Due to the fact that none of us spoke Russian and we were all working full time in the lead up to the trip we thought it easier to book on with Two Blades Adventures rather than organise all the logistics ourselves. Whilst this led to a different on-water dynamic than most of us were used to it did mean that we fully maximised our time out there and got to follow world-class paddlers Tomas, Egor and Alona down the classic runs of the area thus saving lots of time in scouting as they knew all the lines!
This could possibly be the best big-water day run on the planet! The Upper Chuya involves around 1 ½ hours of almost non-stop big water rapids that get steadily more challenging until you are zig-zagging side to side trying to avoid giant pourovers and rather sticky holes. If you don’t manage to avoid them the holes can dish out quite a beating (I nearly got pulled out of my boat) and offer a great introduction to the style of boating in the Altai Region.
Our first multiday was to be a three-river epic running the glacial Karagem river into the beautiful yet challenging Argut then finally running out on the Katun, a popular rafting river. Getting to the put-in was an incredible adventure in itself and thoroughly impressed on us that UAZ ‘Buhankas’ are the best vehicles in the world. A 5km walk-in lead us to a beautiful meadow, apparently a secret-service training site back in the Soviet times with a hunting hut where we camped for the night and celebrated Dave and Ben’s birthday with a fine bottle of 3 pound vodka around the fire. The next morning I was given a lovely hand-made birthday card (thanks Niamh) and ‘cake’ before putting on the very cold Karagem river. I disagree with Ben’s description of the Karagem as ‘a chossy ditch’ thinking it was great fun fast flowing boulder dodging that slowly ramped up in volume as you descended. The most fun rapids were towards the end where the waves got bigger and it became a little easier to manoeuver fully-loaded boats. The Karagem took up most of the first day and we stopped for a late lunch just before the confluence of the Argut. This river didn’t really show its character over the first few hours lulling us in to a false sense of security with wide open easy rapids but impressive volume. We camped above the beginning of the harder section and settled down for Ben’s favourite dish of buckwheat accompanied by cow in a can.
The next multi-day on the list was the Chulishman and this involved packing up and leaving our base at the Chuya and driving a few hours to camp at the Bashkaus. An evening run down the Upper Bashkaus offered a chiller, less stressful paddle than we’d become accustomed to and was very enjoyable…we even spotted a bear! The next day we boarded a monster truck as we were assured that it was the only vehicle around capable of making it to the put-in, 5 hrs later we were no longer doubting this and de-bussed ready to put on the Yazula canyon, at above average flows…story of the trip! The Yazula canyon offered every form of excitement from pushy rapids to scary portages and sticky holes. Niamh took one for the team and kindly knocked me out of one of these stoppers only to get surfed herself leaving me feeling a little guilty and her rather wet. It was a long afternoon on the water after the big drive and we never even had lunch yet the drama wasn’t quite over. The Americans had decided to walk out of the canyon due to the stresses of the day and we agreed to meet at the alternative put-on for the Chulishman below the canyon stretch. Whilst waiting for them it was beginning to get dark and we were looking at the possibility of camping at this access point. The Russians however were very reluctant to do this however, as there is history of tourists being shot at this spot by drunken locals on horseback! Luckily the Americans arrived in time for us to jump on and cruise downstream for half an hour to find a safer camp-spot in the river-side woods.
We were already aware from the rivers we’d already paddled that levels in the area were relatively high. It is quite difficult to accurately judge the level of the Bashkaus from the put-on and it is not until it gorges up that you get a true idea of the river level. The beginning of the book of legends section begins with windy grade 2 shingle rapids offering a pleasant paddle towards the entrance to the gorge. Once the walls steepen things quickly get more serious and the first real rapid is a good indication of what awaits in the gorge. After this rapid we quickly arrived at the campsite high up on river left a little apprehensive of what awaited the next day. When questioned as to exactly how high the river was our guides divulged that one had never paddled it this high whilst the other had but only once, with the adidas sickline team! We cooked another meal of mystery meat in a tin + carbs and settled down under the tarp for a nervous night’s sleep.