Excerpt from GORP (an outdoor adventure website) about the Bhote Kosi:
“Wild, steep, and relentless are the best words to describe the short run down the Bhote Kosi. On this river, only a few hours’ drive northeast of Kathmandu, nonstop Class IV and V rapids keep adrenaline junkies screaming for more. The big waves and big rocks add up to big fun if you’re an experienced rafter. However, despite what rafting companies in Kathmandu might say, you really don’t want to make this your first-ever rafting experience… Rating: Hardcore, When to go: Fall, Winter, Spring”
The Lonely Planet review was much scarier (note the above review suggests rafting in Fall, Winter, and Spring. The Lonely Planet basically says this river is unraftable during monsoon season – Summer, which is – of course – when we were there). I intended to put a quote from it here, but we have already ditched our LP Nepal so I can’t
2 days prior
We found ourselves at Kilroy’s – a Western style bar in Kathmandu – discussing our upcoming rafting trip with several members of our India / Nepal tour group. After reading the description of the river in the lonely planet guide, Aubrey and I were a little apprehensive (read: scared out of our minds) about rafting the Bhote Kosi during monsoon season. Aubrey and I had taken a quick jaunt to the rafting office earlier in the day to try to talk with someone about the trip. Equator Expeditions’ office is located in Thamel, Kathmandu which is a haven of street stall type shops with open-air fronts facing the street. We climbed a flight of unadorned cement steps in a nondescript and run-down corned building. About the same floor area as a moderately sized bedroom, the office was chock full of furniture; a couch, two desks, and numerous chairs randomly filled the space, and it was empty. My eyes fell on a large whiteboard listing upcoming mountaineering and rafting trips. On approach, I found the line for “Bhote Kosi.” Written next to it in dry erase marker was “Aug 26 – 27, PAX: 2.” Pax Two. From my experience with “Pax” that meant two people were rafting those days; Aubrey and I. My nerves kicked up a slight notch at that point thinking that we were the only two people crazy enough to be doing this and thus Aubrey and I sought advice from our group members later that night at Kilroy’s. One of our group members, Paul, said he didn’t think we should raft if it was only the two of us. He then proceeded to relate a blood-wreaked white water rafting tale from his time on the Zambezi (which, of course, is also on our schedule to raft in late October). Another group member, Barbara, reassured us that it might be better if only the two of us were going as the company would probably fill the rest of the places with guides or staff with experience rafting. Her point was well taken and did make us feel slightly better. Other group members weighed in and at the end of the night we decided to go to our briefing meeting for the rafting trip to see how we felt.
The night before departure
Aubrey and I showed up promptly at six pm for our departure meeting, assuming we’d meet any other members of the group (if any had signed up) and learn what we should expect and what we needed to bring with us. The briefing meeting started with us filling out our important information (passports, insurance, etc.), paying, and signing something that said if we cancelled less than 24 hours in advance we would be forfeit all of our money. No other rafters were present. Feeling a little nervous at the time, I politely but firmly requested our briefing before signing our money away. The saleswoman must have sensed my apprehension, as both she and the company’s owner assured Aubrey and I that four other people had signed up. They reiterated that the company had a 100% perfect safety record and that I had nothing to be worried about. Mildly mollified and wanting to avoid “a scene,” I signed the paper and Aubrey followed suit. Before the ink dried we were shuffled to the other desk in the room for our “briefing.” The owner handed us a triple-fold color brochure and told us the first day we’d be rafting class III rapids and the second day would be more class IV and IV+ rapids. He then told Aubrey he should buy some “Teva sandals” and concluded our briefing. Surprised at the brevity of our “pep talk,” I asked if there was anything special we should bring or know? The owner told us they had a great camp for us to overnight in by the side of the river and that we didn’t need to worry as everything would be taken care of.
Morning of the first day
It was raining. Of course it was raining. Aubrey and I packed a quick overnight bag and left our luggage in the room at Kathmandu Guest House (we rented the room an extra night for $25.00 so we could leave the luggage there) and off we went. The constant drum of rain droplets reminded us that it was monsoon season. Not only would the water already be high, but every drop that fell added to it. I couldn’t help remembering a group member’s comment the day before – he said, “I wonder how many times you have to go whitewater rafting before you have a bad experience.” The words had rung a little ominously in my heart at the time, and they whispered in my ear on this drizzly morning as we boarded the bus. It turned out that our co-rafters were three Czech journalists (George, Alfie, and one who introduced himself as “Bruce Willis”) taking a brief vacation in Nepal after reporting on the Olympics in Beijing. The thought flew through my mind that it might be a disadvantage to have such a mixed group of language speakers in the boat (the guide spoke Newari and a little English, Aubrey and I speak English, and the Czech guys spoke Czech with a little English), but they seemed nice enough and had prior rafting experience. Mostly, I was greatly relieved Aubrey and I were not the only tourists on the trip.
The bus ride was two and a half hours, but that does not say nearly enough. Our vehicle had clearly seen better days; the entire back window was broken and replaced with blue tarp and duck tape (see picture album). Fifteen seats were crowded with a combination of Czech’s, Americans, and Nepalis. The ceiling leaked little drops of frigid water on us constantly. In addition, we entered the bus to find a live duck settled onto a pile of miscellaneous rafting equipment. She was cute, but unfortunately proceeded to quack loudly and repetitively for the entire trip. I can understand her discomfort, the mountain roads were horrible and unpaved in some parts, but I still wished we could have a few minutes of peace. As we rode through the mountainous terrain, we looked through water-distorted windows at a drop-off of over a thousand feet. That is… until the fog set in and we couldn’t see anything at all – including the road in front of us! I found myself forgetting my fear of the river and just praying that we would make it to our put-in point. At least wondering whether the duck was dinner and the dilemna of trying to decide if I was okay with that or not (the quacking was very annoying) passed the time.
On the way, we stopped briefly in a small Newari village for water – which the Czech guys took to mean “beer stop.” One of the Czech guys hopped off the bus and returned with three GIANT beers (bottles the size of two regular beers) for him and his comrades. Fabulous! Our other rafters in the boat on the river that was technically too dangerous to be rafted during this season would be drinking before we even got in the boat. I bit my tongue, but only barely. Later at camp Aubrey and I found out that the Czechs were not only drinking beer, but also some other nearly 100% alcohol “Czech” concoction from an unmarked thermos before the trip.
We did finally make it to our put-in point and after practically throwing the raft over a cliff (and then hiking down the steep side ourselves) to get it in the water we were off rafting on the Bhote Kosi. Kosi in Nepali means “River” and Bhote is the word for “Tibetan” so the name literally means “Tibetan River.” Although the first day was supposed to be mostly a training day with easy rapids we did hit some exciting whitewater, reminiscent of our Iceland trip, very early on. When we asked Sam what level the rapids were he said III/ maybe III+ which seemed a little of a low grade to me compared to IIIs on some of the other rivers Aubrey and I have rafted, but no matter. I’m not sure if it was the alcohol or just their attitudes, but the Czech guys never seemed to listen to directions (especially the two in front). They always seemed to be paddling when we weren’t supposed to be paddling or not paddling in the right direction, or doing other crazy things. At one small rapid they paddled upstream, dragging us back into the rapid to get us stuck on a rock… luckily we didn’t flip, but I did think the guide took us down the ultra-safe side of the rapids from then on… and I thought it might have had to do with their uncertain behavior. If the first day was to test how we worked together as a team – I think we failed. Even though this was supposed to be the “mild,” training day, the water was very, very high and the current swept us swiftly along. Further down the river, some rapids were simply drowned beneath the high water level so despite our raft’s breakneck pace we didn’t have much paddling to do to avoid rocks. In the absence of technical rafting instructions the conversation turned to where we would be rafting the next day. Sam expressed doubt that we would start further upstream below the dam. “Last time we rafted in high water like this, higher up on the river, there was a lot of crying. People drinking a lot of water and very scary, so we may not raft up river tomorrow. We will see.” he said
That afternoon we pulled into camp. The beautiful riverside lodges promised in our Lonely Planet book turned out to be tents on blocks of cement with thatched roofs and khaki canvas sides. No big deal, they were clean and made us feel more adventurous. There was no electricity in the tents though and with Aubrey and I without a flashlight (naturally it wasn’t on the non-existent list of what to bring with us) and the river roaring only a few trips away from our tent we could already see that late night bathroom trips would be a nightmare. Also unfortunately, since Aubrey and I had only brought small day packs with us I had only brought minimal clothes changes and not nearly enough gear to keep me warm (it had been hot lately where we were so I figured I would just air-dry). I ended up donning one of Aubrey’s shirts and a pair of his shorts to get out of my wet clothes. The gathering place for dinner (although there weren’t that many of us to gather) was a large open-air picnic spot, much like you would see in a Forest Preserve in the US. There was a large roof (thankfully) and an assortment of eating tables and a pool table underneath. Dinner was curried potatoes and rice with pita bread laid out buffet style; we grabbed and munched gratefully.
Afterwards, Sam approached us, “Tomorrow we will be rafting below the dam.” He did not look thrilled. “Is it safe?” I ventured. He didn’t directly answer the question, but reassured me that they would send four safety kayakers with us instead of the three we had earlier in the day. Aubrey spoke up, trying to reassure me, “We have big strong men in our boat, we’ll be fine!” Sam snorted in amusement, “The river is strong, you are not strong, you are small and weak compared to the river.” Remembering his earlier comments about the water level I asked, “Sam, will the water be lower tomorrow?” He cocked his head to one side, “We will see, it is no problem, no problem.”
That night, I awoke in darkness, pain and pressure in my chest forcing me out of slumber. Aubrey, stirred by my movement, tried to help. At first I thought I was having a heart attack (perhaps induced by a blood clot from all our traveling?) because of the degree of pain and it hurt to breathe. We tried to decide whether to wake someone and try to take me to the hospital when we were at least two hours from anywhere civilized. After a few minutes of trying to isolate where exactly the pain was and what type of pain (and whether there were any other symptoms – arm pain, back pain, etc.), Aubrey told me my heart was racing “a mile a minute.” Once I heard that, I knew it must be nerves and after several minutes taking deep breaths some of the pain and pressure reduced. Although I was relieved to think my pain was probably due to nerves, there was no question I was dreading the day ahead.
The next morning we ate an early breakfast and started on our way. It had been raining overnight and during breakfast (so I couldn’t imagine the water had gotten any lower), but thankfully as we boarded the bus the precipitation settled down to a gentle misting. After about twenty minutes of driving, the bus stopped and several Nepalis – our guide and safety kayakers – ran out to scope one of the rapids. It took them a good ten minutes of looking and chattering before they seemed satisfied. Some driving time later, the bus ambled off the road and we piled out to look at our put-in point. The ruins of an old metal suspension bridge stretched across the river, dipping dangerously into the water. Sam told us that the bridge had been damaged in a mudslide four years earlier. The dutch girl looked out at the river, eyes wide. “But it’s high today, Sam.” she said with some wonder. Sam studied the river, pensively, not responding. I turned to her and said, “Is this higher than you’ve ever seen it?” She nodded, pointing, “Just look at the bridge (see picture album),” she exclaimed, “Normally you can raft under the bridge easily, no problem, but now the water is touching the bridge, you can’t raft under that.” When she walked off to put a life jacket on, I regarded Sam’s troubled face. Considering the half blown up raft and the safety equipment littering the ground it was clearly too late to repeat my question about it being safe to raft. Instead I asked, “Have you ever seen the river this high before, Sam?” He gave me a direct look, and without trace of a smile simply said, “No.”
Taking deep breaths and steeling myself for the trip, I put on my gear and grabbed my portion of the raft to help bring it down to the river. When we put-in the whirlpool created by the swift moving current whipped the raft back around to the destroyed bridge. Both Sam and Aubrey had to hold onto the metal and concrete skeleton, pushing us off into the main current when everyone was ready. The river was wild and unruly; we gnashed our way through the early rapids. During some particularly violent waves I was thrown well across the boat, landing ungracefully in the dutch girl’s lap. Aubrey laughed in surprise, “I’ve never seen you get thrown like that Beth.” Normally I brace myself pretty well, but the Czech guys had talked so much about flipping rafts the previous day that I was nervous of the raft flipping and my feet being caught braced beneath the seats. As a result I was clearly not braced as well as usual and thus more prone to flopping about in the boat in the heavy waves we were hitting.
After several wild rapids which I think were sold fours, but Sam said were III+ / IV- rapids, Sam signaled for us to beach at the side of the river so that he and the safety kayakers could scout the next rapid. Apparently, the same earthquake and ensuing landslide that had destroyed the bridge at our put in point four years prior had thrown giant boulders into the Bhote Kosi and created a “New rapid.” A few of us stayed back with the raft hugging it to the shore against the gripping current. My nerves began acting up a little when the guides had not returned after ten minutes. This was, after all, the same rapid they had piled out of the bus to scout for ten minutes earlier. The Dutch girl came back to the raft. “So what’s taking so long?” I asked – remembering a rafting trip in Iceland where we had walked a rapid because the guides had felt it was too dangerous to raft. She shrugged, “They’re trying to decide the best way to take the rapid – I think the disagreement is mostly among the safety kayakers.” Ten minutes later, Sam and the kayakers returned and we set off.
Immediately after we entered the rapid I could barely hear from the roaring of the river. I found myself looking backward to verify Sam’s directions only to see his feet flying over his head as he was flung from the raft into the raging river. I, who am not known to swear, heard myself saying, “Holy Shit! We lost Sam!” several times in swift succession as I scanned the whirling rapids at the back of the boat for any trace of him. Only gnashing white-water met my gaze, Sam had been swallowed by the river. I turned to face front in our guide-less boat and a ten foot wall of water loomed in front of us. We all paddled forward frantically, as Sam had once told us that our best chance of not flipping in a rapid was to keep the boat facing forward. We crested the ten foot water wall and the front of our raft got stuck on the rock. Waves pounded over us mercilessly and the river tugged viciously at the bottom half of the boat which dangled dangerously at a 45 degree angle behind me. I could only pray that everyone, including Aubrey, stayed in the boat as every cell in my body focused on paddling forward to help get us over this rock. Another wave pounded the boat and I thought we were done for, yet by some miracle we were suddenly free and swiftly sweeping into the next giant water wave. I only had a moment to verify that Aubrey and everyone else was still in the boat before the river required my intense focus. It was at this point Bruce Willis began shouting commands in a crazed frenzy. The other two Czechs paddled furiously and Aubrey and I followed suit. We managed to safely navigate another two large waves without flipping. The Dutch girl began paddling backwards against the rest of us and Bruce Willis whacked her with his paddle a couple times until she submitted. I cast a look of feminine sympathy in her direction, but I had no idea what we were doing. So far we hadn’t flipped under Bruce’s command so I was happy to surrender allegiance to him. We continued to flail our way through the rapid, every moment spent at some level of terror when I chanced a look up and saw Sam riding through the rapid hanging on to one of the safety kayaks. A huge relief coursed through me at the sight of him drenched and sputtering, but otherwise unharmed. He was shouting and motioning commands at us, but I couldn’t make them out. It appeared others were also having trouble as everyone began calling out random directions in an effort to read his lips or interpret his hand signals. In the space of five seconds I heard, “All forward” “No, Left forward, Right back” “No, Right back, Left forward” and so Bruce Willis stayed in command for the moment. We rode through a few more waves successfully and reached a break in the rapid where the river current was extremely swift, but more subdued. The safety kayaker was able to paddle Sam close to our boat. Aubrey grabbed Sam’s shoulders in the water as we had been schooled to do, Sam tried to count to three but Aubrey hauled him into the boat on “one.” We had barely enough time to congratulate him on still being alive and express relief that he had managed to get back into the raft before we faced the rapids again. The treacherous New Rapid and the ensuing excitement continued. After weathering the first test, we all felt a little more confident as a team.
Sam pulled us off to the side to wait for the safety kayakers to make it out of the rapid when we saw a bright red kayak bouncing vertically down the rapid, its narrow, sloping front pointing toward the sky. We couldn’t tell whether the kayaker was still in there, but I certainly hoped not; the watercraft knocked around in the current as if no one were controlling. On the next bounce upward, we saw that the kayak was empty and that a swimmer was heading towards the raft. The burly Czechs in front pulled him in and he rode with us for the rest of morning. We had mostly reached our put in point from the prior day so the rapids that had seemed quite treacherous the day before now seemed only mildly pulse pounding. We beached the raft at camp and had tea / coffee. I thought we were finished – and after our morning I was a bit ready to be done – but Sam said we still had more rafting to do.
After our brief respite we started out onto the river again – we were down one rafter (Bruce Willis decided to take a turn in a whitewater kayak instead of the raft). He said, “kayak is more safer because it is just you, raft is dangerous because you have to rely on other people.” These rapids were same ones we rafted the day before so they should have been a breeze. Mid-way through the third rapid, however, the right side of the raft rode up on a rock tilting the raft about 75 degrees from the river surface. All of us were knocked to one side and around me people began the flush out of the boat. My feet slipped out from under me and I had just enough time to hold my nose before I dumped into the current.
Everything around me was black, deep deep black such as I have not known before. I do not know how long I was under, but I do remember telling myself not to panic in the darkness. I remember that I tried to come up at one point and couldn’t (I may have been under the raft) and then I was under again and suddenly out into the sunlight. My paddle was gone. I looked back for the raft that I thought would be only a few feet away and was surprised (and a little terrified) to find that it was now nearly fifty feet away. I saw that the boat was empty of everyone but the guide (hmmm…) and looked around frantically for Aubrey. Happily I spotted him soon, he was above water and cognizant. Sigh of relief. Now I could focus on my own situation. From previous whitewater rafting experiences I knew that the appropriate position when you fall out of a boat is to basically sit on your back, legs and feet facing downstream to push off of rocks or debris in your path as the current sweeps you through a rapid. Behind me I heard Sam yelling to “Swim left” which I tried to do while still facing my legs mostly downstream, but my efforts seemed menial against the iron vise of the current. I was just beginning to feel a little concerned about an upcoming rapid when suddenly the raft was over my left shoulder and Sam pulled me in. No one else had been rescued yet and together we tried to paddle the raft to where the other rafters were. I have to admit I was pretty useless at pulling people in who were twice my weight so Sam did most of the rescuing while I just paddled according to his directions.
I still saw Aubrey’s head bobbing around in the current and he still appeared to be concious and doing okay. When we finally pulled him into the boat, though, he looked terrified and disoriented. Aubrey relayed that he had been swept into a whirlpool with one of the Czech guys and the two had been getting sucked under and then spit out over and over again while they duked it out in the water each feeling that the other was keeping him from breaking free. Eyes wide with genuine fear, Aubrey told me that he didn’t know what would have happened if the whirlpool hadn’t spit him out when it did because he didn’t have any strength left to fight the current.
We rescued the other rafters and beached to take stock off equipment, etc. We were down my paddle and Sam’s paddle from earlier, but Aubrey and a few others had held on to theirs. I was pretty much done with rafting for the day, but we had about ten more minutes to go according to Sam. One half of me wanted to call it quits and head for the van, the other half knew (with some encouragement from Aubrey) that I had to get back in the raft immediately or I risked being afraid of rafting ever again.
So, we rafted and we lived. By the skill of our team, the mercy of the river, and the grace of God, we lived and Equator Expeditions gets to keep their “100% perfect safety record.” Forty-eight hours more experienced now, I wonder how many other rafters marvel at the depth and breadth of rafting trips at all levels of terror and delight hiding behind those words. In the end I feel they fail to express our trip down the Bhote Kosi.
Picture Album for this post can be found HERE