The RIO BLANCO PROJECT – Source to Sea in Wild Patagonia

by Aniol Serrasolses

Photography: David Sodomka

I first heard about the Rio Blanco ten years ago; the legend of an incredible river hidden deep inside the cordillera of the Austral Andes. For years, I studied maps, gathered videos, and talked with many who had flown around the area. Everyone had the same opinion: it was the wildest and most beautiful place they had ever seen, but it would be impossible to run any of the whitewater or even hike up with kayaks.

There’s no trail, and you must hike through some very thick and muddy forests. The difficult access and fear of getting into a river that was too much had kept us from trying for many years. Then, this season I watched video footage from a helicopter, and what I saw got me thinking that it was possible. I decided it was finally time to attempt the first descent of the Blanco. I made some calls and quickly put together a team including Nouria Newman, one of the greatest all-around kayakers in the world, with lots of expedition and rope experience; David Sodomka from the Czech Republic, one of the best photographers in the kayaking world; Jaime Sandoval, born and raised in Futaleufu, one the most humble and talented paddlers to come out of Chile; and Pedro Astorga, the Chilean powerhouse from Cajón del Maipo.

We gathered in Hornopiren in early December 2021. Hornopirén National Park is part of the Biosphere Reserve rainforests of Southern Andes. Located 120 km south of Puerto Montt, in the Comuna de Hualaihue near the town of the same name, the area is extraordinarily beautiful. Steep snowy peaks meet the sea, giving rise to beautiful fjords. Among the highlights of the park are the Volcan Yates, the Hornopiren Volcano, the Falls of Rio Blanco, high mountain lakes, and more than 22,000 ha of glaciers. The highest mountains are located in the Rio Blanco basin, in the Cordillera del Cerro Inexplorado. We would spend four days in this paradise, making our way from source, high in the alpine lakes, to sea.


As we packed our boats and went over the maps once more, we all had the feeling that we were in for a badass mission. The following morning, we were picked up by my pilot friend, Carles. He was born right next to my home in Catalonia and had decided to make Chile his home, just like me. He was eager to help us as soon as he heard about the mission. The flight took no more than 15 minutes, and we managed to scout the run on our way up. Getting to see the Unexplored Valley for the first time was mind-blowing. I had studied the river for years, gathering footage and looking on Google Earth. The truth is, I wasn’t ready to actually see it with my own eyes. I contemplated in awe the most beautiful place in the world. There were huge waterfalls, stacked sections of boulder gardens, crystalline water, pristine lakes, and snowy peaks in every direction. It truly felt like a dream to be here after so many years of thinking about it.

We landed below Lago Largo, the deepest blue lagoon I’d ever seen. The water was so clear that we could see the reflection of the snowy mountain peaks mirrored back infinitely. Ripples pooled around us, disturbing nature’s perfection as we paddled up the lake to reach the real source of the river.

We spent the morning exploring the source. Over the last 30 years, there’s been a crazy fast receding of the glaciers, and we were standing where the glacier used to be. When I consider how much here has changed already, I can only wonder how much time is left for these places. All too soon, it was time to shift our focus to the mission ahead. We were so excited to finally go kayak and see the crazy features ahead. On any first descent, there’s always that mixed feeling of anticipation, excitement, and fear, of not knowing what the next corner will be like, wondering if we will make it out of this place by our own means?

The start of the river was extremely shallow, and the water was so clear you could see the bottom at all times. The landscape was stunning, and I couldn’t stop staring, awestruck by the surrounding views. We paddled down to Lago Inexplorado and made camp at a perfect sandy beach. We spent the afternoon scouting the first gorge, where an epic set of waterfalls stacked, one after another, in one of the steepest sections of whitewater I’ve ever seen. We returned to camp, unsure if we would be able to run anything but happy knowing that everything was walkable. We spent the night relaxing, eating good food, and carving spoons made out of Alerce wood next to the fire.


We finally got in the mood of running rapids and making progress downstream. We ran a few of the first rapids and portaged the steepest section of impossible waterfalls. The steepness on that stretch is insane—over 100 m of gradient in less than 300 m. Borderline impossible. But we saw some marginal lines out there to be tested by the next group, with different water levels.

It was one of the prettiest portages ever. We were surrounded by thousands of Alerce trees. Despite growing up to 200 feet tall and living for up to 3000 years, the Alerce is an insanely rare tree to see these days as they’ve been extensively harvested for building purposes. The “cypress of the south” is the best wood for construction in the southern climate. They make great roofs, ships, high-end furniture… The Alerce have borne witness to the changes happening here, and to see entire forests of these giants was humbling and very special. Walking around these felt like stepping into another time and space.

At the end of the portage, we found a mostly runnable 40-foot drop with a rock sticking out on the left side of the landing. The lip was a bit scrapey, making it difficult to get hard enough right. I decided to try. I paddled as hard as possible to get far right, missed a bit of speed, and got rejected back towards the left. The side of my kayak landed, hitting the rock, followed by my arm, which almost broke in two. I found myself stunned and confused at the bottom, touching my body to see if I was injured. My elbow pad had saved me from breaking a bone, but I was extremely sore for the rest of the trip. It was a good wake-up call. The rest of the team opted to portage, and we kept moving downstream.

We paddled across the third lake, enjoying the last of the flatwater and the calm sections before  the real stuff. Right after the lake, the river dropped off the face of the earth, an 80-foot kicker waterfall marking the start of the second waterfall section. Around 1.5 km long, this one had very complex rapids, portages, and crazy-big features. We found a beautiful 50-foot drop with a technical entrance and a perfectly calm pool below. Pedro went first and sent an insane boof, and Nouria’s bow exploded at the bottom after a great line. Luckily, she was all good, and no harm was done. Some quick Gorilla Tape and good to go.

We were stoked and happily moved downstream, soon arriving at a massive waterfall (200 ft) “Cascada Lahuán.” The views from the top of the falls were incredible. You could see the entire Blanco valley; it felt as if we were on top of the world. We took some time to appreciate the place before we started thinking about how to walk around it.

The portage was complex, requiring rope work to lower our kayaks and a huge rappel. On the way down, David’s kayak flew down the cliff, over 100 feet drop, all the way to the water. We ran down after it. Luckily, the kayak stayed in the eddy; it was intact, and nothing was lost. It was another close call and another reminder that the rio Blanco demanded more attention.

After the long portage, it was straight into Class V. Stacked sections with sharp rock, technical boating, tons of siphons, and a few big waterfalls followed without respite. It was late in the day; everyone was feeling tired when Jaime didn’t make the corner on one of the tricky rapids. He got properly stuck, pinned sideways. His head was out of the water, but no chance of moving anywhere. Pedro ran to the rescue and managed to jump on top of his boat and pull him out. They both fell into the water, swimming as fast as possible to reach the eddy and not drop into the next rapid. Cold, tired, and rattled, it was the moment to call it a day. We found a rocky spot to camp, cook dinner, and see the stars.


After an early breakfast, it was time to hit the river. We wanted to do a big push to finish the waterfall section and reach the big water gorges. We started the day portaging some tricky steep sections full of siphons only to be met by a wonderful surprise, a perfect double drop. We all had good lines and kept mobbing downstream. At the confluence with the other side of the Blanco, the color of the water changed radically to a beautiful turquoise, and doubled in volume. The valley opened up, and the Blanco became another river. The style went from steep technical creeking to big water creeking through huge boulders.

Luckily for us, the weather was all time, with super high temperatures and long spring days with plenty of hours of light. The snowmelt was in full force, the river pumping with high flows. The quality of the kayaking itself was something else. The river never stopped; every rapid was quickly followed by another one without pause. We were forced to stop and scout pretty much every rapid; we moved slowly, but we were getting somewhere. Every rapid had a line. Some of them were too risky, but we could see an option at all times. There were endless possibilities to go big and take chances.

We were locked in, trapped between steep gorge walls, and the fear of screwing up a line, swimming, and losing all our gear was real. We spent over eight hours on the river that day, and the rapids were only getting gnarlier and more committing. We stopped at the first camp we found and called it a day. We spent the rest of the afternoon scouting, drinking mate, chatting about the river, our goals for the next day, and what this mission meant to us. We felt like the luckiest kayakers in the world, knowing that we were experiencing one of the best first descents of the last 10 years.


It was an early morning start under grey skies, straight from breakfast to Class V. Ahead was a maze of hard, committing rapids. The gorge grew substantially deeper, with fewer exit routes and more complex portages. We arrived at a canyon whose end we could not see, where it looked impossible to portage at river level. We didn’t want to get locked in, so we flew the drone. Everything looked white and quite stout. We decided to start walking.

We gave it our best effort, but hiking around the forests of Hornopiren is not an easy task. We rotated out roles, fighting for every meter. The person in front would open a trail with a machete while the rest of the team pushed the kayaks. Two hours after we started, we had barely covered 200 m. If we continued this way, we would never finish. It was time to head back to the river; we headed down to the cliff and started scouting. We set up a rappel and lowered all our gear. Once we were back at river level, we realized we were still above the rapid we were trying to portage in the first place.

It was almost funny, except for the time and energy wasted. There was nowhere to go but downstream. We ran it, and everything was fine. We continued on. The fear of pushing too far and being locked in an unrunnable gorge remained, but rapid by rapid, our good spirits returned. The rapids were world-class, and we were enjoying the process, running what we could, portaging what felt too risky. We kept a single, simple goal in mind, making distance downstream.

The day was passing quickly, and still, the river showed no signs of slowing down. Instead, it seemed like we were approaching yet another crux. We could see no exit routes, no walking options, and no way of scouting a line on the next rapid. I decided to move downstream and try to scout from the last eddy. If it looked good, then I would tell the team to come down. If I found no line, I would ask for help to get back up.

The rapid required an insanely hard ferry to get to the other side of the river where we could portage the next rapid. If you missed the move, you were falling into what we thought was death. We were face to face with our fear, but also why we were there. Expedition kayaking puts you on the edge, forcing you to do the best you can with the options you have. Sometimes you don’t have a great set of cards, but you still have to try your luck.

We all made it. Below, the river opened up a bit, and big water rapids followed. I stood in awe of the Blanco. This was the most challenging, best first descent I’d ever been part of. But with Nouria’s boat exploding, there wasn’t time to celebrate yet. Good thing a knife and fire can fix anything. We stopped for lunch, recovering our energy for the final push.

We soon arrived at a very deep gorge but instead of worrying, I smiled in relief. This was the waterfall gorge, the classic put-in for the lower section. We rallied into it, big waves crashing on us as we shouted joyfully. The relief, knowing that we made it, that we were going to survive this place, the realization that we had just paddled through some of the most amazing whitewater in the wildest river canyon in Chile, was indescribable. The classic section was pure joy, big water fun with no consequences. We paddled the remaining 10 km to the confluence with the ocean. Our last strokes took us across the sea to the town of Hornopiren, where, absolutely wasted, thankful, and alive, we got out of our kayaks and hugged.

We had completed something I had dreamed of for ten years in four days: the source to sea descent of the rio Blanco. I had high expectations, but I could have never imagined how good it would be or what it would feel like to be there. As Nouria said, following a river from its source to the sea is a privilege. It’ s a journey through both space and time: from the source of the glacier to the ocean, and from the very birth of the river, through its growth, you bear witness to its constantly changing character. The Blanco had it all, the fear and reward of expedition, whitewater we dream of finding, from techy shallow creeking to big water, and incredible scenery that recalls Chile’s past, present, and future. Alerce trees, glaciers, hanging séracs, and crystal blue water. Seeing it for myself has only added to the legend of this place. I feel blessed for the opportunity to share this place with an amazing group of people and can’t wait to come back someday.