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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Staying in Yurt camps, riding horses and experiencing fermented horse milk and yak curd; it was a pretty authentic experience.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Excited and elated, the team eventually emerged before the awe inspiring Eyes of God.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.