I recently picked up the DVD of the 1976 British Kayak expedition to Everest that was led my the late Mike Jones.


It was one of a couple of films that was hugely inspirational to me as a kayaking obsessed teenager in Tasmania  (the other was ‘Fast and Clean’, a documentary about US paddlers preparing for the 1979 World Slalom championships). Watching it for the first time in maybe 30 years brought back all sorts of memories.

Back in 1978, if you wanted to watch a kayaking movie it came as a 16mm film reel, that had to be projected in a darkened room.  I don’t remember how we did it, but we managed to convince our high school librarian that there was educational merit in this film, so she arranged for it to be sent to our school. We marveled at the standard of paddling and the glamour and adventure of traveling to Nepal for a first descent of the Dudh Khosi, the river that runs off a glacier at the Mt Everest base camp.

Seeing the film again now, accompanied by contemporary interviews with the surviving paddlers, and previously un-released 8 mm ‘home movie’ footage, was revealing on a number of levels.

Most obviously, the amount of change in whitewater paddling over the years. The opening shot of a broken boat floating semi-submerged down a rapid reminded me of how fragile glass boats were. These guys paddled 4 metre slalom boats, which compared to today’s boats are eminently unsuitable for the task.  In those days fibre-glass repair kits were an essential bit of kit and it took much longer to scout and run rivers than it does today because of the real risk of boat damage. Hard to imagine for youngsters brought up on plastic.

I remember too watching with envy the fact that all the expedition paddlers had wooden paddles. There’s a beautiful quote in the film about the special “handmade wooded paddles costing at least £25″.  It certainly set off kit lust at a time when we made our own paddles from a length of aluminium tubing and moulded fibreglass blades.   The trouble was that wooden paddles would usually end up split and broken on the rocky Tasmanian rivers!

And then there was the style of the film itself.  The narrator is serious and posh,  sounding very BBC.  The film quality itself and camera angles are great, no doubt due to Leo Dickinson, one of the great mountaineering film-makers.  Shots from the water involved the paddler having a camera the size of a large shoe-box taped to the front deck of the boat – clearly making the boat unstable and harder to paddle. Worth remembering the next time you slot a Go-Pro HD camera to your helmet.

Finally, these guys drove overland from the UK to Nepal and back again.  The adventure clearly wasn’t limited to the river!

I also reflected on what hasn’t changed since 1976.  The joy of taking off on an extended trip with a bunch of mates.  The adventure of tackling a new or unknown river.  Experiencing new cultures and people. The risk and reward of whitewater, and how much we rely on the quick wits of paddling partners when things get sticky.  The exhilaration (or relief) at getting to the end of the trip in one piece.

Maybe these are the important things that make whitewater special, whether its 1976 or 2011.

What paddling films have inspired you – and why?