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22 Saltos - A Crevice in the Earth

We awoke for our third full day in Chile anticipating a new adventure in the 22 Saltos section of the Rio Claro - just upstream of our campsite. We were mostly recovered from the rigors of our Siete Tazas put-in, and were ready for the 1.5 mile hike up to get the sister section, which was rumored to be a small step up from the 7. We joined forces with German Julian who we had paddled with 2 days before, as well as by another German named Anna Jankowfsky, who had done the section years before and knew a bit about the lines. She had started the run the day before, bit hiked out with a member of her party who took a nasty swim at an undercut wall. She was eager to get back in and finish the run. We hunkered in the shade of some scrubby desert trees to assemble our kayak backpacks for what promised to be a hot hike through the scrub. Andria and I had never used our Pyranha backpack systems, so Anna gave us a quick lesson.

Anna showing me how to set up the pack - it's super simple!

The pack is so comfortable that it drastically improves my endurance and balance when hiking with the boat. Usually carrying a kayaks doesn't draw that kind of smile.

We began trudging up the road in the valley between giant lava flows, the puffs of dust rising from our footfalls wavering in the waves of heat rising from the packed earth. We turned into scrubby trees and brush, making our way up ever steeper hills toward the river, hidden somewhere in a rumbling crack below. Sweat poured down my face and body as I struggled to force the top end of my boat through the web of crackling dried branches closing in above, which offered far more resistance to passage than they did relief from the blistering sun. Stinging purple green and gold caterpillars rained down from the branches, raising fiery welt paths on any exposed skin they found. Our footsteps became slower and closer together as we struggled up the hill, yearning for the sweet watery escape awaiting us in the Claro.

We took a break at the rim of the canyon, recovering a bit and cooling down before dropping into the depths. We scrambled down the steep hill and suited up at the last minute, cooking in our paddling tops as we waited our turns to lower boats down the last pitch into the crystalline waters below. We scouted the first drop, a 6 foot boof that looked clean, but would commit us into another basalt tunnel, with no indication of when or where escape would be possible. Anna leapt into the river and floated in an eddy, helping each of us carefully balance our way from rock climbing to sitting in our kayaks. We milled around in the eddy, splashing icy clear water on our faces and craning our necks up at the steep blocky textured black basalt walls.

Lowering boats down the steep basalt into the river.

The first boof was sweeter then it looked, the icy water springing in a quenching arc forward over my head as I landed flat and delved into the mysteries that waited below. Another horizon line was revelead around a bend, its hollow roar indicating that it would provide considerably more verticality than its little brother. I went ahead to take photos, leaning forward and gazing along my bow as aqua blue green faded to white and my world tilted gently over the rolling lip. I watched the roiling cotton ball boil rush up to meet my boat, and gently touched down into a bowl of basalt. A whoop of pure exuberance sprang from my throat at the effervescent beauty of the perfect waterfall as I turned around to gaze on its full length for the first time. I paddled down the canyon a bit to where a row of boulders provided a place to hop out to take photos. The rest of the crew followed, joining me shortly below.

Jeff styling over the first big drop of the 22.

Andria sailing off another clean playground drop early in the 22.

As we proceeded deeper into the canyon it began to become a bit more intense. The walls closed in almost touching in some places, with the sky just a blue ribbon between the rearing blocky black border. The trees at the canyon rim raked at the strip of sky like twisted teeth trying to get a bite of the open freedom on the outside of our whitewater nether world. The difficulty picked up a bit as well as we reached the drop with the undercut where the German party had trouble the day before - a tricky entry around a rock into a 15 foot falls. The rest of the group held ropes to pull me out of the undercut if I went astray, and I gave the falls a try.

Dropping over the cave drop and trying to miss the undercut wall on the right.

Everyone made it through just fine, and we moved on into the lower canyon, passing the place where Anna had hiked out the day before, really the first possible egress from the canyon that we had seen all day. Anna told us soon that we were arriving at the biggest drop - a 30 footer with an entrance drop, falling into a a vertical walled rumbling bowl far below. She got out above the drop and sidled along a ledge to where she could see the landing and signal to the crew whether Jeff would need to follow me immediately for a rescue. She told us that we should run the entrance drop on the left and then get right for the main drop, where the water would curl up off the wall as it dropped over the drop. The word was that it was too high to boof, so we should try to keep our bows down and our landings soft. My heart was racing as I pulled into the flow and slid over the first drop, everything on my perifery blurring as I focused with single minded intent on the churning curling abyss looming in front of my boat. As I rolled over the edge I could see the pool far below, water burbling out in a white mass from beneath the overhanging right wall. At the last second I decided that landing with maximum control was prudent, and pulled a bit on my paddle blade to lift my bow for a rockered landing. As I floated into the left eddy, a rush of relief and elation tingled out to the tips of my fingers and toes, seeming to electrify even the length of every hair on my head. I whooped out to the party above, who followed me one by one over the plunge and into the marginal safety of the vertical walled pool at the bottom of the falls.

Julian and Andria in the pool at the base of the big one.

More action and adventures awaited in the unscoutable, unportageable boxed in canyon below, but those tales will wait for another time. A rainstorm has knocked out the power here at Latitude 39, so I'm going to wrap this up and dream of what creeks might run tomorrow.

Parting shot of Andria and me heading out into the sunlight at the bottom of the 22 Saltos crevice in the earth.