Friday, January 24, 2020

Kyrgyzstan - Saryjaz Expedition 2017

Here is a short film made by the late Adrian Kiernan, show casing Kyrgyzstan and most notably the Saryjaz expedition that he, Ari Walker, Jakub Sedivy, Jordy Searle, Kristoff Stursa and Sam Grafton. 

Evan Moore was a late omission from the Saryjaz due to the health of his mother, but we supported his decision to leave and be there for her. He was missed throughout the trip but will get down this amazing river sometime in the near future. 

One of the best adventures any of us have been on and a true test of teamwork and character. 

The First Descent of the Baliem

It has been a couple of years since our cameo on the popular expedition show with British celebrity Steve Backshall, namely 'Down the Mighty River - with Steve Backshall'. It was a unique experience to see what a big production TV shoot was like, to be relied on so heavily for my experienced opinion and to help Steve and a skeleton TV crew down a full on river in the remote jungles of Papua, Indonesia.

The Baliem in all it's glory - David Bain
There is a lot of background detail that I could get bogged down in explaining how we came to have the role, but in short it was thanks to Patrick O'Keeffe for giving us the shoe in and several other key people for talking well of us. In addition to us completing two successful expeditions to Papua New Guinea in 2011 and 2013.

I (Jordy) was part of a reccy to Papua, Indonesia. The is the western side of the New Guinea landmass, where the eastern side is the more known Papua New Guinea. The focus of the trip was to assess the feasibility of a raft/kayaking trip down the 'unpaddled' Baliem River. I met up with Alexis Girardet, a renown producer from the BCC, and Joe Yaggi. Joe is an America ex-pat that has been in Indonesia for more than 20 years and has developed the fixing/logistics company 'Jungle Run'. We spent 6 days buzzing around in choppers, assessing the river environment, meeting with local interest groups and just acclimating to the region. After this, we presented our findings and recommendations to the BBC Exec and with some heavy persuasion from Steve himself, the BBC eventually gave us the green light. We were going back to attempt the Baliem.

Preparation is key, here Yanto, Alexis and Joe looking of anything and everything to give us
a better idea of the place we were going to - Jordy Searle

One of the coolest parts of this trip was I was fortunate to be able to hand pick the entire rafting/river safety team. And I definitely knew a lot of well qualified misfits that would be happy to come along. For raft guides I invited Nate Klema and Adrian Kiernan, both of whom had years of experience getting humpy dumpy's down serious whitewater in loaded rafts, on the Grand Canyon the the Franklin respectively. For the kayaking it was simple, Barny was my obvious choice as we've done all our expeditions together and the other would be David Bain. As recently I had been doing a lot of paddling with David and it would be useful to have a safety team member in the UK to go over preparatory plans with the rest of the production crew. After a couple of months of emails, deliberating about gear, risk management practices, contingencies, paperwork and all that fun stuff, the date was set and we were booked to fly to Wamena.

Never just a book by its cover, this crew may be young but there was a wealth
of experience taking care of the behind the scenes work - David Bain

To give an indication of the trip we were about to embark on, the flight there is actually a good start. We had to sign a waiver as we were taking a domestic flight on a carrier that did not meet the international aviation safety standards. All went well, and this gave us an indication of things to come. We had a couple of staging days, where the separate teams organsied their gear and Steve, Alexis, Joe and I planned and re planned and re planned our itineraries, until it was go time!

Gear and Helicopters, pretty much the entire trip revolved around this - Barny Young

Part one was flying to the alpine Lake Habema, then kayak/raft down to where the river goes underground and through a mountain range. This is where our first issue arose. Adrian fell sick in the first couple of days in Papua, and he wasn't in a state to be rafting. It was unfortunate for Adrian, but was a blessing in disguise in the end.

 If things weren't bad enough in Adrians world, Mr "Never miss a moment" Alexis 
was into it, building his story - Barny Young

We decided to continue with a light gear load and only one raft, putting in just downstream of the lake mouth. This was the first place we could genuinely float a boat, and insulated us from the potential trouble of people who lived/had interest in the lake and may have not been happy with our presence. At over 10,000ft, this was a high altitude put in and the fern covered alpine flat land was a surreal landscape to behold. In a region of the world people generally, and justifiably, associate with hot humid weather, the air was fresh and brisk. The river was tea coloured, from the tannins of the surrounding forests and before long the river's edges turned into walls and the whitewater began. Low and manky, kinda of to be expected but we bounced our way down to a beautiful camp in the middle of the river. Things were going well, but this was going to be short-lived.

 Entering the Upper Baliem gorge, it was crazy paddling at 10,000ft in the south pacific - Barny Young

An unconventional bivouac, a raft balanced on kayaks. But it served it's purpose - David Bain

Immediately downstream of camp the river constricted more, and the entrance to the next gorge was a nasty, coarse sieve pile. It was definitely a no go for the raft, which was fortunate as now Nate was struggling health wise, and after a scout downstream it was pretty obvious this river was no place for a raft at all. Steve was fired up to continue further down with Barny and myself, which was a conundrum for me. Any normal day I would not think twice about dropping into a blind gorge, but the fact of the matter was that Steve was my responsibility and this was at the top of his ability. Barny and I discussed the possibility of getting Steve down the gorge, but in the end the cons just out weighed the pros in this situation. Shitty, sharp, manky, rapidly steepening, locked in class IV or more and a guy that is so busy working on TV, environmental projects, climbing, diving, skiing, training, canyoning and anything you can imagine, that he struggles to find time to kayak as much as he once did... it was a hard yet simple decision. We would need to extracted.

The team deliberating early on day two in the Upper Baliem Gorge - Photo David Bain

We had to be relocated to a landing strip adjacent to our location, and then could be taken by vehicles back to Wamena to stage for part of the trip. In the mean time, Steve was off checking out the local Flora and Fauna, hoping to spot a bird of paradise or see some exotic plant life. To his credit he knew an astounding amount about the Papuan environment, it was quite impressive and we all learnt quite a bit.

Steve frequently used a light-sheet to attract critters during the nights - photo: Nate Klema

Due to some local politics we couldn't 'safely' put back on the river below the gorge where we had been extracted, which meant we'd have to put in just below where the river resurfaced after it came through the mountain range. The locals, flow and whitewater from here was much more suited to rafting. Adrian was back on the ledger but this time Nate and Baino were on the very sick list. Alexis was struggling a bit himself, but he is the personification of the saying 'the show must go on', and he did accordingly. Once back on the river we really felt like we were getting our first proper strokes. The day included some good class IV rapids, a crashed drone and a semi suitable campsite for all but poor Adrian who has several hammock malfunctions during a night of pouring rain. Perfect really.

Adrian back in the hot seat - Barny Young

Me leading Steve through some boogy, making TV - Barny Young

Glad Barny and I went for the tent option, considering Adrians shitty night - Barny Young

The next day we paddled the second part of this 'middle' gorge, more pushy rapids but just good fun really. We continued down into the Baliem or 'Grand' Valley, where we were invited by a local village to spend the night. It was a semi-traditional Papuan settlement, but with one notable difference to the villages I had been to in Papua New Guinea... there was a mummy! Legitimately the wrapped and smoked/petrified remains of a 200+ year old Papuan Elder, kept in a spiritual shelter/hut that only the men were allowed to enter. We were allowed to see it, but it was only Steve who was permitted to sleep in the spiritual house. In hindsight, however, it seems like that wasn't bad as Steve hardly slept as the locals chatted all night and when the choking smoke from the fire lessened, the mosquitoes did there best to ensure Steve got no rest whatsoever.

 Adrian taking some pretty valuable cargo down the river. Not only all the camera gear, but the production
crew and, most importantly, ALL of our food - Barny Young

Steve and I finally worked out this else was telling us story about how they used to hunt 
the birds in the area - Adrian Kiernan

He may have been small, and looked like there wasn't much to him, but he definitely commanded respect 
and keep our attention every time he was present - Adrian Kiernan
After a long night of sleep, for us, we continued down the river back to Wamena. We would have a few days to prepare to paddle the Lower Baliem Gorge, meanwhile Steve and the crew were going to try get into some caving exploration.

 Steve and an elder literally jumping with joy after coming to an agreement about
accessing a virgin cave system - David Bain

As with most things on the expedition, the caving team ran into issues at every turns. Lead by Stephen Jones who pioneered multiple cave systems in New Guinea in the 80s and 09s, the team had set out to identify a cave system that Steve could be the first to enter. Although there were several prospects, there would always be a last minute 'interest group' or 'issue' that would arise. But this seemed to be overcome with one particular site, so it was go time. David, Barny and I decided to go along and help with the rigging as it was a good excuse to get out of our rooms in Wamena and with a sly hope of getting to enter a virgin cave system.

Action-man Aldo Kane and Steve all smiles while rigging the ropes to access the cave - David Bain

There was quite a production involved in the rigging of the caves, Stephen had two other specialist cavers with him; then there was Steve and Aldo; Alexis and Parker (the soundy), Desak on behalf of Jungle Run and then Barny, David and myself. There was a truckload of gear, literally, and it was no small feat to get it down to the staging area. Luckily we had the help of locals, and soon the team had ropes in place. At the same time Justin, Stephens go to man, was rigging the redirect for the first rappel, I was told through Desak that we had to stop what we were doing immediately. What I thought was a cordial conversation turned out to be quite the opposite. Another 'landowner' had turned up and was not how about our activity. We left everything in place and all returned to the access area in hope of talking through it. But after lengthy talks, even with a respected elder talking on our behalf, there was no consensus and it was explained to us that to continue could lead to disagreements and violence between the different groups. In no way would we have wanted our presence to be the cause of any civil unrest or ill feeling, so we respectfully removed all our equipment and retreated back to Wamena.

Steve, with a heavy-heart, carrying out the heavy bags of climbing/caving equipment - David Bain

So it was onto plan E, or whatever we were up to. We had been given guaranteed access to a cave system that had seen some limited exploration before but the team was hoping for a virgin cave system. With most of our resources exhausted, Stephen Jones and Steve decided that it was now or never and that there was a good possibility the could push deeper into the cave than any previous trips. Alexis agreed, the show had to go on so the caving and production team set off for the cave, with David as the photographer.

The main chamber was as impressive as any that the team had seen before - David Bain

Cathy Jones, Stephen wife, pushing deeper into the unknown section of the save - David Bain

Steve observing the 'flowstone' like curtain formations in a remote chamber of the cave - David Bain

The team spent the night underground and resurfaced with some pretty cool stories. They had exhaustively explored the entire cave system but were reluctant to say they had been the first to discover any of the caverns. Although there is very little documentation about this cave, I guess there has been a lot of exploration in this area and it's better to find out for sure opposed to claiming something and then having mud on your face. Regardless, it sounded pretty special and something I am gutted I missed out on.

While this had been happening, the river crew and I had been going over film footage and we unanimously, yet reluctantly, decided that the 'monsoon/highwater' itinerary was the only plausible one for the river at its current flow. When we had arrived the river was quite low, and had looked ideal for rafting the majority of the lower gorge but ever since Adrians sleepless night in the rain/malfunctioning hammock the river had been progressively rising. To a point that it was near similar to the flow during the reccy, something the very few kayakers in the world would consider let alone two rafts full of kit and some folks that do not spend much time in the river environment. 

Simply too much water for an attempt on the first section of the Lower Baliem Gorge - Jordy Searle

The start of this itinerary involved a heli insertion about 40km downstream, this is the steepest and most continuous section of the river. It hurt Steve having to leave that section unpaddled, but it was the river crew that it really upset. Every member of the team is a renown expedition paddler and that section was going to be a proper test piece for us, but at this flow it would of been suicide. Even without the production crew and rafts, there were several kilometres of locked in continuous class V+/P (the highest grade of whitewater/P meaning portage as it unnavigable) and a very real chance of flush drowning if you had to exit your kayak. So we would be putting in at the first place possible below that section, and we would make our way down to another steep section and see if we could paddle it, walk around it or just anything really. 

We used a fixed wing to stage at a village near the insertion point, piloted by a crazy German - Barny Young
Then an even more crazy french chopper pilot put us right in the middle of it, literally - David Bain

The river was a LOT bigger than we expected, and I think we all felt we had made the right decision putting in where we had. We had 10km to camp, and a few isolated class IV rapids to deal with. Or so we thought. Rounding the first corner we had what can often be one of the harder river features to deal will... the entire river pounding straight into a wall and causing a huge pressure wave or buffer. These features are hard to avoid, as your fighting the flow and if you do end up in there the buffer creates an inconsistent seam that sometimes you lean into, and sometimes you lean away from and a lot of the time you end up upside down trying to roll in highly aerated water. Steve and I jumped out to have a scouted, as did the raft guides, and we all came to the same conclusion, "try and get right, and deal with it if you don't make it". Barny, Steve and I would go first in that order, as to have the kayakers downstream if the rafts flip and we needed to help collect any loose gear. Barny was first and Steve planned to follow his as closely as possible, but unfortunately got surged left and in doing so ended up essesntially at the wall but on the wrong side on the entire river. I paddled down and, before Steve could calculate the severity of his situation, asked Steve to follow me and put EVERYTHING into it. We charge into the current as hard and fast as we could, trying to ferry/traverse the river above the buffer. Neither of us make it but when I turned around I was astonished to see Steve not too far behind me. He flipped at one stage, but popped straight back up and continued to paddle with all his might. And it worked. Steve made it over to the eddy where we were sitting and erupted in exaltation. We all did, it was pretty special to see someone simultanously achieving their dream and overcoming big hurdles at one time. The raft came down and Adrian was very very lucky not to flip. After crashing into the wall head on, the buffer lifted the boat onto its edge but some how it sat back down and the team paddled into the eddy. We had another couple of rapids to deal with on our way getting down to a monstrous one that we didn't know if we could portage around. This would be camp for the night.

A very serious looking Alexis holding on to Nate as we attempted to scout a section - Adrian Kiernan

 Steve making it happen, paddling the goods and getting his first descent of the Baliem - David Bain

The kayaking crew for the Lower Baliem, we had to throw David in a raft for man power and as a contingency for if the whitewater got too hard for Steve, then David could jump in the kayak and Steve in the raft - David Bain

The night was wet, in the comfort of our hammocks it didn't feel too bad but I could see the river from my hammock and I am not sure whether it was real or my imagination, but the river looked higher every time I looked. In the morning we would refuel and assess our options for getting downstream. 

 The comfort of our hammocks, would be our sanctuary for longer than we thought - David Bain

In the morning we ate breakfast and finally absorbed the environment we were in. Dense jungle, massive river, ominous clouds that would squeeze out deafening amounts of rain and a group of surprisingly chipper adventurers. While I devoured 800cal of freeze-dried goodness I knew there was no way we could paddle any part of the rapid before me, and then gorge walls down stream did not look like there would be passage around. After breakfast Steve, Aldo and myself went for a quick scout to see, and very soon realised it wasn't going to happen. Our skeleton crew was almost our undoing as we had to heavily loaded 16foot NRS rafts, 3 full loaded kayaks and only 10 of us to move it all. Not to mention vertical walls to deal with and several kilometers of jungle for the next respite in the rivers ferocity. If we had unlimited time I am sure everyone would of rolled up their sleeves and committed to the multiple days portaging in the jungle but we only had a limited amount of time so called in the chopped to help us move downstream once again.

Eating a big breakfast, feeling very small - Nate Klema

 Everywhere we went, somehow Alexis and Parker went backwards, without looking, with all their 
equipment and happily - David Bain

The 'kitchen' and 'living room' - Nate Klema

We relocated down to a section of river that I had identified during the initial scout of the Baliem at high water, where it would be spicy but safe for the crew to move down the river. The river was wide down here and there were big waves and holes all over the place to deal with. We camped by a good section of whitewater and this would be the last night for the entire team together on the river. Steve spent the night looking at the rapids he'd have to paddle the next day, rapids right at the top of his ability, and he was completely and utterly excited! In this seemingly isolated location we were suddenly visited by a young hunting party. Initially there was some angst/hostility but this was quickly overcome and Aldo even went so far as to treat a wound on the hand of one of the hunters. Some of our crew even purchased a bow and arrows that were used to hunt birds and small crocodiles. Both parties parted was happy and smiling.

 Loaded up for the piggy-back down stream, only after two days of laying in a hammock 
listening to a thundering Baliem River - David Bain

Barny waiting for his ride - David Bain

 Expedition medic Aldo, helping to ease things over with the locals - Nate Klema

 The happiness of the children in developing nations is infectious and inspiring - David Bain

 Barny and his new found friend, after they spent some time shooting birds - David Bain

In the morning Steve was first to have eaten, pack up and in his gear waiting to go. The rest of the crew slowly went through the paces and were ready for another good day on the river. We started with some continuous class IV with some big holes for dodge. Steve followed me through the rapids and Barny would be on sweep. The lower gorge has impressive walls, coated in thick jungle. We glimpsed a few of the exotic birds and Steve told us all about them. It was actually impressive his knowledge of the flora and fauna of Papua. After 18km of rapids broken up by fast flowing pools, we came to South Gate. This is where the Baliem emerges from the Jayawijaya Mountain and pours into the delta. We paddled maybe 8 km down into the delta to where the first signs of develop in the last 80+km began. Soon we meet with some local banana boat owners who had driven 2 days up river to meet Steve and the crew, and this is where we would be relocated to a small airstrip and then return to Wamena.

 Steve getting ready for some serious whitewater - David Bain

 It was impressive to see Steve push himself on the white-water, pushing 
into the class IV-IV+ realm - David Bain

 More of Steve in action - David Bain

It was funny looking back and seeing this throughout the trip, but making 
TV was paying the bills! - David Bain

Barny and myself looking in dire need of a shower - David Bain

It was a mixture of feelings. We had completed the descent. Well, all of the sections that were possible. In the amount of time available. And we weren't going to be doing the last part of the journey. We had an epic journey with some incredible people, most notably Alexis, Steve, Aldo, Joe, Ingrid and Parker. But I felt, we felt, there was more left in there to be explored. That said, we were thankful for the opportunity to work with Steve and the BBC, to be exposed to the incredible environment that was Papua and felt reinvigorated to get out and explore.

The flight out, a fitting end to what was an epic trip. And a image that will stick with me forever, the late Adrian Kiernan looking out in wonder... what next, where and when? - Nate Klema