Kokatat Team Descent of the Saryjaz River in Eastern Kyrgyzstan

   Whitewater
Eastern Kyrgyzstan - September 2017
A team of some of the world's most renowned whitewater expedition kayakers from 5 different countries united in Kyrgyzstan to chase the elusive Saryjaz River, the gem of central Asia that has only seen three previous kayaking descents. This trip would involve more than 60 miles of big water class V down to the Chinese border, followed by a 3 day hike out involving a Tyrolean - that the team have to self-set, and hiking more than 26 miles over two 12,000 ft passes. Words by Jordy Searle.

   Whitewater

Eastern Kyrgyzstan - September 2017

A team of some of the world's most renowned whitewater expedition kayakers from 5 different countries united in Kyrgyzstan to chase the elusive Saryjaz River, the gem of central Asia that has only seen three previous kayaking descents. This trip would involve more than 60 miles of big water class V down to the Chinese border, followed by a 3 day hike out involving a Tyrolean - that the team have to self-set, and hiking more than 26 miles over two 12,000 ft passes. Words by Jordy Searle.

The team

Adrian Kiernan

Adrian Kiernan

Kristof Stursa

Kristof Stursa

In September 2017 a group of the world’s most experienced expedition kayakers came together to attempt the Sary-jaz River, in Eastern Kyrgyzstan. A trip which is a balancing act between going too early – risking unnavigable high flows, and going too late - risking freezing temperatures during the 4 day hike out, which has claimed the lives of numerous Russian catarafters. A brainchild of Adrian Kiernan and Sam Grafton, this trip ended up attracting paddlers from the USA, New Zealand, Australia, Czech Republic, and Austria. It would be the team members various backgrounds, and therefore different knowledge bases, that would prove to be fundamental to the success of the trip.

Saryjaz Expedition team- Adrian Keirnan, Kristof Stursa, Sam Grafton, Jordy Searle, Ari Walker, Jakub Sedivy
Saryjaz Expedition team- Adrian Kiernan, Kristof Stursa, Sam Grafton, Jordy Searle, Ari Walker, Jakub Sedivy
The dusty road to Naryns - photo Kristof Stursa
The dusty road to Naryns - photo Kristof Stursa

The team meet in the Kyrgyzstan capital of Bishkek a couple of weeks before the start of the Saryjaz trip. They needed to get their permits sorted out for entering the ‘border-zone’ in which the river is situated, and this gave them the opportunity to get on the river a few times as a group before committing to the Saryjaz.

Map of the Little Naryn where the team would do some warm up runs.
Map of the Little Naryn where the team would do some warm up runs.
Adrian Kiernan on the Big Naryn - photo Kristof Stursa
Adrian Kiernan on the Big Naryn - photo Kristof Stursa

This first part of the trip was not without problems, Jordy’s kayak was lost by the airline with all his kayaking and camping gear inside. But with a late hustle by Ari who brought two kayaks with him from Mongolia and Jakub who borrowed some of his girlfriend’s paddling gear, Jordy’s trip was salvaged and the team set off for some warm up runs.

Ari, Kristof, Jakub and Evan - photo Jordy Searle
Ari, Kristof, Jakub and Evan bundled up on the way to the river - photo Jordy Searle
Evan and Sam - photo Ari Walker
Evan and Sam - photo Ari Walker
Sam Grafton running bridge rapid on the Naryn - photo Kristof Stursa
Sam Grafton running bridge rapid on the Naryn - photo Kristof Stursa

Over the next ten days the team was shown one of the most beautiful culture and countryside that they’d ever been fortunate enough to experience. A modest and powerful people, often living close to their traditional roots and demonstrating a generosity that is all but lost in the western world.

Adrian and Jordy getting to know the locals - photo Ari Walker
Adrian and Jordy getting to know the locals - photo Ari Walker
Local boy at Yurt Camp - photo Kristof Stursa
Local boy at Yurt Camp - photo Kristof Stursa
Enjoying the local cusine with a great BBQ at camp
Enjoying the local cuisine with a great BBQ at camp - photo Adrian Kiernan

Staying in Yurt camps, riding horses and experiencing fermented horse milk and yak curd; it was a pretty authentic experience.

Jordy and Sam riding at Lake son kul - photo Adrian Keirnan
Jordy and Sam riding at Lake son kul - photo Adrian Kiernan
Jordy having a taste of fermented horse milk.
Jordy having a taste of fermented horse milk.

On top of this, they also had their first experience of whitewater. While paddling several sections of the Naryn, they experienced remote, big volume and intimidating rapids, which was generally all locked in gorges. It was what the team had expected and was a good opportunity to paddle loaded boats and get a good feeling for team dynamics.

Kristof exots mini gorge on the Upper Naryn - photo Adrian Kiernan
Kristof exits mini gorge on the Upper Naryn - photo Adrian Kiernan
Ari Walker scouting Naryn Falls
Ari Walker scouting Naryn Falls - photo Adrian Kiernan
Adrian Kiernan running corner rapid on the Little Naryn
Adrian Kiernan running corner rapid on the Little Naryn - photo Kristof Stursa

Before they knew it September 9th rolled around and it was time to drive to the abandoned ex-soviet mining town of Engilchek, the put in of the Saryjaz. But the team was going to face another hurdle. Evan received word from home there was a medical emergency, and decided to leave immediately. Evan being the strongest paddler on the team, this was definitely going to leave a vacuum in terms of firing up the bigger stuff, and his team gear would need to be reallocated within the group. The team had one last night together in Karakol, then Evan jumped in a taxi and it was time for the rest of the team to head to the Saryjaz.

Evan Moore - photo Jordy Searle
Evan Moore on the Naryn - photo Jordy Searle
Evan Moore on the Naryn before having to head home- phopto Jordy Searle
Evan Moore on the Naryn before having to head home- phopto Jordy Searle

It was a drive filled with anticipation, not only for the river but whether the pass would be open and would the team be granted access to the military controlled border zone. You’d expect a government issued permit would give you confidence, but all the confidence was with Dimitri - the driver, logistics manager and cool head in every situation. The pass was fine and of course Dima made a seemingly intense situation at the checkpoint feel like we were just ordering lunch. Access granted, now their focus was on the river.

Dimitri, the team driver and logistics manager - photo Jordy Searle
Dimitri, the team driver and logistics manager - photo Jordy Searle
The first view of the Saryjaz catchment
The first view of the Saryjaz catchment

Camping at the put-in of a big river expedition can be bittersweet. You’re there but at the same time you have a 12+ hour emotional rollercoaster, internally hypothesizing what awaits downstream. Add to this the team had absolutely no way of knowing whether they had a high, medium or low flow. All the team knew was it looked like about 200+ cumecs in the river and NO rocks were showing. They slept as well as could be expected, aided by the hot pools conveniently located right next to the put in!

Jakub and Ari at the put in for the Saryjaz
Jakub and Ari at the put in for the Saryjaz

Starting out with more beta than any of the 3 previous kayaking descents, kind of like a treasure map with 6 things on it opposed to 2, the team slowly and carefully picked their way down the river doing their best to heed the information given to them: Camp early day one, two days to Kayukup Creek, four days to Kayukup Creek, scout on river left for Eyes of God, scout on river right for Eyes of God, or do not bother scouting at all… It was hard to know what to believe, but Jordy had put in a lot of preparatory work and had a broad plan. It should take 3 - 4 days to paddle 40 miles down to a slot canyon that will come in on river left, Kayukup Creek. Here the team would need to setup a tyrolen across the Saryjaz for their return journey, as after reaching the takeout at the Chinese border they would have to hike back up river right and cross the tyrolen to Kayukup Creek. From there they would canyon 2 miles up the creek to access the high-alpine passes that would hopefully lead back to where the journey began. It was a mash of previous exit plans used by Russian Catarafters and the elusive Team Beer.

Ari Walker - photo Jordy Searle
Ari Walker ready for the expedition - photo Jordy Searle
With high flows, Ari sets out on the Saryjaz - photo Jordy Searle
Ari sets out on the Saryjaz - photo Jordy Searle

The river was big and pushy but it seemed to be perfect, and the team quickly picked their way downstream. Sneaks opened up around and sometimes through big holes, and the miles seamlessly ticked by.

Kristof Stursa navigating his way through one of the many rapids - photo Ari Walker
Kristof Stursa navigating his way through one of the many rapids - photo Ari Walker
Jordy Searle - photo Kristof Stursa
Jordy Searle - photo Kristof Stursa
Jakub Sedivy running S Bend - photo Kristof Stursa
Jakub Sedivy running S Bend - photo Kristof Stursa

After camping early on day one the team had intentions of pushing downstream to get through the portage on day two, but Adrian was feeling a bit run down and hadn’t slept well the previous few nights. So Jakub and Sam found a massive flat boulder to spend the afternoon on and the team elected to camp early on day two, giving Adrian a good 18 hour break to recuperate.

Sam Grafton at camp - photo Jordy Searle
Sam Grafton at camp - photo Jordy Searle
River camp - photo Ari Walker
River camp - photo Ari Walker

The next day the team awoke in earnest, Adrian included. Due to the two early finishes, the team really wanted to push through the portage and get to Kayukup Creek, where they would set up the tyrolen for their planned hike out route.

Adrian and Sam shortly befor the portage - photo Kristof Stursa
Adrian and Sam shortly befor the portage - photo Kristof Stursa
Jordy Searle at the portage - photo Kristof Stursa
Jordy Searle at the portage - photo Kristof Stursa

Heralded by the only straight line of the Saryjaz on a map, the team got to the portage early and made short work of what was meant to be a 5 hour exertion. But once the team finally got down to Kayukup it was clear there was a bit more involved to setting up the Tyrolean than first thought. A job for the next day.

setting up camp after a long day -photo Jakub Sedivy
setting up camp after a long day -photo Jakub Sedivy
Night at Kayukup - photo Kristof Stursa
Night at Kayukup - photo Kristof Stursa

Kayukup Creek looked to be higher than desired to use as an exit route, but being the easiest escape plan by far they had to set up in hope that it would drop a little. Just in case the water came up even more, Adrian set a rope through the crux of Kayukup, slightly up the creek from the confluence with the Saryjaz.

Team work at kayukup creek - photo Jakub Sedivy
Team work at Kayukup creek - photo Jakub Sedivy
Jordy and Ari at kayukup Creek - photo Jakub Sedivy
Jordy and Ari - photo Jakub Sedivy
Adrian at the Kayukup traverse - photo Kristof Stursa
Adrian traversing at Kayukup - photo Kristof Stursa

The next few hours were spent setting up a high Tyrolean, trying to avoid the trouble “Team Beer” reported of people getting messed around in the river during their crossing. Once the Tyrolean was set and tested by Ari, the team had a short float down the Saryjaz to the derelict meteorological station where they would set up camp.

Ari Walker testing the Tyrolean - photo Jakub Sedivy
Ari Walker testing the Tyrolean - photo Jakub Sedivy
Team arrives at the meteorological station where they will set up camp befor heading into the final section of the Saryjaz - photo Kristof Stursa
Team arrives at the meteorological station where they will set up camp before heading into the final section of the Saryjaz the following day.
Adrian Kiernan - photo Jakub Sedivy
Adrian Kiernan - photo Jakub Sedivy

Kristof, Jakub and Ari hiked downstream for a quick evening scout of the ‘Eyes of God’ gorge, returning with the beta: Right, boof center and drive through the boils to the left. Three isolated drops in the rapidly narrowing ‘Eyes of God’ gorge, and from below there the team should be able to scout further.

Ari scouting last gorge - photo Kristof Stursa
Ari scouting last gorge - photo Kristof Stursa

The next day the beta was spot on, with the team paddling through the first 3 drops unscathed. Then Ari was able to scout the next section which revealed a must run Saryjaz version of the infamous V-Drive on the Stikine River. Sam, Ari and Jordy routed it with mixed but successful results, and the others followed with the benefit of scouting and had much cleaner lines.

"Jah Drive" - photo Kristof Stursa
Ari, Sam and Jordy routing the Saryjaz V-drive rapid - photo Kristof Stursa

The first crew had mixed results but all made it through - photo Jakub Sedivy
The first crew had mixed results but all made it through - photo Jakub Sedivy

From here the crew was lured deeper into the gorge, routing into the final three consecutive slots blind. Kristof had a close call, smashing into a wall and snapping his paddle, but somehow fighting his way over massive boils and into an eddy before falling into the last constriction.

Jordy running one of the final slots before eyes of god - photo Kristof Stursa
Jordy running one of the final slots before eyes of god - photo Kristof Stursa
Adrian Kiernan - photo Kristof Stursa
Adrian Kiernan - photo Kristof Stursa

Excited and elated, the team eventually emerged before the awe inspiring Eyes of God.

arriving at the "Eyes of God" - photo Jordy Searle
arriving at the “Eyes of God” - photo Jordy Searle
Jordy celebrates arriving at "Eyes of God"
Jordy and Adrian celebrate the successful descent of the Saryjaz.

Although getting to the Eyes of God was the goal of the expedition, there was very little time to enjoy this natural wonder. The expedition wasn’t even half over. The team was on the border of China and had 50 miles, a Tyrolean, a canyon and 4 passes over 3000m before freedom from the Saryjaz.

One last look at the eyes befor the long hike back to camp - photo Jakub Sedivy
One last look at the eyes befor the long hike back to camp - photo Jakub Sedivy
Looking back at the "Eyes of God" from the hike out - photo Kristof Stursa
Looking back at the “Eyes of God” from the hike out - photo Kristof Stursa

The first hurdle was getting back to their camp at the meteorological station, which was the shortest leg of the hike out but was cause for the most concern. Climbing terribly dubious scree-slopes, forging a path across a ridge line that Jordy plotted from google earth, and finally at dusk using an old rusted cable-car to get back to river-left where the team had stored all their food and camping equipment. Not to mention, there had been freezing rain that hampered progress throughout most of the journey.

Climbing the scree slopes - photo Kristof Stursa
Climbing the scree slopes - photo Kristof Stursa
Hiking the ridge line on the way back to camp - photo Kristof Stursa
Hiking the ridge line on the way back to camp - photo Kristof Stursa
Finally, the team must use an old rusted cable-car to cross the river back to camp at the meteorological station - photo Jakub Sedivy
Finally, the team must use an old rusted cable-car to cross the river back to camp at the meteorological station - photo Jakub Sedivy
Back at the meteorological station, the Kokatat expedition team adds their names to the wall of Saryjaz river decents - photo Adrian Kiernan
Back at the meteorological station, the Kokatat expedition team adds their names to the wall of Saryjaz river decents - photo Adrian Kiernan

The next day the team had to make their way several miles upstream Kayakup Creek to their preset tyrolen, cross it - even though the rain had encouraged more slack in the system than they had anticipated, then fight their way up the canyons of Kayukup Creek. This and the previous day’s efforts forced the team into an early camp to dry out and refuel, as the next day the team would have a mile of elevation gain to contend with. This is where Kristof - the Austrian Alpine Ski Guide - came to the fore and gave the boys a lesson on slow and steady.

Team crossing Kayukup - photo Kristof Stursa
Team crossing Kayukup - photo Kristof Stursa
Adrian Kiernan crossing the Tyrolean
Adrian Kiernan crossing the Tyrolean - photo Jakub Sedivy
Hiking out through the canyons - photo Kristof Stursa
Hiking out through the canyons - photo Kristof Stursa

Jordy ambitiously thought they might be able to achieve two passes and 16 miles the next day, but Adrian’s more reasonable prediction of 11 miles and camping around 10,000ft between the two passes is what eventually happened.

First pass on the hike out - photo Kristof Stursa
Breathtaking views on the first pass of the hike out - photo Kristof Stursa

Kristof chipped away all day, skipping breaks and taking photos of his eager team members trying to ‘pump out the hike’. A cold night encouraged an early start to the final day of the hike out, with everyone now adopting Kristof’s pace.

Meal exchange, night one of the hike out - photo Kristof Stursa
Jakub and Adrian doing a meal exchange, night one of the hike out - photo Kristof Stursa
Jakub and Ari - photo Kristof Stursa
Jakub and Ari checking coordinates - photo Kristof Stursa
Kristof Stursa - cold moring at camp
Kristof Stursa - cold moring at camp

The final day started with an interaction with a bull yak, and then a surprisingly easy re-accent to 11,200ft before a lightning descent down the pass and eventually into a farmer’s house for a cup of tea. Then back to the hot pools where it all began. A welcomed reprieve to soak the tired and broken bodies, and wait for Dima and the goodies he always provides.

Jakub Sedivy on the last day hike out - photo Kristof Stursa
Jakub Sedivy on the last day hike out - photo Kristof Stursa
The crew enjoying the hospitality of the local farmer - photo Jordy Searle
The crew enjoying the hospitality of the local farmer - photo Jordy Searle
"Captain" Dima arrives to return the crew after a long journey - photo Kristof Stursa
“Captain” Dima arrives to return the crew after a long journey - photo Kristof Stursa

This was definitely a ‘second-degree fun’ style expedition and the team really had to earn their whitewater. That said, each and every one of them can’t stress enough how worthy the trip was; its unparalleled beauty, intense whitewater, and how fortunate they were to have that exact team.

The Gear that Made This Possible