Saturday, July 14, 2012

Upper Cle Elum, WA - "China Gorge" (7.7.12)

After a fantastic run down The Cooper the day before, and a great night of camping, we prepared for our trip down the Upper Cle Elum (aka, The China Gorge section). Since we had all day, and we’d be putting in at our campsite, we weren’t in much of a rush. Before doing anything very productive, we made coffee & breakfast, loungin’ around while our bodies digested.

Joe, gettin' 'er done

"Let's hike to there. No, really!"

Chris had his mind made up that he was going to climb to the top of the snowfield, just opposite our camp on the other side of the river. The snowfield ran about a quarter of the way up the cliff wall. It also had a waterfall that dug caves and bridges in the melting snow – it was quite a majestic view, with my pictures unable to do it any real justice. Getting to and climbing up the steep pitches of snow, was no easy task, neither of which were my Keen sandals well suited for. I was only able to make it to the top of the first pitch before turning back, but both Shawn & Chris made it to their destination, acting like a couple of dirty ol’ mountain goats; this type of behavior is pretty typical when they get together…

Using the conveniently placed logjam to ford the river 

Shawn and Chris climbing up the snowfield

Zoomed out a bit to help give some perspective

Starting my ascent, after crossing the river and some serious bushwhacking

Basically I only made it to the top of the first snowfield

Looking up the Cle Elum Drainage from the bottom of the snowfield

Once everyone had returned from their adventure, Shawn and Joe drove a vehicle down to the take-out, at the entrance to Salmon La Sac Campground. Although the road down was only about 6 miles, it takes forever, due to a bombed out dirt surface and extremely slow traffic. By the time they returned (about 1 ½ hours later), it was pushing 1pm, but still plenty of time to complete our run. After sliding into the water, we paddled downstream about a quarter mile, where we pulled over to scout “Triple Drop”, the first class V of the run.

Triple Drop is big, with a couple of holes to match. The first two tiers are stacked right on top of one another, with the third following about 100 yards downstream. A swim anywhere in this drop would be dangerous, mainly due to the terminal eddy on the right side at the base of the third drop (where most of the water is going). Since we had scouted from the road the previous day, I knew that I wasn’t going to run it and immediately shouldered my boat. After some prolonged scouting and setting up safety, only Chris and Roman wanted to give it a go. I setup for photos well downstream, with perfect lighting to capture the action. Both Chris and Roman had fantastic lines, boofing well off both the top tiers, before eddying out below them.

Chris, perfect on the first...

...and the second

Roman with a an equally clean line

Roman finishing strong

Chris eddied out below the first two tiers of Triple Drop. The third is just below the bottom of the frame.

Since the line off the third was pretty wide and easy (assuming you were in control), and putting in below would be difficult, the rest of us decided to put-in above it, where a steep trail allowed access. The move required you to drive from right to left down through the lead-in, and pretty much running the ledge anywhere left of center. Everyone made it through easily, and we all regathered below.

Chris flies off the bottom tier of Triple Drop. Note the nasty bit on river-right.

The crew regroups below Triple Drop

Below Triple Drop, the run consists of continuous class III rapids, quickly building to class IV. The first sizable drop, was a double ledge, separated by a fast moving pool. Both tiers were straight forward and had a nice boof platform off the middle.

Chris enters the first set of rapids after Triple Drop

Shawn lines up the first of the double ledge...

...then the second

Part of the crew waits between ledges

Following the double ledge, a couple juiced up drops presented themselves. We were all stacked-up going into them, and it was fun to watch the boaters in front getting tossed around by the large hydraulics. One hidden hole almost got a few of us, and actually sucked Joe into a short surf session, which he was able to work out of.
We soon arrived a ~5’ ledge, that Chris got out to scout and I for photos. It looked like a fun drop, boofing the right side of a midstream boulder. The base ended up being a little meatier than it looked, which threw a couple in the crew on their stern. There was also a hole just below it that a few of us under estimated, but were able to work out of without much effort – super fun drop!

Jason digs in

Jason, sky gazing

Joe, blastin' through

Chris prepares for his trurn

Chris, on line

As we continued on through more continuous class III rapids, for some time, the river eventually peeled away from the relative comfort of civilization and the walls started to gorge up a bit. At this point I was the lead boater, and since I didn’t know the run, I kept my eyes peeled for any hazards, like wood or holes -- It would be unwise to blindly drop into a rapid without visible eddies, since this run is known to collect wood. In one of the tighter gorge sections I caught a glimpse of a ledge where I was able to get left to avoid a sticking hole on the right, which looked like it could give you a good thashin’ if you wondered into it. Before continuing down, I gave visual beta to the others, who also made it around without issue.

Starting to gorge up a bit

More great canyon scenery

Not far below here the river made a blind right-hand bend, where we pulled over to give it a scout. Sure enough our discipline paid off, since there was a fairly nasty river-wide log. After a short/easy portage, we relaxed a bit and enjoyed a snack. Putting in below our rest stop, the river tore its way down through a really fun series of drops. It was all boat scoutable and went really well right of center.

Looking down into the drop just below the log portage

Before long, the walls raised high into the air, where we got out to scout “S-Turn”, the hardest mandatory (practically speaking) drop of the run. Just as all the write-ups I read had reported, scouting was difficult, and a portage would be a grueling endeavor. From what I could see, the river dropped through a rock garden, with the crux move occurring at the bottom, where most of the water careened off a large midstream boulder. Half the crew had hiked down the left bank as far as possible to scout the bottom for wood and to see how bad the hole was at the base; from my vantage point, it looked like it was probably pretty big. The news they brought back with them was good, there wasn’t really much of a hole, and it was clear of wood hazards. However, there was no way to scout the drop immediately downstream, which was only separated by a very fast moving pool. Furthermore, Chris mentioned that there was wood in the unscoutable section the last time he was here. Basically there wasn’t much room for error on this one, and a clean line was pretty imperative to eddy-out below.
From my overlook I readied my camera and watch the crew drop in one by one through S-Turn. There was a real mixed bag of lines through the crux, some clean, some backwards, some flips, but everyone was able to make it into the right eddy above the next drop, which was about all I could see; well that and everyone pulling their boats up and over the rocks, which I assumed meant the next drop was unrunnable.

Looking into the belly of the beast, that is S-Turn

Joe making the move to the right

Joe at the crux move

Jason drops in, leaving me feeling very lonely...

At this point I was feeling pretty lonely, being the last one dropping into a rather large must-make move, above an apparent portage. After climbing into my boat, I took a deep breath and dropped in. The first move was to ferry to river right, about halfway down the lead-in. This ended up being pretty straightforward, and I was able to catch a small eddy behind a rock, ready to plan my move through the final pitch. From here the water poured down and slammed against the large boulder, with a majority of the water going left, which was good since that’s where you wanted to go. As I peeled out of the eddy, I headed for the rock in a hurry, where I made a huge banked turn off the top of it and dropped into the eddy behind. Wow, that was exciting! Now safely below, I paddled over to join the others on shore. The excitement wasn’t quite over, as the eddy to get out of your boat was pretty damn small, at least at this level. Conveniently, luckily the guys were able to grab me as I flew into the eddy with way too much speed – I guess there is one benefit to being last…

Looking back up at S-Turn

Safely below

Portaging. The drop looks good from here...

...but not from here

 Sure enough the drop we were pulled out above had a couple river-wide logs in the run-out; not a place you’d want to be, which was too bad, since it looked pretty great otherwise. The portage around was pretty straightforward, using a log jam that had formed against the right wall.

Jason starts the first part of the portage. The second half was done my climbing up the logs, and launching off the other side.

Below S-Turn the river mellowed out a bit, although there were still plenty of fun rapids. Chris had warned us about a pretty big hole that had caused a couple swims on the previous trip, so be on the lookout. Sure enough, as I was following Shawn through an innocent II+/III-, he feverishly paddled right at the bottom and dropped out of sight. This ended up being the notorious hole, better known as “Waptus Hole”, which is named after the river that enters at this location. We quickly signaled to the others, preventing a reenactment of Chris’s previous trip.

After a short bit, we reached the last major obstacle of the run, “China Falls”. This 10’ bedrock ledge has a couple of line options, but also a brutal hole at the bottom. Since the portage route was easy and I wasn’t really diggin’ the line options, I opted to take photos and help with safety. Four of the crew chose to run it, all using the right line, skirting the gut of the hole. There was also a sweet looking flake located center-left, but the line looked a little tricky, and the price of failure was pretty high. Everyone who ran it had a good line, and soon we were all safely below the drop.

Chris mid-flight on the right line at China Falls

Shawn follows suit

Roman digs in

Joe rounds it out

The easy portage, if your not feelin' the line

With the Waptus River adding a substantial amount of flow, the river had a nice big water feel, some great wave-trains and catch on the fly surf. As I was out front, I dropped into a rapid that funneled through vertical walls and around a slight right bend. I could see the tops of some logs, so clawed my way into a right-hand eddy to jump out and take a look. Sure enough, it was a logjam that would have been pretty bad to flush into. With that I signaled everyone to shore, where we made the portage around it.

Chris puts back in below the logjam

From here to the take-out at Salmon La Sac, the river continued with fun class 3 drops. Just up and around the corner from the bridge was one with a nice sized wave hole, which rodeoed one in the crew. At the take-out, we were greeted by oversized campers splaying in the water to cool down from the mid-day sun. Back at the car, we convinced one of them to take a group shot of the successful adventurers. Joe’s car was packed to the brim with 6 boats and 6 passengers as we headed back to camp on the haggard dirt road.

Joe breaks though the bottom hole of the last class III, just upstream of the take-out.

Chris, Roman, Jason, Joe, Shawn, and the author (left to right)

Back at camp, we stuffed our faces with snacks and dinner, followed by happy hour around the fire. The beer tasted extra good and the conversation was fine, as we all settled in for the evening. It had been a great couple of days on the water, and I was not ready to head back to the inevitable rat race.

It doesn't get much better than this!

Night time laser show

One of my favorite things to go to sleep to

I must say, the Upper Cle Elum was everything I could have asked for – great whitewater and scenery! Next time I’d like to run the few I walked, Triple Drop and China Falls, but even without it’s still worth doing. Overall I would give it a class IV+(V) rating. S-Turn is a solid class V drop, at least with the current wood situation in the bottom drop. It would be nightmarish to portage, so unless you’re willing to run it (assuming no other wood), you may want to reconsider putting on. Combined with The Cooper the day before and the spectacular camping, it was well worth the drive from Eugene; however we got really lucky with flows since The Cooper is too high until the Cle Elum starts getting low. I would say that we had a medium-high flow on the Cooper (I wouldn’t want much more), and a good medium flow on the Cle Elum. For reference we had ~1,900cfs on Friday, rising to 2,100cfs on Saturday, using the correlation gauge, which can be found here.

Our flow (7/7/12)

The footage from our run down the Upper Cle Elum:

POV - Upper Cle Elum, WA (China Gorge) from Nate Pfeifer on Vimeo.

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