The Gore Race

Charlie Macarthur from the Aspen Kayak School showing good style in the Tunnel Rapid.

                       Racer dropping in to the “Sneak Route” on the Gore rapid.

 

The mighty Colorado River is suddenly dropping into a great abyss as I approach the infamous Gore Rapid. This big drop looks extremely ominous, so I paddle as fast as I can and focus all of my mental and physical energy on the line that I have been paddling in my sleep. I am obviously quite apprehensive, because the entrance drop of this long class V rapid will demand perfection, and the consequences of failure are not very pleasant. 

This thrilling day started in the campground/parking lot of the famous Gore canyon run where I had awoken early with a mild hangover. The hangover has become an almost mandatory feature of this infamous race, and I feel quite relieved to have escaped with only a minor one. Partying is an integral part of the whitewater lifestyle, and the reunion of extreme paddlers from near and far leads to a great social event.

It’s a beautiful morning, and I happily greet the brilliance of a new dawn in this awesome  canyon. My head is a bit sore and I rub my bleary eyes as I try to sharpen my senses, and assess the reality of my planned endeavor.  Do I really wish to to run this crazy river at a very high rate of speed and without scouting? 

A few of my (more hung over than I) friends seem to share the same sympathies, but a large dose of black coffee revives the testosterone, and we start to chat and tell some old stories of previous misadventures.

The race won’t be starting for a couple of hours, so we enjoy a casual but not very relaxed morning of reorganizing gear and trying to remember our strategy.

I arrive at the start about an hour early and spend a few moments chatting with my nervous friends. But I really just want to be alone, so I wander up a nearby hillside to meditate and try to rationalize why in the hell I am here. What forces are driving me to pursue this intense adventure? After about a decade of practice and dozens of runs on this “challenging” river, I’ve finally mustered the courage to enter this unique (for its time) race. In less than an hour I will be paddling as fast as a can down a very challenging Class V river relying only on my skills and memory of the big drops.

“The Gore Race” is one of the first extreme kayak races and takes place in the steepest canyon of this mighty river. It was started by the famous Chan Zwanzig in the mid 80’s, when he invited his friends to show up for a free keg of beer and some friendly competition on his favorite local run. The race, involved paddling at high speed and without stopping to scout a section of whitewater that was considered extreme at that time.

As I wander up the nearby hill, my somewhat stressed out brain suddenly flashes back to my first run in this remote canyon with a legendary kayaker and boat builder named John Jaycox in the early 80’s.  Birds of a feather flock together, and I had just recently met him through the friendship of a fellow paddler. Plastic boats had just recently been invented, and the standards were rapidly changing, but “Gore Canyon” was still considered to be quite extreme and was rarely run.

The Gore range is a somewhat remote and very spectacular section of the rocky mountains just north of Frisco, Colorado. It offers some great hiking and climbing, but it is most famous for the upper canyon of the Colorado River, that carves its way through the pristine range.

Lord Gore, along with the famous Jim Bridger had explored this range in the mid 1800’s, and Jim decided to name it after his friend.

The high volume waters of this mighty river are powered by the melting snow on the continental divide and meander slowly across the high plateau of the Middle Park Basin. But all the gentleness suddenly disappears as it meets a steep granite gorge with 500 foot walls, a gradient of about 100 feet per mile, and enough volume to create some thrilling rapids. 

The flat water of the plateau was quite scenic, and gave us a good chance to warm up, but the tension gradually started to build as we approached a large cliff and a giant gash in the mountain that warned us of the upcoming adventure. 

The first couple of rapids were fun class III’s and the cold water splashing on our faces was quite invigorating, but a sudden large horizon line drop found us scurrying to a safe eddie and scouting downstream. There was a clean line in the big drop, but the high volume water was really pushy, and the old long boats were much harder to steer than the modern short ones. So, we carefully plotted a line and chose a couple of land mark rocks in the raging river. 

The careful scout had provided a very good view of the rapid, but the aspect from our boats was quite different, and all the rocks suddenly looked the same. My heart rate rapidly increased as I tried to remember the line and keep my course in the strong current. The water was moving faster than I had thought, and I was suddenly being pushed over the edge of a small abyss and right into a large rock. But a sudden reflexive stroke saved the day and I managed to skirt the rock and follow a clean but very steep line into a friendly Eddie. John nailed the line, and reacted with a big smile as we exchanged a set of jubilant high fives.

                                             

The recollections make the time move very rapidly, and suddenly it is almost my turn to go, so I very carefully crawl into my boat, and meticulously attach the neoprene skirt that will keep the boat from filling with water in the big rapids. I cautiously inspect the spray skirt again, and add a bit of wax to my old wooden paddle. It is a bit heavier than the modern fiberglass ones, but my appreciation for fine carpentry, and the trust in its strength make it worth the weight. It has also been my solid companion on many great  rivers that span the globe, and has thereby gained my trust. I also nervously check my helmet strap and life jacket and complete a couple of eskimo rolls to cool off and improve my confidence. 

I’m now third in line, so I carefully maneuver my boat toward the start and do my last mental preparations as I review the big rapids in my mind. The next racer leaves in a flurry of splashing strokes, and I’m now on deck, and wait anxiously as the next racer takes his turn and disappears down stream.

OK, next racer! Ten seconds, 9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1, Go! And I’m off! 

The first drop is only class III, but the cold splashing water helps to calm my nerves and invigorate my spirit, as I stroke bravely toward the first big drop.

“Apple Sauce” is a big horizon line drop with one clean line that I’m confident about remembering, so I paddle fearlessly onward. 

“OK; Just right of the giant boulder with some left to right angle. That’s it!” The surging water tries to push me into the big rock, but a strong stroke saves the day, and I follow a clean but very steep line into a gentle pool. 

Acing this rapid is great for my confidence and attitude, and on a normal run, we would relax here and exchange some hi fives. But this is a race, so I quickly regain my composure and paddle on downstream somewhat apprehensively toward the infamous “Gore Rapid” which is the crux of the run.

The serenity of the stream suddenly disappears, and I can’t help but notice the throng of spectators that have gathered on the right side of the river, as I approach the ominous drop.

We had spent almost half an hour here on our first descent, as we carefully scouted and tried to memorize all the lines of this very long, steep and technical rapid. The entrance drop was the crux and demanded perfection, but the rapid continued for another three hundred yards and presented at least two more crucial moves. This is definitely the steepest part of the run and the first very challenging drop is followed very quickly by a pair of keeper holes with only a very thin line between them. We were extremely apprehensive of this section on our first run and thought very seriously about portaging, but we managed to psych each other up and decided to go for it, with pretty good success. I’ve now run this rapid at least a dozen times, but I still have a lot of respect for it, and know that it is very demanding.

But now I am alone, and on a race for time, so I can only rely on my memory and confidence from my past descents. 

The “sneak route” that I am planning to take involves a boof, or kind of ski jump style of motion through a narrow slot with a ten foot drop. This one move demands perfection, because the landing is in a dangerous, turbulent eddie that is somewhat life threatening  and can waste lots of time.

The approach to this narrow slot is guarded by a small hydraulic feature that must be negotiated smoothly to prepare for the narrow boof, because a sideways boat in the narrow slot would be a disaster.

My previous knowledge prevails and I arrive at the top of the sneak with a perfect line . My boat lands just where I want and I paddle very aggressively toward the left side of “Decision Rock.” This has obviously been named for a lot of very bad runs, but my immediate decision leaves me just where I want to be and I smile at a few friendly spectators, as I head on down stream. 

The biggest crux is now over, but a gnarly pair of holes called scissors is anxiously waiting down stream. I know the line from many past voyages, but the clean line between this set of double keeper holes is thin and requires precise navigation. I was beginning to feel a bit tired, but the adrenaline from the last drop kicks in, so I manage to keep focused and nail the line. The river now eases a bit but it is not yet time to relax.

The next big drop is Pyrite, and it brings back lots of old memories. This is another one of the rapids that we used to scout in the early 80’s, and it feels a bit intimidating to blast down it at the fevered pace of the race. But, I remember the line, and pass yet another milestone.

“Four down, and only three big ones to go.”  I tell myself as I approach the second most challenging drop of the race. Tunnel Falls has been named for its proximity to a big railroad tunnel, and is one of the most exciting places to watch. This is also the narrowest point in the canyon, and the huge granite walls tower above the narrow raging river.

Once again, I’m greeted by a throng of cheering spectators, as I try to work my way down the turbulent left channel that leads to the only clean line.

My nerves and strength are beginning to wain a bit, but the cheering crowd gives me a huge new source of adrenaline, and I paddle boldly down the last big drop. The end is now nearly in sight but two more challenging obstacles remain.

“Toilet Bowl” is a very dangerous hydraulic feature that was the source of my only swim  in the early 80’s. It is a very innocent looking drop from upstream, and it is quite easy to miss if you know the line, but a mistake here would result in a race ending catastrophe, so I careful skirt its permitter and head down stream to the last big drop. 

Kirschbaum’s is a long class IV+ that was named for one of the early explorers of the river. I’ve had a lot of exciting runs on this rapid, and never seem to pick the same line twice, so my heart and adrenaline level soar once again, 

“OK left at that big rock. Whoops! wrong rock.”  But I quickly see another line. My arms are tired and the current is strong and pushes me left against another big boulder. But I bravely grab it and push my kayak forward into a clean channel. The finish is now in sight, and a few hard strokes bring me to a cheering crowd of friends and a very welcome beer.

One of the favorite excuses I’ve heard for pursuing extreme sports is “ Cuz it feels so good when you stop,” but I think there are much better reasons. I really feel that adrenaline is a life enhancing drug and completing an event like this leaves the participant with an awesome feeling of satisfaction that is impossible to describe. Pursuing extreme sports also offers the rare opportunity to hang out with so many really alive people and that’s how I’ve met most of my good friends. The combination of adrenaline and a bit of alcohol and this camaraderie provides a high that approaches euphoria, and I quickly chug another beer. The after party and awards ceremony is another big event, and I remember why I’m here.

The Head of the Wolf

A great adventure in the Wind River Range of Wyoming with three old friends.

John, Dave and Franz in the Cirque of the Towers, Wyoming; The Wolfs Head Tower is in the upper left corner.

 

“The route goes right up that knife edge ridge” exclaimed my old friend Franz Helfenstein, as we reached the top of Jack Ass Pass in the Wind River range of western Wyoming. We quickly dropped our over-loaded packs and gazed at the incredible vista of classic granite spires that compose the Cirque of the Towers. The East Ridge of Wolf”s Head is a classic and very exposed line and the first glimpse gave us all a bit of an adrenaline rush.

Franz is a 60 year young math professor from Bend Oregon who is a veteran of many expeditions. He is also known as the “Mad Math Professor” because of his many extreme kayaking adventures, including the first descent of the Cotahuasi River in Peru. This might be the deepest canyon in the world, and it is also one of the best. The clear waters start in the high Andes and create miles of pristine class IV-V whitewater as they flow through a paradise filled with Inca ruins and old vineyards. Franz was also a a fairly accomplished climber, and the Wind Rivers was one of his favorite haunts. He had already climbed many of the classic spires.

Franz had already set up camp in a very pleasant meadow, so we finished the last bit of the arduous hike, and dropped our packs for the last time. It had been a very long day, but now we could enjoy the luxury of a well stocked camp in a mountain paradise. The happy team watched the alpenglow on the large towers as we feasted on a gourmet dinner including a small ration of reasonably good wine. Tales of old adventures flowed freely, and we feasted on the joys of nature and old friendships.

Sleep came very easy and we awoke to another perfect day. The nearby granite tower called Pingora was our first objective. It was big and very steep, but a carefully hidden series of ledges provided an easy, but very exposed route to the summit.

Our group included four old friends, so we split into two groups of two and used technical climbing techniques. I had been climbing with Gringo Negro since the early 70’s and it was great to share a rope with him again. This somewhat famous wild man has spent a good portion of his life exploring the world, and he had been part the team that explored the Cotahuasi. His real name is David Black, (Hence the nickname) and he honed his early climbing skills on Camelback Mountain, AZ. He is only 55 and our skills were a bit rusty, but the difficulty of the route was well below our current skill level, and we were excited about the adventure. The forth member of the group was a seasoned 56 year young adventurer named Ken Ransford. Most of Ken’s outings were with his kayak, and we had enjoyed many, including a 17 day trip on the Humla Karnali in Western Nepal. Ken was a bit of a novice climber, but he was very fit and teamed up with Franz, who was a fearless leader.
We all enjoyed a very thrilling ascent and completed the route without any problems. The weather held, and we savored a warm and sunny summit with pristine views of the surrounding towers. This included a birds eye view of the Wolf’s Head Ridge, which was very intimidating from this viewpoint. The first pitch is a narrow 30 degree slope with more than 500 feet of shear cliff on both sides. The summit view made it look steeper than it really was, and pondering the route that we planned for the next day was a bit frightening. But, the perfect weather helped to calm our nerves and we found a comfortable ledge with a natural rock backrest.

“Wow! Isn’t this awesome? This is what life is about.” Exclaimed Franz, as we nestled in to our natural chairs. Summits are magical places and we enjoyed a casual lunch with a lofty view.
The summit of most routes (especially spires) is really only about half the climb, because getting down can be very difficult and dangerous, and descents have been the scene of many accidents. Descending Pingora involved three rappels, but the anchors were already there, and Franz knew the way.

Ken looked a bit nervous as he clipped into the ropes, so I checked his rigging and technique very carefully. We proceeded with caution and arrived safely at the first of three comfortable ledges. His nerves relaxed a bit for the second and third rappels, and a short scramble brought us safely back to camp. The alpenglow provided a second great light show, as we feasted on another gourmet meal.

“We need to get a really early start tomorrow.” Exclaimed Franz over dinner. “It’s not much harder than what we did today, but it’s a lot longer and a long descent. It’s an awesome route, but I think we’ll all find it exciting.”

We awoke to a very pleasant day and scrambled quickly to the high saddle between Wolf’s Head and Pingora. The very narrow ridge looked like a very steep and narrow sidewalk to heaven with intense exposure on both sides. It didn’t look that hard, but a fall by either party would be really bad. Franz bravely lead the first pitch, and Ken followed without any problems.

Once again, we climbed in pairs of two, and Dave and I prepared our belay while we waited. Dave had chosen to wear some old hiking boots because of comfort, and they made the steep ramp a bit more challenging. I watched and belayed him nervously as he cautiously climbed up the steep ridge. He seemed a bit anxious, but his old instincts served him well, and he made it to the top without any problems.

“Off Belay! That was really a rush!” He exclaimed, as he finished setting up the anchors. His belay would prevent me from hitting the ground if I fell, but he had only managed to place a couple of pieces of protection, so a fall would still be very serious.

I take three deep breaths and follow his lead. One of the main reasons I climb is because of the complete mental focus that is required to be a competent climber. All the worries of the world suddenly disappear, as the narrow ridge consumes all of my thoughts. My boots feel somewhat secure on the course granite, and the edges of the ramp provide descent handholds, so I climb like a cat up the exposed ramp.

“Yeow! That was great!” I exclaim as I reach the belay ledge.

“I should have let you lead that one.” he remarked in his usual joking manor, as I arrived at the belay. “I thought the next pitch was going to be harder, but it looks great from here.”

The next pitch is mine, so I grab the rack from Dave and continue upward. The ridge steepens a bit, but there are two beautiful hand to fist sized cracks that provide excellent holds and plenty of protection. The combination of exposure and confidence provides a state of pure euphoria, and I am grinning from ear to ear as I top out and set up the belay.

The route eases quite a bit, so we coil the rope and continue very carefully. Ken and Franz have vanished in front of us, but we soon catch them at a narrow squeeze chimney that is challenging enough to require a belay. Franz and Ken climb into the chimney and drag their packs, but Dave and I find a way to stem the edge of it. This method is a lot less grungy, and much more exciting.

The next obstacle is a 50 foot spire that blocks our path on the exposed ridge. The established route involves traversing a steep slab with some thin moves and intense exposure. The route has been protected by some fixed pitons, but they are about 15 feet apart, so a fall by either the leader or the second would be very thrilling, and could result in an injury. A small thundercloud is threatening from the West as Franz takes the lead and disappears around the corner. We send Ken next, and belay him with a rope from each side for better protection. He does just fine, and I watch anxiously as Dave follows quickly behind him, and disappears.

The brief moment of solitude creates a more intense mood, as I clear the belay and wait for the signal from Franz.

“Belay on! Climb when ready.” He finally exclaims.

The rope tightens, and I move very cautiously around the spire. The next pin is about 15 feet away, so I will take about a 20 foot swinging fall 800 feet above the ground if I slip. The finger holds are very small, so I am relying almost completely on some small footholds that are spaced a bit further apart than I would really like. I have chosen to wear my mountaineering boots for comfort and now I suddenly wish that I had brought my technical climbing shoes instead. But, Dave has already survived with his hiking boots so it can’t be too bad. One of the moves involves trusting most of my weight to a tiny foothold, but my boot soles stick, and I reach the safety of the next pin. From here the climbing eases, and I join my friends on a large ledge.

“Yow! That was a great pitch. My adrenaline level is very happy right now! How is yours?” I exclaim as I reach the comfortable ledge.

“Me too!” Exclaims Dave with a big smile.

Franz continues up the steep ridge and Ken follows as they disappear from our sight. It is my turn to lead, and I scramble somewhat fearfully up to a horizontal crack. The first moves are quite hard and a fall back to the ledge would be long enough to get injured, so I move very cautiously up to the safety of the hand sized crack. This provides great handholds and an opportunity to place protection. But, the friendly crack suddenly ends as I step around the blind corner. The next move is a bit awkward and extremely exposed, but a good set of handholds allows me to swing over to a low angle ramp.

Ken and Franz have vanished from sight, so I am forced to find the proper route on my own. I scramble to the top of another very exposed ridge and straddle it. I cannot see Ken, and it looks like there might be an easier route lower down on the right, but I am already committed and continue leapfrogging in my straddled position. My adrenaline gland is starting to max out, but I find Ken and a very comfortable ledge to set the belay. Ken is on a very small ledge belaying Franz who is out of sight.

“How does that next pitch look?” I inquire.

“It looks pretty scary. It’s probably not that hard, but you have to balance on your feet because it looks like there aren’t any handholds, and it is really exposed.” Ken replies in a very nervous state.

“That last pitch was sure wild, and that cloud looks a bit ominous. I hope we’re almost done.”

“Me too.” He replies as he cleans the belay and prepares to climb.

“Wow! That was kinda hard and really scary!” exclaims Dave with a big smile, as he reaches the belay. “I hope we’re almost done.”

All of our nerves are being pushed to the limit, and the anxiety of waiting for the next pitch pushes them even further.

I nervously watch Ken traverse the narrow ledge as I move the belay to the tiny exposed shelf, but he makes the moves without any problems as Dave scrambles up and takes his turn at lead. This pitch involves standing on the edge of a horizontal crack that traverses the rock face. The best technique involves shuffling sideways with his toes in the crack and his upper body hugging the wall that was void of handholds. His heals are hanging over the edge of the narrow ledge, but he moves onward without any problems, as I belay him carefully from my airy perch.

“Off belay! Your turn!” He exclaims with a somewhat ominous chuckle, as I clear the belay and prepare to meet my destiny.

I have been sitting and watching for quite some time, which does not help my unsettled nerves, and standing up is probably the hardest move. But, the crack ledge proves to be friendly, and I am very relieved to find that the footholds are solid and the shear face is sloped enough to make the positions balanced. I suddenly have thoughts of an old James Bond movie, as I move quickly along the skyscraper window style ledge to a comfortable belay.

“The rest is easy and the storm is moving in, so we need to hurry!” Exclaims Franz. He and Ken are standing on the summit, so we move quickly up to join them.

I would have enjoyed lingering for at least a few moments, but the storm is threatening and summits are the most dangerous place to be in a thunder storm. A quick rappel drops us on a comfortable ledge, and the storm changes directions, so we take a well needed break, and enjoy the lofty view. Four rappels and a bit of challenging scrambling bring us back to terra firma and a great celebratory dinner.

Photos of the Wind River Range:

Earthquake in the Colca Canyon

Hiking into the deepest canyon in the world.

The steam from the many hot springs and the occasional giant condor made us feel as if we were dropping ever deeper into a great abyss. But as we reveled in the incredible scenery, the rapids became a bit more serious.

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