Paddler Ben Stookesberry on Doing Deadly First Descents—With a Smile

This article was produced in partnership with Eddie Bauer

Ben Stookesberry is the king of first descents. For the last two decades, the Montana-based kayaker has been the first person to navigate more than 130 river sections in 40 countries—and counting.

In the fall of 2021, he and a team of international kayakers, including fellow Eddie Bauer ambassador Chris Korbulic, made the first descent of the Rio Chalupas in Ecuador. Dropping 10,000 feet—from the Andes to the Amazon—in less than 50 miles, it’s one of the steepest, most intense rivers on Earth. It was the hardest expedition of Stookesberry’s illustrious career, which is saying something. In his quest for unpaddled rivers, he’s crossed the Greenland Icecap, climbed in the Himalaya, and survived a kidnapping by Columbian guerillas.

“The Chalupas is in one of the most unpredictable and dynamic environments found on Earth,” says 44-year old Stookesberry. “There’s no stable weather. There was a blizzard at the put in, tropical jungle at the bottom, and incessant rain storms and flash floods. You’re kayaking in a canyon where there’s no way out except downriver. But the jungle and narrow canyon mean you can’t scout the rapids until you’re right on them.”

It’s the kind expedition that Stookesberry loves. “They fulfill my boyhood dream of becoming an explorer and going to places no one has gone before,” he says. In such environments, Stookesberry excels like few others. But he insists his secret to success doesn’t rest entirely on his kayaking skills. It’s just as much about his attitude.

Kayaker carrying orange kayak and paddle with glacier in background
Courtesy Image

Men’s Journal: What draws you to expedition kayaking?

Ben Stookesberry: The kayak is the ultimate vehicle—because rivers are the most ubiquitous features on the planet and the last unexplored crevasses. Some of these places have never seen a footstep or paddle stroke. Kayaks are the only vessels that can explore them. I also like that these are multifaceted missions. When there are lots of unsurvivable rapids, there are lots of portages. It goes from paddling to canyoneering. You’re using ropes to scale canyon walls and machetes to hack through the jungle. You’re breaking down the expedition into parts; planning logistics, safety and strategy; looking for weather windows; and acclimatizing. It’s more akin to a big expedition in the mountains.

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