Ben Stookesberry has been at the cutting edge of exploratory kayaking for nearly 20 years, accumulating more than 130 first descents, many of which share a signature combination of difficult access, volatile politics and some of the most challenging whitewater ever attempted. And for more than a decade, Stookesberry’s chief collaborator has been Chris Korbulic. Together the duo has accomplished some of the most arduous and exposed river descents in the modern era, and helped turn the focus of elite kayaking away from athletic playboating to the more serious, and dangerous, pursuit of exploration.
This brand of expedition kayaking can wear on bodies, and also relationships, as attested by Stookesberry and Korbulic’s 2017 descent of Colombia’s Rio Apaporis, in which the five-person expedition was so fractured that being detained by armed guerillas came as something of a reprieve because, as they described in a remarkable two-part Dirtbag Diaries podcast, it made them feel like a team again. Stookesberry and Korbulic didn’t speak for months and then traveled to Chile to attempt the Río Año Nuevo, only to find the flows too high even for them. Stookesberry settled for a scary waterfall (in the piece, above) and Korbulic filmed this complex profile of his longtime expedition partner. I spoke with Ben as he celebrated his 40th birthday.
What’s unique about your brand of kayaking?
The exploration aspect isn’t the main focus of the most talented people in our sport, especially when it means you might be portaging for miles. It’s a totally different animal than Class V or waterfall hucking—although sometimes we get that as a part of what we do—and sometimes we have to suffer just to get to the whitewater. In Mexico, we came close to severe dehydration on a 13-hour portage, and in Papua New Guinea we portaged for a whole week of a 14-day descent of the Beriman River.
Yeah, it’s funny because Boomer and I kite-skied across Greenland to get a first descent, but with these rivers we could look at it through a completely different lens, like ‘Yeah, fuck it. Let’s get a first descent of a major drainage in the Rocky Mountains, because there’s no other opportunity like this left in the United States.’
How did it go down?
Boomer and I ran Little Goose first as a two-man team and took a pretty conservative approach. And then when Nouria joined us it was a totally different group mindset. On Big Goose Creek we were still feeling it out a little bit, and then on the Tongue River both she and Boomer really took it to another level.
That river really is, I think, the hardest river section in the continental United States. It took us four days to go six miles. The rapids are super-challenging Class V+, over and over and over. It drops 2,600 feet in six miles. It was awesome. It has a section where it drops 400 or 500 feet starting with rapids feeding into this huge waterfall into this box canyon and then dumps out with a 30-foot waterfall. So it’s got that real classic kayaking aesthetic, and it’s a roadside putin. I think some other groups will go after it now for sure.
The normal trajectory for an athlete is to slow down over time, but you’re pushing as hard as ever and your main concern—judging by Chris’s profile—is how long you can keep going.
In that conversation, it felt like I was speaking directly to him, because we only have so much time and there’s so much that we’ve done together. That’s a real unsung aspect of this passion of mine, of expedition kayaking. These things don’t get done by one person.
You were the only one to try that waterfall though. What the hell happened?
That was Salto Perez in southern Chile. We showed up on the heels of their biggest winter in three or four decades and we’d just driven 24 hours down to the start point for the Año Nuevo, and it was obviously blown out, so we circled around six hours to try Río Bravo and it was running at a much higher level than anyone had ever done it. We were four or five days into this boating trip and hadn’t really boated so I was feeling really anxious and stir crazy. I was just in one of those moods where it looked half-decent and I just wanted to break the monotony.
I thought I had a real creative line picked out, and ended up being just a foot too far to the right. I tried to get my nose left at the last minute, and spun it right where the drop goes vertical. I ended up doing a full back-gainer, but the force was enough landing upright to snap my paddle and blow my helmet right off my head. It blew the straps off, pulled the rivets. That hasn’t happened to me in the previous two decades so I figured it was a pretty good impact (see the drop in the video at the top).
It’s funny that you thought you saw a line because in his profile Chris introduces you as, “Ben Stookesberry, Optimist.” But in the film you also talk about running out of time.
I feel like I have time. I’m in amazing shape. On the Tongue, pushing the sport to that extent with Boomer, who’s eight years younger than me and Nouria, who’s 15 years younger, I realize it’s still in my mentality. Because at this point it’s not about the fragility of my body; it’s more about that mentality and the accumulation of experiences—kind of bad experiences—and not letting them weigh you down to the point where your mind isn’t limber enough to make those moves. I’ve seen so many close calls and lost so many friends and peers who have died on the river. To see all that and keep going you have to go from a place of pure youthful exuberance to a place of more seasoned wisdom. I still get just as excited when I look at the maps as I did when I was 20 years old, and just as excited when I get to run a big drop. But I can’t fool myself about it anymore. The contemplation going into it seems like it gets heavier and heavier and heavier. So when I think about the ultimate trips to the most dangerous places with the most outstanding aesthetic, that’s where I’m like, ‘It’s got to be now.’
So what does 40 mean to you?
I have to continue to boat, otherwise I feel like I lose that ability to be unconsciously competent whenever I need it, and not be distracted—not that distractions aren’t completely valid. We lose a lot of boaters to families and other pursuits.
Right. We’re talking about the danger and physical hardship that comes hand-in-hand with the missions you choose, but your path also closes off family, career, relationships. Do you ever second-guess that path?
When I’m on the river, absolutely not. The payoff is there almost regardless of what river I’m on, and on certain rivers it’s just heightened even more. Something like the Tongue river, just being able to be there although you’re literally as the crow flies 15 miles from an Interstate, you know that that opportunity to be there with those people and those water conditions—it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I’ve focused my whole life on being available for those opportunities, and in those moments I feel absolutely, without any question in my mind, that that’s the only place I want to be.