Kaiak: Searching Out First Descents in Venezuela

Mar 22, 2011
Outside Magazine

Kayaker Chris Korbulic blogs from South America as he films an expedition for the South American paddling show Kaiak. His previous posts can be found here, here, and here.

Gran Sabana Weather, Photo by Chris Korbulic                                         Gran Sabana Weather, Photo by Chris Korbulic

You win some. You lose some. Such is life, such is the story of adventure, and such is the story of filming a kayaking television series. Sometimes it's difficult to see the difference between a win and a loss, and reason doesn't always support what you think you have in the end. Those who can see the difference and then move on are fortunate. One week ago we were high off our days at Kaieteur Falls in Guyana. This week I am not sure if we'll count our time in Venezuela as a loss, or as a win that sets us up for greater things in the future.

Part I: Santa Elena
There had been little debate about where to go when we were again denied access to the indigenous areas in Northern Roraima, Brazil. Southern Venezuela was our only remaining objective. The authoritative entry visa stamp of the Venezuelan immigration official calmed any initial worries I had about getting in. The Guyana Highlands, containing Angel Falls and Mount Roraima, have a lifetime of first descent possibilities. For good reason, few have tried to paddle in this area. On our arrival to Santa Elena, we met with one man who has made a few descents of major rivers and had more in mind for us. He had a tourism office and a topographic map inlaid on a large stone table where he showed us but a few of the possibilities in the vast area of the highlands. Access is the major issue combating efforts to paddle, or do much of anything in the area. Trying to convince pilots to shove three kayakers and their kayaks into small aircrafts is not an easy thing.

Platoon Chopper, Photo by Chris Korbulic                                         Platoon Chopper, Photo by Chris Korbulic

Part II: Flight Club
We needed to figure out our main objectives for the following week. The only way, we figured, was to make like tourists and take a small-plane into the storm filled skies. Unseasonably cloudy and rainy skies kept the rivers mostly full, the mountains mostly covered, and—from the moment we took off—our plane bouncing around like popcorn. We flew past Aryun Tepuy, site of Angel Falls. The massive cliffs occasionally revealed themselves, but no sign emerged of the giant falls—undoubtedly full of water. Jungle and savanna cover the Guyana Highlands, one of the oldest, most undisturbed land formations on earth. While flying I could not escape the feeling that I should be on the ground, in the rivers, traversing this land slowly, looking up from the water at the cloud-capped tepuy walls. There is definitely something to be said for flying over and seeing a vast area in a short time. It's a beautiful, modern way to be introduced to a place, but it feels like waving hello to someone you've always wanted to shake hands and talk with.

Rio Yurani Pedro, Photo by Chris Korbulic                                        
Rio Yurani Pedro, Photo by Chris Korbulic

Part III: A Humbling Affair

We had entered Venezuela with prayers for rain on our lips and high expectations. On our flight we had seen the sinister rain clouds. They are the beating heart that pushes water down these rivers, allowing them to flow like tangled threads over distinct drops in gradient. We were lucky to see most of the rivers full from the unseasonable heavy rains, flowing fast and in various shades of brown. A few mysterious tributaries leaked light blue tints which swirled into the currents. The Rio Caroni stood out as the most impressive section of river we had seen and took the top spot on our to-do list. Access was intimidating, requiring some combination of motor boat and small aircraft. It would take up the  majority of our time in Venezuela. It was not ideal for Daniel and Ronaldo who would not be able to follow with cameras along the 100+ kilometer section. The river looked full-on from a thousand feet above, so it was sure to be a test of our high-water, big-river abilities, not to mention our abilities to film enough to fill an episode. The decision was made to bag a few things close to the road, then go for the more committing Caroni. Change after change resulting from access issues and filming needs and the Caroni lost priority. A section of the Karuay river and a day-trip to a falls took its place.

An adventure in itself, Salto Ka requires a quick helicopter rock-star entrance, and serious consideration. I saw it from the air and knew I was out of the game for this one. I thought we would all just paddle to the lip, get the obligatory scouting shots from the helicopter, then head back to Santa Elena. Reason doesn't support all my decisions, but it definitely made this call for me. The falls were much taller than anything I had ever run, and the whisper of water reaching the bottom was not an ideal landing. There are not a lot of people running falls over 100 feet. I was watching two of them stand at the top of this 130-foot drop, discussing the options and the likelihood of success. Ben and Pedro traced the line of the falls with their hands and went back and forth from the lip to a rock outcrop to triangulate their views. They briefly came to the bottom of the falls, where I had gone immediately after landing, and Pedro surprised and concerned me by saying that he was just checking the depth of the pool. The game was on for him, and he wanted to run this thing.

Salto Ka Scout, Photo by Chris Korbulic                                         Salto Ka Scout, Photo by Chris Korbulic
Part IV: Relief
I prepared myself at the bottom with a kayak and the most optimism I could muster. I stood on an island in the middle of the river, its edges eroding under me, completely unsure of what I was about to witness. Pedro had run a waterfall about this size two years ago in Mato Grosso, Brazil, and I watched with similar anxiety. Whether his motives were purely for the feeling of the falls, or to further push his name on extreme kayaking in Brazil and around the world, he was getting in his boat, and waiting for the chopper to get back into the air for an incredible shot of the massive falls.

I had been feeling tired, no miracles in weeks, but when Ben signaled me that Pedro was no longer going, I thought that might be just what we needed. A perfect run would have been amazing, one for the record books, but when I got to the top and saw that the helicopter wasn't starting, I saw the root of Pedro's decision. He knew the danger of the falls and was counting on that chopper for possible evacuation. I smiled and knew he would be safe and we would be spending the night out in the open above the falls.

With every sun that sets on this trip, I am feeling more humbled by the powers outside our control. The dead battery of the chopper kept Pedro from running the falls. It also kept us from continuing on our plan for the following days and in the cold for a night. It threw us another curve that, as much as it kept us from doing, I knew was a win. Now we're looking at our last chance to get into something good that has been evading us since the first week. Good news from Roraima has us turning back that way, and all we need is a series of small miracles to have our winning end.

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