First Descent: Great Bend of the Huallaga

Posted November 23rd, 2010 in Blog

Peru is hands down my favorite place to paddle on earth. Yeah it doesn’t have the classic slides and waterfalls of Chile or California but if you like huge canyons, incredible ruins and big adventures then Peru the place.

Annie Quathamer in the depths of the Colca

This would be my 3rd trip back to Peru since 2003 when I met up with Damon Miller and Russell Kelly for the Cotahuasi and Abysmo section of the Apurimac. These rivers completely blew my mind since I had only done a few overnight trips up to that point. Latter that year I spent Christmas in Pucon at Kurt Casey’s house. I remember over hearing him talking to Daniel Delavergne  about this river in Peru he had to hike out of. So when the first VTH  was to be the Huallaga, I wasn’t surprised. The last major tributary of the Amazon that had not been done, what a worthy mission.

Every few years it seems I have to find some new paddling partners, has many of my friends have traded in their kayaks for drift boats. This spring I was lucky enough to meet the Klema brothers & Ben Luck in Durango. Their motivation for kayaking was refreshing and contagious, paddling Pandora’s or  Vallecito everyday throughout Apirl and May. During that time I convinced them to blow off school for  a “trip of a life time”.  When Ryan Casey from Idaho told me he was in I knew we had a legitimate team. Then out of no where Evan Ross from Salida decided to hang up his mountain bike and go run the Huallaga off the couch.

Matt Klema , Ben Luck & Ryan Casey

Holy kayak shenanigans. As we all know ,flying with kayaks  isn’t a exact science. Some folks go with Jedi mind trick  at the check-in counter “no that isn’t a kayak… its a surfboard” ..”hmmm… ok sir that will be $25″ . Tears also seem to work if there’s a girl on the team. We had no hot chicks so we went for the shipping by container method. A month a head of time we put our kayaks on a boat for Lima. This is a sure way to get  kayaks to your destination,,,, but upon arrival,  be ready for bureaucratic hell. I spent three full days running around Lima like a chicken with it’s head cut off.  Lima’s got some really nice neighborhoods ,, like the barrio de Callao. This place smelled like death on a stick! All in all it took a week to get to the Put-in for the Huallaga and the boat shipment/importation costed us $500 each!! Ouch

Evan Ross happily reunited

Our goal was to get to the point where the Range Life hiked out ( the 2007 Vacation to Hell attempt) asap. Packed to the gills for 12 days, we were all mentally prepared for a jungle trek of epic proportions. If we did have to hike out of there,, it would be with our kayaks.   The first day of the Huallaga is sweeeet action. We decided not to take one photo or video clip in a effort to make good time. So we rallied hard that first day, making it to the mini canyon at noon. (Kurt Casey’s hike out 1st attempt 1998)  This mini canyon treated us to our first taste  of Huallaga portaging…good times.  From the bottom of this first portage the river just seemed to get better the further we went down. We finished our day 1 paddling a total of 30 k and dropping 500m. The weather on Day 2 was dreary and the rain started to set in right after we left camp. The rapids became steeper weaving through house-sized metamorphic boulders. At 9am day 2 we hit the Chalk Stone gorge where the The Range Life hiked out.  After some discussion we decided to just give’er……….. just kidding there was a plan.

Contemplating the rapid above Chalk Stone Gorge Photo: Evan Ross

Me running,, what is called these days,, Oh yeah .".the brown" Photo: Matthew Klema

Committed Photo: Evan Ross

Ryan and I would just send in all the young bucks in first and they would tell us that it was good to go. Perfect!!!. From the Chalk Stone formation we ran 3 walled out lime stone gorges. Between the gorges were quality class IV-V rapids containing epic hero boofs and juicy slots. Within the gorges the whitewater was conveyor belt class II.  And then there were the waterfalls!! something straight out of the lord of the rings, huge cascades directly into the river.  After  the 2nd gorge we consulted our map and gps, which showed our last cabrata to have three topo lines crossing the river. Portaging any of these gorges would be traumatizing if at all possible. So we found a crapy camp in the rocks before this last gorge. Day 3 started of with a bang, launching a kicker rapid into a boulder maze , down a hallway and under waterfall .  Soon after that We got to “ol three line gorge”.   We ventured in standard formation, youngest to oldest… and what did we find?….. More epic class 1 with cascades plummeting in from either side…YES!!. Damn,, the person who made this  map has some sick sense of humor.

Cooking Russian Style

After consulting the map and gps it was confirmed we had made it out of the shit. On the 2nd half of the 3rd day, tributaries  added double of the original flow and we paddled  class IV-V  rapids for about 15k to our take out. Somewhere along  this section we ran into a bunch of dudes wearing hard hats and official looking uniforms,, not standard local attire. There was also some large scale machinery  and it looked like to they were taking rock samples or something like that. Latter we found out that there is going to be a dam built in the heart of the Great Bend of the Huallaga. It should be completed by 2013. here’s a link about this pinchi represa. All I can say is get down there and see this canyon soon,, it is a gem.

More sweet action Photo:Evan Ross

After the Huallaga we still had a month left, so we jet setted for Cuzco to get on some classics. Here’s a short video about that.

In 2011 Telluride Kayak School will be offering guided kayak trips to Peru. The rivers slated for this trip include: Cotahuasi, Colca, Apurimac and the Paucartambo. Many thanks to Immersion Research for the Semi Dry Top, Splash Pants and the Lucky Charm squirt. It was the perfect jungle trekking ensemble. And a big shout for all folks on the two previous attempts of the Huallaga. The success of our trip was a direct result of their efforts.

One response to “First Descent: Great Bend of the Huallaga”

  1. rob says:

    I just read a book called “Aguirre.” It concerns dramatic (to say the least) events of a trans-continental expedition in mid-1500’s beginning in the region of the Huallaga. The author, who otherwise seems to have done diligent research, says documentation shows the leader had wooden barges, canoes and a couple of actual small ships built on the UPPER Huallaga, and floated down it “with difficulty” to the Maranon. I’d say with impossibility, having read your account of the river! If you have time, you might want to read the book–hell of a read. Author’s name is Minta, excellent writer.

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