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Southern Chile Adventure

chile rivers - tyler on the rio baker

Mariann Sæther, Matt Gontram, Alex Nicks and Tyler Curtis paddled the rivers of southern Chile.

Chile has a lot of great whitewater to offer for the adventurous kayaker. The Futaleufu is probably the most famous one, with great whitewater and easy access. But if you spend some time in Chile, you may want to step it up. Rio Baker is one of the two biggest rivers in Chile, the Pascua being the other one. They are both big, scary and remote.... just perfect.

chile rivers - the team
The team. Photo by Matt Gontram.

There are huge waves, holes, seams, all the fun stuff to deal with.

Warm Up

The Futa is the best place to warm up to any kind of big water adventures in Chile. Every section has a great class five which you can run, with multiple lines down.

When you are confident on the Futa and preferably have run all the rapids and is feeling good, then you might want to consider the Rio Baker as your next adventure... The Baker is close to Cochrane, the last ok-sized town on the Carretera Austral. The first canyon of the Baker starts below the confluence with the Rio Neuf, and it is this canyon which has the hardest rapids. You can scout all the rapids up front, which is quite nice. There are huge waves, holes, seams, all the fun stuff to deal with. It also feels quite intimidating as it is in a gorge…

chile rivers - mariann on the rio baker
Mariann on the Baker. Photo by Matt Gontram.

At some levels there is a great surf wave at the take out of this run, but every time I have been down there, it seems like the Baker is flooded, and the wave drowned. The last gorge is also quite interesting, with big water class four rapids, one class five. We all walked this one, as it looked rather disturbing… 50 000 cfs drops through a slot about 5 meters wide.

chile rivers - tyler curits on the rio baker
Tyler on the Baker. Photo by Matt Gontram.

Step Up

So, after a successful run down the Baker, some of us tend to get some crazy ideas. One of them was to run the Pascua. This river is a mission on its own. There are a few ways of getting down to it, but none of them are easy.

Alex Nicks wanted to film for his new video and the group consisted of Matt Gontram, Alex Nicks, Tyler Curtis and myself. We never really got the logistics taken care of before we actually started out on the trip, but in Chile things tend to work out along the way! We drove three days south, and encountered thousands of problems along the way, such as bad weather, roadblocks, accidents, broken down ferries, flood…you name it. But after some serious work we found ourselves at the end of the Carretera Austral, in Villa O'Hiiggins. If you pull out a map, you will see that the Rio Baker drains the northern Patagonia Icefield, Pascua the Southern.

Villa O'Higgins is a remote little town situated close to the Argentinean border, and at the shore of Lago O'Higgins. You have to cross the lake to get to the Pascua, and as soon as you are there, it would take you days, maybe weeks to get to the closest house….The first group who did this run hired a boat to take them to the outlet, but we managed to get a pilot to fly us instead. We only got a few hours window of good fly weather, and against all odds we got dropped off at put in. Glaciers were surrounding us, condors circling above us, and 40 kms of whitewater ahead of us… What a great feeling!

The Mission

Day one passed with quite a bit of walking, as the water was super high and some of the rapids just straight up out of control. We kept the spirit high, thinking of all the quality that was ahead of us… Day two started and ended with a seven hour portage…We dragged, pulled, pushed, crawled, rappelled, fell and cursed the whole way, as the vegetation is taken out of a nightmare. All in all we only covered two kilometers that day, and the only paddling we did was a little swirly gorge at the top (which actually was pretty scary class three!), and the ferry from one side of the river to the other to get to a camp spot. The Pascua is a serious mission, and she will not let you through easily. The first of the two canyons which made us portage might go at lower water, but there was a very funky hole at the bottom of it. The second will kill you, with a hole in it called the ”Drowning Machine”.

chile rivers - alex nicks in the gorge
Alex in the gorge after the waterfall portage on the Pascua. Photo by Matt Gontram.

That night we all were a little bit more silent, huddled up in the rain, trying to stay focused. It was more about making it out of the river at this stage, and hopefully some of the rapids further downstream would make it all worth it. We were exhausted, mentally and physically, but knew the next day would be a huge one. This might sound like a lot of complaining, but I have to admit, there couldn't have been a better team on the river. Matt for always being positive and having a smile on his face, Alex for his interesting little remarks about everything, not to mention his ability in big water, Tyler for being a straight up nice guy with a huge talent on the water, and myself, for well, bringing a little bottle of red wine to cheer everybody up in the rain…

Day three was supposed to be the last one, but none of us were convinced, considering we had only covered half the length of the river in two days. It kicked off with a long long long canyon, with a lot of action. Class four - five seems would come out of nowhere and try and eat you (as happened to all of us a few times that day!) Then the whirlpools would make you paddle for your life to try and get away, just as a wave would build up in front of you and ultimately crash on your head, then disappear till the next one tried to get by. It was very scary, and even Alex looked tensed in his kayak. He put in words what we all were thinking: If it came to the point where you HAD to catch an eddy, you might not be able to. The eddylines were huge, mean and scary, and they were never letting you into the eddies the easy way.

chile rivers - on the ferry
On the ferry. Photo by Matt Gontram.

One of the bigger rapids has a huge rock in the middle of it, and a crazy mess of seems, waves and eddylines. The normal stuff, only bigger. Alex went first to try and film us from the bottom, then Tyler paddled out. Matt went ahead of me, and didn't even get out of the eddy before the eddyline swallowed him and sent him off line around the corner. I just hoped he was ok, stopped one second to focus and then paddled off. It was a great ride, fighting the whole way down, and I found myself in the bottom eddy with a huge grin on my face. It turned out that Tyler had been eaten in an eddyline, and Matt had totally vanished in his huge Pyranha M3 in a whirlpool along the way, but all in all, we were good.

My paddle got ripped out of my hands and I took the worst swim I hope I will ever have.

Getting Out

And then, we came to the last portage. All fine, except that we didn't realize that it's normally a portage, until we had run it. A narrow gorge where you basically just had to paddle like hell and stay in the middle. Alex went down first, as he accidentally caught the very last eddy you never should catch, especially when it is a no-return eddy…He was fine, even though the group had a little nervous breakdown as we watched him paddle over the first horizon line blind. It took us a while to establish contact with the lost warrior, as there was no way we could see what happened at the end of the gorge. Tyler, Matt and myself decided to run it together, knowing that it wasn't much of a safety thing to do, but at least it felt a little bit better to be more people on the water at the same time. I was number two, with Tyler a good 20 meters ahead of me. The first top of the gorge was fine, and I could see a breaking wave/hole coming up. I picked up some speed and prepared for the hit. And then, I got straight up raped… My paddle got ripped out of my hands and I took the worst swim I hope I will ever have. At that moment I had the most luck in the whole universe, as Tyler had been pushed into an eddyline, and was getting back in the main flow just in the same second I swam. It is amazing that we actually made it to shore, and to make the story short, I will pay his beers for the rest of his life… Below the gorge there are a few more big rapids, before it opens up, and you are out. Without doubt, the best of the whitewater is in the last day.

That evening we made it out to take-out, and found Louis waiting for us, being very happy to see us again. It seemed like half of Chile had been worrying on our behalf as we mostly fought the overgrown vegetation on the shores of the Pascua! It is needless to say that the rum we had saved for a take-out drink was soon gone…..We all agreed that it had been a great adventure, and we were all happy and proud for having made it out, but the consensus was easy: Never again…

Note: If you intend to run the Pascua, it would probably be a better idea to run it in the Chilean springtime, when the lake is not full of water after a warm summer. You also need a good amount of cash, as the plane is not cheap (we ended up paying around 800 dollars). The best is to have a driver at the bottom of the river, but there is nothing there at all. Bring a lot of food, both for yourself on the river, and the driver. Be prepared for the worst. This is not the place to go unless you are up for a class five mission, both mentally and physically. A lot is not easy to scout, and you have to make tough choices about either staying down by the river and eddyhop if possible, and have potentially hideous portages in sheer-walled gorges, or walking up high over longer distances. You would need an helicopter to get a rescue out of the river. Bringing a sat phone would probably be a good idea. Bring a map. Get info from people who have already been down it, and not at least: Good luck!

Mariann Sæther



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