For veteran expedition kayaker Ben Stookesberry, an Adventurer of the Year who is known for running the world’s wildest whitewater, and up-and-coming Nepali kayaker Surjan Tamang, the original plan was to trek to Everest Base Camp and then check out the Dudh Kosi, a storied yet “tame” river fed from the meltwater of Everest’s infamous Khumbu Icefall and flowing among the giants of the Himalaya. Like all good adventures, things did not go according to plan. And the river was much more than they expected. “I can only describe it as Grand Canyon-size walls with giant Himalayan peaks stacked on top … you begin to feel pretty small on that river,” Ben reflects. Read on for their incredible story.
Adventure: Why is Dudh Kosi River so famous? And how did it get such an “easy” reputation?
Ben Stookesberry: The Dudh Kosi was the subject of a notable international kayaking expedition in 1976 by a group of British and Kiwi paddlers led by Dr. Mike Jones and Mick Hopkinson. They literally followed the same route as Sir Edmund Hillary, with a team of five kayakers, two cinematographers, and porters carrying some ten to 15 fiberglass boats to Everest base camp. Eventually they kayaked on the upper most portions of the Dudh at near 18,000 feet of elevation. Continuing downstream, all but two of the original boats were destroyed in the powerful river before Mike and Mick finally paddled all the way to the confluence of the mighty Sun Kosi River.
The trip became famous as a BBC documentary called the Relentless River of Everest. In that documentary it is not made clear that they in fact descended very little of the river. The team choose September to make sure that the river was ice-free and flowing at the highest elevations. But this meant that the majority of the river downstream would have been a unsurvivable, monsoon driven torrent.
Subsequent expeditions did little if anything to tell the truth about the river, claiming in many cases only that it was “significantly easier” or that they found very few portages as compared to that first 1976 expedition. The kicker for me was a “first rafting” expedition of the river as recently as 2012 that claimed a single portage of the “Relentless River of Everest.”
But this all makes sense right? Advanced technique and far advanced technology has in so many cases made what was done in the past obsolete as compared with modern descents.
When I journeyed to the Khumbu for the first time this past April, I thought the Dudh was just another classic river tamed by technology and technique. I was in the region as a part of short trekking adventure, and had the opportunity to accompany Everest climber Melissa Arnot up to Everest Base Camp. I had planned to end the trip by kayaking out of the region on that same famed Dudh Kosi with a Nepali paddler named Surjan Tamang. I assumed the descent, all be it down 60 miles of river, would only take us four to five days considering what I had surmised from those previous expeditions … I mean, it had been done in fiberglass kayaks in 1976 after all!
A: When did your opinion of the power of the river change?
BS: When I boarded a helicopter that would take our group of trekkers from Kathmandu to the Khumbu, I saw something completely unexpected. I saw a massive section of river hemmed in by massive gorge and littered with waterfalls and crazy looking rapids. And it wasn’t just a single canyon. The flight went on and the canyon curved and seethed though this insane looking grotto some 10 – 15 miles all the way to to the Lukla airport and the modern gateway to the Khumbu.
Getting out of the helicopter in Lukla, I was sure that what I had seen from the air had never been attempted much less done, and that I would need a lot more time and some climbing gear to make any meaningful attempt on the river. I ended up bailing of the Base Camp trek in order to focus on the river.
A: You mentioned that Surjan is one of Nepal’s top up-and-coming paddlers. But was he ready for the climbing that would be required to access the river? Were you?
BS: As the first Nepali to attend a semester of the the preeminent kayaking prep school called World Class Academy, 21-year-old Surjan Tamang is an able expert kayaker. But he has had limited experience in the expedition realm of the sport—and for good reason. Exploratory kayaking is extremely dangerous and expensive. But living in Nepal, Surjan is definitely blessed with the proximity to some of the world’s finest expedition-style rivers. When I met Surjan in December, he acted as our guide to the Annapurna region showing our group, including world renowned kayakers Pedro Oliva and Chris Korbulic, to some of the most spectacular and challenging rivers we have seen anywhere. But when it comes to the technical aspects of descending such challenging rivers he is still in the formative stages. Still there is a reason that Class V kayaking has come so easy to him: He’s smart yet willing to take a risk.
Still when I called him on the phone from the Lukla Airport with a laundry list of technical kayaking gear we needed, I know he was a little over his head. But like a true dependable partner he brought that gear list to fruition and showed up in Lukla at the right time with the gear in tow—this despite being unable to fly into Lukla having to make the much more challenging and arduous trek into the region which took three days. Incidentally it takes most people six days!
I guess the bottom line is that you never know how someone is going to deal with that unknown, unfamilliar element until it is starring them right in the face. And in that way, Surjan took my instructions like the prodigy I hoped he would be and repelled around the first massive falls in our descent of the Dudh Kosi without much issue.
As to the question of whether I was prepared for the technical climbing challenges of the those secret Dudh gorges, I can only say that I had the advantage of experience of making such technical descent in dozens of other rivers around the world. Still I would be dealing with somewhat limited resources on a river of Himalayan scale. During the time that it took Surjan to sort an overland arrival to the Dudh Kosi, I hiked for eight to ten hours a day with a local Sherpa to identify the “non-technical” escape routes that would allow us to exit the canyon in case things went wrong. In other words, I am always weary of vertical walled canyons; and in the case of the Dudh, I was even more concerned than usual for a number of different reasons: my young inexperienced partner, my previous experience with the unpredictability of Himalayan rivers, and, more than anything, the crazy gorges that I had seen from my helicopter flight into the Dudh.
A: Surjan deserves some major props for getting to you by bus, trekking with all the gear, and making a go of the climbing aspects. His spirit of adventure is commendable!
BS: The beauty of this expedition was how much we both brought to the table. Certainly I have my experience and expertise in challenging, technical first descents, but accomplishing this in the Khumbu region of Nepal was a testament to the logistical prowess of Surjan. More than just arranging the local transport to a brand new road that would get him as close to the Dudh as possible, he sorted out porters to bring both my boat and the climbing gear to the exact location. Even than more than that, he opened so many doors for us along the descent that allowed us to access the local knowledge of the canyon, and gain access to the secrets of the hidden and mostly unknown trails that are only utilized by the local Sherpa community of the region. I really don’t think this descent would have been possible without Surjan.
A: How much of the river did you you kayak? What did you see that surprised you?
BS: We kayaked 60 miles of the river. Probably the most surprising part of the Dudh were those 10 to 15 miles of gorges that made me question all those previous reports from the river.
In recent year’s the Nepali government has banned or severely restricted extreme sports in the country’s national parks. Recent attempts to run the river just upstream of Lukla had resulted in complicated and costly negotiations with park officials. Because of this I had planned for Surjan and I to begin our trip below the national park boundary that includes Everest and the other significant peaks of the Khumbu. As it turns out, this is very near to where all previous expeditions had ended or embarked on a multi-day portaged around those same gorges that I had seen from the flight in.
A: So you think this river has seen its first descent? How can you be sure?
BS: I believe that we were the first to descend at river level the majority of the Lukla gorges. There was still a 1.5-mile-long section in the middle of the exploration where we were forced high onto the gorge wall where a animal trail led us past a section that seemed nearly impossible to scout. Additionally there are more gorges upstream inside the national park that have probably not been attempted as well. Overall I believe the Dudh has yet to see the complete descent that was intended by that first bold team in 76.’
A: The river looks just gorgeous, even in this shot with the huge boulders and waterfall. How was it unique?
BS: The Dudh Kosi is unique for it’s massive boulders in the river. There are literally some 100-foot-tall rocks that are getting moved around in there during the extreme high water caused by the Glacial Outburst Floods that are common in the Khumbu. Add to that the scale of the surroundings that I can only describe as Grand Canyon-size walls with giant Himalayan peaks stacked on top and you begin to feel pretty small on that river.
A: How many days did your adventure last?
BS: It took us two weeks to scout and descend 60 miles of the river. Incredibly ten days of that were spent on the ten miles of river that had never been attempted before.
A: So this adventure started in the Khumbu region? How far were you from the infamous Khumbu Icefall?
BS: Meltwaters from the Khumbu Icefall feed the headwaters of the Dudh Kosi. The icefall is approximately 23 miles upstream from where we put-in.
A: Will you and Surjan be heading back to the Dudh Kosi?
BS: Surjan and I have already spoken about making another attempt on the Dudh Kosi with a larger team and more time. Personally I would like to arrange this trip for 2016 to commemorate the 40 year anniversary of the historic 76′ mission.
A: How much untapped adventure potential is there is Nepal?
BS: For kayakers Nepal is one of the finest destinations in the world. Although the countries main rivers have mostly been explored. There are hundred if not thousands of high mountain tributaries that have yet to be kayaked. My experience in the Khumbu, one of the most popular destinations in the country, showed me how easy it is to find an incredible adventure in even the most well traveled area.