— The following originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of Canoe & Kayak.
By Dave Shively
A new perspective can make all the difference.
When a chance helicopter flight took Ben Stookesberry over Nepal’s Dudh Kosi River in late March, the expedition kayaker was transfixed by what he calls a “clean blue line” in the valley below. “Clean,” that is, in a figurative sense. Below the town of Lukla, the river that drains from Mount Everest tangles itself in steep boulder-choked gorges leaking 60- to 100-foot waterfalls. But it was clean in the sense that there was no way it had ever been paddled before.
The section of river that Stookesberry saw from that helicopter window offered what the 35-year-old calls a “perfect palette” to explore a blank spot on the map and bring back a story all his own.
The problem is the Dudh Kosi already has a story.
Thirty-eight years after a British team returned from the Dudh Kosi, the tale captured on 12,000 feet of 16-mm Kodak color film remains one of the greatest expedition paddling stories ever told. The BBC’s widely viewed Everest By Canoe—later remastered as Dudh Kosi: Relentless River of Everest—follows the late Dr. Mike Jones, Mick Hopkinson and four other young kayakers 7,500 miles overland from Britain and 14,340 vertical feet up the trail to Everest. The endearing carnage and glory that ensues as the men paddle torrential Himalayan runoff with primitive gear and delicate fiberglass kayaks has earned the expedition a mythic place in the annals of whitewater.
But as he stared out that helicopter window, Stookesberry realized that the film didn’t tell the whole story.
As soon as the chopper landed he began searching for answers, trekking into the valley and scouring through limited information online. Parts of the upper Dudh Kosi had been run several times since the 1976 first descent, but the gorges below Lukla remained untouched for good reason.
“It was a no-brainer” to take out at Lukla, says Dave Manby, who was part of the 1976 British team. “Once in you would have to be self-sufficient, which we were not geared up for, or depend on support crew getting down to the river somewhere.”
Darren “Daz” Clarkson-King, who soloed the river in 2012, had a more succinct analysis of the lower gorges: “A no-win, fail mission.”
Stookesberry had no paddling partner, kayak, or equipment to draw his own conclusions. He reached out to his paddling contacts, including Surjan Tamang, a 20-year-old Nepali paddler who had impressed Stookesberry on a previous expedition to run a slew of rivers across India, Laos and Nepal. Tamang gladly accepted Stookesberry’s invitation to explore the lower gorges and paddle as much of them as possible.
The problem was that Tamang was stuck in Kathmandu; flights to Lukla were reserved strictly for Western tourists. After waiting three days at the airport, Tamang instead traveled 25 hours by bus and Jeep, and then with two porters, made a grueling two-and-a-half-day 31-mile trek into Lukla carrying two kayaks and climbing equipment. The next day Tamang and Stookesberry descended on foot thousands of feet into the canyon to reach the river.
The point of no return was immediate. Their first significant, vertically walled gorge required a 130-foot rappel around an unrunnable falls—a difficult trick for a duo with only a single 165-foot climbing rope. Without enough length to halve the rope over a top anchor in order to retrieve it at the bottom, they had a choice: Turn around there, or drop in on a single line and continue down-canyon without the rope.
Stookesberry had scouted the gorge that morning and felt reasonably certain the canyon would offer “a few outs” farther downriver. He and Tamang rappelled in and left the rope.
The dismay of surrendering such a critical piece of gear swirled with the adrenaline of committing so completely to their goal. With emotions tugging in both directions, the men came to an opening in the gorge, and another critical choice.
“All of a sudden, Surjan is fired up to run this 20-foot drop that was pretty horrendous,” Stookesberry says. The river poured into a narrow crack feeding into sieves on left and right. There was just one “super-marginal” line, requiring a seal launch into a hard right move.
Tamang decided to run it.
“My philosophy on river-running is that everybody makes their own decisions,” explains Stookesberry, who portaged the drop to set safety.
Tamang made the eddy above the sieves, but not without incident: flipping, wedging into a crack, losing his paddle, and hand-rolling up at the last moment. The close call opened the pair’s eyes to their level of exposure—an impossibly remote gorge with no satellite signal to call for help, and no hope of landing a helicopter.
The next five days were a cautious slog to navigate a maze that Stookesberry describes as “really nasty boulder gardens like I’ve never seen.” To a paddler with more than 130 first descents in over 30 countries, a “really nasty” boulder garden means glacially carved, stories-tall chunks of Himalaya that act as canyons unto themselves, stacked in gradient up to 800 feet per mile, most often “unportageable and unsurvivable.”
With only a pair of 50-foot throwbags between them, Tamang and Stookesberry took to game trails and shepherds’ paths through the jungle growth above the gorge, but still thousands of feet below the main trekking corridor on the rim. Tamang proved an invaluable resource in connecting, refueling and gathering what information they could at the few small villages in the lower valley.
“They were so stoked [Tamang] was there doing this exploration of this river right at their doorstep that they’d wondered about for so long,” Stookesberry says.
The team made one last return to the river, bivouacking in a cave and then scrambling four hours to lower their 80-pound boats over exposed ledges. Even with Tamang slipping on a down-climb and taking a 60-foot fall from a cliff to the riverbed, they didn’t exhaust their fortune. Tamang was somehow unscathed and the canyon relented to manageable Class V. After making only 10 downriver miles in five days, the pair spent two days paddling the 45 miles out to the confluence with the Sun Kosi.
“We pushed into this unknown section of river and opened up new sections, but left a few spots behind,” Stookesberry says. “I think the door’s open now to see a complete descent so the river can take its rightful place, not as some shit show of boulders and vague references, but to really understand that this is the Mount Everest of rivers.”
With the upcoming 40-year anniversary of the ‘76 expedition, a complete Dudh Kosi descent is on Stookesberry’s mind. The expedition would require more support, more equipment, and, potentially, could include some of the original 1976 team.
Consider Manby and Hopkinson at least intrigued. Both still paddle regularly, and advances in technology (plastic boats, thermal comfort, better painkillers) help assuage some obvious doubts about the rigors of such a trip for 60-something paddlers.
Meanwhile, even as he plots his return to the Dudh Kosi, Stookesberry has designs on perhaps the only unfinished descent that looms larger—Tibet’s Yarlung Tsangpo. That clean blue line (and the monumental financial and logistical challenge of mounting an attempt) keeps Stookesberry awake at night, his mind full of whitewater’s greatest stories, and the chapters yet to be written.
Check out footage from the the BBC’s original ‘Everest By Canoe’ film.