Wednesday, July 27, 2011

South Silver, CA (7.17.11)

What can you say about South Silver (CA) that hasn’t already been said or shown through videos/photos? It’s an ultra-classic, granite playground, and one of the most recognized runs on the entire planet! This is truly where kayak dreams come to life. It’s only 1 to 1.5 miles long, but it packs a real punch, dropping over 600fpm! This run is also much more accessible than other upper Sierra runs in both difficulty and logistics. That said, if it’s running at a solid flow, you better be on your game, and only the hardiest will run all the drops, including the famed Skyscraper & Off Ramp.

South Silver has a fairly small window of runnable flows, my understanding is one or two weeks at the most. It typically runs in late spring or early summer, but this has been a very odd season, with massive snowpack in the Sierras, and most of the west coast for that matter. It is this that put it on the radar as an addition to a planned trip on Fordyce, which had been in the works for months. With the possibility of bagging two new classics in one trip, the drive down from Eugene for a weekend of boating didn’t seem all that ridiculous, even as a solo drive.

Although I was the only one from up north, I had teamed up with buddy Bill from Sacramento, and we would be paddling with elements of his crew over the weekend. A friend of his, Brian, had joined us for Fordyce, which was awesome, but also an epic day that had us paddling to the take-out in the dark (trip report here). The next day we did a few miles on Lover’s Leap, which was also super good, featuring lots of juicy/technical drops stacked back to back to back.

By the time Sunday came around, flows seemed like they might have dropped into a reasonable level for South Silver. Supposedly, the best gauge to use was the “SF American below Kyburz”, looking for a flow of less than 1k, and 700cfs to 400cfs being optimal. On Sunday it was reading between 800 and 950, but since it can only be used as a correlation, we needed to check it out in person. With that, we put a group of four together and headed to the takeout. Bill and I would be joined by a fella’ named Anthony, and another named Gavin -- we were glad to have the company (and a small crew) for a run like this. Gavin parents had also come along to watch their son fire-up the goods -- since there is a fairly manageable hiking trail running the full length it was easy for them to get some good views of our descent.

The day we were there (7/17/11) the gauge was reading
between 800cfs and 950cfs.It was definitely coming up
throughout the day, which was quite noticeable when
we got to the Teacups.

As we hiked up the trail we made our way past the bottom mank section until we reached the last real drop of the run, Quadruple Bypass. It looked pretty straightforward, so we continued on. Next we got a peak of Plastic Surgery, which also looked quite manageable, after watching a group of boaters grease it one after another. The next big drops we came to were the dynamic duo of Skyscraper & Off Ramp. Words or pictures cannot describe the size of these two back-to-back monsters; I just stood there in awe looking up at them. Everyone in the group had pretty much made the decision that these two would be walks, although Gavin still wasn’t ready to write them off completely. From here we thought it best to hike to the top of Skyscraper, to see what the eddy service look liked between it and the Teacups.

Looking up at Skyscraper and the
top of Off Ramp, during our scout.

As we reached our viewing platform, we saw a group headed down, The Shasta Boyz. Without slowing down, they made their way through the Teacups with style, catching a last chance eddy on the left, at the lip of Skyscraper.

Dropping the third cup...

...and the last. The run-out at the bottom of the picture is Skyscraper.

A nice line on the last tier

One by one they climbed out of their boats and walked down the sloped granite rock to give a look. While they were doing so, we hiked back down to the base of Off Ramp to watch the show. After some time scouting and setting up proper safety, the first guy dropped in. He entered hard left, dropped off the flake and disappeared into the white. The next time I saw him resurface was at the lip of the last tier, where he dug in for a nice stroke and cleared the bottom hole. After a brief pause, he dropped into Off Ramp down the left, with right angle. After melting the hole at the base, he was taken with the flow into the undercut/sieve on the right, and underneath where we were standing. A few seconds later he came paddling out. It was a great line, but he didn't make it look easy. As much as we would have liked to watch the others come down, we were burning daylight and needed to get on the water ourselves. With that, we rushed back down the trail to grab the cars and head to the put-in.

The Shasta Boyz giving Skyscraper a scout

The Shasta Boyz showing us how it's done

Dropping over the last tier of Skyscraper

Off Ramp

Following the directions that we had from multiple sources (internet and guidebook), finding the exact location of the put-in was not easy. After more than an hour of driving around dirt roads and jumping out to search for foot paths, we finally decided to drop the gear (along with Bill and me) at “the clearing” while the others went back down to the take-out to drop off the car and ask the other groups for verbal directions. While they were doing that, Bill and I continued our search. After another hour, we finally found it after some bushwhacking down the hill. The other two soon arrived and we told them of our find. They were also able to get the directions from the other boaters, which would have required us to load back up and drive a short bit further. However, we were finally able to convince them that the hike from our current location was short enough and that there was no need to drive down.

After a short hike through the manzanita and down a short but steep hiking trail, we reached the water’s edge and the top of “Autobahn”-- it was now ~5:30pm. Basically Autobahn is a ~150 yard low angle slide, and as the name suggests, there are no speed limits. I would guess that by the time you reach the bottom you’re doing between 20-30mph, which is one hell of a way to start a run! As for difficulty it’s pretty much a no-brainer. You do have to brace off pillow/laterals in a few places, but it’s not too difficult to keep it straight and upright. The only real obstacle that is kind of in play is some rock at the bottom on the left, although it was pretty easy to avoid (at least at this level).

Autobahn. This is gonna be fun!

Instead of setting safety, we decided to go in groups of two, which was probably more effective anyway. Anthony and I would go first while Bill and Gavin waited for us to reach the pool below and give them the signal. Anthony started hard right down a shallow slide and dropped in first. Once I saw that he had entered, I went for the center-right boof, which was fairly shallow. Once I hit the meat, things started coming pretty quick, and after launching over a pretty big curler I landed in an eddy and caught a breath for a sec. I looked over to see Anthony who had also eddied out, but on the other side of the creek. We were only about a third of the way through and after getting the “good to go” signal from him I led the charge down the next section. As I hit the last pitch, with some serious speed, I could see the pool below and did my best to get some right angle coming into it. Upon breaking through the bottom wave-hole, I dipped my nose into the right eddy and made a dynamic 180 turn, stopping dead. “Holy %hit, that was crazy!”, I believe were the words that came out of my mouth. Soon after, Anthony appeared, as well as a couple of guys from New Zealand that had gotten to the put-in just after us. Everyone pretty much had the same response as me, in fact the Kiwis went up to run it again, which is pretty easy to do along the right bank. After giving the all clear to Bill and Gavin, they came blasting down with similar lines. It was really cool to see them come flying into the pool with big eyes and smiles on their faces.

Gavin and Bill enter Autobahn

Gavin lines up the bottom pitch

Bill gets airborne while blasting through a
speed-trap at the bottom of Autobahn

Just below was a fun little boof ledge that fed into a narrow chute, which led into a somewhat trashy boulder drop. We all made it through both in one fashion or another and regathered just above the next big horizon line.

One of the Kiwis gets in a nice stoke on the drop just below Autobahn

Gavin coming out of the same drop

With the others eddied out on river left, I ferried across to river center and peered over my shoulder to see if the drop below was boat scoutable. I couldn’t see the bottom, but did catch a glimpse of an undercut boulder with water pushing toward it. I quickly let the others know that it would need a scout. The drop was certainly runnable, but it was fairly trashy, especially the lead-in, and the undercut/sieve on the left concerned me enough to make the portage. Bill decided the same, and after setting safety for both Anthony and Gavin, who had good lines, we re-launched in the eddy below. This one is known as "Double Drop" and apparently gets better the higher the flow is, which stands to reason.

Anthony in the middle of Double Drop

Eddying out just below Double Drop

Next up was "Triple Slide", which is more of a double ledge with a fast run-out. The other two had already run it, and were down below scouting the next drop while Bill and I took our turns. I setup for photos and Bill fired it up using the recommended line hard river-right. After packing up my stuff I soon followed with a similar line.

Bill does it right (literally) at Triple Slide

Dropping the second tier of Triple Slide

Once I reached the eddy where the others were, I was told the drop below me was "Boof, Boof, Slide" and it deserved a look. I jumped out to see the creek drop over a 4' to 5' sloping ledge, then split around a rock outcropping through a narrow chute, with the right channel being the only good option. To be honest, I only saw one boof, but maybe this changes at lower water. Gavin was already heading up to his boat to give it a go. After seal-launching back in, he charged the drop and came over the boof with the proper right angle. After stalling out for a second, he dug toward the flume, dropped in, and crashed through the bottom hole without so much as slowing down.

Gavin makes the entrance boof...

...Then hits the slide

I decided to run it next. My only concern was the narrow crack on the left, which seemed fairly easy to avoid, however, we had safety set there to be sure. My line was a little more exciting: after cleaning the top part I dropped down the slide with too much left angle and was flipped trying to avoid the wall. I actually lost half my paddle grip, but luckily got it back in hand before snapping off a quick roll. Even with the sub-par line, it was still a super fun drop! Bill went next and got a huge back ender at the bottom, but recovered nicely. Anthony on the other hand, had the best line of the bunch and barely got his head wet.

Bill midway through

Bill goes for some style points

Anthony making it look easy

Below Boof, Boof, Slide were a couple of fun small slides that were both straightforward with little consequence. Since I was already out from taking pictures, I was able to give verbal beta to the others. From my perch, I could also see a pool, which I believed to be the one above the Teacups.

Gavin drives down the small slide just below Boof, Boof, Slide

Bill punches through another hole

Gavin heads toward the pool above the Teacups

After meeting up with the others in the pool, we got out and hiked down the granite slabs on river-right to scout The Cups. I was actually a little surprised by difficulty of this classic series of drops. It wasn't that they were over the top, just that I had expected them to be more of a gimmie. The first and last one were pretty straightforward, however, the second dropped about 12' into a crack (of sorts) where the creek exited at about a 90-degree angle, and the third had a nasty looking keeper on the right. Between here and the last cup was a 2' and a 3' ledge that were both good to go on the right, but the left sides of each looked like they could provide a good unintentional surf session. The crux for me was making sure I came off the 2nd in good form to avoid the hole on the 3rd; I was pretty good with everything else. To add to the excitement, it appeared that the flow had come up a little bit during the day, making the section a little more pushy and the eddies above Skyscraper a little bit smaller.

Scouting the Teacups

I was the last to go, and after watching the others style each of the drops on their way down, I was ready for my turn. It's amazing how slick that granite is, and I was finding it hard to find a stable platform to launch from. I finally decided on a spot just above the lip of the first falls. As I slid into the outflow of the pool, I didn't get as much upstream momentum as I had hoped, which unfortunately set me up poorly from the start. Basically I only had enough time to turn my boat 180 degrees, square up on the drop, and throw in a half-ass boof stroke. It was just enough to keep me upright and safely eddy out below it on the right, but it wasn't pretty. I took a few moments to get my head back in the game, then I started my ferry to river left to run the next. Once again things didn't go as planned. I thought I had lined it up perfectly, but upon landing I hit the rock outcropping with the bottom of my boat and was immediately flipped. I missed my first roll attempt and knew I only had one or two more before I dropped over the third falls. Luckily I held it together and pulled off my second, where Anthony (who was setting safety) begin yelling "You're good, you're good!". With just enough time to line it up properly I sailed off the lip landing on a deep brace and away from the hole I had been concerned about. I hadn't even had time to wipe the water from my eyes and I was headed toward the two small ledge holes. I drove hard and was able to make it right, plowing through both without too much issue. I was able to relax a bit while floating toward the final falls, as I drove for the line I had scouted, it became apparent (at the lip) that I was off by a couple of feet to the left. Once again I landed on a hard brace, far from styling it as I had imagined in my head. I didn't have time to think about it much since I needed to really dig in to make the right, one-boat eddy, just above Skyscraper. I was a little bummed about my line through the Teacups, and had we not been running out of daylight I probably would have hiked up to get some redemption.

Anthony runs the first Cup

Lined up nicely on the second

Looking good for #3. Note the pothole recirculator on the right.

Gavin making the move on #2

Gavin on #3

Gavin navigates the two small ledge pour-overs
between #3 and the last one. They both seemed
a little sticky, so the right line was recommended.

Since none of us had planned to run Skyscraper and/or Off Ramp (time wouldn't have allowed anyway), we quickly began looking for the route along the right bank. The trail was a little sketchy in spots but served us well, and with a little teamwork we finished our portage safely. Once again due to time constraints we skipped putting in above "Nose Job" and settled on a eddy below it. This next section was a series of three drops that were surprisingly fun, with the last having a sweet water boof, which I believe is called "Funk Falls".

We were now sitting above the lead-in to Plastic Surgery, where we got out once again to scout. The series of entrance drops were actually pretty big, with the hole just above looking pretty sticky, at least at this level. As for the main drop itself, it looked good as long as you entered in control and with left angle. The main hazard was on the right where the water smashes against a rock outcropping, and what appeared to be a deep pothole. I decided almost immediately that I wasn’t feelin’ it and prepared to shoulder my boat. The only one in the group that was giving it serious thought was Gavin, and after assuring him that we would have good safety setup, he decided to give it a go.

Our safety plan was setup to ensure that he didn’t go over the main drop upside down or out of his boat, which would be disastrous. Bill stood at the water’s edge secured to a safety line held by Anthony and Gavin’s Dad -- basically, ready to live-bait if necessary. After coming down the first tier of the lead-in he unexpectedly (both to him and us) peeled into a micro eddy against the left wall, which allowed him time to reevaluate his next move. After a few seconds he entered the drop once again and melted into the guard hole just above the lip of the main drop. Even though he went fairly deep, it didn’t slow him down much, which surprised me a bit. Coming out of the hole in control, he was able to drop into the grand finale perfectly and sailed down Plastic Surgery with a textbook line. It was cool to see him style it.

Gavin drops down the lead-in to Plastic Surgery

Melting the hole just above Plastic Surgery

Making the crux move

Gavin finishing up with a solid run

Just below here was Quadruple Bypass, and as the name suggests, is a series of four ledges. They all look good to go and a lot of fun, with the last one sporting a fairly sticky hole on the right. Gavin and Anthony were already down at the water and ready to go. Bill had run down to set bag at the last hole, while I did my best to get our two boats down to the eddy below Plastic Surgery. From above I could see both of them running the first couple of drops, and it looked like they had both gotten tripped up a bit in the entrance, where the current appeared to suck their sterns down. Soon Bill came hiking up the trail and told me that supposedly that what I had noticed was them getting pulled toward a sieve of sorts, and that one of them was slightly shaken by the experience. It was now getting pretty dark, and we had no time for a mishap, so both Bill and I decided it was probably better to just hike out from here, which I was somewhat conflicted about since it looked like such a fun series of drops -- oh well, next time.

Most people hike out below Quadruple Bypass and skip the last quarter mile since it’s basically a boulder bashing mankfest, which was probably better for us since we were out of daylight. Once back at the parking lot, we had a beer or two while changing and loading up. By the time we rolled into Placerville it was 10pm and our only real eating option was fast-food, so we settled on some good ol’ fashioned In-N-Out.

South Silver is without a doubt one of California’s (and the country’s) Ultra Classics. I felt like our flow was a nice solid medium level, which was perfect for a majority of the drops. That said, this made Skyscraper, Off Ramp, and Plastic Surgery pretty stout and more than I wanted to bite off. I would love to go back at a lower level and run the big three to feel like I truly completed the run. Although, even though I only did South Silver “light”, it was still an awesome experience with super fun whitewater, especially Autobahn. It was really cool to be able to run it in combination with Fordyce over the weekend. I’ll definitely be back for this one, and would drive all the way from Eugene just to do multiple laps on it over a long weekend.

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