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Adventure Chile

by Greg Hall

This past January, my good friend Earl Davis and I (Greg Hall), left our homes in Western North Carolina for a 10 day whitewater adventure in Southern Chile. After traveling one third of the way around the world we arrived at Spe's base camp on the shore of the Rio-Futaleufu. Our expedition leader, Chris (Spe) Spelius is a tall muscular guy with straw-blond hair and a big smile. His base camp is nestled between the Rio-Azul, the Rio-Futaleufu, and a 7000 foot snow-capped triple peak called the "Three Monks". It's winter back home, but here it's summer and the air is warm and fragrant. The valley floor is covered with grasses and wildflowers. That night seven more trip members came in.

What follows is the complete river trip from top to bottom. We ran these sections several times over the course of seven days, starting with the easier (?) sections and working up.

We shuttled the 12 miles upstream to the town of Futaleufu. We put on the Rio-Espilon, a tributary of the Futaleufu. This was the clearest river I had ever seen. The rocks on the bottom were shimmering as the sun shone through the light green water. After a mile of class 2 we flushed out into the Rio-Futaleufu.

Our guides were Phil DeRiemer and Mary Hays. We couldn't have asked for more competent safety on the river. When he is not leading expeditions or guiding river trips, Phil is a photographer and teaches kayaking. Mary got her nursing degree and would probably be in a hospital somewhere taking care of patients to this day, if she hadn't taken that first river trip. She traded in her stethoscope for a paddle and now leads river trips around the world. These two "world-class" paddlers were ready to lay it on the line if someone got in trouble.

Very soon the rock walls began to loom up on the rivers edge marking the beginning of one of the toughest sections of the river, "The Upper Canyon". One of the ominous features of this section is that due to the shear vertical canyon walls, portage is not an option. The sun had disappeared and the sky was growing dark. Was this a foreboding premier for what was to come? I was more than slightly nervous.

Only the first of six rapids in this one mile section have been named. We bank scouted the first rapid. . . . "Inferno". Wow! What a sight! The normally 250' wide river is seriously constricted by the shear 200' tall rock canyon walls. Between the 12,000 CFS flow and the massive gradient drop, this is one Mother of a rapid. The correct line consists of running a series of huge diagonal waves coming off of the river left wall, then turning right to slip between a pourover to the left and a mega hole to the right. Then, powering through monstrous waves while crossing the main flow to avoid getting smashed into the river left canyon wall. The fact that this is where a raft had flipped and two of the paddlers had drowned a few months before entered my mind. But . . . . I was ready. This was it. No use thinking about anything but running this rapid. I entered with my boat pointed left and powered through a series of 12 foot diagonal waves. Then I angled right and (whoops!) eddied out in a section of slightly less swift water. After a couple of sweep strokes, my bow was pointed back downstream, but I had moved a few feet off line to the right. I missed the pourover to my left by a comfortable margin, but caught the left edge of the huge hole to my right. I was stopped and wham, it felt like my boat was knocked out from under me by a big sledgehammer. After a brief thrashing the hole released me. Thank-you river gods! I rolled on the second attempt. The water was total chaos. Tall waves were shooting up with no pattern. Whitewater was everywhere. It looked like Tomahawk Missles were being fired into the river. I powered right harder than I have ever paddled. My Corsica S moved nicely to river right. I clipped the left edge of another hole, but leaned forward and powered through it. Nine-tenths of the river moves left and slams into the canyon wall. There were several other flips in our group, but the rolls were good and the must make moves were done successfully. OK, through "Inferno"- one down.

The next rapid was not too hard, just stay upright and out of the unfriendly eddys. On this river, you can clean a rapid only to get hammered in the eddy. The water level in these eddys can undulate up and down two feet. You can be caught between two boils and be absolutely munched in the fold. Whirlpools suddenly appear and disappear. The third rapid down was a baddie. The river drops hard with almost all the water piling up against the vertical rock wall on the left. Spe refers to this one as "The Wall Shot". The trick here is that you have to move right before you think you have to move right. I peeled out of a squirrely eddy and entered the speedy downstream flow. Man, this baby was cookin! I cocked my boat 30 degrees to the right and began digging in. I saw Phil and Mary in the river right eddy at the bottom both making frantic "paddle like hell" motions with their hands. I could tell by their expressions that they felt I should have started moving right before I actually did. Again, the water was pulsing, frothing, and pitching back and forth. I was moving at breakneck speed towards the wall shot on river left. I have never been in water moving this fast. Suddenly, I was stopped on a 10' breaking wave, backendered, and was upside down. If I ever needed to be up on the first roll, this was it. I focused, my paddle broke through, I swept, hipsnapped, and was up. I was still on line and continued my march across the main flow and arrived at the bottom right eddy. But, no whoops and hollers yet, no indeed, the mood was still very serious. We were only half way through. The next two rapids were easy by comparison - just try not to get eaten in the eddys.

The sixth rapid down was another Goliath. I peeled out of a boiling eddy with my boat cocked slightly left and punched three twelve foot diagonal waves that were coming off the vertical rock wall on river left. I then angled right and threaded the needle between a huge pourover to the left and a mega-hole to the right. So far so good, but the whitewater was now in total chaos churning left towards a house size boulder at heart-stopping speed. I powered across the current managing to stay upright and arrived in-tact in the eddy to the bottom right. As I looked back upriver, I thought--damn, that SOB isn't even named. But, I had made it through the Upper Canyon, and I was still kicking! Talk about elation, I was one happy paddler!

After a short section of flatwater, we arrived at one of the Futa's premier rapids - "The Zeta". This rapid has such a bad reputation that most people know they're going to walk it before they even see it. I took a look with an open mind and decided one second later that I would definitely be walking this one. The normally wide river necks down to just 50' between shear rock walls rising straight up out of the river. The river then drops 20 feet while turning an abrupt 90 degrees to the right. The clean line run is very narrow, and the approach is a nightmare due to a huge diagonal breaking wave blocking the entrance. If you're knocked off line to the left, you ride up on the pillow and into a vortex that makes the area to the left of Gauleys "Pillow Rock" look comical. If you're knocked off line to the right, you'll end up either slammed upside down into the worst boiling eddy I've ever seen, or in the next eddy immediately downstream, which has vast quantities of recirculating lumber in it. The logs swirling around in this eddy have been there so long that the bark has been striped clean and the smooth wood is bleached white by the sun. There is a 2' depressed eddy fence between either of these eddy's and the main flow. But, the worst is not over yet. Immediately downstream, the entire river slams straight into an undercut rock wall. There are many, many ways to have a bad day here. Our guide, Phil DeReimer was the lone kayaker in our group to run this beast. He had a perfect line and a perfect run. He made it look so deceptively easy. Champagne like bubbles rise to the surface for 300' following this rapid.

After a short section of flatwater, we came to the grandaddy of them all, "The Throne Room". The water "powers-up" by dropping at a constant steady angle. Fourteen foot diagonal waves form in an inverted vee leading straight towards "The Throne". The Throne is a long smooth rock that looks like a giant scale ramp for water skiers. Even though the throne is 150' long and 20' high, the water is moving so fast it just slides right up the ramp and over the top. The back side of the throne is a 20' pourover. The correct line includes avoiding the throne. Spe tells a personal story of getting hammered in the diagonals and rolling in the fast current leading to the top of the throne. He was momentarily disoriented looking back upriver, gaining altitude while being swept backwards towards the top. All our whitewater experience tells us that when in fast current, the river looses gradient. Here, it's the opposite. Somehow he managed to make it out of this situation. If you go right, you enter either a monstrous swirling 20' vortex beside the throne or get slammed into a nightmarish eddy a little further right. If you go left, you have huge holes to deal with. The best line is right to left, avoiding the eddy, the vortex, and the throne. No one tempted fate this day.

Continuing downstream we entered a wavetrain which consisted of eight to ten foot waves that went on for two miles. You spend 3/4 of your time in the wave trough with nothing but water all around. Then you suddenly crest the top, get a look around and plummet into the next trough. Some of the waves had tops breaking back upstream in which case it was backender time. No problem though, just wait five seconds or so and roll. This was just plain old fashioned exhilarating fun.

On river right, marked by a flat sandy beach, is Spe's basecamp. He spares no expense for his guests. A Chilean cook prepares and serves you gourmet meals. A masseuse massages your tired muscles. There are hot showers and even a sauna to warm and revive you after a long day on the river.

Downstream from camp we arrived at "The Terminator". Several shouldered their boats and carried. Earl, Charlie, Peter, Allen and I committed to run it. The rapid is about 1/2 mile long, and consists of four eddy moves on river left, then a peel-out into the main flow for the final drop. The consequences of missing an eddy means running this monstrosity down the middle. This is serious class 4 if you make all the right moves, and class 6 if you blow it. There is a hole in the center of the river about half way down that must be 35' wide with a 20' backwash on it. The fourth eddy move is the toughest. You have to power your boat through a diagonal hole without getting stopped. If you do get stopped, you'll be surfed out into the maw of this rapid. I punched the hole low and just made the eddy. On the final drop, I peeled out of a squirrely eddy and into the main flow to run right of a big pourover. The power of the river was awesome but I managed to stay upright. One of our group was not so lucky. Peter flipped in the churning current, missed three rolls, and swam. There is no good place on this river to swim, but this was a particularly bad place. There were several trouble areas immediately downstream. But, no problem. He swam so fast across the current to a river left eddy that he outran the rescue boater. He later said, "I saw that eddy and WANTED IT"! Unfortunately his paddle, which had been his trusted companion for years (judging by the extensive wear) was gone. Later, after catching some grief about how well he had paddled prior to the swim, he replied "I was reduced from a stud to a geek in five seconds".

The river began dishing out huge exploding wave-trains. I was pitched so high off the crest of a wave that I went airborne into the next trough. I was having more fun than I thought possible. Charlie got a taste of the rivers power while sitting in the (safety?) of an eddy. Two humps of water appeared on either side of his boat and a strong whirlpool formed under him. His kayak was sucked down horizontally and he went spinning downriver submerged to his neck. What we saw was a helmet with a head in it doing 360's.

After a 1/4 mile long wave-train called "The Himalayas", we came to the next, and one of the more memorable rapids, "Mundaca". This rapid culminates in four twelve foot waves, one right after the other. The waves pulse at regular intervals. First, the wave forms clear and tall for about five seconds. Then the top of the wave breaks back upstream with a loud ka-whump! At this point if you are entering it, you might as well prepare to get battered. After taking a few licks, you're released and can roll. I peeled out from the eddy above into the power of the river. The first wave was clear green-water and I went up and over (open window). The next wave was open for a second, then the top 4' broke back on itself- uh oh (closed window). I made the classic mistake of not leaning into this exploding wave. I entered it with my boat angled up at 30 degrees in an upright paddling position. I took the wave in the chest and face and was slammed back so hard I heard my helmet hit the stern deck. My boat "looped over" and now I was upside down in this monster getting the "from the waist up" massage of my life. After several seconds the wave-hole released me and I rolled just in time to be eaten by the next wave/hole. Again, I was slammed upside down. The main problem was I hadn't gotten a breath since before I was munched the first time. I was getting pretty low on air. A sinful thought crept into my mind. I told myself "ya know, a person could wet-exit in a situation like this". But, I persevered, telling myself "not this person", and rolled. The windows of the next two waves were open and I managed to stay upright. Next, Dick encountered a closed window and got looped. After getting pounded while upside down in the next two wave/holes, he began trying to roll. After four failed attempts, Phil got to him. He was still in his boat and hanging on to Phil's bow with his head above water. But, he had been beaten up so badly by the power of the river that he was too weak to hipsnap his boat up. Phil grabbed the inverted boat and muscled it up. In the next rapid Dick flipped and swam. In a valiant effort, Phil got him to shore. Following this experience, Dick took up reading for the rest of the trip.

I'll have to admit, that during a trip on this same section several days before, my paddling had been somewhat raggy. Because of day after day paddling, fatigue had seeped in. Phil and Mary had been bitching at me to paddle harder. I didn't mention that I was paddling as hard as I could. It felt like I was paddling in wet cement. Before long I got caught in a hole and flipped. I rolled, but it felt weak. I began to get a little worried. In a flatwater section, I was lost in my thoughts, and failed to notice the river piling into a vertical rock wall on river left. Half of the river turned 90 degrees to the right and went downstream. The rest turned 90 degrees to the left and went upstream into a huge 300' eddy. I missed the downstream flow and took a left into the eddy. The center of the eddy was boiling and didn't look particularly friendly. I decided to stay on the eddys edge by the river bank and ride its fast flow upstream. At the top, I attempted to peel out, but was carried downriver on the eddy line. Paddling furiously, the river wouldn't admit me to the main flow. I realized that I was dealing with a depressed eddy. After all that effort, I hadn't moved my boat out of the eddy one little bit. The rest of the group had disappeared downstream, and I was on my own. I was moving towards the same place where the river piled up into the vertical wall. I really didn't want to take that upstream trip again, so with 50' to go, I sumoned up all my reserve power and managed to cross the eddy line. I was close to the rock wall riding the right edge of the pillow, plopped into a small hole at the base of the pillow and flipped. I was beginning to really have a bad day. I flushed out upside down and rolled just in time to have my stern sucked down by a whirlpool. I flipped again and went spinning around and around. I began to get giddy imagining this is what it would feel like to be flushed down a huge toilet. I was tired, out of breath, and worried about being alone. I made an onside roll attempt and was unsuccessful. I knew the reason I didn't get up was because I was working against the swirl of the whirlpool. Prior to being accepted into the trip, Spe asks all potential trip members fill out a skills assessment form. Under "biggest weakness", I listed that although my offside roll is bombproof, I have a reluctance to use it in a clutch situation. Well, here I was in a clutch situation. I went to my onside again (of course) and this time made it up! Welcome to flatwater hazzards on the Rio Futaleufu. I joined the group downstream and told them about my misadventures.

All too soon, it was time to head back to the states. On the way to the airport we spotted a huge blue-ice glacier snaking its way out of a mountain valley. From Chai-Ten we boarded a charter plane to Puerto Montt. From there it was commercial airliners back to civilization. Earl and I lucked out and got seats in the business section for the all night flight from Santiago to Miami. Man oh man, those wide glide reclining seats sure felt good to this tired but happy paddler. I'm definitely going to check into that mode of travel next year when I return to whitewater heaven in southern Chile!

 

 


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