How not to cross a raging whitewater river on horseback

Travelling by horse in the remote parts of Kazakhstan’s Djungar Alatau Mountains is never easy. Steep slopes, the lack of pathways and, most particularly, the many river crossings make these journeys hazardous, even in the most favourable conditions. No more so than in September last year as our small group of eight riders were coming towards the end of a long and arduous descent of the valley of the Big Bascan  River.

The Big Bascan starts high in the mountains in the glaciers of some of the tallest peaks in the magnificent Djungar Alatau range, particularly Peak Tianshansky  and the Shumsky Glacier. Normally by the beginning of September it is beginning to decrease in ferocity as lower temperatures in the mountains lead to a decrease in meltwater. But in September we faced a combination of two factors: first, the weather was warmer than usual and second, we had experienced a huge storm the night before our descent, meaning that the river was higher than usual.

The Big Bascan River has cut its way through a series of narrow canyons in the mountainside meaning that to follow it down we were forced to cross the river six or eight times, making best use of the margins of the river. As you will see in the footage below, some of these crossings were distinctly dangerous. In the clip that follows you will see me follow our guide Ruslan into the river. He makes it across, but as I follow close behind, my horse is swept off its feet and I am tipped head first into the river.

In such crossings it is normal to take your feet out of the stirrups in case you go into the river, thus allowing you to escape from the horse. This is what I did during this crossing, but unfortunately my foot got caught in the reins as the horse stumbled on the rocky bottom of the river. With a large daybag on my back I found myself being dragged under the water and unable to escape. After a terrifying few second I finally got free and began to float off down the river. To my intense relief Ruslan jumped in and grabbed me by the neck as I was floating by him. After a few moments, with his help, I was able to drag myself out and remount. No point in finding dry clothes as it was pouring with rain.

Twenty or so minutes later my horse was swept off its feet again and I had a second ducking. It was a salutory experience and brings home exactly how tough it must have been for the Atkinsons travelling in these mountains with a young baby. Total respect!!!

PS Thanks to Harvey for the clip.

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