by "Cat Rat Do" Dennis Schultz
How did I pull off a First Descent in China without major injury or death but with satisfied clients and NO LAWSUITS (a MAJOR goal)? Well, it wasnít my multi-page Waiver salted with signature lines that promised participants permission to enter into the closed Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture, a permit to run a First Descent, and nothing more. Waivers DONíT prevent lawsuits. Ken and Jan Warren of 1986 Sino-American Yangtze Expedition had signed Waivers Ė it didnít prevent the Shippee v. Warren lawsuit that bankrupted them, destroyed their business, reputation and chance at a second try even though an Idaho jury ruled in their favor. It is rarely the expedition participant (who may be dead anyway) who sues; it is family from whom one canít get signatures.
Health disclosures arenít any help; people always lie. Shippee lied about his asthma history, the underlying cause of his death in Tibet. My star Dave Pizzuti showed up at the Kunming airport spitting up green slime and requesting antibiotics to "nuc" HIS asthma attack. And Philip didnít bother to mention his extreme allergy to poison plants before he was covered in oozing sores from lacquer tree poisoning.
Nor can one think of and cover in lectures/handouts ALL the possible risks to establish knowledge, although I drove everyone and myself nuts trying. My very first tourist, TWO HOURS after arriving in China, was already in the hospital due to walking in the Kunming City market and getting a dirty hypodermic needle stuck in her Teva-shod foot.
One canít MAKE SURE of preparations, equipment and supplies delegated to others. How was I to predict, Dennis who had used my cataraft on Westwater, would not remember its Down River alum floor was welded to the support beams and, after learning of the possible 70,000 cfs he faced, check to make sure the whole raft was shipped? Or, that the bag of hardware I delegated to Frank to buy would not contain the carriage bolts necessary for my "Made in China" frame?
SO HOW? By following Gary Grimmís Assumption of the Risk philosophy that still protects the Outdoor Programs of Oregon & Idaho that run leaderless adventures. Iím taking a moment to explain because Nujiang NEEDS as many boaters as possible, including commercials, to experience its 320K whitewater, free of the normal international boating worries, before this incredible Asian Whitewater Golden Goose is slaughtered.
Unlimited takeout/putin availability of the road allowed me to force the likely litigious Americans (tourists & boaters with over inflated egos) to make decisions, in particular, whether any of them would boat or not on any rapids on any given day, so that their own natural preservation instincts took over. Left on their own they organized practical details that made them feel in control and ACT responsibly. I never allowed myself to be viewed as the leader being paid to take care of them. I achieved this partly by acting like a brainless chattering idiot and running away from them, Monty Python fashion clacking my coconuts whenever anyone asked my advice.
But in the eyes of Beijing, Yunnan, and Nujiang Lisu, only White Pearl was the Expedition Leader, responsible for everything that happened and everyoneís actions. My egotistical desire to catch a few rapids on the easiest stretch between Bingzhongluo and Gongshan in my own boat oared by my friend whose trip I had paid for, ALMOST ended the expedition with that first flip on Day 3. The Lisu officials were hysterical thinking the Leader had almost died, in spite of my assurances that flipping was just part of riverrunning, you know, part of the fun.
Dennis Cat Rat Doís yarn continues as the team regroups for the first significant rapid, now upgraded from a Class 4 to Class 14.
A few kilometers downstream Scott had salvaged his kayak after recuperating from a valiant attempt that almost drowned him - to jump on the upturned cataraft and maneuver it to shore. He could no more steer the "Monkey" to shore than he could a Brahma bull. The major rapid of this dayís run was quickly upon him. It was suicide to ride the cataraft into the monster hole on river right (about the size of three Greyhound buses), so he dove off into the river. He had a long nasty swim through the class 14 rapid but at least he avoided that huge hole.
As we three rafts approached the rapid, we pulled over to river left to bail and scout. Jennifer had said the Chinese river runners would call the insanity on river right "Buddha Hole". You go in it, you see Buddha. None of us were eager for that sight. By floating just to the right of that first big boulder on river left near the top of the rapid and then pulling very hard back to river left to avoid a medium size hole, we could pull off a left hand cheat route. With adrenaline oozing from our ears, we made that first critical move, and cruised down the far-left side.
Downstream we came to a footbridge across the river where the Monkey sat totally unconcerned like any cat that had fallen from its perch.
Lisu farmers had chased it down, flipped it right side up for us, and parked it in a convenient eddy next to the bridge. Jennifer and I climbed aboard. Both of the oars were missing, the left pin slightly bent and rotated, the seat tweaked. Some paddles and sandals had been sacrificed to the river god. Not bad, considering. While the damage to the cataraft was minimal, our concern about the number of functional breakdown Carlyle oars was growing. Although the Boulder crowd had managed to ship over Jenniferís flyswatter, her 10-foot aluminum shaft Down River oars werenít, among other items such as the cat floor and hyperlon glue.
After nearly 15k of mayhem, the group finally re-united, all rafts and yaks set off to the cheers of the road crew and locals. Though rowing conservatively, I almost flipped on a huge wave in the next big rapid before pulling over to river right to pick up some locals to ride with us to our greatly anticipated arrival in Gongshan Town, 2 k downstream. Besides two brave officials, Jennifer wanted our young Dulong interpreter Chen to ride into his hometown, even got Tom, our computer nerd in the paddleboat. No surprise none would join me in the Monkey except Jennifer. We almost flipped one more time on the last rapid just before town, but managed to arrive upright to the cheering throng of three thousand waiting for us on the bridge and shores of Gongshan.
Jennifer put us up in the government hotel since everyone was cold and wet after our first full day of carnage. It seemed a bit odd staying in a hotel while river running but I wasnít about to complain. Jenniferís scheme to save the Nu Jiang by touting it as the Riverrunnerís ShangriLa (no packing/unpacking rafts, cooking, wet sleeping bags) had sounded crazy until now. Everybody elseís gear was on the truck or bus and bone dry, but I had mine on the Monkey for extra weight. My primary gear bag had done the job - with about 100 lbs. of water soaking everything I had.
Monday ended up the second layover day. I worked until early afternoon on fixing a better seat and adjusting the weight distribution of the cataraft. When our equipment truck finally arrived at 3:30 PM, it didnít have our river gear and it was getting too late to run. Besides, one of the most difficult rapids lay just below Gongshan. Rated as a 5 on the ride upriver meant it was at least a 15. After getting our butts kicked by rapids we had rated as 2, this was a no-brainer portage for the rafts. The Class 6 kayakers ran this stretch through Gongshan while the rafters packed the boats in the truck. The crowd appreciated the show by the kayakers and we were getting used to being surrounded by these friendly Nu, Lisu and Dulong people. We took the rafts down to the first accessible beach, at Pou-la-dee village, below an unrunnable "class VI." We stayed again in the hotel where at the banquet in our honor I filled my gut with spicy food for the first time in the 9 days I had been in China, confident that my Cipro & Lomotil would limit the damage.
The river from approximately 20k above Gongshan down to Fugong contains 80 K of awesome whitewater and on average we were running a major rapid every kilometer. The first days had been the "intermediate" stretch, but today we faced some of the Nuís most challenging rapids. Mike, the Avon paddleboat captain, had wanted to road-scout this stretch but couldnít because of the late start. Frank of the Miwok oar frame rode on the Monkey with me down to the footbridge and then joined the road crew. Jennifer would not be on the river, not until a triumphant float into Liuku. She had been snarked into the midst of a maelstrom of village dignitaries, sports leaders, and such who chased her down the river, thrusting at her cigs and open hands.
We came upon the first major rapid just below the footbridge. The kayakers signaled a right-hand run. I slivered between a huge hole on river left and some smaller action on river right and followed the main wave train. Mike followed my line but got turned sideways in the wave train and flipped. His crew did a great job of righting the boat in the fast current below the rapid. The next rapid near Bula Town was a real heart stopper so I pulled over half a kilometer upstream to have a look. Someone scaled the rock ledge to where I was perched with lunch and the latest buzz. Everyone but the Class 6 kayakers Dave, Philip and Scott were taking out. I decided to go for it too.
One had to run river right initially, to avoid a monster killer hole on river left. However, the main wave train contained two huge backcurling wave-holes that looked like certain raft flippers. I thought I could start right and cut back left. Scott had run it while I was hiking back to my boat and getting set. He had made it OK but had taken quite a chundering in the two huge wave holes. After his run he tried signal me that it was impossible, even in a kayak to cut back left. I wouldnít have a chance.
By the time I got the message, it was too late, and I was already committed to the run. It was time for the move. However, after two gigantic strokes, I had only moved the boat a few thousands of an inch! Realizing the futility of moving the cat in that current, I turned the bow back downstream and pushed with all my might as I smashed into the first huge backcurler. It nearly stopped the Monkey dead in its tracks. Water rained down upon me until suddenly the boat surged up and over the backcurler. I slid down its backside into the second huge wave-hole, but with almost no momentum. I pushed again, even harder, but the boat suddenly stopped against the wall of water as I fell face first between the tubes of the cataraft into the river. Miraculously, the boat stayed upright, so I pulled myself back up between the tubes into the seat. Later, people congratulated me on my run, especially on my "brilliant" maneuver to dive between the tubes and hold the boat down. I tried at first to tell them the true story, but decided this was a lie I could live with. The truth is that my puny 235 lbs. wouldnít make much difference to 20,000 cfs crashing through that rapid anyway.
Next, it was Daveís turn to run it. True to his Extreme Sports reputation, he paddled straight into the teeth of the first huge backcurler. Maybe he felt the need to wash more, I donít know, but he took quite a chundering. You couldnít see him most of the time as he was under water, but he came out clean as a whistle, right side up by the time anyone could spot him.
After Bula Town we four continued downstream another kilometer to the next major rapid, just below a footbridge. Dave pulled over, scouted it from the footbridge, and yelled instructions to Scott to tell me. Although it wasnít where I would have picked to run myself, I made it OK. I realized it doesnít matter how good a kayaker is, they all have a warped sense of what a rafter can or cannot do. Meanwhile Philip had taken off downstream without telling anyone. Considering the difficulty of the rapids, we were very concerned, and we spent the rest of the day trying to find him. That meant we ran the next dozen or so class 9, 10, and 10+ rapids in about 12k without any scouting. The only one that really stood out was this very long rapid, something like three Grand Canyon Hance rapids placed end to end, only bigger. I thought Dave and Scott were crazy to run river right, and they thought I was crazy to run river left, but we all made it OK. I couldnít see Dave and Scout through all the huge waves since I was busy rowing my ass off. I narrowly skirted a few rocks and at least half a dozen huge holes that would have flipped me easily, including a gigantic hydraulic at the very bottom on river left.
This was my best river running day on the Nu Jiang, in retrospect, even though my second flip was coming two rapids later. It had a huge hydraulic on river left and another at the bottom of the wave train on river right. I entered just to the right of the upper hydraulic and turned sideways to pull left to get out of the wave train. I saw a huge wave ahead so I turned the boat downstream. Suddenly the huge wave just disappeared, but just as suddenly, reappeared on my right side. Before I had a chance to react, I was flipped out of the boat. I hung onto the left side of the cataraft. However, without me to row it out of the wave train, the Monkey headed straight for the ugly hydraulic at the bottom.
Next, the boat rotated such that I was now downstream giving me hope that just maybe the boat held down by my weight wouldnít flip on top of me. Not so, the Nu flipped that raft like you would a pancake. I went flying into the air and landed standing up with bent knees on top of the upside down cataraft like a skier would land with arms outstretched. After a day of continuous 10+ rapids, I felt the Nu Jiang had been kind to me. But it was just toying with me, like cats do mice, before they finish them off.
Read Chapter 3.