[The following story originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of C&K, available on newsstands now.]
5 Good Reasons … You Should Not Raft the Middle Kings
By Tyler Williams. Photos by Matt King
The Middle Fork of the Kings has emerged as the Lower 48’s quintessential test of high-gradient, multi-day, wilderness river running. The hike in is about 14 miles over a 12,000-foot pass in California’s High Sierra. The 40-mile run typically takes five days, with gut-check rapids every day. The landscape is as intimidating as it is spectacular. One early attempt to run it began with a handful of intrepid rafters, and ended with an epic portage for the ages. The Middle Kings, clearly, was kayak-only territory. And then Dan “Stuntman” McCain and Jeff Compton set their sights on the classic. The duo humped a 13-foot AIRE raft over the pass and R-2ed the 7,500-foot trans-Sierra descent last June, bringing one of North America’s stoutest kayak classics into the realm of inflatables.
You Will be Your Own Mule: The first challenge is an ascent over 12,000-foot Bishop Pass. McCain schlepped the raft and other supplies in a heavily cam-strapped mountaineering pack, weighing in at a crippling 160 pounds. Compton’s load was “only” 90 pounds, including unwieldy paddles and helmets and six days of food. The rafters had planned to hire mules for the heavy lifting, but an early runoff forced the rafters to depart before the mule packer’s season began. McCain says in retrospect, “I’m kind of glad we carried our own stuff,” reinforcing the belief that pain is temporary.
Forget About Your Schedule: Hot weather caused the river to rise precipitously just as the team began their run. By Day Two, the water was clearly too high, so the duo stashed their raft and hiked out. McCain, a graduate student at Oregon State University, drove back to Oregon to take a test, then reconvened with his compadres in the Sierra a week later. After their second hike-in, the paddlers caught a perfect window of dwindling snowmelt.
Good Luck Finding Kayak Support: Matt King joined the team in his kayak, but after cracking his boat in the high water, he didn’t return for Round Two. Willy Dinsdale— who sat out the first attempt because he’d blistered his feet hiking into another Sierra classic, Upper Cherry Creek—joined his brother Ben Dinsdale and the rafters for the second half of the descent, after they returned to the stashed boat.
Can You Say Abuse? A collection of new, sponsor-provided equipment helped Compton and McCain complete the mission. Still, a GoPro camera mount sheared off in a flip, and all three of their spare paddles were broken or bent by trip’s end. McCain calls most of their dozen or so raft portages “absolutely horrible,” sometimes requiring the raft to be launched off a cliff to return to the water. Only once did they de-rig the boat to carry it, and only once did they “ghost run” the empty boat through a rapid. That time, Ben Dinsdale leaped in on live-bait to get the raft out of the bottom hole.
Harder Than It Looks: “It was one hundred times harder than it looked in any video,” says McCain. “It’s the relentless in-between drops that wear you down.” In all, the trip required five days of boating and four days of hiking.
— CLICK HERE to watch more of McCain and Compton’s pioneering raft runs, including the duo’s 2012 run of British Columbia’s Ashlu, and watch McCain’s recent descent of B.C.’s infamous Vertigo Gorge on Dipper Creek below: