The Upper Gorge of the Rio Toro Amarillo
I had just begun my first season in Costa Rica as a video kayaker for Costa Rica Rios, the premier kayak guiding company based out of Turrialba. Upon the insistence of my new employers Jane and Fraser we had been sent to scout out new, more challenging runs that would be suitable for our more advanced clientele. We had a short list of class IV/IV+ rivers to explore in the Pacuare and Sarapiqui drainages. One section that we found to be particularly exciting was the previously un-run Upper Gorge of the Rio Toro Amarillo. Due to its remoteness and inaccessibility, the upper reaches of this river were left forgotten to the paddling community of Costa Rica.
Jane had offered to run our shuttle and we rumbled along the muddy wet roads through cow pastures and banana trees bouncing and swaying to the last meter of navigable path. The road dropped down into a creek bed and veered off to another parallel drainage, “We should stop here and hike in.” Danny our head guide said. Danny had been a river guide in Costa Rica for years on the Pacuare, Sarapiqui, and Reventazon rivers to name a few. Even with all of his experience he had never been on this run and was uncertain of what to expect. Our logistical information consisted of a Google Earth satellite image and very brief description in the Chasing Jaguars guidebook. We had every reason to believe that we would be paddling a few extra miles of Class IV whitewater in addition to the previously run lower section of the Toro Amarillo. The rain had been falling off and on all morning but increased in intensity when the truck came to a stop. Just when it is time to change into our gear it starts pouring I thought, never fails… Danny pulled me aside to show me our satellite image and the proposed route of access. Made sense to me, we will just walk upstream and find a new put in. I hadn’t inquired much about the run or its characteristic’s I knew we were paddling class IV and didn’t care to learn more about it. I enjoy a good surprise every once in a while and the Toro Amarillo wouldn’t disappoint.
We changed in a hurry as the cold drizzle turned into a steady downpour, and set out through a muddy cow pasture towards the rivers direction. Our feet sank through the murky soil and made a sucking sound with each step threating to swallow our river booties. The dense grass stood at eye level and all I could see were the multicolored line of kayaks in front of me, Stef, Davis, Danny and myself picked our way slowly to the edge of the pasture into the dark Costa Rican Jungle. The path came to an abrupt end as the plateau we stood upon plunged dramatically down into the River Gorge with no path down in site. We could see the river raging a few thousand feet below us. Finding the access would prove more difficult than we thought. After pursuing a number of dead ends we decided to continue along a machete hacked jungle path upstream in hopes of finding a way down. We trekked along for almost an hour through dense jungle, deep mud, tangled vines and the sound of rain with its ever-increasing intensity. The warnings of fellow boaters on the dangers of Tropical Rivers echoed in my head: No one explores new rivers in Costa Rica, there are too many poisonous snakes, more than anywhere else in the world. Don’t put on during a heavy rainstorm the rivers can flash flood without warning. If Danny, Davis, or Stef had the same apprehensions, they certainly weren’t vocalizing them.
Finally after a long grueling Jungle trek we found a “pathway” into the gorge. It was a near vertical incline that followed a tiny creek straight down. It looked like someone had kicked steps into the soft earth, and was our best option for descent. The tiny creek was swollen to its banks with muddy brown water. I imagined thousands of other little tributaries doing the same as I slowly kicked my heels into the mud to make purchase on the 45-degree slope. My old sneakers were well past retirement and reminded me of this by tearing in half. My feet poked out through the heals and toes making them look like some kind of hobo clown shoe. I turned back to Stef, “Is this a bad time to say that I think this is a bad idea?” There was no way we would be able to take clients into something this remote, my legs and arms were already tired and lactic from wrestling my heavy kayak through the near impassible jungle plant life. Stef shrugged the comment aside, trying not to let the doubt creep into her own mind. At this point the only way was down and we were going to run this for ourselves whether it was commercially viable or not.
The slope leveled out halfway into the gorge the rain hammered into the thick canopy above us, creating an acoustic dome around us. “Look up there.” Danny pointed at the tree tops, “Tiki monkeys, this is a good sign.” I wasn’t in the mood for local superstitions, but I noticed a corrugated iron roof. It was a squatters hut. Someone had been living here out of site from any civilization and we had him or her to thank for the narrow trail leading to this flat area. On every side was a vertical cliff leading down the bottom of the gorge. “We will have to repel the rest of the way.” Danny said. Stef had a 11mm rope suitable for repelling and we doubled it around a tree and dropped it to the bottom. Danny went first, and without repelling or taking any safety precaution began climbing the slender rope down the loose muddy cliff side. Christ who are these people I thought. It had been only my second time paddling with them and I immediately was questioning their sanity. “You may want to tie in!” said Danny breathing heavily from his sketchy down-climb. Yeah no shit! I thought. The rest of us lowered boats and gear and turned our Astral PFDs upside down, put our legs through the arm straps and clipped the rope into the anchor point in the PFD. It made for and extremely comfortable harness. I went last, tying a munter hitch into the rope and kicked myself away from the cliff and letting the rope slide through my hand and harness as I repelled down the thirty foot cliff to the bottom. From there we stood on a bench just fifteen feet above the riverbed. We were standing at the high water line and the river raged below us a muddy yellow brown color.
Upstream and downstream of where we stood, were the vertical basalt walls of the canyon. We just happened to arrive at a spot that would allow us to access the river. The riverbed consisted of threaded boulder choked channels too tight to run upstream of us. Just downstream the channels came together into a slot and continued out of site into a box canyon, the opening in the Jungle canopy allowed the heavy rain to fall unhindered, reminding me how much trouble we could potentially be in. A box canyon with no way out… this is absolutely the worst possible place we could be in the event of a flash flood. Oh well at least it’s class IV. We can just bomb down the few miles to the bridge.
When we saw the first rapid my attitude changed. The river channeled into an un-runnable drop choked with wood and ending in a terminal hole. Danny and Davis scouted the drop trying to find a line. I saw mine immediately along the left bank and shouldered my boat across the slippery boulders. I was already out of breath my arms and legs exhausted and lactic from the arduous trek in. “This is why I exercise.” Said Davis, an endurance athlete and competitive paddler. He showed no signs of wear and tear. Exercise… that’s what should have been doing last month instead of sitting on my ass, maybe then I would be feeling prepared for this. Our entire group decided to portage and seal launched into the river just below the class VI rapid.
The next rapid looked manageable; a right to left move through a boulder garden with boofs over a few holes. A fun class IV which is exactly what I was expecting. I pointed the line to the group and warned them of wood that I could see just downstream. Hopefully we wouldn’t have too much wood to contend with. We began working our way downstream through long continuous boulder strewn rapids that never let up. The nature of the run consisted of, continuous class IV whitewater, with fun boofs and holes just sticky enough to make things interesting. As we worked our way downstream swollen tributaries discharged their muddy contents into the river adding to its volume and intensity. The continuous class IV grew to continuous class IV+.
Despite the increasing difficulty I was still having a blast, it was non-stop boofing, endless horizon lines, relentless whitewater. All in all, it was just pure kayaking all the way. The river began to channel to the right and dropped out of site. I caught an eddy to look and Davis caught the eddy just below me. “I’m going to drop in!” I shouted and peeled out into the obvious line into the right hand channel expecting a clean run out. The river plunged into an abrupt blind double drop ending in a sticky terminal hole blocked in on either side by huge boulders making a V-shaped notch. I took my boof stroke too early on the first part of the drop tried to reach forward to get another stroke in. OH SHIT! I took the stroke too early and my bow dove into the hole, my stern caught and back endered me into the air. I came down hard on the right side of the V shaped rock and flipped against the wall. I took a few desperate and feeble attempts to roll but the wall kept me from coming up. I went back under and tried to grab the rock to pull myself up. The eddy surged and slammed my head and hands into the rock wall. I braced my head into the wall for a brief second of much needed air as the hole grabbed me and pulled me back in for a solid beat down. There is no way out of is! I am going to swim! Already starved for air I had no fight left in me. I brought my knees up and pushed through the implosion bar and rolled out of the boat. I began kicking for the surface but the aerated water wouldn’t let me float up, I balled up and let the current kick me down deep under the hydraulic. I came up finally gasping for air in the only calm spot on the entire river. Stef came through the rapid just as my boat was exiting the hole. She pushed the boat towards me as I climbed onto a rock to catch my breath. That was my first swim since 2001, 11 years… I had this coming for a long time. The rest of the group made it through and gave me a chance to catch my breath.
After my swim the river changed in characteristic. The rapids longer and more relentless, the gradient steeper, the holes stickier and the volume was ever increasing with the torrential downpour. This was getting real, we were no longer playing on a class IV creek, we were stuck in a grueling non stop class V run and the only way out was down stream. If I was tired when we put on, then I was completely fatigued now and I had to find the strength to maintain the endless battle through the steep blind boulder choked rapids of Toro Amarillo. The Yellow Bull, was aptly named in both color and character, and we would need to put our game faces on to fight our way down this intense class V run.
Our group stayed tight with Davis in the lead and myself in sweep, we worked our way downstream without a word. Glancing back to each other when we had a chance to look away, and catching eddies to catch our breath. My breathing was labored and the river proved just how out of shape I was, I had never before experienced a run so demanding of cardiovascular stamina. Our entire group was thinking the same thing but no one wanted to say it. Danny had the subdued half smile of an experienced guide who never showed his fear. Stef had a general pissed off war face expression, and Davis seemed generally unconcerned with the environment he was in. Must be nice be in top physical condition during trying times such as these.
The river never let up and gradually got steeper as every member of our group had a close call getting worked in a sticky hole. I had another epic surf myself with a few window shades and a cartwheel before I was kicked out laughing. After the beating I had received the only thing I could do was laugh. Finally the river leveled out enough for a brief moment of respite and an Iron bridge appeared on the horizon. “We made it,” said Danny.
“Thank god, I am so spent.” I replied.
We dragged ourselves to shore and called Jane to pick us up. The water had risen significantly from the first time we had driven across this bridge on our way to put-in. Danny and Davis continued downstream to the lower take out to see if the rest of the run would be suitable for clients. Halfway down Davis dropped into a massive hole for the surf of his life, and was let go after a long fight. Jane picked up Stef and myself went to the lower bridge to pick up Danny and Davis. What a day, every paddler agreed that this was one of the most demanding runs we had ever done. From the jungle trek in, to the repel, and the relentless whitewater to follow. The Rio Toro Amarillo is sure to test the skills of any paddler. I highly recommend this run to any class V boater looking for a real whitewater adventure in the rainforest of Costa Rica. The Rio Toro Amarillo will not disappoint.