Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
(Yes that is the hotel balcony and takeout for top Pacifico. Photo: Cutch)
By the time we are putting on to the top Chirripo Pacifico, the day has already been somewhat of a scenic-drive bust. We rallied early, passing through San Isidro, and heading one valley south, to the San Rafael. The San Rafael is a low volume run that is very steep and inviting, but after a thorough look we determine that the water level is too low. Now it’s mid-day, and we have finally returned to the place that we stayed last night, because it is the takeout for the top. The top is a little on the low side as well, and I start off the trip by slipping on the polished rock, and tumbling 5 ft into the river with my boat and paddle, directly above a small falls at the put-in. The Top section is 1 mile long, drops 507ft, with two scouts and zero portages. Muy contento.
Back in San Isidro we gas up and Ferdinand makes a few calls while Joe and I eat snacks and trust in Ferdinand. Our original plan was to head back to Alajuela to stay at Cacho’s (Mi Tierra) for another night. That plan was thwarted by the threat of unlicensed taxi cab drivers of San Jose blockading the roads around the city in protest (of the licensed taxi cab drivers). Instead we end up going straight to Turrialba that evening. We arrive late and meet up with the local crew in the city park, Julio Garro and Arnaldo Pérez. Tomorrow we plan to run the Rio Vereh, which according to Ferdinand has gradient in the high 700fpm range. Sounds a bit loose.
Day 6 - "El revo de la novia"
While packing for the trip I asked Tina if I could take her paddle. “If you break it you buy it.” A third of the way into the run I become inverted for the first time, floating around in a huge pool trying to figure out how to roll with Tina’s broken paddle. The 40 footer had about an 80-degree angle on it at the bottom though the hit was surprisingly soft, despite the broken paddle. I opted for the far right line, which you had to kind of pivot and drive across to get to, since a tree is still stuck in the lip. We had good flow so the left line around the log went, but the seal launch into the pool at the lip was burly, as was the drop above it that would be a stout and clean 10 footer if it weren’t for another log. I’m super stoked as I roll up and collect the other half of my paddle.
(The best drop of the trip? Naa, Cutch seemed to think Ron Jeremy was better even after this slick line.)
The day started out interesting. Breakfast was filled with the city bustle of Turrialba, in contrast to the easy mornings of San Gerardo. Ferdinand was apprehensive and thus Joe and I were inquisitive to say the least.
Chalo was originally going to be our shuttle driver, but once the championship bull rider found out we were going to el Vereh he knew it was time to crawl into his boat for the first time in two years. Three beers prep on the way to the put-in took off the edge from the night before and once he cut off the soles from his shoes to fit in the boat, we were off. Arnaldo and Julio round out our trip, both Tico river rats that work for the local raft companies. They are solid.
Arnaldo, Ferdinand, Julio and Chalo drop the falls as well. Chalo self-rescues from his first swim as I piece together my 4-piece Werner breakdown and we are off to tackle the whitewater below, which is stacked. Every horizon is a 5, 10, or 15-foot drop, and most everything goes with the good flow. We are getting into a rhythm with leapfrog scouting and smiles as we make our way down the canyon. The pools and surrounding is surreal. By far the most remote corner of Costa Rican jungle we experienced.
It’s my turn to scout. I jump up to check the next horizon line to find that it is the final drop of the run, and this final 12’ grind drop literally ends in a pool at the confluence with the headwaters section of the Pacuare. We stop for lunch and celebration as the rain begins to come down, taking shelter under the lush overgrowth of the jungle. As we peel out into the higher volume Pacuare we are treated with a few miles of high-quality big water class IV whitewater that is experienced by few.
We spend the rest of the afternoon and evening in a flurry of activity. Heading back to our rendezvous point, we charge into Turrialba to check out of our hotel, eat dinner, and get to an internet café before close. We pile back into the Suzuki and Ferd rocks the evening drive to his place, where we grab another bent shaft paddle. You could say that he has one lying around, since it’s here that Ferdinand manufacturers Blue Pool paddles and helmets. We arrive back at Mi Tierra late, and sleep well.
I could have kept sleeping well for hours. If our trip were any longer, then this would surely be a rest day. Instead, we figure we should do a second descent of the lower section of the Rio Candelaria. First-hand beta from the inflatable kayakers that made the first descent told us of stout drops in the top canyon, a sieve warning, and that they were overnighted only to wake up the next day and paddle around the corner to the takeout. From the topo map the gradient looks reasonable (especially when compared to the Vereh), with most of the action in the first six miles. We are hoping for a possible access point at a trail, because otherwise it’s going to be a long paddle out (the difference of about an eight mile run, or over likely over 20). Yet, we are confident that we will run some of the drops that they portaged which will save time, and even with a long paddle out it will be okay because we have a shuttle driver and will be deep in a Costa Rican river canyon.
We wake early in preparation of a slightly long drive to the put-in, and for the unknown factors that we may encounter on the Rio Candelaria. Joe, Ferdinand, and I look tired. We meet Miguel, and Raul who is driving Miguel’s van that he uses for a rafting business. Andre is joining us as well, and we make our way to the top of the same pass, and eat at the same place that we did on day two. It’s a full-circle kind of feeling for the trip. We stock up on food to take on the river, and hustle to the put-in. The flow is lower than our last visit here, though adequate once we negotiate the first read-and-run rapids of the canyon. Once in the gorge we encounter two stout rapids in close proximity. I get routed in first, and bring extra speed in expectation of a big hole, judging by the lip. I hit, ender off my stern, and bring it forward and to the left. The entire right side of the pool flushes into a not so friendly undercut. Joe goes next, gets back endered into the hole, and swims into the nice eddy below. After a week of relatively clean lines by our trio, I am thankful to witness some carnage, and ponder if Joe views it as a requirement to swim on all of his international trips (editor’s note – I once went to Mexico without a swim).
A rapid we started referring to as The Cube follows just below. It’s a tricky scout, and portaging looks to be pretty much out of the question. A short boof up top leads to a left channel with a nice 10 footer that I fully plug. It’s deep. The right side line is ugly, though it would still go in a pinch. Below the canyon opens up. It’s dry here, so the jungle has a Washington state feel with moss covered rocks and open gravel beaches. The sun is shining, and ten or more tributaries pour in from each side of the canyon walls in spectacular displays. The class III cruise leaves for plenty of time to enjoy them. As far as 2nd descents go, this one is ridiculously mellow and good.
(1st descent team: Miguel lays it down on "Cubo")
We stop for lunch at an old wooden footbridge. There are ranches on the hills above us, but the road is washed out to this access point. We continue paddling off the edge of our topo map and into a lengthy paddle out through a large and remote valley. Jesus Christ Lizards walk on water, or rather, run across the river in front of us on their hind legs. Miguel smiles, “Hauling ass!” The JC stands probably 8” tall, and crosses 50 yards of flatwater without getting his head wet. A few bends later I’m sent into a flurry of backstrokes as two cows run across the river, splitting our group of five. Even the Ticos think it’s bizarre. Herons and flycatcher birds abound. Towards the end, a biblical tree root rests on its side in a gravel bar with a vulture perched at the top - a good 30 feet off the ground. It is the perfect paddle out to a weeklong trip.
On the drive out we pass through perfectly farmed rows of pineapple trees and check off a visit to the Pacific coast as we drive by fully lounged out in the van. After dinner everyone except Raul sleeps as we make the haul back to Alajuela. Power nap handled, we vow to finish off the trip right, with a night on the town.
Story by Kyle McCutchen
Photos by Joe Keck, except where noted.
Friday, January 15, 2010
Saturday, January 02, 2010
A mere two weeks of anticipation went into our last minute trip to Costa Rica for a week of jungle hucking. The decision to bail on all of our family obligations for the Thanksgiving Holiday was made like many great decisions… at a keg party. I managed to squeeze in 9 days to vacate, which included a day to travel on each end. Joe had 8 days, so it was clear from the beginning that this was to (hopefully) be a no-rest-day type of trip. Recruitment of a third or fourth member was unsuccessful, as was any significant planning. The day before departure I booked my first nights stay at Mi Tierra in Alajuela, begin to fight off a nasty sinus cold, and pack for my first international adventure.
The day before consisted of two flights, from Denver to Houston, and then Houston to a late arrival in Alajuela (San Jose). After an amusing taxi ride from the airport, I arrived at Roberto Cacho’s place covered in sweat and in good spirits because all of my “wave ski” equipment made it intact. Even better is that my “wave ski” strongly resembles a large Pyranha Karnali, and with the paddle bag it only cost me $100 extra through Continental Airlines. Mi Tierra is inviting, with an open entryway in front, nice lobby and covered patio dining area, a pool, tons of plants and nice rooms. Andrey Coto Robles, the night watchman and kayaker, greets me and takes me to my room. Soon after I meet the owner, Roberto Cacho. I’ve exchanged a few emails with Cacho, and he has already come recommended as “the man” after proving himself as the driver of choice for a handful of trips that Gary Edgeworth and others have completed. He’s also friends with Ferdinand, and apparently I’m going to meet the Costa Rican paddling legend, and Olympian, in the morning. This is a very good thing.
The first few drops of the Rio Orosi start off with a bang. I haven’t paddled in months so it was a nice class V warm-up of a few boulder garden drops and one big hole to miss. Then a nice class IV paddle out leads to the takeout, where I promptly puke. We continue to the Rio Macho. Flows are too low for the 400fpm+ upper mile, so we hit the lower mile instead, which is still great low volume single-track creeking. Fun and I’m starting to get into the groove of kayaking once again. We stop in town for a delicious meal and head back through the traffic mayhem of San Jose to Mi Tierra, where Joe has now arrived.
Ferdinand arrives at 5:30am. We’re barely awake and unorganized. The five of us pile into the van with Cacho at the helm, and head south of San Jose, to the top of a pass that overlooks the entire city. There’s a great restaurant at the top, and the fact that Joe and I are hanging out with three Ticos that speak English helps our Spanglish translate better. We scarf down a good breakfast and drive down a few thousand feet of twisting dirt road into the Rio Candelaria valley for what is supposed to be like an 8th or 9th descent, according to Ferdinand.
He should know. Our fearless leader has been at the forefront of local creeking exploration for the last 20 years. If he hasn’t been there, he’s talked to the sickbirds that have. His first-hand knowledge trumps that of the Chasing Jaguars guidebook, which I brought for the weekend because Ferdinand has plans to go to a wedding. Joe and I are hoping to persuade him to do the noble kayaking thing and bail. We’re both pretty sure that he’s testing us today, and as we charge into the first drops of the Rio Candelaria, I’m quite stoked to be the guinea pig.
Let's get ready to rumble
The Rio Candelaria is a worthy find that the Ticos started running in May. We start on about 350-400cfs at the start, with some great class IV warm-up drops that get progressively steeper and longer as the canyon narrows to our first scout. As we creep around a cliff ledge we’re welcomed with the view of a mini-gorge containing a genuine slide-to-boof, followed by some burly looking ledges in sequence below. The bottom pool is probably 45 feet below us. Eddies break up the drop into three perfect steps. We scout from both sides, set safety and run in pairs with good lines by all.
Immediately below is a drop that hasn’t been run yet, and probably will be. The scout from the top showed ugliness, so we hiked up and over the steep canyon wall, then roped the boats back down the other side for our first Costa Rican portage. At the bottom I’m overheating in my shorts, long sleeve rash guard and drytop. I brought the lightest gear I own and it’s too much, although this ends up being the warmest river corridor of the trip.
We meet up with Cacho at the first bridge, and regular takeout, and he’s already arranged for a ride out for us with a 4x4 jeep. We decline and continue downstream as the rain picks up. As I peel out of the first eddy and head downstream a lizard jumps into a small hole directly in front of me. I eddy out and he goes running across the river next to me. Two back-to-back class V drops serve as the crux of the next 3km, which is apparently a 1st descent. The banks are farmland, portaging and scouting are easy, there are lizards everywhere, and life is very, very good.
We change at the takeout and Ferdinand and I walk to a nearby swimming pool and shelter, where we stock up on beers and water for the drive home. We passed the test. Ferdinand hatches a plan to head to the “Pacific” a day early, and will be picking us up at 5:30am… sharp. We don’t know where we are going, where we are staying or how scared we should be. "In Ferdinand we trust," which would become the theme of the trip.
Ferd, Joe and I load up and hit the road early, charging through the streets of San Jose prior to the major rush hour traffic, and after a quick stop at Ferdinand’s house, we head southeast at a steady climb along the Pan American Highway. The pass tops out at just under 11,000ft. Shortly after cresting over the other side, we turn off onto a dirt road that according to Ferdinand, drops roughly 3000ft in 2.5 miles. It certainly feels like it.
This back road drops us into the Rio Buena Vista valley, where a busy creek cascades through a boulder garden riverbed with a few good vertical falls. Along the sides are pastures and farms, and we delicately tiptoe across a garden to get to our put-in. At a few points the river narrows down with some good bedrock rapids. The loose riverbed is continually shifting, partially due to a huge flood that scoured the river bottom and rolled the massive boulders into new positions. Combined with steep whitewater, we have good reason to scout a few extra times. We make good time and continue the rest of our drive to the Chirripo Pacifico for some roadside scouting of the classic boulder garden whitewater.
After completing the Rio Buena Vista we had officially made more class V moves than the previous two days combined, so Joe and I kind of figured the day was pretty well over. As we’re headed up the Rio Chucoyo, a tributary to the Pacifico, I start getting a sense from Ferd that we aren’t done yet. The force wasn’t as strong in the backseat of Ferd’s Suzuki, because I hear Joe crack open another Imperial at about the time I’m questioning my first. Another 4wd road later we are checking out four park-and-huck type drops and the first one is the definition of a jungle huck. A twisty, sliding entrance leads to a boof into a lateral hole that you have to punch, then turn with the current 90 degrees, and drop roughly 20 feet into a huge pool.
That night we check into a great place in San Gerardo owned by Maria. A suspended covered walkway leads to two upstairs rooms, with a shared bathroom and open hallway that connect balconies overlooking the confluence of the Rio General and the top Chirripo Pacifico. We hang our gear on the railing since there isn’t any wind. The town is quite and we sleep well. San Gerardo may not have any raging party scene, but for serious creeking aficionados San Gerardo is the Durango of Costa Rica.
In the morning we are treated to these little tiny peppers, known as denti de perro. They bite with fire, and are a delicious addition to the pinto gallo, huevos, and fried plantains that we are enjoying at Maria’s place. It’s the kind of fire that I’m hoping will deliver me safely down the main Chirripo Pacifico.
A damn fine Tico breakfast in the jungle hideaway. Notice Cutch trying to keep the denti de perro from burning their way right out of his stomach.
Ferd says good morning on the Pacifico
The main Chirripo Pacifico is unreal. Huge boulders in a rural canyon make a maze out of the river, and the gradient keeps us on our toes. When it comes down to quality, this river ranks at the top of the list. The first moves of the day are a mere 50 yards downstream of the put-in, and class V. A few drops in and we come to a big drop that we are forced to run on verbals. Once in the rapid it’s a battle through a series of laterals and holes, complete with a 5’ drop at the end with a bad hole that I dig away from. Joe takes the first beating of the trip as he flushes over the second half of the drop upside down, and in the wrong channel after confusion on the beta. “Sorry” says Ferd. “You can’t really scout that one from anywhere.”
We continue down to one of the crux drops of the run, Upper Beast. The line is a complex mess with a simple solution… drive right or get stuffed. We portage Lower Beast, a drop that has yet to be run in its current form, due to a huge ugly hole.
At the lip of Ron Jeremy, we get out on an island where we beach our boats and wade a side channel to scout. Looking down from the top is a solid 200 yards of class V+ multiple-move whitewater, dropping close to 150 feet, with the tallest drop being about 8ft.
In the lower stretch Ferd spooks a Basilisk Lizard by paddling under a branch, and Joe and I forget entirely about the whitewater to catch a look at the prehistoric beast. At the takeout Ferdinand runs shuttle while the local ticos give us a thumbs up and inquisitive looks. After we confirm that we aren’t about to do any more jungle hucking at the moment, we get on a mellower pace for the afternoon. We eat ice cream snacks and hang out in front of the gas station, checking out the action on the main dirt road before heading to the cloud forest for the rest of the available daylight. A good meal and another night at Maria’s, which is conveniently located next to a bar, makes for an enjoyable and relaxed evening.
To be continued......Stay tuned as we attempt to find an answer for the "Best Drop of the Trip."
All photos by Joe Keck unless otherwise stated. The narrative is by Kyle McCutchen except for my additions in italics.