Kurt Casey: A 400-mile first descent of Bolivia’s Rio Pilcomayo
Miles from Steamboat: 4,750
10 days (on river)
Dates: Feb. 3-21
Factoid: Bolivia has 37 official languages, and its capital, La Paz, was the first South American city to get electricity (it was powered by llama dung). Also, its Chacaltaya ski area is the highest in world at 17,785 feet, higher than the Mt. Everest base camp.
When a river flushes through a natural tunnel of rock right ahead of you, you know things are getting dicey. When that happens on a Class V rapid during a 400-mile first kayak descent in the middle of Bolivia, it’s even more harrowing.
In his more than 30 years as an international expedition kayaker, Steamboat Springs’ Kurt Casey admits he’d never seen anything like it. On day two of a source-to-sea first descent of Bolivia’s Rio Pilcomayo, the canyon walls closed into a tunnel overhead, funneling the entire river through a gauntlet of granite. After giving it a cursory scout, Casey signaled his expedition partners, Rocky Contos and Greg Schwindingler, to watch him and then peeled out of his eddy through the darkened arch and into the daylight below.
The scene was one of many Casey encountered on his kayaking exploratory expedition to the Pilcomayo last February when his team descended more than 10,000 vertical feet in 400 miles on a river draining 21 percent of the country into Argentina and eventually the Atlantic Ocean.
While they timed the trip during peak rainy season, the river started out as a trickle at 11,120 feet near the ancient silver mining town of Potosí high in the Bolivian Andes. But it quickly picked up steam, reaching a peak of more than 23,000 cubic feet per second — higher than a typical release on the Grand Canyon — by the end of their 10-day first descent. The team finished the expedition close to the Paraguay border in the town of Villamontes at 1,000 feet above sea level.
“The river was pretty small at the put-in, with boulder-choked rapids passing through tight, slot canyons,” says Casey, who spent 25 years kayaking the rivers of Chile and Peru and founded the go-to web sites for the region — http://www.peruwhitewater.com and http://www.riversofchile.com — before moving to Steamboat in 2011 with his two kids, Pablo and Luna, where his parents had a house in Strawberry Park. “Then it continuously grew due to daily rain storms and tributaries, which gave it a dark brown, silt-laden color.”
Riddled with Class IV-V rapids, the river went through multiple canyons, and from day three on, Casey says it maintained “a pushy, big water feel.” Throughout the expedition, they watched the scenery change from high altiplano with condors soaring overhead to a tropical, parrot-filled jungle at the takeout.
Casey’s crew named the top 80-mile section, from Yocalla to Puente Sucre, Slickrock, rating it Class IV-V with a mandatory portage and suitable only for kayakers. “The top part flows through several sandstone canyons and gorges reminiscent of the Glen Canyon-Escalante areas of Utah,” says Casey. “The whitewater is pretty continuous, with a three-hour portage through a massive landslide.”
They christened the next section, from Puente Sucre to Puente Aruma, the Gran Cañón for its 5,000-foot-deep walls, alternating between sandstone, granite and limestone. With abundant Class IV, it would be a perfect commercial rafting trip, Casey says, which Contos, a longtime South American outfitter, plans to offer in February 2016.
The crew dubbed the lowermost, 80-mile section the Yungas, saying it offers “one of the best Grand Canyon-style trips in the world,” with tranquil pools bookended by Class II-IV whitewater. Some of its toughest rapids are in the final gorge, including Chorro Grande, which marks the river’s final exit from the Andes into the plains of the Amazon jungle.
“The lower stretch is big, big water with massive wave trains often a couple miles long,” says Casey, whose trio is heading to Burma this spring to explore some southern Himalayan rivers. “There are a few scouts and a few sneak lines but no portages, and it has an unbelievable number of great rapids. All in all, it was a pretty successful exploratory, and it has the making of a great commercial trip — just not the tunnel part.”
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