Unconventional Interview: White Water Rafting on an Unmapped River in Peru with Scott Hartman

by Gigi Griffis

This is part of my unconventional interview series, designed to demonstrate the wildly varied ways we can live, work, and chase our dreams. Please keep in mind that, since these are interviews, the opinions, methods, and websites contained within do not necessarily reflect my own views or experiences. (Which is, in my opinion, part of what makes them wonderful.)

Today, the fascinating Scott Hartman is here to tell us about his experience of rafting an unmapped river in Peru.

First, tell us about you.

I was born in Chicago and lived there maybe three months before my father (a Navy doctor going through school with ROTC) and my mother (a hospital dietician) moved us to Oceanside, CA. My father had to give 12 years to the Navy, so we moved, after three years in Oceanside, to outside Chicago (for three years), to Bethesda, MD/Bethesda Naval Hospital (three years), back to midwest for three more years, and then, when my father’s Naval commitment was over, to Santa Barbara, CA, which is “where I’m from.” I’ve been living in San Francisco for the past two years working on several writing projects.

I worked in kitchens for most of my life and ultimately got into personal chef-ing, where I lived with families, in their home, on their properties, or on boats. Five years ago, after many years of steady decline, I lost both my sense of smell and taste. Cooking was out. I live now on savings…all for the art.

As far as we got

Tell us about the journey you took in Peru.

The trip to Peru happened in June of 1979. A very good friend of mine, Dr. Roderick Nash, Professor Emeritus in History and Environmental Studies at UCSB, had been planning some exotic river trip and he settled on the Rio Pampas in Peru. Much of that decision was due to a member of our expedition, the late Dr. Calvin Giddings, chemistry professor at the U of Utah, who had several years earlier been the first to take a kayak down the Rio Apurimac, of which the Rio Pampas was a tributary.

I started whitewater rafting with Rod, who continues to be a mentor of mine, when I was 11. By the time the Pampas trip became a possibility, I’d guided whitewater trips professionally and run numerous rivers in the the US. I petitioned Rod heavily to be a member of the expedition to Peru. At the time, I was a student at Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara. I was finally accepted into the expedition as an alternate boatman and trip photographer.

Our expedition was partially sponsored by Aero Peru Airlines, who wanted to start highlighting outdoor activities in Peru. Beyond their sponsorship, I used my own money to make up the difference.

We flew into Lima with thousands of pounds of rafting gear then rented two cars: a VW Beetle and a Datsun pickup. Then we proceeded to stuff all our gear and eight men into these two vehicles and began our drive to Cuzco. The car journey took two+ days and started at sea level in Lima, quickly reaching 16,000 feet within half a day, and then we leveled off and drove for two days across the Peruvian altiplano (high plateau) at 14,000 feet.

In Cuzco, we picked up a rental raft and some information about the territory we were headed toward and drove to Ayacucho. One haunting memory (which will become clearer later) was meeting a man in a bar in Ayacucho. He pointed out a watercolor painting on the wall and told me in Spanish “beware of the falls at Ocros.”

We shopped for food in Ayacucho, then rented one truck to carry us and all our gear to the small village of Pampas on the banks of the Rio Pampas.

On the Pampas

What was the greatest joy of the journey?

My greatest joy of he journey was simply being there. As someone who was weaned on National Geographic and read every adventure book I could find as a child, this trip was The Dream.

What were the biggest challenges? Was there ever a time you wanted to quit and go home?

The biggest challenge was the river itself. As no one had attempted it at that time (to this day it has not been successfully run), we had scant information on it. The best (and really only tangible) info we had were Peruvian Air Force photographs of the river canyon taken in 1960. For anyone that knows wild rivers, 19 year-old photographs are almost as good as worthless. Things change so quickly on undammed rivers. When we pulled a map out, the area of the country we were going to was actually white on the map. No one knew anything.

Compared to the Colorado River, which runs through the Grand Canyon, where the river drops about eight feet per mile, the Rio Pampas drops between 80 and 100 feet per mile. In 1979, river rafting was still in its infancy. There were no self-bailing boats, boat frames were heavy, and storage containers for food were still WWII military surplus ammo cans. In short, our boats were extremely heavy, especially considering the technicality of the river we were about to run. But as with many things of this kind, we weren’t to find that out until after we were on the river.

There was never, ever, ever, EVER a time during the trip when I wanted to go home. Never. Ever. The totality of the experience pushed every button of mine that I wanted pushed. This was what I had dreamed of for years, what I lived for, and now I was living it.

Across the altiplano

What were the craziest moments?

On our second day on the river, one of our two boats failed to make a pull to the left bank of the river in order to scout an upcoming rapid. The current quickened and the boat was soon in a very large rocky rapid. The boat and its three occupants rammed into a huge boulder and the raft wrapped around the rock, stranding the three men on it. Below them was the largest part of the rapid. It would have been impossible to swim from the rock to either shore, due to violent water. In short, they were stuck. And in a little over an hour, it would be dark.

One of our group was an expert rock climber and had climbing ropes. He and Rod walked upstream for over a mile, looking for a place to swim across the river. They found it, then walked the mile back downstream to get to the shore across from the men on the rock. The climber, Dean, rigged a Tyrolean Traverse and, one by one, ferried the stranded men from the rock to shore. They didn’t get back to our camp until after dark.

Half of our gear, half of our food, half of our personal belongings–including my three cameras, all of my seven lenses, and all of my film–were in that raft. Oh, and my own personal gear was on that boat too. I slept that night in a plastic river bag on a rocky beach on a small island in the middle of a river that no one had ever attempted.

Getting the three men off the rock proved much easier than getting the raft off the rock. Half of the air compartments on the raft had been punctured. Weighed down by our gear and the water that had filled the raft, we pulled the raft to shore in one-inch increments…For two days.

On a sunny June afternoon, on that island in the middle of the Rio Pampas, I threw, one at a time, every flooded lens, every flooded camera body, and my ruined film into the river.

Now, we were in the bottom of a deep river canyon in the middle of nowhere. And we had to get out. But how? And when we did, where were we?

We hired a local farmer to help us. This man was five-foot five, maybe, and maybe 130 pounds and he offered to carry our surviving 150 pound raft out of the canyon by himself. And he did.

Once out, we sent two men to the closest village or farm looking to rent a truck to get us and our gear out of there. When a truck would come (or if one would) we didn’t know.

We camped by the road for several days. One night, after we’d had our more-than-fair-share of Pisco, a group of local men came up to us in the dark. These were the big years in Peru for the Communist-backed terrorist group Sendero Luminoso. In time, and after a very heated and frightening group confrontation, we learned that these locals imagined us pirates come to steal Inca treasure. It took some time, especially with so much military surplus gear around, to convince them otherwise. We also had a member of our expedition who starred in western shows on TV. When these men walked up he introduced himself as a “pistolero” (which means “gunman,” one of the three words in Spanish he could speak…remember, we’d had lots of Pisco). That did not help our cause.

In time, a truck came. Less than a week after leaving Ayacucho, we were back. I went back into the bar where the man had warned me of the “falls at Ocros.” While camped on that mid-river island, I walked a mile or so downstream and found a major rapid, even larger then the one that had stopped us and saw those same falls from the painting. Had our raft not gotten stuck on that rock, it would have eventually gone over the falls at Ocros…three 10-foot vertical drops back to back with no time in between. Had the raft gone over the falls, our three men would have died.

Lining a rapid

Why Peru and why an unknown route?

I guess the choice of the Rio Pampas was due to Professor Giddings knowledge of a piece of that country and his idea that the Pampas was the next great whitewater challenge in that area. 36 years later, it still is.

How did you prepare for the trip? Is there anything you wish you’d done to prepare?

This is not a trip for the novice. Prerequisites are a lot of whitewater knowledge, wilderness survival skills, and medical skills. Having a fluent Spanish speaker helped us. There are several whitewater guide services in Peru that now run rivers in the vicinity of the Pampas.

How did the trip change you?

It is a country of high desert, with something of the lower altitudes in the New Mexican mountains elicited there. I was enthralled. Success or failure, this is what I wanted to do with my life. For the next three years, I worked two jobs to fund a year long round-the-world trip. Three years after that, I went into China and Tibet, solo, for three months after it had only been open to individual travelers for two years…and 25 more years of that kind of stuff followed.

What the trip did for me was not so much change me as help me recognize that part of me that could, and would, live no other way. As Evelyn Underhill wrote: “He goes because he must. Knowing that for those who can live it, this alone is life.”

What’s next for you?

Next for me is to finish a book, a story I’ve been working on for eight years. Or I may sell all of my remaining things, stuff a backpack and walk into the desert to learn to play the flute I began studying in Varanasi 15 years ago.

Anyone else done a dangerous back country trip? We’d love to hear your stories in the comments.

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Raul Adams March 12, 2016 - 6:36 am

What a magnificent place and a cool adventure! Peru is indeed a dream destination. I hope I could also visit that place someday.

Robert Dyson March 27, 2016 - 1:20 am

Wow what a great adventure you had. I envy those who have it in them to do these challenging trips.

McKenzie March 21, 2017 - 12:45 pm

WOW! This was such an interesting story to read. It sounds like a scary but exhilarating time!


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