hen I meet West Hansen at a central Austin café in February, less than three months after his return from Peru, he looks rested and content

behind a plate of migas. Hansen, who has thick shoulders and a square jaw, looks more like an ex-linebacker than the champion marathon canoeist he is. In fact, he was a cheerleader at Southwest Texas State, where he studied psychology. He is by nature and training a people person. His regular table provides a clear view of what he calls the “comings and goings”—a stream of young women in jeans and knee-high riding boots. “I love Texas,” he says with a winning smile.

Despite having almost no expedition experience, he gleaned from his voracious reading three cardinal rules of team cohesion: First, selecting the right personnel is paramount; second, the team can have only one shared goal; and third, there can be only one leader. To avoid any confusion about the last points he resolved to fund the entire trip himself, a commitment that would eventually burn through the $35,000 National Geographic grant, $25,000 in private donations and nearly $50,000 of Hansen’s own savings and those of his mother.

In dozens of interviews at his favorite café table, Hansen assembled a group of people committed to supporting him in a “Safari-style” assault on the world’s largest river. “The Texas Water Safari,” he says, warming to a favorite subject, “is 260 miles nonstop. It breeds a certain tough mentality that distinguishes between pain and discomfort.” Hansen raced his first Safari in 1992 in a Perception Dancer, a whitewater kayak manifestly unsuited to the task. He finished in 54 hours and 50 minutes, and promptly quit whitewater. He has since completed the race 17 times, winning in a variety of categories, including two Solo Unlimited titles. He has pushed himself beyond barriers few modern humans ever confront.

In his race-like assault on the Amazon, Hansen planned to paddle all night, every night, traveling 100 miles each 24 hours. Sometimes, while pushing toward a town or other goal, he would continue for up to 55 hours, nonstop. The support team would keep him fed, hydrated and free of distractions. If something momentous were to happen in the world beyond the river, Hansen didn’t want to know about it.

Hansen’s can-do attitude seemed to blind him to one inescapable fact: He lacked the skills to paddle the 200 miles of powerful gorged-in whitewater he would encounter. Hansen had spent two years packing his flatwater roster with carefully vetted Safari veterans, and filled key support roles with relatives and trusted friends like David Kelly, who would lead the support team on the critical first 500 miles. But he scrambled to fill his whitewater roster. The man he enlisted to prepare him, Austin slalom coach Ben Kvanli, quit in frustration, and Hansen had never met his on-water team leader, Peruvian river guide Juan Antonio “Juanito” de Ugarte. Contos ranks among the most experienced expedition paddlers on the planet, but could not check a single box on Hansen’s team cohesion worksheet.

The balance of his whitewater team would come together just weeks before he left for Peru, when Jackson Kayak offered the services of its star paddler, the Mexican phenom Rafa Ortiz. Hansen had never heard of Ortiz or the friend he wanted to bring, whitewater filmmaker Tino Specht. He ran their names by the local Jackson Kayak rep in Austin, and based on that recommendation and a Skype interview, invited them to paddle the new source of the Amazon. He would call de Ugarte, Ortiz and Specht his Tigers, and entrust them with his life and the success of his expedition. Ever the optimist, he told them to come for two weeks.

“It never entered my mind that this wasn’t going forward.” —Hansen
fter more than three weeks on the Rio Mantaro, Contos and Duesenberry entered a deep gorge they christened The

Abyss. The river was flowing at about 12,000 cfs and dropping at a rate of about 95 feet per mile through a series of box canyons that made it impossible to stop and scout. The paddlers had run two of them blind, trusting, as Contos put it, “that there wasn’t some massive river-wide reversal or walled-in sieve.” The third canyon revealed something neither paddler had ever seen—a billowing wall of dust advancing toward them. They watched for a quarter of an hour as it dissipated and then reformed. It was only mid-afternoon, and there was nowhere to camp. They decided to keep paddling.

The kayakers ran through an entrance rapid and lost each other in the fog of pulverized stone. Contos shouted to Duesenberry, who didn’t answer. Minutes later, as the dust again began to clear, they found one another and scrambled up the bank to scout. “We could see chunks of rock falling from the left side of the canyon,” Contos remembers. “Some were small, baseball-sized, softball-sized. Others were just giant, a meter across.” Rock was falling not only on the left bank, but into the river and onto the right side as well. They watched for a half-hour, and then began a difficult portage high above the river on the right bank. It took two hours.

Contos and Duesenberry found themselves in a familiar situation: late in the day, dead tired, nowhere to stop. The river offered only untold miles of Class IV and V whitewater. Duesenberry took the lead, working in the gathering darkness through one big rapid after another, making split-second scouts from the apex of surging waves. At one such decision-point he went left, into a hole in the river that seemed to have no bottom.

Contos scrambled for a midstream eddy and watched as Duesenberry took a ferocious beatdown and then floated around the corner, upside down. By the time Contos spotted a marginal line on river-right and came careening around the bend, Duesenberry was cleaning up his yard sale in the run-out. That night, he slept under a boulder.

Contos and Duesenberry finished the first complete descent of the Rio Mantaro on June 4, and began a two-week descent of the Apurimac six days later. In this brief interlude between rivers, Contos sent a flurry of emails. One of them requested Hansen delay the start of his expedition a few days to accommodate Contos’s schedule. After sharing his discovery, he felt Hansen owed him that much.

Contos came up for air after the Apurimac at the end of June, and found no messages from Hansen in his inbox. He began a 40-day descent of the Rio Marañón, finding it be everything he had hoped. Full of broad beaches and low-consequence Class III-IV whitewater, the river reminded him of a South American version of the Grand Canyon without the crowds. The river faces an imminent dam threat, and Contos recognized that the attention he recieves for his new-source discovery could be used to spotlight the plight of the Marañón. Contos was on a high, despite the gnawing suspicion that Hansen had cut him from the Amazon Express team. On the last day of July, while resupplying near the end of his Marañón descent, Contos contacted Ben Kvanli, whom he still believed would lead Hansen’s whitewater team. When Kvanli responded that he’d left Hansen’s team in April, “after you had a falling out with West,” Contos was dumbstruck. He could only conclude that Hansen had quietly removed him from the picture three months earlier.

Contos floated a few more days on the Marañón, stewing. Then, on August 4, he launched an email screed titled “Man of his Word,” in which he withdrew his consent for Hansen to run the Mantaro. Days later, Contos communicated with National Geographic editors for the first time without Chmielinski as intermediary, and received another surprise. The magazine viewed him only as the discoverer of the new source, and intended to cover Hansen’s source-to-sea as the first descent. Contos vented bitterly: Why would they back Hanson, he wondered, who had discovered nothing and could only follow Contos down the Mantaro?

Contos contemplated his next move. Though he lacked Hansen’s race pedigree, he was no stranger to long days. In 2006, when Idaho’s Salmon River peaked at 93,000 cfs, Contos had paddled a Dagger Cortez sea kayak 155 miles down the Middle Fork and Main Salmon in just over 12 hours. He’d already completed the Mantaro, which Hansen wouldn’t even start for another two weeks. If Contos began paddling to the Atlantic now, in the first week of August, the Texan would never catch him. Continue to Part 3

Contos vented bitterly to National Geographic editors: Why would they back Hanson, he wondered, who had discovered nothing and could only follow Contos down the Mantaro?

“We could see chunks of rock falling from the canyon.” —Contos
Duesenberry during the rockslide portage