Hotels in India » Adventure in India » The challenge of the Chenab

The challenge of the Chenab

On December 1, 1988, the USA members of the Indo-USA Chenab River Expedition arrived in New Delhi. They were led by Ken Warren as the leader of the expedition, in the fulfillment of a promise he had made in 1984, that the Chenab river was goint to be run by a joint Indo-US team. With the team came 3000 pounds of specialised equipment to meet the challenge of the Chenab river which had never been successfully run before. On December 5, a helicopter was arranged for by the Jammu & Kashmir Tourism Department, in order to carry out an aerial survey of this difficult and turbulent river. It was essential to determine “ the put-in-point’ on the river. Ken Warren says, “looking down, the river was really beautiful and I counted as many as 140 rapids graded from 1-6 in a 150 kilometres stretch of the river, but there was so much timber floating from Atholi to Kishtwar, that running this stretch would have been suicidal.” This resulted in a change of plans. The expedition decided to run from Kishtwar to Ramban instead, a distance of 130 kilometers. From December 5th to 10th the equipment arrived from Delhi and was lowered into the water from a height of 600 ft., The other member arrived from Jammu and a press conference was held.

The dramatis personas of these events were:

Ken Warren – Expedition Leader (USA)

Ancil Nance – Still photographer and mountaineer (USA)

Andreas Wallach – Oarsman (West Germany)

Steve Zettel – Oarsman and professional hunter (USA)

Paul Sharpe – Movie maker and kayaker (USA)

Lucas von Bluecher – Kayaker and writer (West Germany)

Laurence Jolidon – Professor of creative writing and writer (USA Today)

Jan Warren – Co-leader Road Support Team (USA)

Shaukat Sikand – Expedition co-leader (India)

Air Marshal B.S.Sikand (Retd PVSM and AVSM) – Expedition co-ordinator and co-leader of Road Support Team (India)

Rita Bhalla – Only women who was part of the rafting team (India)

Four members of the Nehru Yuva Kendra Sangathan (India)

Four members from Jammu and Kashmir Tourism, Government of J&K (India)

Producer/Directors in India

  1. The Nehru Yuva Kendra Sangathan.

  2. Jammu & Kashmir Tourism

  3. Air India – Official carriers for the expedition

Protagonist / Heroine – “ The Chenab River”

Title: Memorial expedition for the late Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

Excerpts from Ken Warren’s diary and Shaukat Sikand are reproduced here:

December 11, 1988: “The great day had arrived. Priests of practically every religious denomination Hindu, Sikh, Muslim came to pray for, and bless the expedition. And as cameras started rolling, the Director-General of information and TourismPublicity, Government of Jammu and Kashmir Mr. S.P.Sahni, flagged off the expedition. Just before we left, I dipped my fingers into the river and prayed to her. I always think of a river as a woman, because it gives birth, and sustains life and I prayed to her to protect us. I wanted to make my peace with her, and she was beautiful.”

The three flags of the three nations were hoisted. The first raft named “Kesar” was oared by Ken Warren and had the American flag. The second raft Atlas was oared by Andreas Wallach and had the West German and the J&K State Government Tourism flag. The third raft Thor was oared by Shaukat Sikand and had an Indian flag. “We were off at 12.15 p.m. Radio communication was established between the rafts, kayak, and the Road Support Team.” As I dipped my oars I could feel the force of the river. She was violent. “After about half an hour we encountered our first major rapid, a grade 6 on the scale of 1-6, names “Kelly’s Worry” . It had falls on both sides and a number of rocks, circling it. Looking at the height of the falls and the half-jutting rocks and sometimes totally concealed boulders, we decided to line the rafts. That is, we tied ropes on the two ends of the raft and helped the oarsman take the raft down the rapid safely. The three rafts had to negotiate the rapid one after another which took nearly three hours. This was an essential manoeuvre because the river was reversing at a tremendous speed and the current turning back on itself would flip the rafts over and smash us to bits. As the light faded, the oarsmen pulled the rafts together into an eddy and anchored them for the night. We then climbed 600 feet and went to Thatri where we decided to camp for the night. We sat around a bonfire and discussed the strategy to finally complete a successful run on the river. She had showed us how powerful she was.”

December 12 : “At 7 a.m. this morning we started off to catch most of the light. We descended the cliffs and as we set off, the radio communication link snapped. The river was rougher than the first day. She would suck us into a trough and jam us against the wall of water and rocks. The rafts were to negotiate the water, with the two kayakers who acted as scouts and gave the rafters rescue support.”

“We were to take ‘back to back’ drops from the right, but because the radio connection was broken we entered from the left. Shaukat’s raft hit the first reversal and he was flung overboard, and Lucas rushed to his rescue. Shaukat tried to swim for about 60 meters but the force of the water was so great that Lucas was also thrown out into the water and his kayak was jammed between two rocks jutting out. Shaukat now went down an eight foot-waterfall, and probably what saved him was his helmet which took a battering from the sharp rocks. Finally, while we watched this terrifying drama helplessly, Paul Sharpe with his kayak managed to save Shaukat, just before he went over another set of falls and brought him ashore. All this could not have taken more than a few seconds, but while we watched it seemed dramatized in slow motion!”

“Meanwhile, Ken’s boat was caught in the same set of rapids, reversals, and the current of the icy water and it took him 15 minutes to extricate himself. The river now with terrific force picked up Ken’s oars and broke them on the rocks like matchsticks. Six of the oars were lost. This rapid was named the masala grinder. This was aptly named because not only were the rapids at this point 30 feet high, the reversals were about 14/15 feet from the trough or hole. This section of the river was also partially blocked by a huge log, sticking out of the water. The three rafts and the two kayaks now regrouped themselves and a certain kind of doubt set in, perhaps the river was too dangerous and the expedition should be abandoned?”

“Anyhow we decided to carry on and encountered four to five rapids – until we came to another rapid, which we subsequently named “Steve’s Plunge,” this was a grade 6 rapid. Again the rafts had to be lined to encounter the lower half of the rapid. It took us an hour to get the raft into position. Andreas and I successfully negotiated the rapid but Steve and Shaukat’s raft flipped over and they floated for about a hundred meters till they were picked up by the kayakers. Fortunately, this was the placid section and the raft could soon be righted. After encountering some more rapids of grades 4/5/6 for over 10 kilometres we decided to break for the day.”

December 13th: “We started early as we wanted to arrive at Thatri by lunch. On the way we encountered grade 4 and 5 rapids. At Thatri we found a warm welcome awaiting us, given by the citizens of Thatri. Ours was the first expedition that had successfully, negotiated the gorge section.

After this the expedition continued for another 10 kilometres and it was a very placid section, almost an anticlimax after the events of the previous day. The rapids, were now in the category of grades 1 and 2. But now another problem presented itself. Most of the oars were swept away or broken. We sent an urgent message to Delhi to send spare oars on the first available flight or by road or rail.

December 14th: “Another bright and clear day dawned. It was a day to enjoy the river and relax. In a rapid just before Prem Nagar, Steve’s boat got caught in a reversal for about 30 seconds. Thanks to the presence of mind of his crew, who scrambled on the high side of the raft, the raft did no flip. At this point Steve lost both his oars, as the current snatched them out of his hands, and this raft had to be taken out of the water. Half an hour later Andreas lost his oars on the rapid, the Rock Garden. This rapid was also aptly named because of the closed ring of rocks which circled it. “We were now left with only three serviceable oars. I decided to leave the other rafts, until the spare oars came and take one raft, and one kayak and come back later for the other rafts and kayak. It was the proverbial story of the tiger, the patch of grass and the goat! We did this and we were in Doda by at 5.15 p.m.

December 15th: “This was a day of relaxation in Doda, the District Headquarters:

December 16th: “The oars had not arrived and Ken had to make a hard decision. He decided to continue with one raft and one kayak. Doda to Ramban is approximately 40 kilometers and there could be no road support. Hence all the food supplies, camping gear, and personal equipment had to be carried on the raft”. Ken was the oarsman and Ancil, Andreas, Steve and Shaukat were on his crew. Since Lucas von Bluecher was ill, Paul Sharpe was to give kayak support. Some of the biggest and most difficult rapids on this expedition were now encountered by the members. Back to back rapids, extremely tricky reversals, deep troughs, all these could have kept a raft forever.

After arriving at Assar, the members camped on the beach. The radio communication had been re-established, and we received a message to say that the oars had arrived at last.”

December 17th: “The sky was overcast. The weather was obviously turning bleak. The villagers came to welcome the members of the expedition. They seemed to be so overawed by our feat of daring that we also felt like heroes! They brought a fowl for us as a present, in fact the rooster became our mascot. Wherever we went, it traveled with us, grave with responsibility for our safety! The oars arrived at last! Air Marshal Sikand brought them down to us and we continued on our journey along the river. About eight kilometres from Ramban, my raft joined up with the other two rafts and the second kayak. The sky was dark with the promise of rain, and sure enough it began to drizzle”. We arrived at Ramban at 2’O clock in the afternoon.

“The Deputy Commissioneer of Doda was there. All the school children were therewith with banners and flags, the legend of which ran, “Welcome heroes of the Chenab”. They had been waiting in the rain, and we were moved to think our efforts had been appreciated. What seemed to us a great banquet, was laid out, and we fell to. A holiday was declared so that everyone could see the rafts and kayaks.”

We had managed to run this turbulent river successfully. The river goddess had answered our prayers. It was a great and wonderful day for everyone who had helped to make the expedition a success. Elated, euphoric in our achievement, we made plans for our next river run. “I think India could one day become the white water rafting capital of the world” said Ken Warren.