Wednesday, October 30, 2013

India Part III: The Upper Indus

The last stop on our Ladakh kayaking tour was an overnighter on the Upper Indus River. This is the river that India was named after and the valley has a rich history of ancient civilizations dating back to 3300 BC. For this trip it was necessary for us to apply for visitor permits and travel far upstream near the border of Tibetan China. It is a remote region with a strong military presence and we passed by many base camps on our way to the put-in. As we drove further and further from Leh up the dusty road, I was again relieved to have such a great group to travel with. We were joined by a long lost paddling friend, Polly Green, and a local paddler named Biru. 

Hindus consider all rivers in India to be sacred and with one look at the Upper Indus I could see why. The landscape was completely different from the Zanskar and resembled the red rock canyons of the Colorado River. The river was roadside for the most part. On our way to the put-in we were able to scout some rapids from the truck, but there were way too many to remember. The only thing we knew was that somewhere there was a surprise sticky hole that was responsible for a lot of swims.

This section of the Indus had continuous class IV to IV+ read and run rapids, my favorite kind of kayaking! From the moment we launched there was nonstop whitewater through a scenic canyon. We all jumped in line and were making good progress until we got to the legendary hole. It was sure a sneaky one and we didn't see it coming until a couple people had already taken some pretty good beat downs. Fortunately no one swam and everyone was okay physically, but mentally it presented some challenges for the group.
Jacob running a big boulder drop rapid on the Upper Indus

The next morning we continued downstream with Polly leading the charge, but Susan was gradually falling behind. The rest of us were somewhere in between, but as the day went on, the gap started getting bigger. There was talk of splitting up the group to make sure we could catch our ride at the takeout, but I fully supported taking time to scout/portage a few things and wait for everyone to catch up. The problem with being in the middle of nowhere India is that you don't really have the option of walking off the river alone if you're having a bad day. My peace of mind relied heavily on the “safety in numbers” rationale so I felt strongly that we should stick together and keep an eye on each other. 

After some negotiation we were able to pull it together as a team and find patience as others were overcoming mental struggles. Eventually the rapids became smaller as we approached a smelly bridge that marked our takeout at the Upshi truck stop. We parked ourselves and our pile of kayaks at a roadside diner and waited for our ride, but the adventure continued when the shuttle vehicle never showed up. As evening set in, we had all given up hope of being rescued and jumped on a massive bus to Leh that coincidently had just enough room for the nine of us and our kayaks.  

Upshi truck stop

Holy cow

On our last day in Leh I was not ready to leave and tried without success to strategize a way to stay longer. That night Monica, Ty, Susan, and I hiked up to the Shanti Stupa overlooking the city and reflected back on the last couple weeks. The people, places, and rivers of Ladakh had made quite an impression on me. The simplicity, happiness, and raw beauty of that area is something I will never forget. Jacob, Susan, Adam, and I said our goodbyes and headed to the airport early the next morning. I was sad to leave Ladakh but so grateful for the experience. It definitely gave me a new perspective on the world and what I value in life.

Shanti Stupa

For more information about kayaking rivers of the Ladakh region, check out The UK Rivers Guidebook at:

I got all my travel info from this book and I found it to be very helpful:

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

India Part II: Zanskar Gorge - The Grand Canyon of Asia

There is no easy way to get to the put-in of the Zanskar Gorge. We wanted to start at the remote town of Padum which lies in a high mountain valley walled-in between the Zanskar and Great Himalayan Ranges. There is currently an attempt to build a road up the canyon but the going is tough. While on the river we saw a crew slowly chipping away at the solid rock walls with a backhoe. We also saw places where the new road was already completely washed out. I have a feeling access to Padum won't get easier any time soon.

Travel through the Ladakhi landscape definitely seems easiest by way of the rivers. In the winter, the locals trek up and down the frozen Zanskar River to pass through the gorge. On our way down the river we saw cave huts built up with smoke blackened ceilings from the winter passage. Another possibility for kayakers is to access Padum by paddling a tributary called the Tsarap Chu, but I've read this section has a long mandatory portage and committing narrows section that can get dicey at high water. The option we chose was a scenic two-day drive around the Zanskar Range, up the Suru River Valley, over 14,435 ft. PensiLa pass, and down the Doda River.

photos: Monica Gokey

Two jeeps picked us up the morning of August 11th just as it started to get light. We made it a pretty good distance that day and it was the most beautiful drive I have seen in my life! We passed through green river valleys dotted with yaks and switchbacked up over stark mountain passes dotted with marmots. We made stops to check out ancient Buddhist monasteries, massive glaciers, and class VI rapids. It was the most unique geography and culture I've ever experienced. The going got really rough on the dirt road up the Suru River. As it started to get dark we called it a night and set up camp overlooking the Suru. It was so nice to be sleeping by a river again and I was itching to get on the water! 

Nearing PensiLa Pass


We finally reached the Zanskar late on the second day. Haggared but happy, we set up camp at the put-in and got ready for our three day paddle back down to the confluence with the Indus. When I crawled out of my bivy the next morning, Jacob was already out surfing a great wave he had found upstream. After a quick breakfast I packed up my gear and paddled out to join him. Launching on a new river in a foreign country where everything was unfamiliar, it felt good to climb into my kayak and feel at home again. One by one, everyone got packed up and joined us in the eddy. Then we all peeled out and drifted downstream, excited to live out of drybags for the next few days.

Jacob catching a morning surf

Meeting locals at the put-in

photo: Monica Gokey

The Zanskar is a classic Himalayan big water multi-day run. It is about 90 miles and every bit as spectacular as the Grand Canyon of the Colorado in it's own jagged way. Most of the rapids are large class III-IV wave trains with the crux at a narrow entrance to the gorge section. The vertical canyon walls make it challenging to find campsites in some areas, but we didn't see any other groups on the river and were able to find great camping for our two nights on the river. There were interesting side canyons around every corner and we stopped to hike a couple of them. It would be easy to spend a whole week exploring out there!

Nice beach camp on the first night

Side hike

Adam soaking it all in

By the second day the fairytale started to fade. We hit a flat section, the wind was brutal, and the water was frigid. It was a long morning and my sunburned skin and was chapped and painful. The local food, booze, and/or river water had caught up with a couple people and the group was making frequent emergency pit stops. Then we saw a group of trekkers trudging along a steep, rocky trail and suddenly things didn't seem so bad after all. Shortly after that, the trail left the river completely and we entered the gorge section of the Zanskar. The river narrowed and the whitewater was awesome as the walls closed in. Loud cheers came from our bright train of kayaks as we bobbed through the giant wave trains. It was an incredible place to be and I felt so small!

At this point we were a week into our India trip and I was really appreciating all that time to paddle with Susan and Monica. Of course I love kayaking with the guys too, but I always learn so much from having strong women boaters around who aren't afraid to plan and lead an international kayaking trip. It was encouraging to have them there to hold a rope or discuss lines while sitting at the top of a boily drop. I learned a lot from getting to know their paddling styles and it was inspiring to follow each other through some of the bigger rapids. 

Entrance to the gorge section

Me in the crux rapid

The heart of the gorge

The narrows

Just when I thought it couldn't get any better, we rolled up on an amazing waterfall pouring out of the canyon wall.  I recognized it from pictures I'd seen, but photos don't capture the power of this place. It was surreal being there in person, surrounded by fluttering prayer flags and dwarfed by the giant canyon walls. It was late in the day and we decided that instead of gambling on finding a camp downstream, we'd go ahead and stay in the most beautiful place on earth. 

Night two campsite in waterfall heaven

Ty and Monica

Photos: Monica Gokey

I wish I could wake up next to a waterfall every morning and paddle down an awesome river through a giant canyon. It was our last day on the Zanskar, but one of my all time favorite experiences. The day was packed with great read and run rapids. By early afternoon we had reached the continuous, rowdy day section of the Zanskar which made for a great grand finale. There were a few commercial rafting trips out and it was fun to meet some of the local guides and safety boaters. Gradually the canyon opened up and after a few last lazy river bends, we pushed through the afternoon headwinds and made it to the confluence just in time for hot curry and cold beer at Splash Rafting Base. For me, kayaking the Zanskar Gorge was a dream come true and I'm so grateful to everyone who helped make it happen!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

India Part I: Landing in Ladakh

India will blow your mind and turn your whole world upside down. Stepping off the plane in Ladakh, India, I felt like I'd landed on another planet. The dry, mountainous landscape was unlike anything I had ever seen. Susan Hollingsworth, Adam Elliott, Jacob Glissmeyer, and I had taken an early morning flight from New Delhi over the jagged white peaks of the Himalayas. My eyes were glued to the window as the plane descended between two giant mountain ranges and landed in the Indus River Valley.

We were so relieved to see our four kayaks surface in the pile of cargo that emerged from the plane. From the airport we strapped our boats to the roof of a small taxi van and wound our way through the chaotic streets of Leh. Amid all the strange sights, smells and blaring horns, it was so nice to see some familiar faces as we pulled up to our guest house. Monica Gokey, Ty Bequette, and Ben West were there to greet us and the garden patio of the guest house was soon overrun with colorful dry bags, paddles, and kayaks. As we all sat down over some chai tea to plan our paddling adventure, I couldn't help but look around and feel lucky to be surrounded by such an awesome group of people for such a memorable trip.


Originally Monica, Susan, and I planned a ladies trip, but there was a lot of violence towards women popping up in the news from all over India, and I was relieved when the guys decided to join us. Susan and Adam met paddling in China and are both experienced travelers and river guides. They are also a great journalist/photographer team and do a lot of work in paddle sports and environmental conservation. They live not too far from me in Oregon so I've been able to paddle with them quite a bit over the last few years.

Monica and Ty can usually be found somewhere in either Montana, Idaho, or Alaska. They are great at logistics and had most of the trip details sorted out by the time we got there. Monica and I took an amazing trip to Nepal a few years ago and I've been hoping we'd make it back to some large volume Himalayan rivers ever since.

My brother, Jacob, is a character and a really good paddler. We grew up rafting together but had only kayaked together a handful of times before this trip. He and his family live in Wyoming and I don't get to see them enough so I was excited he was able to join me on an international kayaking adventure!

Ben was the wild card of the group. I didn't know him well before the trip, but having him along turned out to be a best case scenario. He's a great paddler from Colorado and he's really fun. There was no shortage of entertainment on the trip with Ben around.

To top it off there was Skaldan, our incredible interpreter, guide and driver from Splash Adventures. He got us to and from all the rivers and through all the government check points successfully. Thank you so much Skaldan!

Ty, Monica, Susan, Ben, Jacob, Adam, Christie, and Skaldan (far right)

Leh is about 11,500 ft. above sea level and we were all feeling the altitude while we were there. For our first run we did a warm up on a day stretch of the Indus River from Thikse to Nimu. The drive to the put-in was an experience in itself. Buddhist monasteries were perched in the steep mountainsides all around us and stupas and prayer flags dotted the landscape. The section of river we paddled was quite flat for the first half, but then it picked up with plentiful wave trains and surf waves as it funneled into a gorge.

photo: Monica Gokey

The Mamba Creeker was the perfect boat for this trip because it is good at everything: big water, creeking, surfing and self-supports. Skaldan joined us for this stretch and he was learning to kayak in the Mamba. It is the type of boat you can paddle as a new kayaker and never grow out of as you advance to class V because it is so versatile. I brought the Mamba 8.1 because it is a nice size to travel with and still has plenty of volume for self-supports.

Traveling by kayak is my favorite way to view the everyday lives of other cultures. Life in rural India revolves around rivers and we were right in the middle of it all. Along the way we saw kids swimming, women washing clothes, farmers irrigating fields, families gathering wood, and monks in red robes leading donkeys down for a drink of water. Later in the trip we even floated by a funeral ceremony. Unfortunately, the water quality reflects all this activity and I was very determined not to flip over on this trip.

photos: Monica Gokey

Late in the afternoon we reached our takeout at the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar rivers. Looking upstream, I caught my first glimpse of the Zanskar Gorge as it exits the giant Zanskar mountain range. It was a section of river that I had been wanting to paddle for a long time and our plan was to head that way the next morning. I don't know if it was jet lag or excitement, but I could hardly sleep that night!