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American Whitewater Journal the tale of an Argentinian River trip

I have been a member of American Whitewater since I started paddling long ago, and have always felt good about sending them money. The Journal is fun, and AW has been a huge advocate for rivers around the country since the 1960’s. Last year they indulged me to do a series on packrafting, and this year I did a piece that described some good (South) American whitewater: a trip we did with Rocky Contos and his great crew as well as gringos Mike Brehm, Ralph Becker, Kate Kopishke, Andy Windle, Sara Swain, Ken Bender, and of course the Birthday Girl Ashley Patterson who went for a 2 week trip to celebrate her 50th! (and it was Mike’s birthday too).

Below is the tale: I pasted in jpgs of the actual article, and as such the print is a bit small. If you don’t want to squint, I pasted in just the text below the article.

Below is Rocky’s description of what is happening with the dams there. Here in the US new big dams are not happening too much, but on many of the “Grand Canyons” on other continents that Rocky does (in developing countries) dams on their biggest, most iconic rivers are a reality.

Thanks again to our great crew for a great trip, and particularly so to Rocky, who had not only the vision to go down and run this river but also the temerity (one of Rocky’s favorite words) to invest in setting up an operation there (as well as in Ethiopia, Myanmar, China, Peru, and two different locations in Mexico!).

And here is the larger-text, no picture version:

Río Grande-Colorado: a two-week rafting trip in Argentina

The seeds for doing our 14-day 190-mile class III-IV river trip in Argentina actually started in Peru, some years prior.  Our friend “Kiwi Andy” was turning 50 and to celebrate, he wanted to gather his “mates” from all over on a fun international river trip, and decided to do the Rio Maranon in Peru.  That 2-week class IV Grand Canyon-style raft-support trip was a smashing success:  a great crew on a fun and challenging arid tropical river slicing through the heart of the Andes. Therefore, as my wife Ashley was looking forward to her 50th birthday, thinking the Marañon trip a great precedent, she contacted our old peripatetic pal Rocky Contos – who had pioneered the raft trip on the Maranon, and many others in Latin America – and asked “what’s the next big awesome South American river trip we should do?”  Rocky didn’t hesitate: “The Río Grande-Río Colorado combo in Argentina.” 

Many rivers in Latin America have name changes as they work their way from their respective mountain ranges towards the ocean, and it is apparently just a coincidence that Argentina happened to give their biggest river system the same monikers as two of the most iconic rivers in the United States.  Coincidentally, they are all somewhat similar in character: all three systems are quite long and descend from their respective continents’ highest snowy peaks into extraordinarily dry climates; in the US it’s because of the arid Colorado plateau, and in the Argentina rivers’ case, it’s because their Río Colorado/Río Grande zone runs south along on the lee side of the Andes, where most of the precipitation is squeezed out on the mountains’ upslope in Chile. 

Our crew came together in San Rafael, a modest-sized city surrounded by vineyards and located three-hours south of the larger metropolis of Mendoza. Not only is this region the center of wine-centric Argentina, the latter city is the jumpoff point for gringo mountaineers trying to get dragged up Aconcagua, the highest peak in the southern hemisphere at 22841 ft.  Despite the arid climate, a number of medium-to-largish rivers emanate from the snowmelt in the high Andes in this area, including not only the very long and remote Río Grande-Colorado in the south, but also others that are more accessible and popular for day-trips such as intermediate Ríos Mendoza and Atuel, as well and the incredible expert class IV-V Río Diamante right in San Rafael.  As a result, a community of paddlers has developed here, akin to those in Hood River or Asheville. 

Of course, one of the best things about any southern hemisphere trips is that they typically happen while the US is mired in winter; sure, in places like the Pacific Northwest or the Southeast there’s enough rain to bring rivers up, but short, cold, rainy day runs are a far cry from the long, warm days and evenings enjoying a raft trip and camping on big beaches.  Our crew of mostly Western-US’ers who were forsaking our families for the Christmas holidays were looking forward to a Grand Canyon style river trip, but this time our “Río Colorado” was to be very different from the one in the Southwest US in one important way; for our 200+ mile trip, we’d be the only group on the river – and in fact, only the third to make the full rafting descent. 

When you get a group of a dozen or more folks flying and busing to a far-away land, the odds that something will go awry increases exponentially, and sure enough some of the luggage – which included kayaks, paddles, and parts of raft frames – didn’t quite make it.  So on our scheduled departure day, only most of the crew piled into vans loaded high with rafts, kayaks, coolers, oars, and dry boxes for the journey into the Andes, while a few remained at the Mendoza airport and San Rafael trying to track down the missing gear and round up borrowable gear from local kayakers and raft companies.  Those of us lucky enough to arrive with our stuff trundled in a loaded down van stacked high with frames, kayaks, and river bags past the iconic Las Leñas ski village – known to have hosted World Cup events on its incredible powder, and has oodles of tasty-looking backcountry terrain nearby during The Other Season. As we approached the river we got an immediate introduction to South American paddling when we came upon a family of condors near the put in; with a wingspan of over 10 feet and a pretty heavy build (17-33 pounds) they are technically the biggest flying birds in the world, but even though they are classified as “near-threatened” they were pretty nonplussed by us; if you are that big and you can fly and there is virtually no human contact, you don’t need to be afraid, apparently. 

After our hour-long dirt road drive, we arrived to the put-in location at “Valle Hermoso”, aptly named for being in such a beautiful valley setting. With a little extra time awaiting our mates (who were in turn awaiting their gear), we decided to do some exploration by hiking – easily possible wherever our hearts desired in this austere landscape with no trees, albeit dancing around the thorny vegetation that was visually different from but equally-abrasive to the comparable Mormon tea, sage, creosote, and cactus in the desert southwest.  With a put in of around 7200 feet, even as we were there at the winter (summer) solstice and enjoying dry sunny 70-degree days, we had a frost on us as we awoke at the put-in, which was the confluence of two different creeks that created the Grande proper and together enabled enough flow to float rafts.  Eventually the remainder of our crew (which included Kiwi Andy, now 2 years older!) showed up and we were able to shove off! 

Our crew was a mix of gringos and South American river rats: Luciano Lázaro, a local Argentina paddler from San Rafaél, was helping us coordinate everything, along with Pedro Peña, a Peruvian with an infectious giggle who helped out on our Marañón trip and is the founder of a kayak school south of Lima that has taught hundreds of kids to paddle.  We also were fortunate to have Fico Gallese with us, a fellow legendary Peruvian guide who led dozens of trips down the now-drowned Bío-Bío and is now Chris Spelius’s neighbor on the Futaleufu farther south in Chile.  We had enough gringo rowers to round out the oarsmen to row the four rafts.  After an initial easy class I-II section through the beautiful Valle Hermoso, we entered an imposing canyon with a steady higher gradient and plenty of long, fun class 3 and 4 rapids for several days (a bit of a handful for some folks who hadn’t paddled or rowed since the US’s early summer flows had faded). This got us down into a more mild climate (that would eventually get hot as we continued our descent).  Like Grand Canyon or Middle Fork Salmon trips, our trip began to blur into days of floating, hiking, cooking, and yapping around the fire during the blessedly-long December evenings. 

After 4-5 days of incredible high Andes canyon where the river headed south with countless class III and IV rapids, the river turned to the east and changed character at a place called the Portazuelo del Viento (“wind tunnel”, so to speak).  This place is named due to the canyon constriction of the canyon in a west-east-directly where the wind frequently blows fiercely.  But while you might be thinking this is a problem for river runners, actually the winds blow generally downstream, from the Pacific Ocean up the Andes in Chile, and then down the mountains across the pampas and patagonian plains to the Atlantic Ocean. Although we got to enjoy a little boost to our downriver progress when we were heading east, in a subsequent flat easy open valley section of river where the river is heading more south, the winds were at our side, so not as enjoyable.  It was here that we realized it was a bit much to expect a river to be perfectly awesome throughout a 190 mile stretch.  But this lasted only for a day, we still had lots of birds to identify including even the  occasional flamingo. 

Something that whitewater river runners have to deal with on long class IV trips sometimes is a portage.  Portaging an unappealing class V rapid or a dangerous sieve is easy and common in a kayak, and even doing a self-contained trip with gear loaded into a boat enables a relatively quick, if slightly arduous scramble around rapids.  But consider a typical Grand Canyon or Middle Fork Salmon raft trip and the amount of gear, coolers, food, beer, etc on the rafts, and ponder how it might be to get that around a rapid, or a series of rapids.  Peru’s Upper Rio Maranon is a gloriously-fun class 4 river, but in in the deep “Inner Gorge” of the run, an old landslide created a 300-yard long class 5 section that includes an awful sieve, and moving the gear and lining/hauling rafts efficiently is a challenging endeavor.   The Rio Grande has two difficult passages:  one a mandatory portage, and the other a class V.

At the end of the valley section and about halfway through our 2-week trip, we came to the mandatory portage – a phenomenal river feature called “La Pasarela”.  What had been a pretty “normal” easy river in a barren desert with a medium amount of water (probably 2000 cfs on our trip) abruptly plunged into a black lava rock landscape and after a few fun rapids soon entered an extraordinary slot canyon so narrow, deep and labyrinthine that we could barely even see any water in its depths (but could hear it just fine!).  A daunting portage for a 4-raft trip!  But fortunately for us, right where this feature occurs, the Argentinian government had decided long ago to use the narrow gorge as a spot to put a road bridge right across the river.  With the help of Luis, a nice farmer with a pickup truck who lived just upstream, and our resupply vehicle that had come in with fresh meat and veggies for the second week of the trip, we were able to easily get the mostly-intact rafts loaded onto the trucks and drive them around the gorge to a viable put-in.  We also were happy to pay Luis to slaughter and cook one of his goats for us – providing us a proper Argentinian “asado” or barbecue and a great cultural exchange and experience of rural Argentine life.

After La Pasarela, we enjoyed a particularly scenic and fun class III-IV section of river in a canyon and gorge that was partly lava and partly sandstone.  In this section we stopped to scout one of the toughest rapids, called Magma.  Magma is a quick constriction between the canyon walls that creates just enough chaotic turbulence to flip a kayaker, but with only a couple of quick swims and the loaded rafts sailing through upright we were able to continue on our merry way.

On Day 9, we arrived at the second difficult passage on the river: Zampal.  This one was a bit more normal in that it was “just” a stompin’ class 5 rapid, but similar in that it was also in a long black lava gorge, though wide enough for rafts to get through. Nobody wanted to run the rapid, but instead of a full-on portage, this time we just portaged the kayaks and some personal bags a few hundred yards while we set up to run the 4 rafts in a “ghost boat” parade through the lava-gorge gauntlet rapid.  The ghost-boating involved a fair bit of coordination; not far below the last rapid was a moving pool going past our little put-in beach that ended at a vertical rock wall on our side, so the idea was to have some of us in kayaks to push the rafts into the beach before they drifted past, as well as people wading in the water to catch the rafts that came within reach.  The first raft through the series of rapids came out upside down, and did indeed float a little past the beach despite furious efforts by the kayakers waiting for the rafts.  However, the other side of the river was not walled in, and a quick directional change and equally-furious paddling and quick rope work got the raft out onto the other side, where it was re-flipped, and ready for reloading.

Fortunately, the Argentine river gods decided that they were content with having shown us what they were capable of, because the rest of the boats drifted out of Zampal upright and it only took a few moments of furious coordinated kayak bulldozing to push the rafts into the range of the wading beach crew.  So soon enough, we were re-rigged and back on the water, enjoying another several days of incredible class III-IV river canyon. 

Also like its US namesakes, the Río Grande/Colorado in Argentina has great desert hiking off the river.  Unlike the Grand Canyon, however, the hikes aren’t really known, and we were effectively exploring what the various side canyons and steep adjacent hills had to offer.  Like all river trips, we couldn’t explore every side canyon we saw, but particularly those with water coming out and intriguing-looking hills were explored, with mostly-rewarding results of waterfalls, slot canyons, and big views (there are basically no trees, so the views are almost always big).  As we were walking up one of the more intriguing-looking hills one of our crew looked down and said “Hey, check out this fossil!” and indeed it was some sort of sea shell type of thing, similar to the famous nautiloids in the Grand Canyon, only loose.  We looked around a bit more, and realized that the entire rocky surface that we were walking on was…..fossils! 

Although for the second half of the trip we had no tributaries at all, on Day 12 we arrived at the confluence with Río Barrancas, a sizeable tributary coming down from the Andes, increasing the flow in our stream to ~3000 cfs.  It is here that the name of river changes from Grande to Colorado.  It is also here that the river gets pretty flat and open, but still with an interesting hike or two to do down to the next access point.  Here, on Day 14,  most of our group took out, but Rocky, his wife Barbara, and Fico took two rafts downstream to cover the next ~130 miles through remote desert country to the town of 25DeMayo, a section Rocky hadn’t done before.  The rest of us bounced over a dusty gravel road for half a day arriving back to San Rafael, where we were able to spend a day play-boating on the Rio Atuel before making our way back to Mendoza and home. 

It’s not surprising that all the other continents have their own “Grand Canyons”, and given the length, height, and burliness of the huge spine of the Andes coursing between Chile and Argentina that some of the world’s Grandest Canyons course down off of them.  If you’ve tried for years to get into the US’s Rio Colorado via the lottery and failed – or you’ve been successful and been able to do a Grand trip – Argentina’s Rio Grande-Colorado is a fascinating, adventurous, and very doable option, regardless if you’re turning 50 or not!

Some stats:  We took 14 days to do 190 miles of class III-IV river with one mandatory portage and one class V, dropping from ~7200 ft to ~2600 ft elevation.  There is a good access point midway through the trip, so it can be broken up into an upper “Grande” and a lower “Grande-Colorado” section.   Also, it’s possible to continue another 130 miles of easy river through open barren desert landscape, including one enjoyable class II canyon, to the first place the river is impounded by a dam.  Rocky prefers to refer to the river as “Grande-Colorado” to distinguish it from the many other Río Grandes and Río Colorados that exist in Latin America (this is the only one that changes names in that way).  The entire system is threatened by dams (see sidebar) but at this point you can still float from the headwaters at Valle Hermoso over 300 miles down to 25DeMayo.  

For more information: contact Rocky Contos (rocky@sierrarios.org).

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