Ladakh River Festival 2019

The world’s highest kayaking festival kicked off for the third time on the 24th of August 2019, with competitors arriving in the Himalayas from all across India, as well as the wider world – and with a number of international entrants from as far afield as Russia, Canada, Denmark, Nepal, and the United Kingdom. This year was also the first year with enough female competitors who were willing to tackle the rapids so that a women’s competition category could be run.

The event, organised by Tsering Chotak of Wet n Wild Explorations, is without a doubt one of the high points of the Himalayan season, and one of the toughest competitions worldwide; contestants not only have to contend with the pushy grade 4 Lardo rapid, but also with the altitude – at some 3500 metres above sea level, even running the rapid (let alone making the challenging slalom lines) leaves many gasping for breath at the bottom. Saturday began with a brief opening ceremony, and an introduction for all of the contestants, before the start of the sprint race.

The sprint sees competitors charge down the rapid, with a narrow line taking the fastest competitors just to the right of two intimidating holes and then flying over the left shoulder of a crashing wave to paddle as fast as they can over the surging, boily water that guards the finish on river left. Those who missed this line would – in the best case – be catapulted to the right, where a chunky hole waits to grab hold of those unfortunate enough to land within its reach. The key to success in this race seemed to be getting a nice line through the boils and waves after the crux move, as proved by the three paddlers claiming the podium: Manish Dhakar in third place, Vijay Thapa in second, and Daman Singh achieving the win. The female competitors were offered the option of an easier line on river left, though all but one chose to step up to the main line through the meat of the rapid. Jak Fantastic took third place, riding out an encounter with the hole in the centre, whilst Gracheva Ekaterina made the line just to the left of the crashing wave and took second place, charging up from the bottom of the finish eddy; Marie-Eve Mercier took a perfect line through the crux and claimed first place after a vicious fight with the boils.

With the sprint – and a lunch of rice and dal – out of the way, gates were quickly set up for the slalom competition. Without a doubt, the Ladakh River Fest slalom is one of the most challenging big water slalom courses: after a flatwater sprint from the start on river right, the paddlers must make a gate on river left before a make-or-break ferry above several fierce holes; then boofing over a chunky diagonal (a move that caught more than a few kayakers out), battling through the boils behind, before skipping into an eddy, and making a technical s-turn to tap the touch banner. As if that weren’t enough, the most technical move of the race is next – a high cross above a trashy hole. Enter the move too high, and you’d be caught by the crashing wave above, and slapped back into the hole; too low, and you’d drop back into its jaws. Even after making the narrow line out of the eddy, the race isn’t over yet, and the remaining ferry across the surging water to the finish banner on the far left could make the difference between a winning or losing run. The slalom championship proved popular with the crowd – with the occasionally missed gate, the hole below the river right eddy dishing out its fair share of beatdowns, and even a swim or two (soon mopped up by the ever-present and highly competent safety team) providing great entertainment. Ashu Rawat, two-time LRF champion from India, showed his prowess on this round to take third, whilst Vijay Thapa timed his strokes perfectly to ride the surges and fly towards the finish banner after touching the pad on river right. The win, however, was taken by Daman Singh, who demonstrated an impressively smooth line that placed him far ahead of the competition – flying into the touch banner eddy, and threading the needle between the holes on the way out. In the female competition, despite an over-the-handlebars moment in the steep waves below the touch banner – and a speedy roll – Gracheva Ekaterina clawed herself once again up the finish eddy to take first place.

This brought an end to the first day of the festival. Spirits were high after a day of competition and camaraderie, as well as in anticipation of the coming boatercross events. The boatercross had heats of four compete on the same slalom course as the previous day, with fierce battles and unpredictability swiftly becoming the name of the game. Here, third was once again claimed by Ashu Rawat after fighting it out with Daman Singh, who took second, and Amit Magar snatched first. The ladies’ boatercross ended in a surprising double disqualification, after a surging eddyline tore both finalists (Marie-Eve Mercier and Gracheva Ekaterina) away from the touch banner on river right, despite hitherto fierce and tightly-matched competition. The fun wasn’t over yet, however, with the final event of the festival still to go. This was the mass-start boatercross, where every competitor must leap into their kayak when the countdown ends, and race to the finish (again with a mandatory main line through the rapid – no chicken lines allowed). If unpredictability had been the watchword for the previous heats, chaos was perhaps more appropriate for this event; 30-odd kayakers entering a rapid all at once is always a sight to behold, especially when about half of them were still struggling to our get their decks on, entering a rapid all at once is always a sight to behold. In this event, Darren Clarkson-King of Pureland Expeditions showed that experience counts here in the Himalayas, claiming the third place as the second-oldest competitor in the race. Well, experience — or not sitting on your spraydeck when you get in your boat … either one. In front of him was once again, Daman Singh, and Amit Magar, charging to victory for his second win of the day.

The 2019 Ladakh River Festival may easily have been one of the fiercest competitions worldwide, but that didn’t mean the atmosphere was tense – far from it. Off the water, the competitors were relaxed and friendly towards each other; if anything, the fierceness of the rapids and competition was met in equal measure by the friendliness of the paddlers, and there was barely a moment that anyone could be seen without a wide smile on their face! Even in spite of the huge and unpredictable rapids, and the potential for carnage, everything was handled safely and effectively by the safety team at the bottom – a testament to the skill and expertise of the event’s organisers, as well as all who volunteered to help out. With this team in charge of the event, everything ran smoothly and without a hitch, proceeding flawlessly even when unexpected circumstances arose.

To wrap everything up, a prize-giving ceremony was held at the top of the rapid, where everyone gathered to celebrate their achievements and the excellence of the event staff, bringing a close to the third edition of the Ladakh River Festival – truly a world-class event.

by Max Topp- Mugglestone

Phtography by Anuj Kumar

The overall winner for male category got as a prize two PFD, one pair of Shoes, one throw bag and one 25 L drybag from NRS and a check of 10 000 INR.

The overall winner for female category got as a prize one dry top, one spray deck and one PFD from Peak UK.

This event was possible thanks to our sponsors: Sangam Adventure, Axis Adventure, NRS, Peak UK, Adventure Sindbad, MAMA Adventure, Rimo Expeditions, Paddle Ladakh, Tofu Maker Film.

Wet N Wild Explorations is so much more than Rafting

When we first met Tsering Chotak, more years ago than I care to remember, he was a passionate and skilled kayaker with a dream of building his own rafting and white water company. Born in the remote upper Himalayan region of Ladakh in the far north of India, his background was subsistence farming and surviving the harsh climate at 3,500 metres. While Ladakh is home to the Himalayan Grand Canyon in the form of the Zanskar River, and cut through by the mighty Indus, it’s hard to reach and the season short, due to the brutal and long winter. Rafting in the upper Himalayas was in its infancy, and the peaceful Buddhist community had only recently been opened to international tourism. It was going to be a tough journey. But with diligence, the support of his family and the respect of kayaking legends in India and Nepal, he studied hard to become a qualified raft guide. With this knowledge and determination, he trained his own team in Ladakh, and his dream came true. Years have gone by, and the tiny rafting company, became a rafting camp site on the banks of the Indus, in Nimmu, near to his home village, and eventually the biggest and best white water team in Ladakh. International companies like ours started to look to Ladakh as a place to bring our own customers for kayaking and rafting expeditions, and we needed help with the logistics and guides. While there were big Indian companies who offered this kind of support, none of them were Ladakhi. The region is unique and so different to the rest of India, and we wanted our English speaking customers to have an authentic and safe experience, so we turned to Chotak and Wet n Wild to work with us. It was the right decision. Ladakh is so much more than rivers and mountains, and our customers were overjoyed with the quality of their expeditions, but also to be immersed in this culture in a way that we could not have done on our own. 

 Nowadays Wet n Wild continues to grow and diversify, adding trekking, mountain biking, jeep safari’s and motor bike expeditions to the rich choices available in Ladakh. Our customers continue to enjoy unique and life enhancing experiences in the upper Himalayas that are expertly run, high quality and respectful of the local people whose homeland we are visiting. Wet n Wild has become THE premier outfit offering day rafting and expeditions, including winter snow treks and the LADAKH WHITE WATER FESTIVAL, the highest kayaking event in the world. Athletes come from all over the world to this event, to kayak with the growing ranks of Himalayan kayakers. These local boys AND girls have been able to take up kayaking for fun due to the growing adventure sport industry and are beginning to break out and compete in international competitions. Chotak wants to be able to offer young Ladakhi people the chances and choices that he had to make for himself when he was young. He also offers free rafting trips to local schools, Buddhist monks and communities, as a way of giving back for all the support and generosity he has received during the growth and success of Wet n Wild. (He is a prominent member of several local charities supporting the impoverished rural communities in wild and remote areas). 

Recently Chotak has become the first Ladakhi to qualify as an International Raft Guide instructor. It means that he has been able to offer Indian guides a chance to qualify and work all over the world at a subsidised rate, something they could never have afforded before on raft guide wages. He came with us to Bhutan last year to offer the training for free to guides in Bhutan, and intends to continue offering this vital IRF training to guides all across the Himalayas, to help individual guides with their careers but mainly to improve safety and quality in the industry. 

We are proud to be colleagues and friends of the Wet n Wild team, who come from Ladakh, greater India, Nepal and more. We’ve seen it grow from a small rafting company to a high quality and professional outfit that offers all manner of adventure sport and sightseeing adventures, while respecting it’s roots and heritage. Keep on building Chotak and team!

Written by,

Andrea Maya Clarkson-King, UK.