Standing 6 feet 9 inches tall in his ski boots, 33-year-old Sun Valley ski patrolman Ryan Casey is hard to miss as he strolls through the River Run Lodge to meet for an interview. He's running a little late because the patrol has been scrambling to attend to a young man with a broken femur below Seattle Ridge.
"This kind of thing only happens about once a year," says Casey, who also grooms ski trails and works other jobs to make a living between adventures.
Casey was one of a group of six kayakers who in early October became the first team to run the upper reaches of the Huallaga River in Peru.
The website www.peruwhitewater.com, a guide compiled by longtime Peru kayaker Kurt Casey (no relation to Ryan), described the trip as "closing the chapter on the last, great, un-run major tributary of the Amazon."
The Huallaga runs through a state capital before making its way down from the eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains into the Amazon River valley. Two previous expeditions had attempted to run the river—the first in 1999 and a second in 2007. Members of the 2007 trip turned back halfway down the 60-mile steep and narrow gorges of the Pongo de Aguirre stretch of the river. The group climbed and hiked out through thick jungle, rather than descending beneath a giant fallen "chock stone" slab into class V rapids that reached into 35 miles of uncharted territory. Class V rapids are considered the limit of reasonable navigation.
Casey said the last group that tried to run the canyon scouted past the slab about a quarter of a mile before deciding to turn back.
"We heard that they were running out of food on the way out. Some of them said they would need a helicopter flyover before attempting it," Casey says.
Other than a few years spent away at Colorado Rocky Mountain School and then at the University of Vermont, where he competed in Nordic skiing, Casey has spent most of his life in the Wood River Valley. A natural all-round athlete, he grew up playing hockey, golf, soccer and baseball, and was a competitive swimmer.
"Growing up around here, there are just so many things to do outside," he says. "Mom and Dad never let us sit inside and watch TV. As you get older, there just isn't enough time to do everything, and some things you can't do as well.
Casey joined the ski patrol four years ago.
"I enjoy it a lot. You get to think on your feet, work with your hands and work outside."
Casey served as "chief navigator" on the Rio Huallaga expedition, "because I was the only one who had a GPS."
He joined Community School graduate Ben Luck, and brothers Matthew and Nate Klema of Durango, Colo., Evan Ross of Salida, Colo., and Matt Wilson of Telluride, Colo. Casey had run rivers with Wilson, who owns the Telluride Kayak School, in Russia, Mexico and Canada, but the Pongo de Aguirre had particular appeal because no one had traveled by boat beyond the fallen slab of rock.
After acquiring topographic maps of the river from the Military Geographical Institute in Lima, Casey set out with the others.
The group took along plenty of food and 200 feet of rope to scale the canyon using Prusik knots in case they decided to exit the canyon. Team members leap-frogged one another through the more dangerous sections, while always leaving one member at a potential egress, just in case the rest needed to be hauled back upstream for an escape.
Casey said the river proved to be one of the easiest of the seven he and the others ran during two months in Peru.
"But it was by far the most scary, because of the unknown," he says.
Members of the group saw car-sized boulders fall into the river. One night they endured torrential rains that set of landslides from a 200-foot-high ledge across the river from their camp.
"Sparks were flying from the rocks crashing," says Casey, who spent the night under a house-sized boulder.
On calmer sections of the river, the group found extraordinary waterfalls, and saw "Tyrolean crossings" of cables, used by the Quechua-speaking natives of the region to cross the river canyon.
During his time in Peru, Casey ran rivers from alpine elevations of 10,000 feet down to 3,000 feet in the jungle.
"We'd go from high mountains down to where the sounds at night get weird," he says. "It's hot and jungly and all kinds of things are trying to poke you."'
Yet Casey is eager to return. He plans to run four of the seven rivers he ran with Matt Wilson on commercial trips for intermediate to expert kayakers.
"This would be for people who are just getting into self-supported trips," he says.
Before heading back to the ski patrol hut on top of Bald Mountain, Casey reflects on the reasons for taking on such challenges.
"I don't know if I could ever stick it out at a desk job,"' he says. "If I can figure out how to make enough money to get by and live a fulfilling life, that's more important to me than ending up with a lot of money."