It’s 3am UK time and I’ve had little-to-no sleep since I left. However I am in Irkutsk and Vasiliy is telling me (in what he calls Monkey English) that my journey begins now.
So I try to assemble all the things I might need for a 10 day expedition on the Kitoy River, where we shall be hundreds of kilometres from any notable civilisation and surrounded by mountains.
Fortunately for me, a couple of the 9 Russians on this trip have a fairly good grasp of the English language. This makes it possible for Vasiliy and me to improve our understanding of each others’ languages without too much frustration.
So after only a couple of hours of class I/II (Thank God!) we make it to our first camp and, while our food supplies for the trip get divided between everyone, I am able to brush-up on some basic Russian. Nye Prosto.
That night, before I pass out from exhaustion, I am handed a cup of Vodka and a piece of raw onion. Drink the Vodka then eat the onion… Like a Tequila slammer I guess, but more oniony.
Day 3 and I was all geared up and ready to film 9 indiscriminate Russians toss themselves down the first class V of the trip when Vasiliy says, “Come Max. We go now”. At this stage, I have not developed the linguistic skills to refuse, so off we go.
The rapid is short, not too dangerous but pretty hard to nail. However, after a quick natter about the line, we both get it spot on, chicaning around the cushions and holes that lie in wait.
Now it’s into the main gorge section. There may have been some chatter but I missed it and all the Russians pile over a horizon-line leaving me a little bemused. So I follow anyway, making my best guess at what the pour-over will look like and which direction to aim my boof… I am mistaken but fortunately I am in the mood for a little freestyle and am able to work my way clear to the whooping of many cheery Russian kayakers in the eddy below.
Every day the trip seems to get progressively harder. Today we seem to spend a lot of time paddling a fairly continuous class IV gorge. Water levels are high and the enormous amount of equipment is making kayaking feel a little more like raft guiding, with technical decisions being made much earlier than usual.
But I’m used to it now and, having moved my seat forward and mastered the art of using Russians as hole-bait, I’m even enjoying the extra challenge.
Then we reach the main gorge. Most of it (class IV+) can be paddled. However we must first portage a big class VI section that could not be inspected or portaged once inside the canyon.
In the evenings I attempt to brush up on my Russian… even if everything I say is still a sort of comedy show for everyone else.
Getting naked on this trip seems to be something of a daily ritual but well worth it after hours of hiking through wilderness… It turns out my mosquito spray is some kind of horse-fly aphrodisiac. Not impressed!
I’ve never really tried fishing before so I was quite keen to have a go. I find it interesting that fish always look so surprised when they are caught.
Vasiliy leaves me on my own and I catch the biggest fish of the day. But what do I do with it now? After some gruesome amateur fish wrestling, Vasiliy is there to show me how to gut it, skin it and eat it raw. The fish was flabbergasted.
Later that night, someone hands me a cup of Vodka and a raw fish. It’s a bit like a Tequila Slammer… only more fishy.
This trip involves running two tributaries of the Kitoy, both of which involve a hike up to the put-on. The first of these tributaries, The Ehe-Gol, has some good class III/IV technical creeking which culminates (just below our camp) in the following…
A 16 metre high waterfall that is not for the faint hearted, especially considering just how far we are from any form of civilization.
So with that out the way, it’s off – via some awesome class IV/IV+ Kitoy big volume canyon paddling – to our next camp for a big meal and some rest… Because we all know what’s coming.
Later that night, someone hands me a cup of Vodka and a cube of raw pig fat. It’s a bit like a Tequila Slammer but less lemony and more… chewy.
In order to paddle the second trib – The Beluty – we must spend one day off the river… off the river and hiking through wilderness with our kayaks (and kit for 2 days camping) on our backs.
For over 10 km, we hiked up and down the valley’s side, through the trees, guided only by Vasiliy’s GPS system.
Towards the end, it was necessary to cross a steep tributary, making a rope bridge for out kayaks (above).
The next day is not much easier; hiking almost the same distance as again, now only with kayaking kit, we head to the put-in for the Beluty.
This beautiful section of class IV/IV+ creeking takes us all the way back down to our current base camp.
Amazingly there was only one real portage on the entire section.We stop for the night at our camp and the following day head on down the Beluty to rejoin the Kitoy.
The day kicks off with a 12 metre waterfall that is similar (if slightly cleaner) to Norway’s ‘Nose Breaker’ fall in Voss (as featured in Means of Production).
It’s so much fun that we spend a good hour here practicing out big-drop boofing technique; much fun.
This was followed but a few more waterfalls, the last of which being the most difficult move of the day: A ‘double drop’ that, after watching Vasiliy and me take dreadful lines, the rest of out team decided to portage.
The last night included a well-earned sauna and night in a wood hut… luxury!
But possibly the highlight of the trip for me: Sitting naked in a sauna with my new comrades, attempting (with little success) to explain to Vasiliy the meaning of ‘homoerotic’ whilst Kostya vigorously slaps his back with a leafy branch.
As usual, I had missed a lot of the finer logistical details and was expecting a short bumpy ride to the main road, followed by another short ride to Irkutsk.
Nope. 12 hours of disused track and off-road driving that would make even the most hardened Ugandan boda-boda driver tut in disapproval.
And now? After 2 days on the inter-Siberia express (a surprisingly agreeable and sociable train journey) I am sitting in Vasiliy’s house in Novosibirsk, waiting for our boats to arrive by train so we can head out tomorrow and start running the gnar of Russia’s Altai rivers.
For anyone considering a trip to Russia, I’d strongly suggest you consider travelling with Kayak USSR. Take a look at their website and, if you have any questions about my experience, drop me a line!
You can also check out some of these rivers on their latest film: Empire.
P.S. Don’t forget to check out the latest updates to the British Universities Kayak Expedition in Vietnam: www.kayaknam.com.
Photos by: Alexey Markushev, Ivan Kozlachkov, Sasha Steklov, Kostya Lubyagin and Artem Palvelev.