By Scott Martin
Posted on October 27, 2016
After decades of work, American Whitewater succeeded in opening access to Yosemite National Park for paddlers. The park hosts a number of rivers ranging from Class I floats to multi-day Class V+ epics, including the Merced River above Nevada Falls. On June 1st, 2015, South African professional paddler Steve Fisher took the first steps in paddlers’ collective dream to paddle this long forbidden fruit. With him was Pat Keller, the southeastern expedition and waterfall guru. Both paddlers have made careers out of charging into the hardest, most remote whitewater expeditions they can find and completing them with style and grace. I joined them with a film crew to document the trip.
We approached the river from Tuolomne Pass, hiking 17 miles through alpine meadows, past icy cold lakes, and into the headwaters of the river. At the end of the first day, after hiking with a loaded boat on his back for nine miles up and over a 10,000 ft pass, Keller was still keen to explore. We scrambled up to a rocky point overlooking the Merced River valley, staring in awe at the massive snow covered peaks surrounding us. In the distance, I could just make out the trail the crew would be hiking the following day. I knew I needed a shot of that from this vantage point. The following day we completed our hike, arriving at camp thoroughly exhausted, but eager to see what the river had in store for us.
An early start on day three got the team into the action right away. The Merced River is truly a gem with crystal clear water, massive slides, a handful of stout boulder gardens, and truly unbelievable scenery. With heavy rains on the afternoon of the second day, tension reached a pinnacle as we waited to see what the river would do. The window for approachable flows is quite narrow, even just a little more water than what we had could make the holes at the bottom of some of the bigger rapids absolutely monstrous, and too little water would easily result in a portage fest around boulder fields. The river actually continued to drop, leaving just enough water for Fisher and Keller to complete the epic first descent of this amazing river. All that was left was a seven mile hike to the valley floor around the nearly 600 foot Nevada Falls and the 300 + foot Vernal Falls.