Cosmic executed post supervision, color, and VFX on the four-part HBO docuseries, Edge of the Earth.
Elite kayakers Ben Stookesberry, Nouria Newman, and Erik Boomer venture deep within Ecuador’s vast Llanganates National Park to attempt the first whitewater descent of the Chalupas River. With no map, guide, and only one point of emergency access to the outside world, the athletes must rely on one another to navigate the river’s uncompromising terrain.
Ben Stookesberry is known for over one hundred first descents in 27 countries; now, he’s attempting to be one of the first to cross Llanagantes via the Chalupa River.
“To be able to make a journey through a place so few other people have experienced is like maybe being the first person that goes to the moon,” says Ben, emphasizing Ecuador’s topography is like no other. “This is a place that doesn’t exist almost anywhere on the planet.”
With Ecuador being one of the most hydrologically rich countries, there’s a huge potential for white water kayaking alongside a completely roadless, vast, impenetrable jungle. Along for the ride is Nouria Newman, 2x Kayak World Champion, “We know it will be big, and complicated, and remote, and continuous. I think that makes it the highest difficulty on the kayaking scale.”
Stookesberry came to know of this young French girl running some of the biggest rapids and was instantly intrigued. Newman grew up in a small village of the French Alps, where she joined a local kayaking club at age five. From then on, her ultimate goal was becoming a World Champion; once she achieved that goal in 2013, she thought “What’s the point?”. Soon, Stookesberry took Newman under his wing, resulting in five years kayaking together.
Erik Boomer, National Geographic Adventurer of 2012, grew up in the potato fields of Southeast Idaho. As the youngest of two brothers, one a heavyweight wrestler and the other a professional football player, he was forced to be tough. Boomer brings a unique kayaking style, “He’s at his best when most uncomfortable,” says Stookesberry referencing the missions Boomer’s pulled off, specifically highlighting Ellesmere Island, which “sounded like the most horrific trip I could ever imagine.”
“I love this stuff,” says Boomer. “Money is not what I’m chasing. It’s the experience.”
Boomer adds, “The one thing about this river objective: nobody’s done it. There’s no map. There’s no information. You’re moving through this huge national park that doesn’t even have a park ranger.”
The challenge of crossing Llanangates is only possible because of the whitewater kayak. Stookesberry explains in this way, it becomes a life accomplishment after training as a whitewater kayaker for over two decades, “There’s no other accomplishment that I could imagine would match that for me. It’s like winning the World Series.”
In Quito, Ecuador, the trio plans their expedition, anticipated to be at least two weeks in the river. They’ve executed several of the most intimidating river challenges together, such as the Big Horn mountains of Wyoming or the huge mission in Patagonia on Aña Nuevo, where they learned their potential of functioning as a cohesive team.
“People kept telling us, it’s too steep, there’s no way you guys can pull that one off… And we did,” Newman says. “It’s not just a group of professional kayakers; this is a group of really good friends.”
Newman refers to Stookesberry as the most experienced expedition whitewater kayaker there is, referencing his records. Boomer goes on to explain there’s two sides to Stookesberry’s reputation: that he’s paddled more first river descents than anyone else, and the other being a bit of a cowboy. “Some people are scared to go on missions with Ben,” says Boomer. “There are times when I maybe felt the same way.”
“I like being the one that will push until the very bitter end and never say no,” says Stookesberry. “I haven’t had success on every river, but I like to push it as far as it’ll go.”
Abe Herrera, Safety Coordinator, explains the mission is on before the team even touches water, with the approach to the put-in marking the beginning. A mix of local ranchers and four-by-four specialists out of Quito, an unlikely group, help the team to shelter: an abandoned government building.
'At the shelter, the team decides to separate the river into two sections: the upper and lower Chalupas. The Chalupas river is 50.2 miles and 10,846 dt to descend, one of the steepest and technical whitewater descents ever done. It’s a huge risk to go into this river cut off from the outside world; if someone has a close call, they will more than likely still die since they are so far out and almost impossible to access.
The trio spends their first night on the river after taking longer than expected to get downstream, excited about the promising weather that unfortunately doesn’t last.
“I just did not think about a blizzard,” Stokesberry says. It’s snowed for eight hours, with temperatures the lowest they’d been in years. It becomes not an easy, but a mandatory decision to head back to the shelter; tiny tributaries they simply hopped across on their way in have now become raging torrents. Proving one of the reasons the Chalupa river has scarcely been explored: it’s more prone to flash flooding than anywhere else on Earth.
“It’s going to be a river that really takes patience,” Boomer states.
By day 8, the rain had stopped and there was a plan to begin to move downstream. A week behind schedule, doubt and unanswered questions begin to bubble up. And as they continued to make some mileage, they knew turning around was less and less of an option, before passing the point of no return.
By day 10, they’d reached one of the deepest sections of the river, proceeding slowly, steadily, and carefully. “I love it because you think you’re gonna die one moment, and then you don’t,” says Boomer.
On day 11, the trio is 48.3 miles from the endpoint and must begin portaging, a way around running a section of river when it’s unsurvivable, slowing them to a crawling pace. This begins the first clash between Stookesberry and Newman, emphasizing the immense pressure when stakes are this high, along with the importance of communication. As the rapids become increasingly deadly and the team continues to fall behind schedule, they come to the stark realization they might not be able to move through this crazy terrain.
“To see the Chalupas in this pristine form, it just makes it all the more tragic to see what can potentially happen to this river in my own lifetime,” says Boomer.
“The crosshairs of development and of water resource extraction is squarely on the headwaters of the Chalupas,” adds Stokesberry. “We need to start speaking up because the river could be totally changed, jungle altered and compromised, if we don’t put our hands up right now and start paying attention to it.”
One of the reasons the trio is one of the first to attempt the mission, is due to dropping into gorges with no indication if one will be able to retreat until they drop in. Newman says, “There’s only one way to know, to commit to the canyon. It’s scary.”
Day 16 brings another thunderstorm, bringing the river to spike up a foot higher than the day before- too much water to navigate safely. Even when the river is low, one mistake is a life or death scenario; now, one mistake means you’re undoubtedly dead. With nowhere to go and running out of supplies, the trio attempts to communicate with Abe via their satcom inReach. Though the satellite texting unit initially worked well, every step downstream delayed messages further, leaving them extremely vulnerable. Newman becomes more and more concerned with the state of the mission, feeling like they’re “in a really bad spot.”
After three days of no progress, day 19 is make or break- if they’re not able to progress down the river today, they may not make it. They run the river blind, causing a few close calls. Boomer says, “A week ago, we probably would have just stayed at camp on a day like this with the high water but now we feel the urgency of going downstream and getting out of here.”
Day 20 brings another pause in action due to a rainstorm bringing the river up an additional 2.5 ft. Days pass and spirits become dampered, with lots of talk of “what ifs”. The group agrees in order to continue, good weather is essential, but Boomer adds he could “still probably be convinced.”
With this, Newman’s fears begin to grow, “It was really hard, because I was like we have all the redlights: environment, the steepness, the remoteness, the forecast. It’s all against us…and they’re still talking about going all the way down. I was starting to question if my partners and friends were still making the right decision.” Though Newman lacks drive for the first time in her career, Stokesberry is still “fully committed to going downstream.”
At the Ground Support Helipad team in Tena wait for conditions to clear up to attempt an evacuation. But, everytime a helicopter is brought into a rescue, anything can go wrong really fast due to their unique conditions brought on by temperature and high elevation. Once they arrive by the kayakers on the beach, the pilots tell them the air is too unstable to get any closer, and an evacuation is too risky.
“If someone gets injured, that’s game over. Just a whole another level of commitment,” says Newman. It becomes clear that in order to leave the river, they must continue downstream.
On day 26, Newman continues to emphasize her want to get out of the challenge, “I’m not against risk taking, but I want to control the amount of risk I’m willing to take. And at this point, I don’t have that control.” She told her friends and family at home she’d be gone only four weeks, and though kayaking makes her happy, it also makes her selfish; the people you leave at home have no communication, they don’t care if you succeed or fail, they just want to see you again.
How critical communication is proven when another fight between Newman and Stookesberry occurs. “At the end of the day, when we had our worst blow up, when we had our worst communication, when it just felt like this five-year-old really precious friendship to me had totally deteriorated” Stookesberry says, detailing events leading up to cutting his finger with a machete. “I feel like with cutting my hand, it was, like, this physical ‘karmatic’ manifestation of the issue that had developed between Nouri and I…A sliced finger isn’t a big deal in day to day life, but in extreme class six white water kayaking your life depends on your hand. It was pretty clear my clock was ticking in terms of an infection.”
By day 28, the trio is about to tackle what may be the most dangerous part of the entire trek. Situated just upstream of their goal, the only hope of exit is peppered with areas that are completely unsurvivable.
You know, you’re at the top of a hard rapid, I had decided to run it. It means im 100% sure that I will get it. I’m not gamlbing,” says Newman. “At the end of that day, Ben and Boomer were still talking about making it all the way downstream.”
“Up until this point I was like ‘No way am I going to stop willingly, No way’. But it’s been such a monster undertaking, I just can’t even imagine going to the next 40 kilometers to the finish line right now,” Stokesberry says on day 30, still 24.8 miles away from the original objective and 23 days behind schedule.
“I’m so proud of what we did. And I’m proud of how we did it. Safely moving through those danger zones, and one of the hardest sections of white water that’s ever been done,” says Boomer.
“I’m really thankful for the opportunity to be able to put myself in this situation even if that means it gets really hard and uncomfortable at times. That’s what I live for,” says Newman.
“There’s a part of me that only truly exists and thrives in these river canyons with the unknown in front of us and hard work behind us, anywhere else, I’m a lesser version of myself,” says Stookesberry.
Stookesberry and Boomer remained in Ecuador in hopes of finishing the mission, but returned home after 30 days of bad weather. Five days later, Stookesberry returned with a local kayaker; only after nine days after being back on the river, Stookesberry suffered a near-fatal machete wound forcing a helicopter rescue. The lower Chalupas remain unrun.