It will always be an ongoing debate, to paddle soul-o or not paddle at all. Nouria Newman soloed a massive river in northern India starting with the Tsarap river then flowing into the Indus, over a 375 km and week long span. Let’s not forget other kayakers who have completed huge solo trips, Aniol Serrasolses, another Red Bull athlete, completed possibly the highest descent of the Stikine, solo, just last year.
What happened to Nouria, that didn’t happen to Aniol on the Stikine, is she found herself stuffed into a sieve, on the side of the river and swam, with all of her gear and her drybag still on the shore, whilst she struggled through the sieve and down the frigid rapids.
Once a kayaker reaches a certain caliber, there are other steps they can take to make the same sport more difficult. For many of us, that includes running rivers on our own. I rarely solo paddle down my home run, the Green River, but I had one of the most powerful moments of my life while out there, completely alone. It was shortly after my best friend Shannon Christy died and I needed to get on the water but was feeling like I needed to be alone, to process. I put on the Green, telling my boyfriend that I was solo and he knew what to do if he didn’t hear from me. I happily slid into the river and floated downstream. I was hypersensitive about my lines, when you are alone there is no room for error, even a small mistake could wreak havoc. I was in my groove, I styled Go Left and came floating into Gorilla. (Sidenote: I have a history of running Gorilla backwards when I am solo so I usually walk it.) But this day I was feeling good. I paddled towards the drop above the Notch. Suddenly, I was watching myself kayak from the portage rock on river left. I watched myself clean the middle line at Pencil Sharpener and paddle perfectly into the Notch, taking that last stroke to ensure I would go direct, past the Notch Eddy. When I made the left hand turn (yes, there is a 90 degree turn in there) and disappeared from the portage rock view, I came back to myself and paddled off the pad of Gorilla with ease. I landed in the eddy through Speed Trap and immediately looked upstream. I was thoroughly alone but I had a definite feeling that I was being watched, and cared for. I felt light, happy, for the first time since Shannons’ death. I stared, for minutes, at the portage rock, wishing to see her just walk up the rock towards me. I cried, a lot. I’m pretty sure gallons came out of my eyes, I wailed, at the top of my lungs, with so much emotion I can’t put it into words. I was angry, I was full, I was sad, I was at peace. I had so many feelings that day. Paddling down the rest of the river, all I could decipher was that Shannon was there with me. I wish, hope, and pray, that feeling would come back, those seconds of being in her head, seeing the World through her eyes, I’m forever looking for it.
There is no way that I would ever have an experience like that while on the river with a group of people. The feeling of being hyper aware while running class 4 or 5 alone is like nothing else. Every move you make matters because your life depends on it. Nouria is one of the best kayakers in the World and she should be commended for what she accomplished but at the same time I know she learned from her mistakes and is thankful to be alive. She knows she should have scouted, she knows she got lucky. Have a listen to her interview on the Hammer Factor in August.
Every person runs rivers in their own way. As I have gotten older and lost countless friends to this sport, I have become more aware of river changes and blind rapids. I scout a rapid if I can’t see the bottom is clear both of wood and potential pin rocks. It only takes a second to pop (not poop) your skirt and check it out, it could save your life. I do not advocate for paddling soul-o but I do it, on a semi-regular basis. You learn a lot about yourself in the midst of rapids while water is hitting your face and you are making must finish moves. But, it has taken me 25 years of kayaking to get to this point and my skills, along with most other pro-kayakers, should speak for themselves. The amount of training and mental capacity it takes to put on a new river in northern India and soul-o decent it in 7 days is unequaled to almost anything. Nouria may as well had been Alex Honnold starting his ascent of El Capitan.