Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Westward Waters: Day 6 - Aspen's "Slaughter House" & An Unlikely Crew

Myself and John admiring Clear Creeks eroding banks and the morning sunrise

Sleeping with the roar of Clear Creek beside us all night, I awoke in the early morning glow to see the creek had eroded it banks almost swallowing our campsite's fire ring. But alas checking the markers we had placed in the night previous the river's level had dropped 6 inches to a foot. We drove upstream optimistic and got out to check out the drops in store for us. The first major drop through a small gorge looked juicy but reasonable. Driving up to the next gorge we walked out and peer into its depths. The drops had me questioning the run. It was largely sustained class V was flowing at the upper limits of reasonably known high water. Neither of us had ever paddled it and we had no other knowledgeable paddling partners to rely on. The drop itself contained several mandatory hole punches amongst steep walls and must make moves. It was not a place to swim.

We conversed and decided that the run was too committing for us and our skill levels. We quickly drove into town scanned the river levels and decided to drive to Aspen and look at the "Slaughterhouse" section of the Roaring Fork River as well as Castle Creek. After taking in the breath taking scenery of Independence Pass and catching sight of the gnarly flowings of the Upper Section of the Roaring Fork, we snuck in through Aspen's back door and I was introduced to the towns extravagance. We stopped and lazily grabbed a bite to eat, meanwhile inquiring at the local raft guiding shops about the local river conditions. Unfortunately with flows as high as anyone had seen them in decades, a large strainer come down had choked Castle Creek and caused 3 lost boats the day previous. Our attention focused on Slaughterhouse.

Driving to the river, I struggled to maintain apathy in regards to the river with such a  ominous name. Arriving we immediately encountered fellow putting the finishing touches inflating a mini-raft and creek boat was parked nearby. With a brief introduction, Scotty in his thick Kiwi accent he inidcated he was planning putting on in a hurry and we all quickly ran to scout "Entrance Exam". The river level was over 2000 cfs on local gauges, which equated to ridiculously high flows. Entrance exam got my blood boiling immediately as it lead out with a burly 2.5-3 ft (in height) river wide unavoidable hole and had multiple significant holes in succession. I asked Scotty about his thoughts on the rapid and he answered in typical kiwi brashly exuberant optimism that... "it all goes". With a wide smile he detailed how he had blasted through the rapid backwards the day previous.... "you'll be fine mate".

We hurriedly suited up, meanwhile another kiwi and local wheeled up having set up shuttle. We put on with  Scotty in the lead and myself following closely. I stayed on line as the river accelerated and the river opened up to gnashings ahead of me. I saw Scotty drop through the menacing hole ahead and I threw down hard forward stokes building for my collision. The The impact was harsh and for a few milliseconds my eyes were awash in white exploding water. It is these moments that every paddler knows is the moment of judgment; when a hole will either suck you back for a licking or you will emerge... but overreaching rule of thumb is to keep the fight and keep an active paddle blade. I was relieved to emerge unscathed and quickly surveyed the river ahead. Scotty had already run much of the drop and so I resorted to an on-the-fly assessment and pounded ahead. The river quieted as we eddied out with giant grins. 

Ahead we reached a horizon line and eddied out to scout Slaughterhouse falls. Scotty demonstrated the line which looked less concerning than what I had already been through. We each ran the Falls with ease as the line was fairly non-threatening as it had been washed out in the high levels. We continued on ward as the river sped through winding drops of mazes of giant holes where boulders were buried under the flood. Entering each drop Scotty would wordlessly gesture in eloquent hand signals to warn us of the line ahead... he was dead on every time! We started feeling pretty comfortable amongst the Class IV+/V onslaught and John made the mistake of straying from Scotty's line only to find himself side-surfing a rather large hole. I looked back to see him work out out of it unscathed. We learned our lesson and made no deviation from our guide's line.

The river was joyfully exhilarating with long stretches of winding and technical IV+/V big water. We eddied out beside an eroded staircase into the water and had reached our shuttle.  Feeling fired up, I was still ready for more action and walked away from the river reluctantly. We jumped into a old touring van turned ultimate shuttle vehicle and gabbed like school children over the run. I learned that Scotty actually ran a raft company in town, Kiwi Adventure Ko, hence his spot on lines and skills!

We thanked our river companions parted ways and headed downstream. Our friends from the Arkansas river had given us the number's of some paddlers and we quickly made plans to run the Frying Pan River just outside Aspen. While searching for the takeout we pulled into a gas station/ liquor store. After rechecking our maps, we were pulling out when a younger fellow holding a case of beer flagged us down and jumped in front of our vehicle somewhat carelessly as if his judgment was clouded by some sort of spirits. He asked what we were paddling and after hearing word, explained he was a paddler himself and wanted to join in. We invited him to come along, especially since the section of river was going to be easy class III/IV.

Meeting an equally friendly and interesting character that we had already made plans with, we all drove upstream to put on the Frying Pan River. It was an unusual crew of personalities and I couldn't help but chuckle in my head as we all geared up for the float. John and one fellow slid into on the river as I fiddled with my elbow pads. I looked up to see our liquor-store friend toking up on the longest pipe I had ever seen... looking more like a freakin' hobbit pipe!!!! I refused an offer and the two of us shouldered our boats and put on the river. Feeling confident I jumped in the lead and took on the river on the fly. Our "liquor-store" friend bobbed along with a silly grin paddling adequately. Down river he motioned me to hang back as he had some wisdom to impart about the rapid ahead (the only class IV) . "So with this one, just head river left for a good time my friend".... "make sure you have left angle". With a stupid grin he repeat twice more "Left Angle" as he dropped in ahead with a "YEE HAH!" which was suddenly silenced as I saw the bottom of his boat as he had flipped. Before I new what was going on, I dropped over a small ledge and collided with a diagonal hole and was instantly overturned. I quickly rolled up to calm water and found myself facing liquor-store guy exhibiting a shit-faced grin... "guess we didn't have enough left angle". I couldn't help but belly laugh and chuckle down the rest of the river at the ridiculousness of the run and our companion.

A short while later we eddied out as the Frying Pan river entered the city. We jumped small wooden fence lining the river and found ourselves dripping amidst a bustling bar scene. We sat laughing over beer in our wet paddling gear meanwhile getting gawked at by the entire bar. A short while later, we put on and paddled the last bit of flat water to our shuttle and parted ways with our entertaining paddling compatriots.

I drove into the blinding twilight with a soul full of contentment at the days adventures. The sun fell as we drove into the darkness. Armed with a trusty iPhone, we got online and found a few paddlers looking for adventures on the local paddling forum. Making a few calls we had amassed a crew for the next day. Pulling off in Vail I made  a call to a old friend and found a place for us to stay. I fell asleep comfortably with a roof overhead and fell into a deep slumber with a smile likely still plastered to my face.

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