It is one of the eerier twists of kayaking history, noted by Blackadar biographer Ron Watters, that the two leading expedition kayakers of the 1970s were both doctors, who both died in their boats in the same year – 1978. Aside from that, there was not much in common between Dr Walt Blackadar, solo king of the American wilderness, and Dr Mike Jones, the Yorkshireman who conquered Everest.
By Steffan Meyric Hughes
Unlike Blackadar, who took to kayaking late in life, Jones started aged 14 with a run down the River Wharfe in a canvas folding kayak on a cold winter’s day. After spending much of the day swimming, he joined the school kayak club and, over the course of a few weeks, learned to roll in a school swimming pool.
As soon as the spring rolled around, he was running local rivers like the Wharfe (including the dangerous Strid rapid), Ure, Swale, Nidd and Lune, then further afield to the Welsh Dee, and taking up slalom, reaching the top division a couple of years later. His first big expedition was in 1968, in the form of a trip to the River Inn in Switzerland to run the hardest 80 miles, much of it previously not run, with some of it considered unrunnable. The trip, covered by Chris Bonnington no less, then working at the Daily Telegraph, was a success.
Two years later, he was on Chris Hawkesworth’s first British expedition through the Grand Canyon of the Colorado and a year after that, in 1972, made a hair-raising trip to attempt the Blue Nile in Ethiopia with Mick Hopkinson, a river that had killed many who had thus far attempted to descend it. As the world tuned in to watch the first ‘canoe’ slalom events to be held in the Olympics at Augsburg, Mike and Mick were facing repeated attacks from ‘giant, 20-foot crocodiles,’ which they warded off with WWI Webley officer issue revolvers and non-waterproof ammunition, while paddling huge whitewater, particularly in the 30-mile ‘grade six’ section below the thundering Tissisat Falls. To add to the fun, they came under fire from locals while paddling the section.
The expedition that Mike put together to paddle the river that drains Everest in 1976, the 80-mile Dudh Kosi, has become, simply, the best-known of all kayaking expeditions undertaken. He chose as his ‘second in command’ Mick Hopkinson, and they were joined by Dave Manby, John Gosling, Roger Huyton, John Liddell and Rob Hastings. The film, shown on British prime-time television on Boxing Day 1976, showed the British viewing public for the first time what whitewater expedition kayaking was all about, in the same way that Blackadar had thrilled American audiences that decade with his exploits in the American wilderness.
The Everest expedition is now seen as the template of modern kayaking expeditions, and has probably been seen more than any other paddling film. The equipment and approach seems amusingly quaint by today’s standards: wooden paddles, 13ft GRP slalom kayaks with moveable footrests and small cockpits designed and built for the trip by Graham Mackereth’s Pyranha Mouldings, and ribbed orange buoyancy aids. One shot in the film shows the team on a bridge holding black umbrellas.
The achievement is rivalled by little else in kayaking history. From the start, the river’s source on a lake on the Khumbu Glacier, nearly 18,000ft high, the team had to deal with altitude sickness, leeches, snow blindness and dysentery. The upper sections were fast, freezing and uncomfortably shallow. The lower sections were highly technical, boulder-strewn and at times, pretty monstrous, even by today’s standards. In the end, of the dozen boats the team took with them, only two made it back, such was the fragility of even the strongest glass-fibre layup when confronted with the Dudh Kosi. These days, the idea of running a river with frequent stops to tape your boat together again, is unimaginable.
The journey there and back – 15,000 miles in a Ford Transit – is a story in itself. The camera on the boats weighed 3.5 kgs and was converted from clockwork to electric. If running at super slow motion – which gave the best footage – the cassette ran for about 30 seconds so you had to paddle out into the middle of the rapid let go your paddle with one hand reach behind you and turn the camera on. Leo Dickinson did not want the (bulky) switch in the shot! They created footage that set the standard in film-making – in fact, it’s considerably better than the GoPro footage of today – not bad for cameras once attached to Hurricanes as a gun cam in WWII!
A year later, Mike and four others travelled to Venezuela to paddle the big-water Maipure and Apure Rapids of the Orinoco River, a place that, like the Blue Nile and Dudh Kosi, barely exists in the imaginations of paddlers today.
Queen’s Gallantry Medal
A year after that, Jones died while trying to save the life of fellow paddler Roger Huyton (of the Dudh Kosi trip) on a major expedition to paddle the Braldu, the river that drains K2 in Pakistan. Huyton survived, but Jones, it is thought, was swept under a low overhang and drowned. His body was never found, and he was posthumously awarded the Queen’s Gallantry Medal.
The reverberations of Mike Jones continued long after his death and continue to do so even now. After Mike’s death, his parents set up a memorial fund in his name. For 10 years Dave Manby organised and ran the Mike Jones Rally in Llangollen, North Wales to raise money for this fund – older readers might particularly remember the cardboard boat challenge! The fund, now known as the Mike Jones Award, is to promote kayaking and exploration, and is now administered by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trusts.
Recently, expedition paddler Ben Stookesbury returned to the Dudh Kosi to tick off some of the sections the original team portaged, and one day, a complete first descent is a possibility, although it would be at the limit of possibility given the difficulties involved.
The trip that Mike led is responsible for much of the way we view kayaking today. One very nasty pinning incident that led to the famous Mick Hopkinson swim (the boat partially broke apart to free him) led to a popular theory that persisted throughout the 1980s – that these new-fangled plastic boats are dangerous because they won’t yield when pinned to release the paddler. These days, much has changed of course – kayaks are heavy, have dropped from 13ft to 8ft in length and we don’t regard them as consumables because they are indestructible. Paddles are light and technique has moved on, too.
Warmth, bravery and enthusiasm
Mike himself will be remembered for his bravery and his enthusiasm. “His overwhelming confidence in what he did or planned would first of all convince everyone he spoke to that he was completely mad… when you realised he was serious, you became so enthusiastic that you would find yourself bending over backwards to help him”, remembers Roger Huyton. “Mike’s escapades a lot depended on all traffic lights being green – or at least amber,” said Dave Manby. Whilst Graham Mackereth said, “He was a whirl of energy who captured everybody’s imagination. He had a photographic memory and the ladies adored him. A very special man.” He will be remembered by those who knew him for his warmth, bravery and that enthusiasm. The rest of us should thank him for launching what would become, over the next two decades – the golden era of expedition paddling.
Dr Mike Jones remembered… by Dave Manby
“Mike Jones, whose good friends call Rupert for an unknown reason, performed the job of tea boy with alarming vigour,” was the introduction that Chris Bonnington gave the 16-year old Mike when covering the 1968 British trip down the River Inn, Austria for the Daily Telegraph magazine. Mike maintained that Chris Bonnington was only filling column inches and there was no truth in the statement, but from then on the name stuck and so Mike reckoned that Chris owed him several favours.
It took four years for Mike to start pulling in these favours. Chris had been the journalist on Blashford-Snell’s attempted descent of the Blue Nile in the totally unsuitable Avon Redshanks and he remarked in his text that kayaks might have been a better craft to have used. That was enough for Mike to go ahead on and he immediately started extracting his pound of flesh. This was the first trip that Mike led and it became typical of his trips: conceived in a bar, planned on a beer mat and organised whilst in the middle of something else (this time his medical degree course at Birmingham University).
As was often the case with Mike’s escapades, a lot depended on all traffic lights being green – or at least amber. Mike was not put off by the fact that Chris Hawkesworth, the cameraman/paddler fell victim to Mike’s publicity drive and pulled out – crocodiles and cataracts were fine, but trigger happy bandits was going a little too far. Mike bought a 16mm camera and borrowed a book from the library, ‘How to shoot 16mm. film’ and proceeded to undertake the filming of the trip as well.
The river lived up to its reputation: halfway through the trip Mike had his 21st birthday and Mick Hopkinson was the only member of the team left on the river to share the celebration. That night they were camped above a serious stretch of white water. In the middle of the night, Mike woke Mick up saying that he was sure that he had heard bandits in the bushes; they drew their World War One revolvers and sat back to back hoping that their sodden ammunition had dried out sufficiently to work. The following morning Mick opened his eyes to find Mike fast asleep and that he was staring down the barrel of Mike’s loaded and cocked revolver with his finger still around the trigger! Four days later the two of them, having no real idea of where they were rounded a bend to see the Portuguese Bridge and the Reuter’s reporter – by coincidence, they were exactly on schedule.
I met up with Mike in 1975 when I got invited on a trip round the Austrian Alps and Mike came out to join us after the first week. He was literally in the middle of his final university exams – we had to get Mike back to Birmingham a fortnight later in time for his last psychology paper. It was a typical Mike Jones trip: in one day it was not unusual to run three sections of serious white water, rush back to the campsite, cook a curry that included everything that was to hand and then down to the bar for some serious drinking.
We got reprimanded for leading the British Youth Team astray at Lofer slalom, destroyed the Swedish and Dutch slalom teams at Augsburg in back to back boat races of ½ litres each, got Slime to pay the bar bill at Landeck to cover his embarrassment, and still managed to paddle all the top runs of the time. At this time the Everest trip was being talked about and this I suppose was the start of the, ‘18 months of planning.’
Two years later Mike decided to head for K2 and the Braldu River in the Karakorum. He drowned whilst rescuing a friend. He was 25.
Life around Mike could only be described as ‘hectic,’ but he also had the charisma and basic common sense which enabled him to persuade all but the most staid of institutions, that his idea was not only feasible, but also worth backing. He had millions of acquaintances and many friends: I think I was friend of his – he certainly was a good friend of mine. I owe him a great deal.
Further reading/viewing: Canoeing Down Everest (Mike Jones), Many Rivers to Run (Dave Manby), Dudh Kosi: Relentless River of Everest (DVD – dir Leo Dickinson). And, though only of peripheral relevance to this, the whole film of the first British Grand Canyon kayak expedition of 1971 is available to watch for free on YouTube.
Many Rivers to Run (Dave Manby). Available from www.davemanby.co.uk
Dudh Kosi: Relentless River of Everest. Available from www.adventurearchive.com/product/dudh-kosi-relentless-river-of-everest/