Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Why do we take chances? Revisiting the beast, YULE CREEK!

Looking down at Ball and Wall Check

Thirty days of commercial rafting in a row and Casey Tango gave me a phone call, “Yule’s in.” This was the perfect excuse for a much needed day off.

From the Arkansas River drainage it’s a haul to get to the Crystal River and its tributary, Yule Creek. It’s located west of Aspen, tucked behind the Maroon Bells mountain range, and nestled into the quintessential Colorado mountain town of Marble.

Yule Creek is rowdy! The first section of whitewater is class five and would be considered some of the best whitewater in the region if it weren’t immediately upstream of the horrendous gradient-loss that the creek cascades into, just before meeting the Crystal River near the Beaver Pond in Marble.

The last pitch of the creek is stunning. While scouting from a few hundred feet above it looks irresponsible, and once down in the sheer walled canyon the size of the drops becomes apparent. Everything is HUGE!

Setting safety on the bottom four drops is a misconception. With only two of us the best safety was to have another boater in their boat at the bottom of each of the towering features. Roping in one at a time wasn’t really an option so we decided that we would launch five seconds apart and go with the “we both won’t get hurt” approach. We sat in our kayaks and performed our last second rituals before plummeting: readjusting back bands, rolling my head back and forth stretching my shoulders and neck, checking the spray skirt is seated properly two or five times, dipping my hands in the icy snow melt to get the slightest skin oils off them.

The last second conversation was quick and concise, “Cool, you good?”

“Yea, have fun!”

A nod of heads, then Tango seal launched into the creek.

I was five seconds behind him, no matter what was about to happen we would both be a couple hundred feet below in a matter of seconds.

Lining up for the first big drop, Ball Check, a thirty-foot waterfall, I cleared my head, took a deep breath and waited for the horizon line, a quick flick of the wrist and I was airborne, kind of. The drop is more of a super steep slide then totally vertical waterfall. With slightly disconnected water spraying everywhere half a second passed, then the impact of the pool below, “ughhhhh.” The impact was firm but acceptable, allowing me to have a tiny bit of control. A couple strokes and I was eddied out in the hanging pool above Wall Check, the immense slide that banks off the left wall a third of the way down. The ferry out of the hanging pool was terrifying while trying to line up the six-inch wide line and being tossed around by the boil of the thirty-footer behind me. The last stroke was made and the boat teetered off the edge onto the slippery slope. Speed was a joke, faster, faster, faster, bounce over a ridge and then faster yet as the wall was hurdling in. WHAM! Huge impact, instinctive paddle bracing, and a blur of water and rocks. I was backwards, at least in the correct location, but backwards. Squaring up the boat for the bottom pitch and laterals, I actually started to smirk. Yeah it wasn’t the best line, but I had just been allowed to do another ridiculous stunt.

Skipping into the pool I looked over at Tango, he was right side up but looked stunned. He said, “I got rocked, I hit my head against the wall.” He was mildly concussed. As we went down to the next horizon line to scout Oriental Massage and Happy Ending I continued to check on Tango. Stubborn would be a gentle way to refer to him, he’s a BOSS! Yes he hit his head, and no he wasn’t ok. But yes he was going to paddle the bottom two drops. No more questions.

Once again we sorted out our five-second interval and Tango headed off the next horizon line.

Quintessential Colorado

I’m sure no one has ever used the word “control” while talking about paddling Oriental Massage. This is one of those line-up-the-rooster-tail-and-hold-on type of drops. I slipped over the brink and picked up speed nearing terminal velocity, hit something in the rooster tail, and my head snapped forward from the violent collision. There was spray everywhere and absolutely no orientation. Again the involuntary nervous system kicked in and miraculously I was right side up and careening down the massive slide in some form of mild “control”. Slamming into the pool below my boat skipped and planed out in a violent wheelie. I shouted at Tango that I was going direct into Happy Ending with a Wahoo!  And disappeared into the spray of the last waterfall. At the bottom of the massive gradient I spun around just in time to see Tango launch off the concluding drop, Happy Ending.

Both of our boats looked horrible. The bows were crushed in, but we were ok. Once again we challenged the steepest piece of runnable whitewater in Colorado.

Why do we do this? Pride? Challenge? Are we trying to understand where the line is? FUN?

Yeah, it’s fun. Yes I’m nervous at the top of these monsters but once I’m in the action the fear goes away. There’s no time for fear, there is only time for reactions, and that makes me smile.

adventure by Chris Baer