You’d think the ability to swim would be the most crucial prerequisite for success as a professional rafter. But over the past fifteen years, it’s been almost as essential to have honed one’s white-
water rafting skills in the rapids of Vail.
In that time span, our home valley has spawned nearly every member of both the men’s and women’s U.S. national rafting teams, notably including Chris “Mongo” Reeder. Having just retired from his Behind the Eight Ball team after a decade-plus of national titles and top-five world championship finishes, he says the record of success is no coincidence.
“Every single member of the 2013 team started off as a local guide,” says Reeder, who notes that although the Eight Ball name retired with him, a pair of Eight Ball veterans (with two Summit County paddlers) still will be representing the U.S. at worlds this year. “It is such an advantage to go anywhere in the world for races and not have any fear factor. For us, we’re like, ‘We do this stuff every day!’”
As a guide for Timberline Tours—along with his wife, Lisa, another veteran national team member—Reeder routinely leads trips on the Colorado and Arkansas Rivers, revered and feared worldwide for their steep, fast, and rocky stretches of white water. The job helps them log the hundreds of hours of practice each season required to compete at rafting’s highest levels. If, as so often in the past, a local team earns the right to paddle for the U.S. by winning the national championships, teammates add almost as many hours canvassing local businesses for donations, raising the thousands of dollars it takes to travel to and compete in the world championships on some remote stretch of roiling froth. For the 2001 World Rafting Championships, that stretch was on the Zambezi River in Africa, which like a turbocharged Jacuzzi routinely flows at 70,000 or even 80,000 cubic feet per second (cfs).
“The Zambezi is big, huge water with massive wave trains. If you fall out of the raft, there’s a lot of down time. We call it the White Room,” says Lisa Reeder, who not only managed to stay in the raft on the Zambezi in 2001, but helped her U.S. team take gold in both the Overall and Down River events at those world championships.
Back home on the Colorado or Arkansas, where flow rates rarely exceed 4,000 cfs, waterfalls like the twelve-foot drop known as Tunnel Falls in the Gore Canyon—a Class V stretch of the Colorado River among the most difficult sections of commercially run white water anywhere in the country—provide the proving ground for such international success. When Chris Reeder’s team notched its final top-ten world championship finish last year before his retirement, they had to face down a twenty-one-footer on the Kaituna River in New Zealand along the way.
“It was freaking out every other team there,” he recalls. “The secret was hitting it at full speed to keep the boat flat. It was totally the raft-guide mentality in us—
figuring out how to throw ourselves down steep stuff like that. That was absolutely the highlight of my career.”
As bittersweet as it my be to paddle away from the team he has anchored for a dozen years, Reeder says he won’t miss the routine of waking at dawn to drive to Glenwood or Dotsero several days a week to practice, returning home after the kids have gone to bed. He’s looking forward to spending more time on land with his young daughter and traveling the country to help run Kids Adventure Games, founded by fellow Vail ski patroller Billy Mattison in 2009 as a pint-size version of Tough Mudder, which this summer is expanding to seven other resort towns. And he’ll preserve his Mongo persona in yet another season running rapids in Vail, rejoining the ranks of local guides who, given winter’s prodigious snowpack, are salivating over what promises to be one of the best and biggest white-water seasons in years.
So big, it could be the new highlight of Mongo’s storied career. —Shauna Farnell
Whetting Your Whitewater Appetite: If your bucket list includes throwing yourself over a waterfall in a raft rather than the proverbial barrel, all local outfitters specialize in at least one hair-raising (or hair-soaking) trip down Class V sections of white water (the most challenging grade, equivalent to a double black ski run). They all also offer gentler trips through Class I, II, and III sections of the Colorado and Arkansas Rivers and, earlier in the season, locally on the Eagle River. Here are three great trips to consider:
Expert – Gore Canyon
Pioneered by Timberline Tours, this trip rockets through a deep canyon in the Gore Range, including a twelve-foot Class V drop over Tunnel Falls, ranked among the most difficult runs in the country. How difficult? Consider the prerequisites: you have to be at least 16 years old and physically fit, meaning you can run at least a mile and swim ten laps in a pool.
Intermediate – Shoshone
If you’ve ever driven through Glenwood Canyon and glanced down at the Colorado River as you near Glenwood Springs, you’ve probably seen the torrent of water rushing out of the power plant. “We get rafting through September on that section,” says Lakota Guides owner John Mark Seelig, a member of the 2014 U.S. rafting team. After the Class III mayhem, the water becomes pleasantly glassy, enabling you to ogle the breathtaking red walls of the canyon before hitting a few more Class II rapids and ending near Glenwood, where hot springs abound and intentional swims are encouraged. lakotaguides.com
Family – Brown’s Canyon
Just because children under 12 are allowed doesn’t mean you won’t get wet: this Class III trip on the Arkansas beginning near Nathrop transits a narrow canyon cut through the Sangre de Cristos, plunging down about ten miles of river with exciting drops and splashes along the way.