If Henry Whitcombe and Douglas Lauper could be transmogrified through time to anywhere in the Whitcombe River on a summers day they would not believe their eyes (I guess a helicopter would be enough to do the trick). This river of hell, which took them fourteen long days to descend in 1865, is now the home of two classic kayak runs. The upper section from Cave Camp to the Cropp River confluence was added to the list during the 98/99 season by Arnd Schaeftlein, Andi Uhl, Mike Abbot, Andy Phillips and Allan Ellard.
The journey begins just below the massive east face of Mount Evans with its big waterfalls and hanging glacier. Things start gently enough and provide plenty of time to warm up. This is good because when the river begins to speak you need to be listening. If speaking is class IV/V then the Whitcombe shouts, and sometimes at the top of its lungs. This is not an easy day out.
The first gorge from Cave Camp drops at over 100m/km and has many big drops stacked on top of each other. Many are runnable, some will be in the future. Like many of the very hard runs flow levels are critical to the possibility or impossibility of the bigger drops. It’s one of those runs, where at low flows some things will be a go while others are stupid, and a little more water and catchy edges will ease off but drops become bigger and more aggressive. The first day to Prices Hut is long - by anyone’s standards. Just as you think things can’t get much bigger and perhaps your watch has stopped, you arrive at the confluence with Prices River and two monstrous drops. These drops coupled with the location, late afternoon light (trust me it will be at least this) spray and noise are breathtaking and worth sitting for a while to enjoy. From here you only have 800 metres to the hut and cerebral respite from the very big and the very steep.
You have about twelve hours to nurture your body and brain back to some sort of working order before starting the second day.
Day two starts easily enough. Toitoi-lined gravel rapid, beautiful mountain scenery, class II riffles - all for about two hundred metres. If anyone in your team is struggling - the very first drop of the day is indicative of the next four hours. Either get out at the swingbridge and start walking downstream or head back to the hut and wait for the helo extraction. Once again things are very steep with some mandatory portages. Use the track on the right side at the first gorge portage, the second gorge is better at river level. Rapids and drops are too many to mention and if you need descriptions from a book you shouldn’t be there in the first place. About four and a half hours will see you finally clear of the gorges and get into a couple of kilometres of class III/IV water down to the Cropp Junction. From here on out you hope you have enough energy to paddle the rest of the river and Colliers Gorge (see Whitcombe for Colliers). When I did this trip, a week after the first descent, Dave Ritchie, Ollie and I arrived at Colliers Gorge and caught up with a bunch of day trip people from the Cropp. They were all scouting and probably expected great things. We were so knackered we just fell through Colliers in a shambles of boats, backwards, upside down and every which way. I’m sure we left the spectators wondering how the hell we managed the upper but at least we were in the Kokatahi Tavern three hours before anyone else. It’s a great trip but you need a very strong team.
To get to the take out: Talk to the helicopter pilot and see what take out spot is best to use. Most commonly, follow signs from Hokitika to Kokatahi. From here follow signs to Hokitika Gorge. Once the road turns to gravel park at the bridge just before the road climbs up and around to the Hokitika Gorge. Or, if the road is okay, shortly after this bridge there is a side road on the left posted Whitcombe Valley Access. Follow this to its end at the old hut site or any other take out/pick up. The road is very rough with one culvert that occasionally washes out. Allow at least an hour from Hokitika to pick up time.