After 25 hours of travel, I landed in Puerto Montt and took a 25-minute taxi ride to my hotel in Puerto Varas. Casa Molino sits on Lago Llanquihue – one of the largest natural lakes in S. America -with stunning views of Mounts Osorno, Calbuco, and Tronador. As I sat out on the deck, basking in sunshine, drinking Chilean wine, it was the perfect place to end an arduous journey.
The next morning I was driven to a small airport where I met several of my fellow rafters and we took a 12-seater plane to Chaiten; it was a pleasant journey with phenomenal views of the mountains and the coastline. The Chaiten “airport” is a dirt strip with no facilities and no shade where we spent two hours sweltering and being harassed by giant horseflies that stung like hell. We finally loaded into a hot, stuffy bus for a grueling three-hour drive.
We would be staying at four camps all situated on the banks of the Futaleufu, with wooden huts open to the water. Our first camp was Terminator Camp. We got settled, explored the camp and started getting to know one another over wine and food. Our group comprised of 13 paddlers, 4 documentary-crew, and 8 guides, ranging in ages from 20’s to 60’s, mostly couples. I was the only solo woman. Everyone was from the U.S. with the exception of three of the guides who were from Chile.
Next morning we kayaked a Class II on the Rio Azul, a beautiful turquoise tributary of the Futaleufu. It was a relaxing two-hour float, taking in the amazing scenery. After lunch the paddlers divided into two rafts, I was on the left front where I would remain all week. Our guide was Danny, a 24-year old from California. After a safety brief and flip drill we ran a series of amazing Class IV rapids, not too tiring yet exhilarating. Two safety catarafts escorted us down the river along with another two carrying the documentary crew. Later we had dinner around the campfire and talked into the night, drinking wine and beer. I slept with the sounds of the rapids in my ears.
We got up early to catch the infamous Inferno and Purgatory Class V rapids followed by additional IVs & Vs running between the walls of a box canyon. The trip started out fabulous, we ran a few rapids then arrived at the mouth of Inferno and it was impressive. There were two huge boulders on either side of the river entering the box canyon with rock walls hundreds of feet high – it felt as if we were entering the gates of a watery hell. We pulled into an eddy feeling the water’s power as we struggled to control the rafts then we climbed out to scout the intimidating rapids. The guides strategized and then we watched the catarafts go through one by one. Chico first, he made it look easy, straight down the middle, his broad shoulders and long arms easily controlling his raft. Peke followed, he got caught in a churn and thrown to the left of the canyon where he struggled not to get tossed against the canyon walls. Then came Audrey, who again made it look easy, as she seemed to breeze through, her strong legs and back straining with the pressure. Roberto was last with the camera crew.
Danny gave us an overview of how we were going to tackle this rapid and reminded everyone to watch me for technique and rhythm. The approach was scary, the river was so unpredictable, churning this way and that and then throwing up huge aggressive waves seemingly out of nowhere. I was being blasted back and forth and from side to side, several times wondering how I didn’t end up in the water, struggling to hold my paddle and keep pulling. We twisted and turned and were thrown up and down and suddenly it was over and we were in calmer water. We paddled to an eddy to watch the 2nd raft come through.
We prepared to enter Purgatory, which looked scarier than Inferno. Chico went first and he had a tough time, pulling hard on his paddles and straining to maintain control. He was being battered from all sides but he made it through without a hitch. Peke had a tougher time, twice he was pulled bolt up right out of his seat, at one point his paddle was pulled from his hand and I felt sure he was going in but he maintained control. Audrey also had a difficult time, she was thrown out of her seat and almost went into the water but she managed to hold on and pull herself back into her seat. Then Roberto went through with the film crew, after seeing the others struggle, he decided to go down to the right. It was a struggle and you could see how difficult it was by the strain on his back and shoulders but he made it through and settled in an eddy.
It was our turn. I took some deep breaths, steadied my feet in the braces and adjusted my position.Danny took us straight down the middle and it was rough. We were battered left to right with monstrous 20’+ waves hurtling at us, I was being bombarded straight in the face and I was swallowing water and couldn’t see anything. We got stuck in a churning mass of water and the boat felt like it was being bent in half from front to back. I gripped my feet and pressed hard with my thighs for leverage as a mammoth wave crashed over us. The next thing I knew I was in the water fighting for my life.
Darrell watched it all from the eddy where they were floating and said it seemed we were going to make it when an enormous wave engulfed us and another pushed up the left side of the boat and all they saw was a mass of arms and legs as those on the left side were ejected up and out and those on the right side tipped in. Danny managed to stay inside the boat by lunging to the left and pressing down to keep it from flipping then he fought to get his raft back under control and hauled four swimmers back in.
Meanwhile under the churn, I thought I was under the boat and knowing I should stay with it, I didn’t want to push it away but needed to get out from underneath. I tried to move away and surface but before I could do so it was on me again and I realized it was a person. I pushed away and struggled to reach the surface, feeling as if my lungs were going to burst but the water was pulling me down. I finally broke through, sucked in less than a mouthful of air and was pulled down. I battled for the surface knowing I was close because I could see the light. I kicked and pulled as hard as I could but just as I thought I’d made it, I was pulled back down. The water was churning like a giant, powerful washing machine keeping me below the surface. I had taken in a lot of water and was running out of fight when the thought flashed through my head that this was it for me, I was going to drown and I felt really calm. I relaxed and could feel my body being jettisoned along then abruptly I was pushed to the surface. I realized that I was out of the rapid but still moving very quickly downriver. I was gasping for breath but my chest felt constricted so I couldn’t get air inside my lungs. I swam to the canyon wall and grabbed at it trying to slow down but it was impossible. I looked for a boat and there was none in sight and I knew I was swept toward the next rapid and there was nothing I could do about it. I saw Melissa up ahead and realized it was her who had landed on me. We floated trying to conserve energy for the fight that would happen if we were unfortunate enough not to be rescued before we reached the next rapid. I heard a shout and looked over to see Chico appear on the right side of the river, Melissa swam toward him then I heard another shout and saw Roberto coming toward me. As I reached him I realized I didn’t have one ounce of energy so I just grabbed the front bar and hung there until Darrell and Stephanie pulled me up. I kept thanking them over and over for rescuing me. People say you think of so much when you think you are going to die but you don’t, the only thought I had outside of getting my head above the surface, was the briefest and calmest thought that this was it for me. There is nothing like almost dying to make you feel alive.
We stopped for lunch & then rafted a few minor rapids before we arrived at the enormous and intricate Cave Camp, which got it’s name from a massive overhanging white granite slab resting on two boulders. It was very beautiful with mountains all around and the impressive but scary class VI Zeta rapid raging beside it. We were enticed to jump off a rock into bitterly cold natural pool 20′ below. I had taken my wetsuit off in an attempt to warm up so the jump was definitely not fun; the water was so cold it felt like sharp pins.
Day 3 I woke up less than refreshed having dreamt about drowning most of the night, reliving the scene where I was under the water with Melissa on top of me. We packed for overnight and pulled ourselves one by one across the rapid on a Tyrolean traverse and hiked 1600′ up to the Tree House Camp; it was a grueling hike. The temperatures were soaring and the air was thin and I’d packed too much. Hiking straight up for two hours on narrow winding trails with lots of switchbacks and prickly vegetation was something I felt I could have skipped. First I tweaked my left Achilles tendon then my right big toe started to throb but when we finally reached our destination, what a treat!The Tree House Camp was set on a lake that was warm enough to swim in and next to the lake were the hot tub and campfire. Later, wearing my Adventurous Babes t-shirt, I was interviewed by the documentary crew. We spent the next few hours around the campfire, reliving the experiences on Purgatory, then I climbed to my tree house in the sky and had the best nights sleep ever, listening to the noisy frogs far below in the lake.
Next day we hiked back to Cave Camp and zip-lined 300ft across the class VI Zeta rapid into the water. I looked at the rapid and wasn’t sure I wanted to drop into the end of it. My hands were a little shaky as I took the handles, but I lost my trepidation as I concentrated on what I had to do. Halfway across I let go and plunged into the river. When I surfaced I realized I was being pushed downriver by the current from the rapids and I momentarily lost my composure and forgot to swim against the current. Too late, I started to swim upriver but was pushed past where I was supposed to climb out and I felt a moment of panic, I swam as hard as I could and got closer but not close enough. I heard Eli shouting down for me to grab the rope he’d thrown out. I grabbed at it, missed, he threw it again and I caught it and he reeled me in and hauled me out of the water, dumping me unceremoniously onto the rocks. After the zip lining was over, Roberto wanted everyone to jump off of a 50′ cliff into the end of the rapids but I gave it a pass – once in the water that day was enough for me.
After lunch we had a slightly technical climb to the top of a 350′ rock, where we attached ourselves to cables and took in amazing views while waiting to rappel down the face of the rock. I felt completely safe as I was hooked to the ropes and started my descent. I stopped to look over my shoulders and felt my stomach knot up a bit as the significance of how far I could fall hit me. I reached a tiny platform where two of the guides met me and transferred me to another line to continue my downward journey. The switch over was nerve-wracking as they hooked this and unhooked that and re-hooked and then asked me to step off from the platform and let go of one rope then cross over another rope then take the rope again – even though my head told me I was perfectly safe, I didn’t like the letting go thing and was relieved to continue my journey.
After reaching the base of the rock, I wandered down a trail to a quiet bright green stream so clear that I could plainly see a tree several feet below. Moored at the edge of the stream was an old wooden raft that looked like something out of Huck Finn. I jumped onboard and pulled myself across the water with the rope pulley system, a peaceful journey that ended too quickly. Later I sat on some rocks writing my journal, listening to the water roar by and feeling the sun through the trees thinking what an extraordinarily beautiful piece of heaven it was.
Day five we rafted down to Mapu Leufu Camp, with the best views of them all. After rafting some fun and easy rapids, mostly class IVs, we hiked up to do some canyoneering on the Rio Blanco, it was a lot of fun despite bruising and twisting my left ankle in some rocks. We walked behind a waterfall but it was tough getting out, the water slammed on my head and back, knocking me over. Jaime yanked me through dumping me on my knees on the slippery rocks where I slid face forward into the water, flopping about as I tried to regain my footing, snickering about how glamorous I must look. We hiked from the canyon back to the river where we crossed in a two-seater manual cable car to our camp. After dinner, Chico rapped a funny song about the Futaleufu then Eli played the guitar and sang, then John played the guitar proving to be a very talented classical guitarist. It was the best evening yet.
The last day on the river was called BIG Friday; we rafted all day long. We started with the class V+ Terminator Rapid, the most demanding rapid on the river, followed by Himalayan which is over a mile and a half of nonstop V’s during which a wave about 25′ high hit us and knocked me out of my seat, painfully slamming my nose onto Todd’s knee. After rafting a series of giant Class IV+ rapids (some nearly a mile long) and two Class Vs we had lunch and then ran two of the most difficult Class Vs on the river – Mas o Menos and Casa De Piedra. It was a cold day and exhausting but nothing alarming happened until the end of the day when we were navigating a Class III. Unexpectedly, a hole appeared and we went into it as a huge wave crashed over us and we almost tipped. Todd was thrown over on top of me, I was momentarily stunned (he weighs about 250lbs) but I could feel the boat tipping hard back to the right and I was sliding out so I didn’t have time to worry about being hurt. I lunged up and grabbed the side of the boat with my left hand (my right arm wasn’t working) and clung on for dear life, determined not to take another rapids swim. I couldn’t move my right arm for several seconds and my head hurt but I forced myself back into the action and my arm gradually returned to normal. At the end of the day we hauled the rafts out of the water and loaded them on the trailer and returned to camp where we had Piso Sours and dined on spitted lamb and spent the rest of the night laughing and drinking. I wrote a poem for Chico to rap. John and Eli played the guitar. The sunset was beautiful followed by an equally beautiful moonrise. We exchanged contact info and relived the exciting moments. I couldn’t believe it was over already, I could have stayed out there forever and in fact I almost did 🙂