

Finally at River Level!

The first 3 miles are manky and slow, and we didn’t really make good progress.  Now 2 days deep into what we thought would be a 5 day trip, we were running behind in a big way, both in time and more importantly in food.  
Beauty and Mank

Portaging the Raft Around Mank  Sucks

Once we got to the confluence of Palisade Creek and the kings, our spirits lifted and we got moving a little faster.  Other than a slight mishap at Squeeze Play, where we tried to line the raft (it pinned and we almost lost some gear) things were feeling alright.  

Squeeze Play, looks good to go yeah?

And Now the Raft is Stuck

After corralling some gear and running a sweet 20' slide right after a quick portage, we camped at a barely runnable, near vertical 30’ slide called Can of Crushed Ass, named for this gnarly flake at the bottom that sends water shooting up in a massive fan.  It’s been run!
Danimal Before the Kings Drops of the Face of the Earth
The next day, we set off first thing and made our way down to one of the best drops ever, Money Drop.  After a couple of styled lines,  and some high fives, we continued on. 
Styling the Top
Styling the Bottom

And Again; Top

And Bottom
At this point, I was starting to get quite worried about our progress.   The river is really steep in this section, at one point over 500’ per mile. The raft was having trouble stopping, forcing me to probe everything, and the water felt quite a bit higher than good.  We arrived at a series of marginally runnable drops in the midst of very continuous whitewater, and I felt my heart sink.  We’d already found that portaging the raft was difficult and time consuming.
This Looked Sweet
But it Leads Directly into This

Once we started scouting, it was clear that we’d had a somewhat close call, and unknowingly had caught a last chance eddy before the drops.   Dan and Jeff started portaging, while I ran ahead to scout the next bit of water.

The continuous water continued with few eddies and some fairly terminal looking holes.  The water level was clearly too high, and from high above the river it looked like we’d be portaging at least the next mile.   I unilaterally made the decision that the mission was over.   It was the hardest decision I’ve ever made. I went back and found Dan and Jeff.  They had just finished portaging a quarter mile, taking about an hour to do so.

When I told them that I was done, they were at first reluctant to give up.  A little discussion changed their minds.  We were running out of time and food.  I had reached my limit of probing, especially since we knew we had higher than usual water.  It was 2 PM on day 3, and we only 5 miles into a 45 mile run.  The further we continued, the further the hike out, until we reached somewhere around mile 30, and even then there would be no trail.  The only prudent decision was to get out of there.  They agreed, rolled up the raft, and stashed it for a return trip.  I had to work the next couple weeks, and would almost definitely miss the flow window, so I decided I’d hike all my gear out in two trips.
Weird Rock

Thus began the most grueling experience of my life.  I hiked 18 miles over the pass with all of my gear, and made it out that evening well after dark.   Dan and Jeff were going slow, and camped about halfway.  At the car, I drank a beer I had stashed, and slept like a baby on my paco pad.  The next morning I woke up at dawn,  went into Bishop, had a giant breakfast burrito, a bunch of coffee, and bought some hiking boots and trekking poles for my next jaunt in the wilderness.  I got back to the trailhead by 11 AM, and hit the trail at a near run with only energy bars, my sleeping bag and a few emergen-C packets.   Spurred along by the amazing beauty of the place, the advantage of real hiking boots and trekking poles with no weight, I made it to my boat in the early afternoon, passing Dan and Jeff on their trip out and saying a final goodbye.  That night I made it about 8 miles back towards the trailhead with my boat, and slept on a bed of pine needles.  The next morning at dawn I got up and finished it off, making sure to take in the beauty of the place, knowing I wouldn’t be back for a while.

My Third to Last Trip Over the Pass
On the way out I passed a crew of 3 hiking in.  They were all Middle Kings veterans, and were surprised to see a kayak rig at the put-in.  They said they had done the first run of the year, the highest water run, the last 4 years in a row, and that trip would be higher than they’d ever done it, possible the highest it had ever been done.  I knew then for sure that we’d made the right decision.

In all, I hiked over 50 miles, three times over a 13,000 foot pass, in about 48 hours.  With a bunch of gear on two of the trips.   The only reason I can understand for how I got it done, and without too much consternation, was the immense amount of beauty at every turn.  Whenever I lifted my head and took a look around, I was blown away.  It’s the most amazing place I’ve ever been.
Amazing Trees on the Trail

Another Amazing Tree!
On my drive home, I reflected on the factors that got us there when we shouldn’t have been.  Dan’s excitement about the first decent, my excitement about making my family proud, the unclear snow report and fluctuating levels.  Many factors contributed to the debacle that we had in there.  All of them could have been avoided.  

The thing is though; I’m not disappointed in myself for making those mistakes.  We took a risk, made the leap of faith, and most importantly knew when to fold.  I look back on that trip and smile.  We got to spend the better part of a week in one of the most incredible, sacred places I’ve ever experienced.  We had a lot of good laughs (like when Dan discovered the bottle of whiskey I’d stashed in the rolled up raft for him to carry) and camaraderie.  I don’t regret it one bit. 

And for the record, Dan and Jeff made it back in there, with the Dinsdale Brothers in tow, and got it done.  They said it was the best trip of their lives. 

As you can imagine, it’s still on the top of my list.

Until Next Time.

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