Saturday, October 24, 2009
FIRST FALL MIDDLE KINGS DESCENT
On October 14th remnants of a typhoon hit Cali with full force. Parts of the state received upwards of 10 inches of rain, causing flooding and rain fall records. An event like this is extremely rare for the time of year, and during a short window the world famous Middle Kings section opened up...
In the history of California boating, to my knowledge, none of the high Sierra multi days have ever been attempted during the Fall time. The main reason being snow, good water levels, and the freezing temperatures. Due to the unpredictability of the season, putting in the effort to do a run like Middle Kings is a major gamble. Will there be too much snow on the pass? Too much water at the source? Too little? The ground is so unsaturated in the Fall it's hard to say how long the water levels could be optimal for. Our biggest fear was hiking all the way in and discovering that the river had dropped overnight to an un-runnable level. Nonetheless, an opportunity like this rarely happens, and it had to be taken advantage of.
Most crews take 5-7 days to complete this section of whitewater. (Although some animals like Tommy Hillike and John Grace have done it in under 24 hours, a feat that will always amaze me). Our goal was to do 1 day hike in, and 3 days paddle out. The crew was myself, Darin McQuoid, Ben Stookesberry, and Chris Korbulick. A solid team ready to take on the monster mission!
We arrived at the trail head after a 12 hour drive at 3 AM. I was unprepared for the first nights sleep in the parking lot and spent most the night shivering cold. I awoke to a harsh and hostile winter wonderland. This was not the Middle Kings parking lot I knew. Frost blanketed trees and there was a solid 2 feet of snow on the ground. While sitting in the car I genuinely considered pulling the plug. Was this actually a good idea? How could I survive in the wilderness if I was already freezing in the parking lot? Ben offered me an extra sleeping bag he had, and I decided with that I would be able to stay warm enough in the wild. I also salvaged some extra layers. By the time I was packed I had the heaviest boat I had ever packed, about to do one of the worst hikes of my life.... Uncertainty and excitement loomed over us as we set off into the snow...
My two least favorite kinds of hiking are post holing in snowboard boots, and hiking with a kayak. Middle Kings in the Fall is a torturous combination of both. The pass is slow, arguous and time consuming. With each step the pain got worse until I developed the worst shin splints I had ever had. We hoped to make it to the river but opted to camp instead of hiking in the dark. We set up camp beneath an orange sky that turned to rain and howling wind. I stayed warm enough in my bivy but had trouble sleeping with the wind and the creaking pine trees all around me.
We woke up at dawn and set foot again on the icy trail. We arrived at the river at about 9:30 and wasted no time putting on. Unfortunately, the water was super low and made for a long morning of portaging and manky drops. Luckily, by afternoon many of the small tributaries started contributing lots of water... Running Middle Kings is done in different ways. Some groups take a lot of pre-caution and scout most the rapids. Because everyone in the crew (besides Chris) had done the section we were able to "bomb" most the rapids blind. Ben took the lead most the time and did an excellent job remembering most the rapids... We opted to portage one of the more committing gorges due to time constraints and the cold rain. The night was shaping up to be a rough one as we rolled into Simpson Meadows. The rain was still falling and we were all cold and exhausted from our 11 hour day. Luckily we were able to get a ripping fire going and by the time it was raging the rain let up. To our surprise we slept under a starry sky and were greeted with more amiable temperatures the following morning.
My dry suit was frozen but the sun was shining. We all knew today would be one of the biggest with some of the more challenging whitewater ahead. In order to complete the run in time we would need to paddle the "Angry Beaver Section" and half of the "Bottom 9." The Bottom 9 is an especially challenging section dropping 250 ft per mile and sometimes as much as 375. There is literally zero flat water for 9 straight miles. All boulder gardens with big holes. Swimming is absolutely not an option. In the event that you did swim it is almost certain that you will be swimming into a class IV/V rapid. Even worse, there is a chance you will be swept into a sive or strainer. This section is really fun quality whitewater, but it also keeps you on your toes. We ran one rapid blind that would have been a portage with a pretty nasty slot at the bottom. Luckily we all came through... Overall we had great lines aside from one solid crash by Ben on a drop the rest of us walked... Again we arrived at camp close to dark. Since we had dropped a couple more thousand feet the weather was starting to be much more pleasant. For the first time I had an ok nights sleep, and again awoke to sunshine! Middle Kings in the Fall was starting to feel really worth it...
The one thing I notice about Middle Kings is that it never ends. It just keeps giving. At every horizon line you think "it has to let up a little bit." Somehow it never does. It just stays steep and relentless. We were all having a blast but also pretty ready to be out of the canyon. We arrived at one of the bigger holes of the section and I jumped out for a scout. The hole was mackin but I really couldn't be bothered with another portage. My shin splits were getting progressively worse and the hole was followed by a good sized pool. I signaled the classic sign for "big f****** hole" and informed the group it would "most likely be good." I took the lead and we dropped in. A fully loaded Nomad moves like a tank and I blew through the pour over no worries. I caught the eddy and turned around in time to see Darin getting beat down in the hole. I scrambled to get onto the slick rocks to hit him with a bag, but by the time I was out of my boat Ben boofed on top of him, and started getting beat down. This only lasted for a few seconds as Chris came flying in and landed on Ben, thus knocking him out of the hole. Chris took a quick beating before subbing out and popping up downstream. We were all laughing in the eddy and stoked to have made it through. The end was near....
We reached the confluence of the South Kings at around 2:00. Everyone has the urge to celebrate at the confluence but it's never over till it's over. The remaining 6 miles through Garlic Falls actually claims a lot of swimmers. The combination of the higher volume and sheer exhaustion is a major factor. We were all on the edge of what is a safe energy level to be paddling at. Paddling turns to steering as your body starts to give up a bit. With the end in site we hammered through and made it to the take out at around 5.
The weather was about 70 in the canyon and the last rapids were backlit by a hot sun. It was a great feeling to have the mission behind us and to be floating through more hospitable waters. I breathed a sigh of relief with the journey we had accomplished.
It's always wild finishing the Kings because you go from one of the most serene and beautiful places on earth, straight into Fresno. It never ceases to amaze me that a place so helish can be so close to one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Driving into the city is always a bit of a reality check. Endless strip malls and urban sprawl that haunt this world. Cities make me feel fortunate for what I have, but also depressed at what we've turned into. No blog post, film, or picture can truly capture the experience of the Kings. I look forward to my next adventure in there, although I really hope it's not in the Fall...
SPECIAL SPECIAL thanks to our boy JOSE for helping run shuttle. You are the man! Also thanks to Darin for hooking me up with some photos for the post!