|Aeon Russo, Alerces Falls|
The Upper Manso, or Argentine Manso is super fun; here are a few pictures, but that is not what this story is about.
|Salto de Alerces|
|Mark Taylor, coming out of the jungle|
|Aeon Russo, Manso Gorge|
|scouting another phallic named waterfall|
|Aeon Russo, flat water paddle out|
During our time on the Rio Puelo, we bumped into an old friend of mine: Tomas Binimelis. He spoke of yet another threatened and very unique river section, the Rio Manso. But he wasn’t speaking of the more commonly paddled Alerces Gorge section in Argentina, but a very remote and mysterious section on the Chilean side of the border. Bennie’s beta on what we would encounter in the isolated valley was limited, and my understanding of that valley was beyond inadequate.
Years ago I remembered both Nate Mac and Matias Nunez rambling about the obscure Rio Manso Chilean Gorge. Accounts of “epic” was all I could remember. I tried to reach out to them and other friends in the area, and unfortunately (fortunately), the Puelo Valley currently has next to no communication with the outside world.
|"coloring book map"|
Our threesome (Aeon Russo, Mark Taylor, and Chris Baer) added a few new faces for the endeavor. Our newly amended crew now included Hamish Tills and Tomas Binimelis. We all started compiling our marginal beta, most of which was based upon hearsay and rumor, along with a few numbers from what Aeon so delicately referred to as the “coloring book map”. The alleged put-in, from the info that we could obtain, was four-hundred and twenty meters above sea level, and we were going to descend all the way down to just above sea level. The estimated distance was approximately thirty kilometers. After a quick mental conversion to the Imperial system, the river would fall at an average gradient of sixty-seven feet per mile for eighteen miles… a long one day event?
|a bunch of boaters waiting on a boat|
|Tomas, chatting with the captain|
“Arduous” would be a massive understatement for this trip. Thankfully, Tomas, our fearless Chilean was hard at work orchestrating our impending journey. To get to the Manso put-in, we would drive up the Puelo valley to the Upper Puelo put-in. We would then hike thirty minutes upstream to a large eddy, await our next vessel, load ourselves and our gear onto a motor boat, and then go upriver into the headwaters of the Rio Puelo. We then exited the first boat at an unidentifiable beach, and hiked half a mile up the hillside to get our passports stamped out of Chile by the grumpy, under-caffeinated border guards at the ridiculously remote “Paso Puelo” (only accessible via boat). We hopped onto a slightly larger jet boat and skipped our way further up-stream. Launching up a solid class 3 rapid, the captain calmly mentioned that we had just attain-boofed our way into Argentina. Our passports were stamped into Argentina at the beautiful Parque Nacional Lago Puelo. Then we journeyed north via a family friend of Tomas in a pickup truck for four hours to Paso Leon. The road dead ends in Paso Leon. We then checked out of Argentina, crossed the Rio Manso by kayak, and then checked back into Chile on the other side. This single day of logistics would have taken me a week or more to contrive, but spectacularly, Tomas pulled it off like it was just another day in the office.
|end of the road|
|heading to the border crossing for the fourth time in a single day|
|Mark Taylor, picking his way through the siphon pile|
The tributary just North of the Rio Manso is the Rio Cochamo. Shortly after setting off into our trip, the Rio Manso revealed its similarity to the Rio Cochamo: essentially gigantic boulders stacked on top of each other in a narrow canyon. There were literally siphons stacked upon siphons. Downstream progress slowed to a crawl.
|Mark Taylor, Manso Chile|
The next ten hours were a blur of massive boulder gardens, countless sieves, live bait scouting, and way too many close calls. Late in the day after running a massive sieve-laden boulder garden, I caught a micro eddy in the middle of the river. Looking downstream, Tomas and Hamish were sitting thirty feet below. The water between us was exploding in every direction. Their paddles were straight up in the air (signaling that the rapid was ok). Mark, Aeon, and I dropped into the melee heedlessly; we were exhausted.
|Aeon Russo, Rio Manso|
Every skill in my kayaking repertoire was being abused. Mentally, I was battered and my confidence started to fade.
|trying to dry out after a long day|
The gorge glowed an amazing saffron hue as the sun set over the unrelenting canyon rim. We stopped on a rocky beach. Fourteen years of paddling class 5 rivers, and this was my first unexpected overnight. We collected every piece of driftwood on the “beach” and started a fire. No one was anticipating a night out. Food was slim and protection from the elements was absent. The rain started at about 2:00 AM, and sleep became unattainable.
|drying out after a long, cold, wet night|
The following morning the crew was moving exceptionally slowly. Most hadn’t gotten any real sleep. Thankfully the river had given up most of its gradient. Wearily, we paddled through sporadic class 3 for the final six kilometers to our take out.
|the locals are fighting hard|
|proposed dam site, already under destruction|
Part of the reason why we entered into the lower Rio Manso Gorge is that it’s threatened by an imminent dam project. We had hopes of obtaining some beautiful photos and video of the valley that could have been used in the anti-dam campaign. It was at our unexpected camp, exhausted, cold, and hungry, that I turned to Tomas with utter dispassion and exclaimed, “I changed my mind, I want this section to be dammed. I don’t want anyone else to have to deal with this.” We both let out an exhausted chuckle.
|Puelo locals protesting the dam project|
|an amazing location|
Do Not Go Into The Lower Rio Manso Gorge…
|Mark Taylor, exhausted after another big mission|
… Unless you are looking for a truly next level experience. Prerequisites should include self-discovery runs down the Rio Cochamo, Linville, Lower Meadow, and Cheeseman Gorge. Bring your “A Game”… and definitely your overnight gear.
|almost too exhausted to get the shot|
A couple months after I published this article John Arthur reached out to me with discription of the first discent, even more Epic!
I noticed the article on your website describing the lower Rio Manso, and thought you might be interested in some info about early kayak exploration of this run.
In February 1995 I was spending some time at Chris Spelius’ camp on the Futaleufu, and asked him for help in setting up a river adventure. He suggested the Rio Puelo, and offered to provide logistics. I recruited Lars Holbek, who was working for Spe that year, along with a couple of other visitors to Spe’s camp — Dave Kemp from California and Dave Kalange from Idaho. We all piled into Spe’s truck and he drove us to Argentina. The plan was to first meet up with a bunch of kayakers from Bariloche and run the Alerces section of the Manso. Spe had brought a bunch of old kayaks with him, to sell to the Bariloche boaters. In gratitude, they treated us to an evening of asado and wine on the beach at Lago Steffen after the Alerces run. As we drank more wine, the idea of simply continuing on down the Manso to the ocean somehow started to seem credible. Lars was against it at first, since we knew almost nothing about the river downstream (we had only a highway map, showing an eventual confluence with the Puelo). But the Bariloche boaters assured us that the Manso was navigable at least as far as the border with Chile. Beyond that, they knew nothing, but there were rumors that a party of Germans had headed downstream just a few days earlier. That was enough for Kalange and Kemp, and they talked Lars into it. In addition, Bariloche boater Diego Rodriguez decided to join us.
The next morning, after we sobered up, the plan somehow still seemed plausible. We were there, the river was waiting — it seemed fated to happen. So we packed our Responses and Crossfires with gear and food for an expedition. I had brought lots of dehydrated meals from the US, and we had a couple of camping stoves and pots. A Response can hold a lot of gear, but we regretted the weight later. We said goodbye to Spe and to our Bariloche hosts, and paddled off from the beach.
According to my notes, we paddled about 35 km the first day, nearly to the border. I remember easy paddling through pastures and forests, with great scenery. On the second day, we paddled a nice class 3-4 canyon at the border, and crossed into Chile. Then the river turned south and got serious. We proceeded more slowly and made a few portages. This day we covered about 20 km.
On the third day, things got really serious as the river continued south. A succession of big class 4 and 5 drops, some runnable and some portaged. One portage required fancy rock climbing by Lars and a rope traverse for kayaks and boaters. ( I recognize this drop in your video — you did a roped swim.) In the afternoon we reached a vertical-walled canyon with two huge drops back to back. The first drop looked marginal and the second couldn't be scouted. So we scaled the cliff, and pulled the boats up with ropes. Once on top we crashed through the bamboo. Our progress was very slow, as we heaved the loaded boats over, under and through the bamboo jungle. In 4 hours hiking we covered about 1/2 km and reached a side creek, where we camped. Total mileage for the day: about 4 km.
The morning of the fourth day, we did some reconnaissance down in the canyon, and concluded that the river was runnable for at least a few km. We lowered the boats to the river by rope and climbed down ourselves, jumping the last 40 feet into an eddy. Big rapids followed but only one portage and the gradient gradually eased. About 10 km of great class 3-4 rapids followed. Late in the afternoon the river tuned west and the canyon abruptly ended, leaving us on flat water. We camped just above the confluence with the Rio Puelo. We had been conserving our food to this point, but now that we were out of the canyon we celebrated with a pig-out dinner.
On the fifth day we paddled all the way to the bridge near Puelo town, playing in the huge hole at the exit to Lago Tagua Tagua. We caught the bus from Puelo to Puerto Montt, paying 5000 pesos to put the boats on the roof.
We never did catch up with the Germans on the river (though we found bits of plastic on the rocks at the portage points). However, Dave Kemp eventually ran into them in a bar in Puerto Montt. They made more long portages than we did, climbing out of the canyon at least three times. Thus, our trip was either a first or second descent, depending on your criteria. Diego Rodriguez came back with his Bariloche buddies later and proved that the canyon we hiked around was runnable. He eventually set up a company (Adventure Tours Argentina Chile) and guided commercial raft trips down the lower Manso.
I enjoyed your Manso video, and even recognized many of the rapids after 20 years. I’m very sorry to hear about the plans to build a dam in there, and hope the the local resistance to this plan is successful.
Descent of the Rio Manso from Lago Steffen to the town of Puelo, February 6-10, 1995
|adventure by Chris Baer|