I looked back at this thread to see what was being said, and can offer some opinions about what's been said, and a few more facts. Thanks to everybody for their interesting comments. It’s great that everybody is an equal and can offer their own opinions; the give and take makes for a lively discussion. I’d like to apologize to the original poster, and I hope he didn’t feel like he was treated unkindly. I admire his willingness to head out to unknown territory. My only worry was that he didn’t seem to have a clear idea of the lay of the land.
First, the sport has definitely progressed and people are doing harder runs in general. People like the Young Guns are doing in one season as much variety as we did in five years of paddling. Skills are great, equipment greatly improved, travel is easier, many more areas and rivers are known and worked out, and these guys are basically full-time professional kayakers really pushing themselves. However, most of those harder runs focus on steep creeks and waterfalls, not big water. That is a peculiarity of the younger kayakers’ focus, and it’s something of a fad. They have not gone after big water with the same relish – yet.
Even with that, no matter how much is done, there are certain places that will always be hard. Upper Cherry will always be hard, so will the NF Payette above 5500, and so will the Stikine. Doable, but hard. And even if you have the skills, the issue is whether you have the appetite.
Here are a few things I believe. I think collectively they mean kayaking will always keep progressing and finding new levels:
- Anything that any of us ever did can be done by others.
- Nobody is so good that what they do can’t be repeated and pushed even farther.
- Everybody has great abilities that they will only reach if they allow themselves to try.
- The best people from any era would likely also be excellent in any other era.
- Ultimately, we’re all just human, and we share all the same weaknesses and strengths. It's the beauty of our creativity and personalities that these things can come out in so many different and striking ways.
Please check out the article I just did on the NF Payette, published in this month’s (March 2010) Kayak Session. In it there are some comments by Erik Boomer, certainly one of the top younger expedition paddlers, pointing out the differences between new and old school relative to the North Fork Payette and big water.
Hilleke, Grace, et al. are fantastic, absolutely exceptional paddlers. Tommy approached me and Rob Lesser in 2005 to ask what we thought of a one-day attempt on the Stikine. Rob didn’t like it and said, “It’s such a great place, I’d want to spend more time in there rather than less”. He also didn’t like the idea of making it into some kind of timing or race contest. I understand Rob’s reluctance, but I also think the attempt is a worthy challenge – condensing a full expedition run down into a single day. In fact, I was going to do it back in 1994, had it all planned, had trained for it (earlier that year I’d soloed the CF Yellowstone in a day, done 8500 vertical feet on the NF in a day, and soloed 200 miles of the Susitna and Devil’s canyon in just over a day) but for several personal reasons I decided not to. In contrast to Rob, I cheered Tommy on, telling him that it was a great challenge, and that he and Daniel et al. should just decide based on their feeling at the time and what the river level and weather were doing. They pulled it off, and I think it is one of the most impressive things in the history of the sport. As I recall, DeLavergne said something like it was the most mind-bending day of paddling he’d ever had. I believe that.
The Stikine sees more traffic now, but for example, in 2006 four teams attempted the run and only one succeeded. The Stikine is difficult, but it is accessible if you are very motivated, an experienced paddler, have prepared for it, and are lucky with weather and level. If you are unlucky, then it could easily be your grave. From the Lunch Video crew, John Grace has swum there, Fred Coriell took a horrendous swim at Wasson’s, As did Austin Rathman. So even the anointed can get slammed.
Reggie Crist is an incredible athlete, and his situation demonstrates what is required. First, he has been a professional athlete for much of his life. When he went to the Stikine with us, he had paddled for much, much longer than three years. Basically he’d paddled for ten or twelve, but only truly focused on hard Class V for three years. That's where that comment came from. Nat Geo liked the drama it created. However, he paddled most of that with Gerry Moffatt – one of the great all time paddlers. He’d done the NF Payette yearly for a long time. And, as people pointed out, the man is a world-class downhill skier, a World Cup contender, two time Olympian. He also was way past his limit on the Stikine though, and as he put it, “I rode on the energy of the team, these guys carried me through”. He broke down at the take out, dissolved in tears as he was thanking me for helping him at V-Drive. And that's one difference between physical skill and mental control. You can have the physical skill to deal with something, but not the focused strength to do it when it absolutely must be done, when you're tired and intimidated. It was a phenomenally experienced team – at the time, accounting for 9 of the 11 runs ever done of the canyon. So there you have it: if you’re a two time Olympic downhill skier, a National ski team member and World Cup contender for 10+ years, have paddled for ten or twelve years, go with the most experienced team in the world, then you can run the Stikine after only focusing on hard whitewater for three years. That seems to say the same thing as what we’ve been talking about.
The problem is that the NG people wanted to dramatize the three years, and omitted most of the rest of the context.
I deliberately chose Everest as a metaphorical example because of what one later poster mentioned: Everest is now known and can be done by an experienced climber. The difference is that you can take a guide up Everest, use a prepared trail, fixed ropes already set, and if you are in good shape and acclimatize well – and nothing out of the ordinary happens – then you can make it. But doing the Stikine, everybody has to run the rapids themselves. There’s no rope, no protection other than your own skill and mental strength. A team in kayaking can only give you some information and moral support. They can’t prepare the route for you. You make every paddle stroke by yourself. That is the beauty and challenge of our great sport.
Thanks to everybody for some interesting questions and comments.