By Florian Fischer with Nils Dippon, Pirmin Dlugosch and Sepp Cetinköprülü
In 1937, Rittlinger, paddled the Amazon from its source rivers Marañón and Huallaga, solo with his folding kayak from 3,845 metres. After a year of serious planning and three weeks of acclimatization, the team of four paddled in his strokes to kayak the upper Amazon.
Our preparation for the project The preparation for the descent of the upper Amazon is coming to an end. In the past five days, we have managed a first descent of the Rio Salka and spent three days on the Rio Apurimac. On the Rio Salka we put in at 4,200m above sea level. This was a test to see how our bodies deal with paddling on these altitudes.
Considering everything, the river isn’t a real highlight for us whitewater kayakers. Steep canyons are full of siphons and the fast running river disappears suddenly under the mountains of Peru in a cave to appear after a few hundred metres. Leaving out the aspects, caves and siphons, the river compensates you with beautiful steep and remote canyons with a wonderful panoramic view onto a glacier and big mountains.
Our multi-day on the Rio Apurimac was our last point of preparation. It contains several rapids up to class V whitewater in a steep canyon with the only exit by kayak. Help is far away and there are no options if something goes wrong.On the afternoon on the 15th November 2012 they started their 1,100km long journey to their final destination: Laguna Lauricocha close to Cero de Pasco.
First descent very upper Amazon done!
Absolute despair and total exhaustion can be seen in our faces… The entire creek disappears under a huge rock fall – no way to continue the journey by kayak. Initially, we are still motivated to rope up our boats with pulleys to the top of the first big rock. The whole dimension of the blockade can hardly be seen from this point and we’re asking ourselves if it makes sense to continue our journey. What will be around the next corner?
Our local contact person, Alonso, has organized a car for our expedition to the most upper Amazon. In front of the house we’re living in, there’s a taxi of the type ‘Toyota Probox’. A roomy car with enough space for four people with all their baggage. We’re just not sure about its cross-country mobility but soon we’re on our way north to the Laguna Lauricocha.
Did you know:
The Amazon collects water from just over 40 per cent of South America’s Landmass, through the thousands of tributaries that join the main branch of the Amazon river. Of these tributaries, 17 are over 1,600kms (1,000 miles) long.
All in all it took us 56 hours to get from Cusco to the Laguna Lauricocha, our put in for the descent of the Rio Lauricocha.
After 21 police controls and uncountable miles on gravel road we are finding ourselves in a small Indian town of Yanahuanca, where we took a last good meal in a Polleria – roasted chicken with French fries, soup and salad for round about 4$. In a small shop we bought food for the upcoming seven days.
The road map gives us an idea what’s coming next: The really bad roads have been marked white; the upcoming road is just grey and way thinner. Also the junction to the road can be only found with the help of the local people.
A thin steep dirt road, as wide as a car, is curling up to the high sierra of the Cordillera Raura.
Initially we haven’t been sure if it’s possible to run the road without 4WD. All the locals told us not to try without, but we did it and it was unbelievable what a Toyota Probox is able to handle. We spent a lot of time filming, photographing and just enjoying the landscape.
On the map it was looking like just 10km but after a few kilometres on the gravel road the driver told us, there are still 30km to go (3-5 hours in 4WD car) to the Laguna Lauricocha and it’s impossible without 4WD. With super slow speed it’s going over big rocks, super steep ‘roads’ and muddy pools. After a small village with five Indian huts the road was much better. We are still on a gravel road but now with road signs and less pot holes. After a couple of hours we decide to camp at an elevation of 4,500m.
After a cold and rainy night we reach the laguna Lauricocha.
75 years ago, Herbert Rittlinger wanted to start his mission here, but he had too little water and so he was forced to start about 50km downstream. So now it’s our turn to do the first descent starting from the Laguna of the Rio Lauricocha (the biggest source river of the Amazon).
Food for three days, stove, water purifier, cameras and much more and the kayaks weigh about 40kg. After a good farewell from the local Indians, we are leaving the Laguna Lauricocha as the first people on the waterway to do the descent of the upper source river of the Amazon – the biggest river on the planet.
The river is flowing through amazing scenery in the middle of the Cordillera Raura with easy whitewater class II and III. A huge siphon allows the river to disappear for 10 metres and at this point the difficulties are rising. On the following couple of kilometres we found whitewater class III-IV with some class IV+ rapids. Another portage is necessary because the river is flowing completely under a rock fall for 200 metres.
Upon reaching the little town of Cauri, the river’s character is not really changing in contrast to the weather, where a big thunderstorm is developing and paddling is becoming harder.
Our first descent ended up in Cauri after 30km of white water in an unbelievable landscape. Rocky Contos discovered the following 20km only three months ago. Our next destination is the confluence from Rio Maranon and Rio Vizcara. On the upcoming section to the confluence of the Rio Laurcocha and Rio Nupe, where the Rio Maranon begins, we find 20km of whitewater class IV in a large canyon with many siphons and undercuts, which requires attentive paddling.
After 50km we are super happy finishing our first part of the expedition while reaching the meeting point of Rio Nupe. At this point Sepp has to leave the group, to get his flight back to Germany.
Another 50km of unknown whitewater lie in wait for us. Many Indian locals recommended not to continue paddling the Rio Maranon because the river disappears in a huge rock fall. We don’t understand much of the language because the people in this area don’t speak Spanish – just Quechua.
The first five kilometres are easy whitewater class III until a huge rock makes continuing impossible. “This must be the huge syphon the locals were talking about!” After rappelling the first few metres we realized the whole dimension of this siphon. It’s about one kilometre long and really difficult to portage. We doubt the possibility of continuing the Rio Maranon and after a short discussion we decided to unload our kayaks for easier handling whilst portaging.
After six hours of portaging we find a good camp in a cave where totally exhausted, we cook noodles with tuna and go to bed early. On the next day, we have to paddle many kilometres of whitewater. Our plan was to run the whole 50km within two days and we hoped to find interesting and difficult whitewater. We are also going to trying to find the cave where Herbert Rittlinger once left his heavy useless equipment to make his boat lighter, although we recognized that the cave might be buried by a rock fall.
What we didn’t plan was to paddle just six kilometres on the first day. Still exhausted from the day before we have to carry our boats another hour downhill to the river, where we continue our ride on the Rio Maranon. We have still about 45km left. In our topographic military maps we recognized that the river is not very steep. We are paddling 45km class II and III, with a couple class IV rapids. A short canyon with class IV+ whitewater excites us before paddling almost flat water to confluence of Rio Vizcara. Here, near the small town of Pachas we’re ending the first phase of our trip and are happy finishing our project ‘descent of the most upper amazon.’
As two days ago, getting our car to the take out takes us another six hours. At 10pm we’re on our way via Lima to Cusco, where we arrive 36 hours and seven police controls later.
Back in Cusco we’re are very happy to be sleeping horizontal after the long drive.
We talked a lot about the lower canyon of the Rio Apurimac and that we really would like to run it. It is called ‘the Abyssmo’. We asked Alonso, the boss of the company ‘Apurimac Explorer’ and the man who is sharing his home with us, if he would like to join us. He just answered, “Yes, no problem, let’s go. We need just one day!” We were little bit confused. The other local guys told us it is the hardest whitewater in the Cusco area and you will need about three days. As Alonso promised us that it is possible and that he already ran the Abyssmo three times, we packed our stuff and went to the put-in at 5am in the morning.
We packed our boats with stuff for two days – just in case and because we will sleep at the take-out. There is a six-hour walk out waiting for us. So we started our trip.
Very excited about what we will find on the next 30km. The first 22km is just whitewater class III with a few rapids of class IV. After every rapid there is a huge pool where you can relax and in the case of a swim, where you can get all your stuff back. We thought we could get an idea about what is coming next. But the only thing that didn’t change was the absolute remoteness in a deep and impressive canyon.
For the last eight kilometres there was not a single pool and maybe three or four rapids a little bit easier than class V. In this place the Rio Apurimac shows its complete power and danger, but also its beauty. Steep class V rapids one after the other with a lot of siphons and undercuts. And if we say “a lot” we mean “a lot!” Especially these siphons forced us to portage at least three times.
After nine hours and a few minutes after sunset we reached a bridge where the famous Inca Trail is crossing the river. This is the first possibility to get out of the river. We were really happy about reaching this point, totally tired and mentally exhausted. You can continue with easier whitewater downstream for another day and you will avoid the six hours walk out. But we decided to take out here and shared our camp with a few billion sandflies and mosquitos. In the next morning we were waiting for some horses to carry our boats uphill to the next road access. Alonso organized everything and we told him to order some more horses for us. So we rode the horses for six hours and 1,500m of elevation up to a little town where Miguel, our taxi driver was waiting for us.
All in all it was a great adventure with heavy whitewater in amazing scenery and the pretty cool ‘walk out’ of the gorge.
After two months of travelling through Peru, the time came for heading home to Germany. We spent three days in Lima, where we surfed and visited the historical city.
Thanks to Alonso from ApuEx, all the raft guides and new friends we found. We had a pretty good time in Peru and will be back for sure.
The rivers we ran before going to the Rio Lauricocha to use as preparation.
- Rio Chilca was to prepare for running class V big water in a moderate altitude (approx. 3,000m).
- Rio Salka was to prepare for running whitewater in high altitudes (approx. 4,500m).
- Rio Apurimac was to prepare for running difficult whitewater with fully loaded boats.
Check Flo’s video link on: https://vimeo.com/flofischer