Oct 30, 2008

South Fork San Joaquin V-V+ (P)

Day Three

The third day would be a long push if we wanted to get out. And we did want to get out. We well before sun hit our canyon camp, we took a few minutes to climb up and check our location.

Balloon Dome in the early morning light. We must be close to the confluence, because the Middle Fork flows directly under the far side…

All kayakers know duct tape is one of the most important items to have on any trip. It came through for us. Coupled with a flip flop, it made a shoe superior to the lost bootie.

Judging from the first two days, we were in for a day full of action. Right out of camp it didn’t disappoint with full on class V boulder gardens and another gorge to match.

Ben Stookesberry gets warmed up for the third day goods.

We were only a handful of rapids into the day when the size of the rapids forced us on an extended scout that eventually led us up to the gorge rim.

Kevin Smith and Matt Thomas check out the gorge with Balloon Dome in the background.

Ben Stookesberry gazes down into the gorge.

Looking down into the gorge it was apparent that every rapid could go, but all of them had large holes and plenty of sieves, nothing we wanted to deal with at this point. Peering at each rapid we found lines through them, and on the largest, a semi portage on the left bank.

We decided to go in teams of two, so Matt and I stayed on top to get pictures and watch their lines.

Ben Stookesberry ferries out into the gorge, at this point three rapids were linked together.

Ben Stookesberry runs the last of the linked drops.

Kevin Smith goes second through the locked in rapids.

Kevin Smith, dwarfed by the massive South Fork gorge.

Matt and I followed with no problems, and we all made a partial portage around the final rapid of the gorge.

Below the gorge we got our first river level glimpse of Balloon Dome. Ben Stookesberry.

The morning was treating us well, with the promising view of Balloon Dome and quality rapids, it looked like we would stay on track and be able to finish in a long day. Rounding the next corner, we came upon a massive rock pile in the river. The Middle Fork has some of these, but this is the largest underground rapid I have seen.

Darin McQuoid, contemplating the portage route.

The portage lived up to our expectations; grueling, but it was also impressive to look up at the walls and see where the boulders had fallen from. At the very end we were cliffed out and forced to make a dubious seal launch upstream of an undercut wall. The team dealt with it well and pushed deeper into the gorge.

Ben Stookesberry scouting the next drop while Kevin Smith gets ready to seal launch in.

Going into any fork of the San Joaquin you accept that fact that at some point you will be locked in and probably have to run something you normally wouldn’t. We all knew the South Fork would be no exception, and right below the portage it lived up to all our apprehensions.

Smaller rapids dropped us into a vertically walled pool, and as we paddled up to the horizon we knew it would be trouble. The right side was walled in, didn’t have an eddy and had an obvious sieve downstream. On the left we could get out at river level, but couldn’t get high enough to scout the rapid. From above it was just a horizon line about ten feet wide, and we could see a pool at the bottom. Ben and Kevin started climbing around, but weren’t able to find a safe way up the cliff. Eventually after a lot of route finding, Ben managed to get up on a shelf, and Kevin quickly followed. It looked like free climbing 5.10 with no safety, and I was glad not to be up there. Thanks to Ben and Kevin for the epic scout!

From above Ben signaled to go left of center, punch a hole and then try to boof another hole on the left. Knowing there was no point in waiting I fired away, flying through the first hole and squirting through the second hole.

Matt Thomas runs the mandatory rapid. This angle doesn’t do much for it, but it does show where Kevin and Ben had to scout from.

The mandatory rapid from downstream, the first hole fed under the large rock. Note the scouting ledge on river left.

There was barely a pool before the next drop, and it was another locked in horizon line. The scouting was treacherous friction climbing, and succumbing to my fear of heights again, I opted to take the beta from Ben and Kevin.

Kevin snapped this shot of the scouting ledge for the second mandatory rapid.

We initially looked at making a tough right to left back to the right move, but the climbing scout revealed a clean line down the right. I opted to probe as often seems my position (gotta make up for the lack of scouting skills!), and Matt Thomas followed through the even larger mandatory rapid.

Elated by making it through the first part of the gorge at river level, the next rapid (sieve) popped our bubble, forcing us to climb up the right side to the gorge rim. From the gorge rim we passed the rapid, and deemed the next rapid downstream passable.

Ben Stookesberry stares down into the gorge. From above the next rapid looked manageable.

Team work boat lowering to get back into the gorge.

We seal launched in and paddle down to the final rapid of the gorge, only to find ourselves locked in again. Extensive scouting didn’t help the situation. The best that we could tell was that 30% of the flow went left into a sieve. 30% of the flow went down the middle and was ok, but another 30% went into a sieve on the right, and the final 10%, well who knows where all the water goes when it flows through rocks.

The rapid was a complete gamble, and we all knew it wasn’t worth the risk of running. So, we were faced with only one depressing option; roping back up what we had just roped down.

High above the gorge the portaging was easy, and as we looked for a way down to the river two things were apparent. The first was that we wouldn’t be making it out today, because the confluence was still over a mile away, and once at the confluence the Middle Fork San Joaquin was a solid run. The second was that at the base of the portage was the most pristine campsite we’d ever seen.

Perfect camping, and the extra time to rest would be appreciated by our bodies.

As we settled into camp, we crossed our fingers while talking about the possibility of flows dropping out. Knowing there was nothing we could do about the situation, we soaked up the scenery and tried to enjoy our bonus night out.

Ben Stookesberry, Kevin Smith and Matt Thomas enjoy a sandy beach and plenty of firewood.

Although our day had turned into a portage fest at the end, we were still amazed at how much of the river we had run in the last three days. Hopefully we were past the worst of the portaging and the run would continue to stay an expedition kayakers dream.

Day Four

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