A 10-Day Paddle Through Pakistan’s Gnarliest Gorge

23 Jun

Photo Gallery: A 10-Day Paddle Through Pakistan’s Gnarliest Gorge

Since the 1950s, paddlers from all over the world have traveled into northeastern Pakistan to descend the Indus River’s Rondu Gorge. With every team and attempted trip, the burly canyon section’s reputation has grown—continuous Class V for more than a week. This winter, paddlers Mike Dawson, Aniol Serrasolses, and Ciarán Heurteau set off for a ten-day trip to add their names to the history books of Pakistan’s largest river.

Dawson: The river was filled with huge features almost the whole way on our route between the northern towns of Skardu and Gilgit. With such sustained high-level paddling, the days were totally draining for both mind and body.
This rapid is called Malopa. An unstable road traverses high up the gorge wall, and bodies of cars and signs of tragedy litter the roadside. For us, it signaled the start of the Rondu Gorge and days of steeper gradients and bigger water.
The fast-flowing current in the center of the river is a dangerous place that quickly drags you into the next rapid. A mistake can be serious.
The sun disappears behind the gigantic ridgelines of the Indus as paddler Aniol Serrasolses sends one final rapid. In search of the right flows that would allow us to pass all the way through the gorge, we were on the river in December, with winter flows around 20,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). The river can expand to 700,000 cfs with snowmelt in the spring.
Local knowledge is key to any descent, and our guides, Taju and Dildar, lead from the front, following along on roads that were typically 500 meters above the river.
Despite the remoteness of the Indus, we were able to climb out of the canyon every night to eat and sleep in tiny restaurants and truck stops. The wood-fired breads were a favorite.
The roads in northern Pakistan are infamous for good reason: massive exposure, poor upkeep, and rarely wide enough for all four wheels. While we were navigating the river, our guides were experiencing similar struggles high up the canyon walls.
What struck us most about the Indus was its relentlessness. Around every corner was another massive Class V rapid. Sometimes you had to be creative to find a line amid the chaos.
Near the 60-mile mark on the seventh day, I took a bad swim into a giant ledge hole. After what felt like a lifetime underwater, I managed to break free and swim to safety. It was the only reminder I needed of the river’s power.
We felt small in the Rondu Gorge, surrounded by 26,000-foot peaks.
The river narrowed on several occasions into tight canyons, where everything was magnified. The river was louder, the rapid more complex, and any mistake was life-threatening. Here, paddler Aniol Serrasolses launched into another monster.
Filmmaker Ciarán Heurteau gets the shot from a towering boulder on the river somewhere close to the middle of our paddle between Skardu and Gilgit.
Serrasolses stands frozen in awe while scouting over a section of must-run rapids on the Indus. To be swept into the main channel here would be catastrophic. All of us were able to avoid it.
A rare opening in the gorge gave way to a view of the magnificent 24,000-foot Haramosh.
To illustrate the scale of the Indus is almost impossible. Some of the rapids we deemed impassable, and we were forced to walk around with our boats among house-sized boulders that had been there for millennia.
Dusk approached as we paddled the final 20 kilometers the take-out on day ten. Finally, the gorge opened up, and Nanga Parbat shadowed us in the distance. Elation briefly subdued ten days of exhaustion as we searched for a way to the road in the engulfing darkness. Boats dropped in the dust, and we collapsed by the van. Mission complete.