High Sierra Mission: Upper Cherry Creek, California

By Jed Selby, with Dustin Urban

When running a 50-foot waterfall, it’s usually the on-water portion of the adventure that I’m most concerned about. But sitting in my boat, wedged precariously between two rocks, it was the eight-foot “seal launch” directly above the lip of the 50 footer that had me most concerned. Ideally I would have a calm pool above the drop in which to prepare. But in this case just getting into my boat without prematurely sliding down the rock and off the waterfall was a challenge. Once I was safely in my boat, I pushed as hard as I could to lift myself and my 90-pound boat up and onto the narrow rock that I would be sliding down. I pivoted 90 degrees and let my bow hang over the edge. I was perfectly positioned to slide down 8 feet of granite and then directly off 50-foot Dead Bear Falls.

The waterfall had a cave on the right side of the landing so my intended line was to aim slightly left and straighten out on the lip, avoiding said cave. I ran the scenario through my head several times, planning how I would push off, the stroke I would take at the lip and then the forward tuck to minimize the impact of the landing. Once all the steps were clear in my mind, I pushed off.

I rocketed down the granite ramp and hit the water at the lip only to find that it was slightly shallower than it looked. I could feel the rock shelf at the lip catch the nose of my boat, and in the next moment I felt the full weight of my stern, loaded with my overnight camping gear, pull like a heat-seeker for the pool 50 feet below. Before I knew it, I was looking over my shoulder and spotting my landing as my boat lined up perfectly backwards and the freefall commenced. 

My back broke the tension of the water and completely softened the landing as I entered the pool below. I went deep and surfaced backwards and upright, clear of the recirculating hole at the base of the falls and the pothole on river right. I couldn’t have run it better if I’d planned it—backwards that is. 

* * *

I’m not exactly sure what was going through my head when I dreamed of heading out to California for a couple weeks of High Sierra expedition kayaking. I had only been in my creek boat a few times this season and had mostly been playboating around Colorado. But after years of watching footage of polished granite slides and a few quick conversations with my good friends Andre Spino-Smith, Dave Fusili, Jared and Graham Seiler and Nate Mack we found ourselves driving from Buena Vista to the Yosemite Valley in one brutal shot.

After a day of epic views and epic traffic, we headed to the put in for Upper Cheery Creek, the first leg of our epic journey.

We woke up before sunrise to get an early start on the 11-mile hike to the put in with a 90-pound kayak full of food, boating, camping and photography gear. The grueling hike would take eight full hours and one teammate would have to turn back after a noble battle with a bout of food poisoning.

We reached the river exhausted and relieved late in the afternoon and plunged straight into the water. The cool water and plenty of food gave the group energy to gear up for the run.

The first few miles consisted mainly of low volume slides and falls and was pretty casual.

We paddled until it was nearly dark and camped on a granite slab at the mouth of an awesome looking gorge. We built a campfire and enjoyed our first night of many in the backcountry.

The next morning we woke up, brewed some coffee, made breakfast and relaxed for a few hours before getting on the river. The group’s excitement and anticipation was palpable as we ran a few rapids and watched the walls rising out of the river. Soon we arrived at a gnarly rapid marking the entrance to the most impressive place I have ever been—Cherry Bomb Gorge. Upon running this rapid, the entire group had committed to running a series of class V+ drops that are impossible to portage once inside.

We ran a series of waterfalls and a couple big slides before catching sight of a gigantic overhang on river right where the entire mountain had given way, tumbling into the river and backing up a pool 100 yards in length. At the end of the pool we got out of our boats and hiked around the point where the river disappeared under the rubble, lowering our boats and down-climbing chimneys between massive boulders until we reached a small eddy at the top of the gorge’s crown jewel, Cherry Bomb Falls.

From that eddy, all we could see was a 40-foot slide leading into a massive curtain of spraying water. There was no way to scout the drop after the curtain, so peeling out of that eddy had a uniquely committing feeling to it. After watching each of my friends scream down the slide, through the curtain and out of sight, I climbed into my boat and popped on my sprayskirt. After just a few strokes I found myself on the slide and gaining velocity. By the time I hit the curtain I was doing mach speed as I launched into a freefall that lasted far longer than I had expected. When I hit the pool, my boat skipped off the surface before ricocheting off the wall 15 feet from the base of the falls. The impact was so violent that it knocked the wind out of me, but Cherry Bomb Falls still put a grin on my face.    

I’ve never been in a canyon with walls so sheer and tall as Cherry Bomb Gorge. Pristine granite domes 1,000 feet in height rise directly out of the river, and from the water all you can see is granite. There’s not one tree in the whole gorge. It is literally like kayaking on the moon or mars. On top of all this, once you’re in there, there’s no way out but down and through some of the most committing class V I have paddled. It doesn’t get any better than that!

We paddled late into the day after Cherry Bomb, running as many big, clean drops as we could have ever imagined or desired.

It was in this stretch of river that I found myself running Dead Bear Falls—backwards. By the time we reached the lake, we were completely exhausted after nearly 10 hours of class V. A family camped at the mouth of the river generously offered to motor us across several miles of flat water back to our car. What a way to cap off the day.

* * *

The next morning we drove back through Yosemite to the eastern side of the pass to prepare for our next mission: The Middle Fork of the Kings, a run widely considered to be one of the most challenging and dangerous in the Sierras. We slept and ate for a day, replenished our supplies and coordinated a trans-Sierra shuttle ride. Unfortunately Andre’s knee was injured after the Upper Cherry hike; he would drive shuttle.

Sometime the next day I was midway through the 13-mile hike to the put-in, and the weight of my boat was beginning to cause a grinding sensation in my right hip joint. It was obviously caused by the steep switchbacks on the 3,000+ foot decent from the top of Bishop Pass, but stopping was not an option. The trail periodically took us through ponds, which proved ideal mosquito habitat. The insects’ strategy was simple: sip away the clean mountain water and attack anything with a heartbeat that happened to pass by. It was quite something being attacked by hundreds of mosquitoes while trying not to waste energy swatting at them. I had officially reached a level of exhaustion unprecedented in my life.

Eventually the enormous granite domes of Le Conte Canyon came into view, marking the put-in for the most difficult river I have ever run. The next three days would be some of the most intense of my life.

 

High Sierra Mission: Middle Fork of the Kings, California

By Jed Selby, with Dustin Urban

Please click the link below to view video of the High Sierra Mission. Check back soon for pictures of the MFK 

High Sierras-Mission Week 08 from jared seiler on Vimeo.

    

It was quite the feeling sitting at the Middle Fork of the Kings (MFK) put-in after spending 10 hours hauling my kayak, gear and six days of food 13 miles over Bishop Pass. It was the most grueling physical work I have done in my life. We were exhausted and deep in the wilderness with 32 miles of class V+ whitewater between us and the takeout and 13 miles between us and the trailhead. We sat at 8,800 feet and our objective was to descend 6,500 feet over the next three days of kayaking. If at any point between the put-in and the last nine-mile gorge one of us were to lose our boat or get injured, we would have to hike back to the put-in and another 13 miles back to the trailhead. 

We were in an intimidating position, but the put-in looked benign enough, with just a couple hundred cubic feet per second (CFS) flowing over a low-gradient riverbed.

Sitting near the headwaters of the Kings drainage, I was somewhat surprised that this was the maximum recommended flow for the run. There were around 35 tributaries downstream, however, which would swell the river to around 1,700 CFS by the take out. Excited and anxious for our first day of kayaking, I made camp at the put-in with my four comrades. For the next three days, Jared and Graham Seiler, Dave Fusili, Nate Mack and I would be the team.

Day 2

After pounding water, eating breakfast and downing Advil, I was able to get my body functioning for a 9 o’clock put-in. According to our sources, “Day 1” should be around 10 miles long. We spent the first several hours navigating steep and continuous boulder garden rapids full of holes and logjams, waiting for the river to open up into the clean slides and waterfalls we had come to expect from the Sierras.

Instead, after about four miles we hit a steeper section called the Devils Washbowl, a five-mile stretch dropping about 400 feet per mile through increasingly intense and steep boulder gardens. The problem these rapids posed was that they were formed by piles of rocks.

While most other High Sierra runs are famous for slides and waterfalls which flow over smooth, bedrock granite, the MFK River was flowing over, but also under and through these rock piles, creating abundant hazards known as sieves. Sieves are to be avoided at all costs since they often let water but not boats, bodies or gear through. Not only that, but these boulder gardens made for extremely slow going since we could only go 40 or 50 feet after one drop before hitting the next horizon line where we would have to get out and scout again.

Here is series of Graham running a rare, clean slide. 

We developed a system where we would take turns scouting and leading rapids in an effort to pick up the pace, but the character remained extremely manky. The structural integrity of our boats was a real concern as we were forced to run drops with no good line but a six-foot boof onto a rock. Every time I hit a rock I was afraid that it would be the time that my boat broke.

After eight hours of paddling, we were still three or four miles from our intended camp. At one point Jared scouted a rapid and told me to boof right to avoid a hole and catch the eddy to scout the next drop. I flew off the eight-foot waterfall, but the eddy was too difficult to catch.  The next thing I knew I was floating into a box canyon with no eddies, a horizon line in front of me and no idea what lay below. I back paddled in an effort to catch a glimpse of the line, but all I could see were trees tops way downstream and the spray of the falls below me.

By the time I realized that the drop formed a nasty, river-wide hole, I was just a few feet above the lip. I took a few desperate strokes, but my heavy boat was slow to accelerate, and I plunged deep into the recirculating hole, unable to lift my bow up and over it. I resurfaced sideways, getting surfed by the recirculating froth at the point where it met the base of the falls. I had enough control to surf to both edges of the hole, trying to find a way out, but the walls on both sides prevented me from exiting. After registering that I was about to take my first swim in eight years, I pulled my skirt, grabbed my paddle and my camera bag from between my legs and swam to the bank immediately below the hole.

Panicked, I crawled out of the little gorge and ran downstream looking for my boat, aware that losing it was not an option since the hike out from this point would be nearly 25 miles. Luckily it was pinned in the next rapid, and I was able to wade out to it, clip a rope to the grab loop and pull it back to shore. It wasn’t until this point that the rest of the group caught site of me and knew that I was okay. The group was a bit shaken by the incident, but the rest of the team knew to carry enough speed to clear the hole.

At this point it was early evening. We pushed on for a while longer until we reached a 200 to 300-foot, runnable slide. Most in the group wanted to run it, but not at dark after such a full day. We elected to make camp 2 at a great site at the lip of the falls, three miles short of our intended campsite.

Day 3

Most of the group ran the slide for breakfast, hitting the pool at maybe 30 miles per hour.

I was wary of breaking myself at such speeds and eased into my day a bit more slowly, launching at the base of the falls. Four hours later we reached our intended camp 2. On Day 3, allegedly the “easy” day, we covered around 15 miles and dropped roughly 3,100 feet.

We got into a rhythm of scouting from our boats as much as possible since each time we were able to see the line without getting out of our boats, we would save five or 10 minutes. We had become so accustomed to the nonstop character of the river that we found ourselves regularly running rapids with limited knowledge about the line. On a day run the entire group would stop to scout these drops, but unless we wanted to be on the river for six or seven days, we had no option but to trust the one teammate who had scouted and run these massive rapids blind. The day went pretty smoothly despite its exhausting length.

By the time we reached camp 3 at Tehipite Dome, it was dusk, and we had reached a new level of exhaustion. For three days we had been undergoing incredible physical and mental stress and exertion.

Camping at Tehipite Dome was like having the Yosemite Valley to ourselves. We were surrounded on all sides by 2,000-3,000-foot granite walls, and soaring directly out of the campsite was Tehipite Dome, a 3,500-foot vertical monolith.

Day 4

Despite the awe-inspiring beauty of the valley, the mood at camp 3 was ominous. I spent a bit of the night awake, anticipating The Bottom Nine miles of the run, a stretch of river I have heard called “The hardest single day of kayaking in the Sierras.”

We were so intimidated and pressed for time that The Bottom Nine is something of a black hole in both our video and still documentation. Here’s a shot at conveying how it went.

After a standard morning, we put on for The Bottom Nine at about nine AM. At this point the river was reaching its full 1,700 CFS, and the scale of the boulder gardens had grown to the point that the river began to split into numerous channels. This added significantly to the intensity. We were commonly running channels in the middle of the river where if something went wrong, rescue would be a serious challenge since there was no shore access and stopping and getting out of your boat was often impossible. If someone got in trouble, the character of the river made for a real feeling of helplessness.

We spent the morning running endless rapids, and it felt like we were making good time. By lunch at one, we were sure we were halfway to the take out at the confluence of the South Fork of the Kings and the MFK. After lunch we were constantly on the lookout for a view of the confluence, indicating that we were nearly done.

In our effort to finish The Bottom Nine that day, we were getting accustomed to running some pretty marginal rapids. In one rapid in particular, about three quarters of the water went under an ugly logjam on the left. The line was to start all the way left and move right, breaking through a couple good size holes up top. The crux was to drop into this one hole sideways and surf it all the way across to the right. The rapid was not particularly hard, but it was eerie knowing that if one of us blew the line and went into the logjam, it was not going to be a good scene.

Finally around 5:30 we spotted the confluence we had all been waiting for maybe a mile downstream. Our spirits were sky-high as we descended the 300 or 400 feet of drop in that last mile.

It was a devastating blow to discover that what we thought was the confluence was just a bend in the river. Morale hit an all-time low at this point. Every other word out of our mouths was a cuss. We had been kayaking class V for 10 hours straight, and we were all pissed off and over it. Instead of celebrating our arrival at the take out, there was no end in site, it was around seven and we had little sense of how far we had to go.

At this point Jared took the helm. He started doing something we hadn’t done all trip. He was running rapids blind, a lot of them, and a lot of big ones. At first we followed him cautiously. But soon the mood of the group shifted, and that’s just what we were doing. It was getting dark, there was no end in sight and we were bombing some of the steepest drops on the run without scouting.

It got to the point where our standard was that if we could see water at the bottom of a drop, and we couldn’t see anything blocking the flow, we would go for it. We got to the top of one the steepest rapids in The Bottom Nine, and from our boats we could see the eddy at the bottom 40 feet below. We all ran it blind, running an eight-foot boof, into a 10-foot boof, into an eight-foot boof. The drops were stacked directly on top of one another, and at the foot of each one was a huge hole. I came out the bottom, looked back up and thought to myself, “Oh my god. That was one of the biggest rapids I have run in a long time.” And then we were in an eddy on top of another huge rapid.

So our progress really picked up with our new method of not scouting. This was an extended and pretty dramatic period of time for the group. At one point Nate went under a rock and managed to swim safely out the other side. There were a handful of portages, and eddies were small and fairly rare.  

It was around eight that we finally reached the confluence. It was one of the most glorious moments I have ever experienced on the river. We were all screaming at the top of our lungs with excitement, happiness, accomplishment and relief. We had completed the Middle Fork of the Kings!

    

Or so I thought. After drinking two quarts of water, eating a full bag of beef jerky, four power bars, and a bagel sandwich with tuna, mustard and mayo, I started to feel okay. We started our hike to Andre and the car around nine at about 2,200 feet. We arrived after 11 PM having just climbed 2,500 vertical feet over less than two miles as the crow flies. After three days of running the hardest class V of my life from dawn to dusk, the brutality of that hike put me in a state delirium. When I reached the car and went to put my boat down, I lost my balance and hit the ground, still attached to my boat. I was a mess, but I was there.

Everyone was safe, albeit pushed to their physical and mental limit. The Bottom Nine was by far the hardest day of kayaking I have ever done. Honestly, it made Upper Cherry look like a boyscout retreat. We all swore at the take out that we would never do it again. But now that we have had time to recover, I think some of us may have reconsidered. 

 

 

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