PHOTOS AND STORY BY CHRIS GRAGTMANS
I am convinced that Upper Cherry Creek is the best river on the planet. By nearly every standard—gradient-navigability ratio, quality of the rapids, lifestyle, scenery, camping—it just doesn’t get any better than Upper Cherry. While the High Sierra multi-day classic has gotten more and more popular in recent years, it is no less challenging than before, and it demands the best from every paddler that slips into its waters. This summer was no exception. Andrew Holcombe (pictured on the run, above) and I arrived in Groveland, Calif., to find a massive scene of different groups who had been waiting for weeks to put on. “Levels aren’t good, it’s still at 772,” a random paddler told us. Sometimes ignorance is bliss; we had no idea what that meant, and the large cfs number didn’t strike fear into us as maybe it should have. “Our guts are telling us good things with this cold snap,” I responded, “We’re going tomorrow.” As we set off, I found out quickly that there’s a few essentials you need to pack and to remember for any overnighter, but especially for a crack at Upper Cherry.
THE STOKE: First off, you need to be excited to go in, and believe in yourself and your ability to deal with unexpected situations. These environments are inherently uncontrollable. When we try to overanalyze using technology, sometimes it bites us in the ass! Do what feels right for you. A group of seven drove to the trailhead fully loaded to hike in, but after much debate, Andrew and I stepped into the woods alone. We had packed extra food in the event that the swollen levels forced a longer trip than the prescribed three days, but we were committed.
COMFORT THAT COUNTS: One thing that made a huge difference for me during this hike was a good pair of athletic socks. This nine-mile trudge over 7,600-foot-plus Styx Pass with 75 pounds on my back had left me suffering with blisters on previous trips. This time my feet were good as new once I dipped them in the river at the end. The eight-hour entry fee had been paid. That night, I remembered why we keep going back: The camping is absolutely surreal. Upper Cherry is surrounded by the most spectacular, unbroken granite landscape imaginable. It defies description until you are there in person, and then you understand. While many people just bring a pad and a bag, I have found good use of a bivy sack as well. I’ve slept through a blizzard in Upper Cherry, and on this particular night, I drifted off to sleep as the other guys swore and swatted mosquitoes. We woke up the next morning to a beautiful sight: a perfect medium-high level. I shook my head and giggled as I realized how lucky we were to time the flow the way that we had. Sometimes fortune favors the bold.
VITAL GEAR YOU TRUST: As we dropped into the marquee gorge of the run, Cherrybomb, I thought about my dependence on two very important pieces of gear: my sprayskirt and my paddle. If they fail, those two pieces of gear can put you in a life-threatening situation, even if you’ve done everything else correctly. All equipment is important, but these are the two most important pieces. Do you trust yours? When you hike into the middle of nowhere and commit to the massive rapids of Upper Cherry, you’d better.
EXTRAS FOR ALL: That night, as we soaked in the beauty of Flintstone Camp, I realized that I had forgotten a very important piece of gear: the group gift. I had a bottle of Knob Creek bourbon in the truck that I neglected to pack, and I was kicking myself for it now. That is one of my favorite parts of an overnighter—pulling something out of the drybag that you have hauled in for the enjoyment of everyone in the group. It solidifies that trust and dependence on each other that is crucial on remote expeditions. As I nodded off in my sleeping bag that night, I stared at the stars and absorbed the energy of the universe in the most beautiful place I have ever been.
— Here’s a look at some of my lines through the Cherrybomb Gorge section of this stunning run: