Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival: Alone on the River delivers weeks of extreme Himalayan kayaking


High in the upper Dolpo area in western Nepal, by the border with Tibet, lies the source of the Langu Khola, a tributary of the Karnali River.


At first nothing more than a few rivulets of snowmelt and glacial runoff more than 4,100 metres above sea level, the tiny creeks join and the resulting stream starts to work its way through steep, narrow canyons and boulder fields until it becomes a foaming torrent.

Hundreds of kilometres later—after merging with other waterways and swelling immensely in depth and width—it finally flattens out and reaches the jungled shorelines of the Nepal-India border.

In other words, an irresistible lure for whitewater adventurers.

Alone on the River, a short (36 minutes) documentary about a five-man international kayaking expedtion that took on the Langu in 2012 (only the second such voyage), represents a novel vantage point from which to look at this remote area in the heart of the Himalayas.

Most films about this lofty part of the world focus on trekking or mountaineering, activities that traverse a relatively small amount of territory. Here, the kayakers hiked in for nine days through numerous mountain passes (with the help of a team of local porters) with altitudes of up to 5,500 metres, endured subfreezing temperatures and high-altitude sickness, then found the Langu’s source low and frozen over when they finally arrived at their put-in.

After more hiking and waiting for the sun to melt ice and raise the water level, the all-ages (22 to 50) group of experienced French, Italian, Swiss, and Czech paddlers embarked on a hazard-fraught journey that would take three more weeks and cover 560 kilometres.

Because they would have only one or two opportunities to replenish some food supplies, they had to pack in virtually everything they would need for the duration of the trip—and find a way to fit it all in the stubby little 50-kilogram whitewater crafts they had to continually portage around river obstacles.

A measure of their resourcefulness was the fact that they managed to repair a boulder-cracked kayak with a crude soldering spoon and staples fashioned out of a corned-beef tin.

Box canyons, narrow, claustrophobia-inducing chutes, ice patches, huge boulders, and the ubiquitous and potentially deadly siphons (that can suck a kayak under or pin a person to an underwater rock formation) are some of the early dangers encountered. Nightfall brought freezing temperatures to campsites on ledges high above the rocky watercourse. These kayakers are a special breed.

The scenery, from the initial gruelling multiday hike's vistas to the canyons, rapids, standing waves, gorges, and the broad river at the end of the trip, is spectacular.

It's not your typical tourist trek, and it's presented from a viewpoint almost never encountered by visitors (or the hardy, scattered locals, for that matter).

As part of the VIMFF's Kayak Show, Alone on the River is screening with five other new (and shorter) adrenaline-boosting whitewater films and a presentation by adventurers Sarah McNair-Landry and Erik Boomer, who recently endured a two-month, 1,000-kilometre crossing of Baffin Island by kayak, foot, and ski. MC for the evening is Canadian kayaking star Katrina Van Wijk, founder of Tits Deep, a women's extreme-sports movement.

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