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By Clay Wright


The day after the Oh-be-Joyful Race / LVM Giant Slalom event Tommy
Hilleke shows up in the campground fired up to hit the ‘Grand Slam’ –
all the Butte’s best in a day. He and LVM’s John Grace had already
run Oh-be-Joyful by the time we had coffee but race-weary Bryan Kirk
and I hopped in Tommy’s truck for a big day of creeking, safety-
setting, and spectating on 4 of the best runs in the State of Colorado.

What started as a scouting mission on the CO’s top test piece: North
Fork of the Slate, quickly became a race to set safety as the already
dressed Hilleke was on the trail up with a gleam in his eye as soon
as the wood-check was complete. About the time I tied off to a tree
and was dropping down Tommy stuck the pinch, after nailing the rest
of the drop, with his usual style. The loud ‘thud’ and ‘clack’ of
his paddle in the last pinch was the only thing that kept a 4-boat
‘huckathon’ from taking place. That and the voice of experience
reminding us how strong and quick Tommy is. But that’s just how it
is with these super-tight sequence drops – when it all goes well it
looks super-easy. But hit one wall and you’ll be hitting several
more before you know it…

Next up we hit Daisy at solid flows: the air-time off that 20+
footer is just outstanding. So much more hang time than you expect
due to the ‘kick’ you get at the lip. I threw an unplanned grab in
half way down cause i had so much time in the air! Smooth sailing
through ‘RipYerHeadOff" into the Slate where one sketchy log-jam and
the formidable ”Wicked Wanda” kept the amp up high after a gorgeous
trip through a flowery meadow. Wanda swirls the whole river between
short but overhung sharp-edged walls before dropping into a nasty re-
circ eddy / hole thing on the left. We all cleaned the left then
right boofs feeling a the big-water push erupting from this tiny
creek-bed. One log portage and OBJ Campground was in sight.
Since Grace and Tommy had already gotten that one, we headed East…

The East was huge, 700cfs? Instead of scrapy class 2 with shallow 3
+ slides it was awash with waves and breaking holes and the going
about triple speed of normal. We followed Mariah’s lines and were at
the Big East Falls in about 5 minutes! ”The More Water the Better”
is what I’ve always heard on this cascading falls. . but perhaps
that’s just ‘Stupid’? I’ve wanted this one for years. At this
level the right tongue was pushing dangerously close to some rocks
below the BIG first plunge and the left side hole was creating a boil
4′ high that wrapped over into the bottom of the right tongue.
Looked soft, but likely to flip you. And that 3rd junky little ledge
waits just below to rip any exposed flesh…. So while we were all
pretty pumped to knock this one out on some of the biggest water of
the year, Tommy was practically paddling in while we were still

His line was perfect – everything we talked about before hand was
100% on track, yet as he calmly slid 30′ down into the kicker at the
peak of the green tongue his forward stance (prep for the glancing
impact) and an unlucky bounce sent his stern bounding up over the bow
and a resounding ‘thud’ rang through the whole valley. Tommy re-
appeared still at mach speed but on his side, fighting a nasty
downstream roll with his elbow and paddle on his way down the bumpy
2nd slide, winning the battle just before that manky 3rd ledge.
Group confidence destroyed, it was 15 minutes before Grace stepped up
and stomped a more vertical line 5′ further left. Kirk and I
elected to settle in for the hike without the extra 60′ of
gradient… a decision we may regret for years but that felt just
right at the time.

That’s how it is with creeking. . .no matter what your goals, no
matter how well or bad your buddy makes that goal look, it’s
ultimately how you feel about the upcoming experience right before
time to peel out or portage that you have to focus on. Seeing Tommy
do exactly what i planned and then crash destroyed my stoke and my
confidence for the moment and there was nothing in the spring of his
step, the humble smile on his face, or the vision of Grace’s ballsy
leftward line could have done to bring that back in time to remove
the lump in my throat or the abyss in my stomach. I know i can run
that drop – but I’ll wait to run it with a gleam in my eye and an
excitement resonating through my bones another time rather than peel
out in the face of apprehension. Tommy’s amp kept him sharp enough
to deal with what came. He was on fire at the top and still burning
after the fact. Without that ‘stoke’ what’s the point?

Bryan Kirk and I went up late last night for a ‘Peak Flow’ run on Oh-
be J, hiking up at 7 PM to enjoy the sunset’s last gleam and stopping
to chat between each drop as the water continued to rise. We
scouted the long high-flow last slide series at 9PM .. eyes
gleaming, excitement resonating, nothing the dark or the level could
shake off. And of course we stuck it. And of course the resulting
high lasted longer than the bars on Crested Butte stay open. What a
shame to have missed that to force a drop I just wasn’t feeling. I
leave Crested Butte with 2 drops left on the list, but no regrets.

Clay Wright

Shots by Clay, Bryan Kirk, and Trevor

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