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Monday, December 1st, 2008 – New Delhi , India

Exactly 11 days after entering the Indus at the cusp of a 3000 foot descent to the Karakoram Highway ; Ben Stookesberry, Phil Boyer, Darin McQuoid, Rafael Ortiz and Chris Korbulic accomplish the most complete descent of the Indus ‘s fabled Rondu Area. Making just 11 portages the team passed through one the greatest whitewater challenges on earth with extreme care and the utmost reverence and respect for one of the greatest waterways on the planet. The success of the descent was certainly owed in part to River India founder Roland Stevenson and his roadside support and interpretation who stayed in visual and radio contact for the full extent of the trip.

According Pakistan ‘s greatest climber and expeditionist Nazir Sabir (first ascent west ridge of K2 (1981) and founder Nazir Sabir Expeditions): "the Rhondu area of the Indus saw its first descent in 1989 with David Allardice’s fabled Taming the Lion Expedition and film. There have only been a handful of attempts ever since." This stands in contrast to reports made after two attempts on the Indus by the German Sickline crew in 2007 and 2008 who claim the first "Mastery of the River and or descent of the Rondu." Sabir maintains that a "full descent of the river was accomplished over a lengthy descent involving dozens of portages but was accomplished none the less by Allardice and crew in the late 80’s. Certainly from our experience on the Indus, we found that the river certainly provided many points of egress and contained only one 5km gorge of truly mandatory class 5 which may or may not have been run on the Taming the Lion Epic.

Despite our groups experience and numbers, just minutes downstream of our put-in at 7200 feet above sea level, we begin to understand that we were only marginally less exposed as a team as opposed to being alone. Getting out in the middle of one of the Indus ’s major cataracts is to absolutely commit to staying in your boat in a style of self rescue often termed as “if you swim, you die.” Certainly the glacial melt itself can induce hypothermia in a matter of minutes, let alone the tectonically active 15,000 cfs of currents that could hold down a PFDs mere 15 pounds of flotation for life threatening minutes in the wrong spot.

Despite staying well attached to our 70 – 80 gallon vessels, the river would often swallow us whole finally releasing the gasping paddler 50 to 100 feet downstream. After a few days getting accustomed to this facinating albeit chilling effect of going deep under the surface turmoil of the seething Indus , Rafa uses this “sub-maneuver” to his advantage making a certain first descent of a massive 20 foot ledge falls. Rafa simply tapped into the speed and power of the mighty Indus to turn an 84 gallon Rocker into a squirt boat and flush beneath 10 feet of violent reticulation at the base of the falls. My Mexican friend never ceases to amaze and he is certainly sporting his Red Bull colors with characteristic zeal and determination.

Unfortunately the following day was Rafa’s last on the river as he was forced to make a premature exit from the Rondu in order to finish up his Mechanical Engineering semester at University in Mexico City . Despite all the grief I gave him for leaving a “once in a life time trip” early, I really respect him for sticking to his word and finishing up his semester at school.

The following day was our 5th on the river and Phil, Darin, Chris and I were confronted with the fore-mentioned mandatory vertical walled Swinging Bride box on the Rondu (the 5km mandatory section of the Indus ). On advice from Roland, we hiked out to the road just upstream of the Box to get an aerial view of the rapids. From the road Darin and Chris decided that they would skip the section and reenter the river where it opened back up several kms downstream. As some of Jackson ’s most experienced steep creek kayakers, the two felt they were slightly over their heads in the huge water of the Indus and would enjoy shooting photos and video from the road should Phil and I decide to give it a go. I was sorry to lose the two guys for the day at river level, but supported their decision to listen to their intuition and play it safe.

Since the beginning of the trip Phil Boyer had been hounding me about why I had invited him on the trip considering we hadn’t boated together in 2 years. I could not help joking with him by saying “I knew you were one of the only people that would say yes!” But all joking aside, Phil’s credentials are obvious. With 25 year’s behind the paddle, he has spent 16 year’s of combined experience in the big water environs of the Futaleufu and the Grand Canyon of the Colorado . In addition last year he chalked up a big trip to Tibet gaining precious experience on the big rivers of the Himalaya . So when he agreed to make an attempt on the Gorge with me I was really not that surprised and was really encouraged by the confidence of such an able partner.

With a good contingency plan in place, we entered the gorge with a 30 foot seal launch into waters that swelled beneath a truly massive entrance rapid like an Ocean grotto. Simply paddling out of the eddy the river began to show how the power of the river could multiply while hemmed into to a bedrock slot. Just down stream of surging 15 – 20 foot haystacks, the river plummeted out of site. Now accustomed to the standard 15 minutes of up and over two story boulders in order to scout, we found a 30 foot drop that accelerated like something out of California dream turned Himalayan surge fest. Phil was fired up on the line and tapped into the heart of the maelstrom with a big time cut underneath a ledge hole to stay clear of a big wall slam at the flume. Just downstream the story replayed itself with Phil negotiating the crux of the Gorge over a 15 foot falls and duck diving a massive hole at its base. Unfortunately we spent the remainder of the day considering and then refusing two optional but massive sections just downstream. Up, over, and through towering boulders we hoisted our boats to circumnavigate relatively short sections of river at the bottom of the canyon. While contemplating the potential of a would be descent through consecutive mega holes the words of the Gambler rang true in my ears: “You gotta know when to hold em’, know when to fold em’. Know when to walk away and know when to run…”

5 days later as the canyon finally opened and the river relinquished its frenetic pace, we thanked the Indus and its people for such a safe and hospitable passage, agreeing that this was the most incredible single stretch of river that any of us had ever paddled. As far as I could tell the Rondu might be approximated by taking 180 miles of flat water out of the Grand canyon , give it another 1000 feet of gradient, surround it by the Himalayan massive on one side and the 20,000 foot plus towers of the Karakoram of the other, and quadruple the mean flow… This is a big water class V ers’ paradise.

More importantly what the media would have you believe would be an American hating war zone, was actually one of the most welcoming and hospitable places on earth. One day 1 we received a huge bag of dried apricots from a river side village. On day 3 several villages coalesced into a riverside cheering section as they followed our progress for several kms offering us cups of tea when we emerged from our boats to scout yet another huge cataract. On day 7 Phil was the first westerner that a family in the village of Shatoot had ever had in their house. After at least 3 cups of tea, he immerged from the gathering with a handful of semi-precious gems that the family had insisted that he take to the US as a gift. On day 10 we spent a few precious hours in the morning attending the community school in the Haramosh Valley meeting with the children and sharing some simple English stories with them. During their lunch period we were just passing by the school at river level as the children rushed down to wish us well and thank Phil for the several hundred pieces of bubble gum that he had left behind.

As is so eloquently communicated in the Best Selling Novel Three Cups of Tea our group could not help but feel that the front lines of the war on Terror should not be set on some bloody field but instead should be set in the swelling and often inadequate classrooms of the third world.

With any luck you will get a visual taste of the Indus and Pakistan from Darin and Phil very soon. They shot thousands of some of the coolest big water and big mountain photos I have ever seen. As for my footage, look for Hotel Charley Vol. 4 coming to a paddle shop near this spring 2009 and some teasers emerging after the New Year. With 4 angles including the “aerial cam,” from Chris, Rafa, Roland and I it is some of the best big water footage I have ever seen.

Thanks so much to Roland Stevenson for making this trip possible. Also to our extremely gracious host in Islamabad Mr. Zakaria and his wonderful family, for hosting our boisternous Ameri/Mex group and hosting a last minute slide show to present our trip to other interested parties in Islamabad. Also many thanks to one of the coolest groups of people and kayakers that I have ever traveled and boated with.


Ben Stookesberry

P.S. Chris Korbulic and I will be continuing on to my old haunt in North East India and attempt a 100 mile first descent through a virgin swath of the Himalayan front range. We are planning on 2 weeks of self support so I will touch base again after the New Year.