Saturday, December 7, 2013

Middle Kings

The Middle Fork of the Kings River in California is the king of expedition kayaking in the lower 48. Guarded by a grueling 12 mile hike over a 12,000 foot pass the river plunges nearly 200 feet per mile for 40 miles, dropping 7000 feet off the spine of the Sierra's. A successful descent of the Middle Kings requires crossing the Sierra's from east to west by foot and then descending the river by boat; starting in lush, quite, alpine meadows and finishing near the central valley in the desert. Entire ecosystems are traversed as the river cuts through the heart of Kings Canyon National Park. As a mountain adventure, it is among the earth's finest.

My first descent of the Middle Kings was in the summer of 2010. It was the realization of months of training, and years of waiting. Matt and Nate Klema, Ben Luck, Xavier Engle and I completed our first trip down the Kings together and it was an unforgettable experience. It was every bit as exhausting, terrifying, beautiful, and rewarding as I'd been hoping it would be.

 The Author, Nate Klema, Xavier Engle, Ben Luck, and Matt Klema. 2010.

I finally made it back this summer, in early June. A quickly dwindling Sierra snow pack sent a bunch of us from Colorado scrambling for California. Eleven of us started the hike the same day, some earlier than others. Due to an unlucky flat tire Jared Johnson, Rolf Kelly, and I got the latest of starts. Instead of hiking in the cool morning air, we sweated under heavy loads in 90 degree heat.

Rolf Kelly, Eager and Fresh, at the Beginning of it All

Hiking with a Kayak

The Top

Dusy Basin

Tyson Titensor

Tyson Titensor and Jason Stingl Approaching the "Edge of the World"

The final part of the trail is the most brutal. Descending over a thousand feet to the headwaters of the Middle Kings the downhill grade is constant and the body is sore and beaten. 

Tyson, Taking a Break.

Water sliding over granite is enough to make any kayaker's heart beat a little faster. But for the kayaker hiking into the Middle Kings, water sliding over granite is inspiration and is beholden with rapture. For a moment the beauty sinks in, excitement and fear ease the fatigue and pain of the hard trail. Its enough for the final push. 

It was late in the evening by the time I arrived at the headwaters of the Kings. Most of the group was still behind me. We made a fire and cooked dinner and folks stumbled into camp after dark. Not everyone made it, four people camped near the trail, and finished the hike in the morning. It was a long day and my body ached. There would be no respite. The Kings doesn't let you recover, it just keeps taking it out of you until you reach the finish line.

Morning at Camp I. Headwaters of the Kings.

Due to travel logistics and a flight that couldn't be missed we split into two groups. The larger group would descend the river in 5 days, the smaller group would descend it in 4. I ended up in the smaller group. 

The crew....
Brad Higgenbotham

Jason Stingl

Tyson Titensor

Rolf Kelly

The Author

Descending the Middle Kings in 4 days is doable but its a tall order. It was the schedule on my last trip; but we'd gotten an earlier start, had finished the hike faster, and had camped a long ways downstream of the headwaters the first night. We were way behind schedule.

The Kings is Small Where You Start. Rolf and Brad Get Ready to Start Kayaking.

R Kelly

Water Sliding Over Granite, and You Are Sliding With It. R Kelly Gets in the Groove.

Stunning Alpine Scenery In the Upper Reaches of the Kings

The calm water through alpine meadows doesn't last for long. Soon we were making our way into the bigger rapids. The previous day, hiking over Bishop Pass, there seemed to be more snow than usual. Now there seemed to be more water than usual. 

Lunch in the Sun

Shortly after lunch we arrived at one of the signature rapids of the Kings, "Money Drop." Rolf and I elected to go first so we could shoot photos from the bottom.

Tyson in the Middle of "Money Drop"

I paddled off the top ledge, landed and made the move to the left above the big slide. I tried to throw my weight forward but didn't quite make it - the force of the water at the bottom of the slide threw me backwards and pushed my boat underneath me. High velocities are involved with slides this big and its unclear exactly what happened but I felt a sharp pain in my side as I landed and flipped over. Rolling up I knew something didn't feel right.

Stingl, Resurfacing

My fears were confirmed when I got back in my boat and took a few paddle strokes. Every left stroke was accompanied with sharp pain in my lower ribs. The pain caused me to protect my left side which decreased my power on that side. The water was definitely higher than anyone had seen, and required powerful strokes. The day changed for me. The excitement of the morning was gone, I was tired and injured. Making it through rapids into eddies turned into a real struggle. 


Further downstream we spotted a river wide log. Jason scouted ahead and declared that we should portage. I wanted to get to camp in order to rest my injured side so I started portaging first, climbing up onto steep granite slabs covered with loose rock. It was a precarious portage and I inadvertently stepped on a loose rock. When it moved it pitched my weight forward - forcing me to step onto a much bigger rock. When that rock gave way I fell; dropping my boat and camera, and plummeting 15 feet into the river with a shower of loose rock surrounding me. Rolf grabbed me as I slid into the river and prevented a swim into a sticky hole, but my boat and camera fell straight into said hole and got stuck. I sat there for a moment, catching my breath, slowly comprehending that everything I needed was in my kayak, going end over end in the hole.

The day had unraveled suddenly. Two hours earlier I had been lounging in the sun, eating lunch marveling at the stunning mountain scenery. Now I was battered and beaten; injured and on the shore with no boat or camping equipment. Things can spiral out of control quickly on the Kings. 

Luckily, I was relatively unscathed from the incident, minus a few scrapes and bruises. After a few excruciatingly long moments my camera washed close enough to shore that we were able to grab it. We debated options for getting the boat but before we put any of our plans into action it too washed close enough to the shore to grab. Further examination of the log showed a route through at river level. I climbed in my boat; battered, sore and humbled.

We moved downstream with caution, acutely aware of the consequences of mistakes. The water was high and the rapids were powerful. Things we'd run easily on previous trips were powerful and dangerous. Classic sections of the river, such as the waterfall gorge, were too dangerous to risk. Decisions to portage were easy for me in my injured state but soon the rest of the group was following suit.

The Waterfall Gorge, Left for Next Time

Stingl Riding a Sneak Switch

The Kings never lets up and we made our way to the lip of the Confluence Slide (aka Devil's washbowl) with caution. It was nearly evening when we arrived. This is usually one of the rapids you look forward to on the Kings but with the added water it was a monster.

Tyson, high on the miles of class V we'd negotiated, went first.

Tyson, Facing the Wrong Direction

Rolf was eager to follow and pulled the same move, riding the bottom of the slide backwards. Only a real battle ensued as he fought his way out of the landing. 


Brad was next and had a similar outcome. Stingl and I decided the safety of camp was a worthy enough goal and made our way to the eddy at the lip of the slide and called it a day.


The safety of camp, fought for all day, was elusive. My side ached, and my thoughts were clouded by the events of the day. I was shaken. I joined in the banter but brooded more often than joked. I gulped down ibuprofen and jumped in my sleeping bag, hopeful that the pain would ease after a nights rest.

We got an early start the next morning and in the midst of the first rapid I planted a deep left stroke and cried out as the pain shot across my side. I gritted my teeth and forced back thoughts of hiking out.

Not far downstream we scouted one of the most classic sections of river. It was too high to run. Disappointed, we shouldered our boats and hiked down the trail for the rest of the morning, walking past miles of classic whitewater.

The Classic Shot of the Kings, Sans Kayaker

Skies clouded over as we finally got on the water and paddled downstream. After warming up, miraculously, the pain in my side was tolerable. A big wave of relief washed over me. I started leading the charge into rapids, hopeful that my trepidation the day before was all for naught.

Brad Tries to Warm Up at Lunch

The cloudy skies dropped the temperature and the cold water chilled me. We took a lunch break above the "Middle Four" - the continuous 4 miles of boulder gardens above Tehipite Dome and tried warm up. Usually the "Middle Four" is paddled in a short day, so that you can rest before the hardest part of the journey - the "Bottom Nine." We were going to be lucky to make it to Tehipite Dome before nightfall. We had a long ways to go.

This was a hard trip to shoot. Our pressing need to make progress on the river meant I had to constantly give up opportunities for good shots. Things really got lost in the mix on this day and I came away with few photos. We were under a lot of pressure to make it to Tehipite Dome.

The Big Bad Hairy Beaver Slide From Below

Boat Repair on the Fly

Some where in the midst of the afternoon Tyson broke his boat. We lost more time patching it up.

We made it to Tehipite Camp that night but just barely. It was nearly dark when we arrived. It was one of the longest days I've ever spent in my boat. We warmed ourselves by the fire but the laughter was sporadic and the silences were long. I was completely shattered. At one point Rolf made a comment about how cool it would be to kayak in and climb Tehipite Dome. I suddenly realized I wanted nothing to do with kayaking. The thought of getting in my boat the next morning made me nauseous. I wanted a couch, a nice comfy couch to lay around in. It takes a lot to get me to that point.

Years ago I read a blog-post about the Kings that summed it up pretty well. Unfortunately I cannot find said post to credit the author. It went something like this, "The Kings is like a really good cheesecake, blended up in a blender, and shot with a fire-hose into you mouth. But while your drinking this fire-hose of goodness there is a man with a shotgun pointed at your head ready to blow your head off if you spill a drop. Want anymore cheesecake?" 

Morning At Tehipite Camp

The skies were clear I woke up and the views were magnificent. Tehipite valley is a stunning place. Tehipite dome soared over our heads and enormous granite walls surrounded us. Its like Yosemite Valley, only no roads or crowds. My body ached but the new day gave me energy. We built a fire, ate a quick breakfast, and packed our boats. Mentally preparing ourselves for the crux of the adventure, the "Bottom Nine."

Tehipite Dome In the Morning Light

The "Bottom Nine" is a veritable gauntlet of whitewater, nine miles of steep unrelenting boulder gardens. The Kings never lets up, but in the "Bottom Nine" it really lets loose. We headed downstream with trepidation, nervous about the high water and what it would mean downstream.

Rolf and Brad Enjoy the Calm Before the Storm

R Kelly

Pretty soon we were in the thick of it. Portaging big rapids and running big class V in-between portages. The "Bottom Nine" is committing, scary, exciting, and doesn't leave room for error. 


Tyson Paddling Into a Memorable Corridor

The Stunning Scenery Continues


More Boat Fixing

R Kelly in the Midst of It

Usually while paddling a difficult run the fear ebbs and flows. I get nervous above the big ones and relax in between. On the Kings however, your adrenaline receptors become saturated, and you reach a unique nirvana. Fear turns into an omnipresent focus and awareness, and the emotional ups and downs level out. You become desensitized to big whitewater. Its almost as if you are removed from the situation. Adrenaline glands totally blown, you calculate your moves and you commit to them quickly. What you run and how you run it becomes unimportant, the goal is to make it downstream, however possible. It's expedition paddling at its finest.




Our progress was slowed by the high water but things went smoothly until the late afternoon. Rolf paddled into a slot that looked clean from above but was filled with rocks. He called for Tyson to run it further left, but Tyson flipped and rolled up looking scared. They signaled for me to go further left and I made an attempt but was blocked by a rock - went into the slot and flipped - raking my hand across a rock at some point and ripping pieces of flesh off my thumb and fingers. I rolled up at the bottom and we signaled for Jason and Brad to portage. A communication breakdown occurred and despite our frantic waving Brad and Jason paddled into the slot, Jason flipping and swimming. We got him to shore but his boat was gone. Everything disintegrated within a few minutes.

About a half an hour later we spotted Jason's boat stuck against a wall on the opposite side of the river. It took us over an hour to get it but the retrieval mission was successful. Jason was immensely relieved to see his sleeping bag before nightfall.

We were nearly out of day light by the time we were finished with the boat retrieval. We paddled a few more rapids and found a place to camp. 

Our Company at Camp

Bottom Nine Camp

I Need to Send this Shot Into the Nevada Tourism Board 

The next morning we were up early again. The long days were taking their toll, and my body ached. We had almost made it through the "Bottom Nine" the day before but not quite, it took us a couple of hours to make the confluence of the South Fork. 

Confluence of the South Fork and Middle Fork Kings River

The Middle Kings technically ends at the confluence of the South Fork but more beautiful class V whitewater follows in the Garlic Falls Section below. Despite the miles of class V we'd already run and our aching bodies the rapids still plastered huge smiles on our faces. 

Tyson Paddling By Garlic Falls

Rolf and Tyson

Brad "Lawrence of Arabia" Higgenbotham

Expedition paddling creates a unique bond between those who participate in it. Rapid after rapid must be run with only verbal directions, trust has to be implicit. I've sat with trepidation above big rapids on the Kings and paddled into them, because it was my turn to take the sharp end. And I've been relieved many more times when a teammate takes over and paddles into one I've waited for too long above. 

The Middle Kings is the trip of a lifetime. There are few runs that can compare. Its humbling, scary, difficult, and painful. At times it takes everything from you. When it does, its a smile and a laugh from a teammate that inspires you to keep going. Risk deepens the bonds between those who choose to endeavor in it together. 

Brad made his flight. And I made it to the couch. I've never been so destroyed from a kayaking trip, it took me weeks to fully recover. I got a horrible cold and my girlfriend, Lina, commented that she'd never seen me lay around so much. The body was slow to heal but the mind wasn't. After a couple days when I closed my eyes I was back in the "Bottom Nine" taking the proverbial "sharp end of the rope" into a big set of rapids with no end in sight. And, like last time, I found myself pondering the eternal question of the Kings, "Will I have another chance to go back?"


  1. great photography. Thanks for sharing.

  2. The question is..."Would you like some cheesecake?" Love it!

  3. Sick as ever, Oliver. The cheesecake analogy is from multisport hellman Willy Pell. -Louis G