May 6, 2012
California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains are geologically blessed with some of the best Class V kayaking on the planet. The combination of sunny weather, beautiful canyons, long wilderness stretches, smooth granite and excellent whitewater beckons me back from Idaho to my home state nearly every summer for a paddling pilgrimage.
The best and hardest stretches of river are hidden high in the mountains near the headwaters of each of the state’s major watersheds. These pristine rivers cascade over smooth granite, framed by spectacular wilderness backdrops. Trips down the high Sierra classics take multiple days, combining elements of backpacking with kayaking. You load your gear into your kayak, strap your boat to your back and hit the trail. Only after a long, exhausting hike do you actually hit the river for several days of kayaking.
Paddling the Middle Kings, a monumental high Sierra run, involves a brutal hike, lots of portaging, and a ton of demanding Class V whitewater – not to mention a 300-mile, 6 ½ hour shuttle. The Middle Kings’ headwaters can be reached only by hiking across the Sierras, starting on the eastern side, near Bishop. Under any circumstances, hiking 12.8 miles up and over a 12,000-foot-high pass is tough, but with a loaded kayak strapped to your back, it’s an ordeal.
In 1982 Royal Robbins, Reg Lake, Doug Tompkins and Newsome Holmes lugged their 12-foot kayaks over Bishop Pass to complete the first Middle Kings descent, portaging approximately 50 times along the way. More than 15 years passed before the Driftwood Productions crew made the second descent, whittling down the number of portages dramatically. In modern creek boats, most paddling groups can now run the Middle Kings with less than 20 portages
I made my first trip down the river in August, 2005 with three good friends and some shuttle help from family members. The experience was amazing, but also physically exhausting. Now, six years later, I was finally ready for another lap down the Middle Kings. Hungry for a new experience, this time I decided to go alone. No shuttle help. No one to help carry gear or food. No one to help me if anything went wrong.
But I’d taken every precaution in preparing, and I planned to portage more liberally than I would with a group. I’d made another action-packed trip to California earlier in the summer and was feeling strong. I was confident in my abilities. I knew and had accepted the risks.
I left Boise on a hot Monday evening and headed south toward California where the gauge predicted perfect water levels for the Middle Kings. I drove late into the night and slept at a rest stop two hours from Bishop with the first long leg of my adventure complete.
I made it to the Bishop Ranger Station just as it opened at 8 the next morning. After listening to the forest rules and picking up a free wilderness permit, I drove 30 more minutes to the South Lake trailhead where the real work would begin.
I loaded my gear-stuffed drybags into my kayak at the trailhead, then strapped the boat to my NRS Sherpa pack system. I locked the doors, shrugged on the heavy load, and set out on the 12-mile hike to the put-in. It would be six days before I saw the van again.
Back in Boise I’d loaded an audiobook on my MP3 player to help keep me moving through the hike, a tragic tale about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis during WWII. The story reminded me of how much worse suffering could be as I trudged along the scenic but strenuous trail while the sun moved through the sky.
By the time I crested Bishop Pass – six miles from the trailhead and 2,222 feet higher – the sun was close to setting. I would have to make camp, then finish the hike the next day. I clambered down the trail for about 45 more minutes before stopping for the night near some high alpine lakes.
As the alpenglow painted the tall, jagged peaks around me in beautiful reds, I bundled up for a cold night’s sleep. I woke early the next morning and hit the trail just as the sun reappeared over the mountains. With sore hips and knees, I limped onward, sustained by the knowledge that I’d reach the river that afternoon.
The light at the end of the tunnel appears when you reach the rim of LeConte Canyon and see the upper Middle Kings flowing far below. But my first trip to the Kings six years earlier had taught me that the river is still a long way off from this point, and hiking downhill can be as bad as hiking up. Switchbacks seem to go on forever as you drop several thousand feet to the put-in.
After the grueling downhill trudge, I dropped my kayak on the shore of a small stream – the headwaters of the mighty Kings. I’d never had to work so hard to reach a river, but I knew my efforts would pay off in the many miles of beautiful whitewater that awaited me. I unstrapped the pack from my kayak and stowed it in the stern of the boat, excited to travel by river instead of trail.
The run starts as a shallow, rocky creek punctuated with smooth granite slides. The water was clean, clear, and warmer than I’d expected. I paddled quietly downstream, hearing only the sounds of the cascading river and my boat scraping over rocks. Soon the stream flattened out and snaked through a huge, tranquil meadow flanked by dramatic mountains. This proved to be the only flat water on the river.
Several logjams and boulder sieves lurked below, which I grudgingly walked my kayak around. I stopped to camp about three miles into the run, feeling like my legs couldn’t handle another portage. That night I recovered by a fire, reading The Hobbit and munching on freeze-dried food and bratwursts. Alone in the dark canyon, I mixed my own adventure with that of Mr. Bilbo Baggins as I read myself to sleep.
The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) follows alongside the upper stretch of the run, bringing with it a steady trickle of backpackers. The giant orange tortoise lumbering over the pass startled many hikers, and everyone wanted to know how much my shell weighed. But inquiries ceased below Palisades Creek where the PCT veers away from the river trail, taking most of the passersby with it. From this point on, I paddled another 50 miles without seeing another human.
Below Palisade, the Middle Kings action starts to pick up. Most of the classic bedrock slides fall in this section before the river morphs into a nearly continuous series of boulder gardens. With an average gradient of 222 feet per mile, this stretch also boasts the river’s steepest mile, tumbling no less than 510 feet.
A picturesque gorge ending in a 20-foot waterfall lay below the snow bridge. After a clean line through the gorge and the ensuing falls, I got out on the left bank to portage a boxed-in reversal. The short but steep gorge walls prevented me from shouldering my boat up the climb. I tied my throw rope to the kayak and started hiking up the gorge, ready to haul the boat up behind me. A stout 10-15 miles of Class IV and V whitewater still lay between me and my campsite, but first I had to deal with an equally stout portage.While making my way through a steep spot, I was startled to see a huge snow bank on the shore, and then to see the entire river flowing beneath a giant snow bridge! There was plenty of room to pass under the bridge, which appeared sturdy even though a sprinkle of snowmelt dripped from it into the river. I paddled through the rapids above the bridge, then slipped by underneath.
I started pulling my gear-laden kayak up to the trail at the top of the gorge. But as my boat neared the rim, it swung violently to the left. Now it hung freely off a vertical cliff directly above the rapid. This was bad. The thought of a long, hungry hike out passed through my head as I clenched the rope attached to my dangling kayak.
I wrapped the rope around my hands for a better grip and yelled out in desperation as I repeatedly attempted to lift my kayak up above the rim. The slope I was standing on was loose, and the throw rope was thin and hard to grip. After a short but intense battle to hoist the loaded kayak up and over the cliff, I realized this effort was futile. I began searching for something to wrap the rope around while the boat hung dangerously over fast moving water.
With the day fading, I proceeded to mob downstream in a scoutless flurry of routing.
A large but loose rock was the best anchor I could find. I untangled the rope from my hands to release slack, letting the boat slip even closer to the river. I wrapped the rope around the rock several times and then tied the line off to a tree root.
Hurrying down to the river, I found my boat hanging partway in the water at the top of the portage rapid. I was just able to reach the stern. I pulled the kayak toward the shore, unclipped it from the rope and found a less precarious place upstream to haul it up.
I was hot and tired after retrieving my boat, but I still had a long hike ahead of me to complete the portage. There were several portages in the next mile of the river, so I opted to stay high on the trail and portage the whole stretch at once. Finally, I put in directly above a cascading Class V rapid. It felt like I’d already completed a full day of kayaking; I’d navigated about 2,000 vertical feet of whitewater in around ten miles, but another ten to fifteen miles of Class IV and V still remained before my planned camp near Tehipite Dome.
With the day fading, I proceeded to mob downstream in a scoutless flurry of routing. Fortunately, the river mellows slightly during this stretch, but there were still plenty of stout Class V rapids for me to blindly paddle through. After an action-packed evening, I made it to Tehipite Valley just in time to chase away the darkness with a warming campfire.
I’d paddled most of the river that day, and I was exhausted. My evening camp was 4,000 feet lower than the one I’d woken up in that morning, and the tiny stream I’d launched on was now a river several times larger. As hard and long as that day was, I knew the next one would be even more difficult; I’d have to face the infamous “Bottom Nine” section of the Middle Kings. This steep, continuous, sieve-ridden, nine-mile stretch of Class V boulder gardens would demand all my remaining focus and energy.
The next morning I left camp anticipating a challenging day. It began floating alone through the serene Tehipite Valley where the 7,708 foot Tehipite Dome towers 3,600 feet above the river. It’s hard to believe that the elevation at the put-in is over 1,000 feet higher than the summit of this magnificent dome; this gives you a dramatic perspective of the magnitude of the trip. But despite the amazing stretch you’ve already navigated, it’s not time to celebrate until you safely make it through the next nine miles of whitewater.
The dome quickly fades from view just as the Class V gorge begins. The comforting trail that has accompanied you along the first half of the river now abandons you as the canyon walls narrow and the Middle Kings musters up its final challenge. I fought off the fatigue from the past three days as I scouted, paddled and portaged my way through the maelstrom of whitewater.
To navigate the Bottom Nine, you must be able to draw order from chaos – each messy rapid must be analyzed and solved in a wild succession of “shit-running.”
The steep river forced me to scout at almost every bend. I would get out of my kayak, make a quick assessment of the rapid, then decide whether to portage or paddle through it. At the beginning of the trip I had been more conservative, even portaging some rapids that I had run on my first trip down the river five years earlier. By the Bottom Nine, weariness encouraged me to stay in my boat as much as possible, and I evened the score by running a handful of demanding rapids that I’d portaged the last time around.
While scouting a rapid I was startled to see a bumbling black bear on the shore ahead of me, and I yelled and waved my arms to scare her off. After a brief staring match, she continued along her way, and I followed after her, opting to portage the rapid. I kept my paddle with me on subsequent visits to the river-left bank just in case the bear and I met again in closer quarters, but our paths did not cross a second time.
To navigate the Bottom Nine, you must be able to draw order from chaos – each messy rapid must be analyzed and solved in a wild succession of “shit-running.” Locked into this battle with the river gods, I kept my bow pointed downstream and eventually emerged haggard but victorious below the last Class V rapid on the Middle Kings. That night I enjoyed a much-deserved rest at a pleasant campsite just upstream of where the Middle Fork meets the South Fork to form the Kings River proper.
The climate had steadily warmed as I’d descended from the High Sierras. By my final camp the air was still hot even after the sun went down, but I lit a fire to escape the incessant swarm of bugs, which were overexcited by my sudden addition to their landscape. Ready to enjoy another amazing night beneath the stars, I dipped my gallon water jug into the river to fill it one last time with the refreshing water of the Middle Kings.
I felt an enormous release having successfully completed the mighty river, but had to remain focused for ten final miles of Class V whitewater through Kings Canyon. I hit the river early the next morning and immediately reached the confluence. Here the river’s volume nearly doubles, reaching a level 10-15 times higher than where I put in. Though the character of Kings Canyon is tame compared to the Bottom Nine, fatigue and big water combined to make many of the large Class V rapids feel just as hard.
After a full morning of Class V, I passed Garlic Falls as it cascaded down into the canyon and smiled to myself knowing I was almost done. I passed the deserted standard take-out, and continued downstream another 10 miles through mellow Class III. Occasional campers and fisherman silently welcomed me back from the rugged solitude of the last week as I floated towards the bridge where I’d escape from the river.
In concluding his segment on the second descent of the river, “Liquid Lifestyles” narrator Scott Lindgren says they reached the confluence: “relieved, excited, and exhausted.” His words rang absolutely true to how I felt as I climbed out of my boat at the take-out and hung my gear up to dry in the 100-degree weather.
The river and mountains had put my mental and physical durability to an extreme test. I had made it through the belly of the beast unscathed, and was delivered to the sunny shore to bask in the wonder of the trip: the purity of the last several days, the power and beauty of the river and its pristine canyon, and my amazing luck to be able to experience it all in such an incredible way. After enjoying a peaceful half-hour lying on the shore, I began preparing for the final leg of the mission: hitchhiking with my boat 300 miles across the Sierras back to my car.
The long hitch back to my van would prove to be a saga in itself. I travelled back through downtown Fresno, Yosemite Valley, and Mammoth Lakes. I enjoyed great kindness and indifference, swapped stories with welcoming strangers, and spent two more nights underneath the stars before finally reaching my van at the South Lake trailhead. It was 9:30 am; seven days earlier I had left the same parking lot hauling a boat full of gear up the pass, uncertain of the adventures awaiting me.
I blasted music while driving back to Mammoth Lakes where I had stashed my boat in the woods the night before. I was alone again, and reflected on the amazing expedition I’d just completed. The unique attributes of each leg – pushing my body to complete the hike, silent intensity through each rapid, solace at precious camps, and unexpected companionship on the trek back. It all combined to make an incredible and unrepeatable journey, a trip full of powerful and beautiful moments that I will remember for the rest of my life.