It’s hard to imagine what was going through Stephan Nicolas’ mind at the put-in for the Class III upper section of Gore Creek in East Vail on Thursday. He appeared to be nervous, and looked like he didn’t quite know what to expect. This would be his first real whitewater experience.
“It took a lot for me to push off into the current,” he said afterward.
But for Nicolas, of Breckenridge, that was part of the intrigue. Kayaking was a new challenge, a challenge he’d underestimated. The 43-year-old triathlete and mountain biker was drawn to the fear and excitement that kayaking entailed.
That was why he signed up for the GoPro Mountian Games Ultimate Mountain Challenge in Vail.
Working in Vail, Nicolas had watched the summer and winter games on a few occasions.
“I was so intrigued by the adventure aspect of the games,” he said. Last winter he started to think about competing in them.
For the 14-year triathlete, most of the events in the Ultimate Mountain Challenge were nothing new. The mountain-bike race, a road-bike time trial and a 10K trail race were all events in which he had plenty of experience. But the fourth event, a kayak sprint, that was something new. And now after misjudging how difficult kayaking was, he had two days to go from first-time kayaker to racer.
Nicolas had been in a whitewater kayak only three times prior — all within the last week and a half. Two of those times were on flatwater, once on a pond and once in a swimming pool. The third time was on a calm part of a creek, getting a feel for eddy currents. All three sessions were part of lessons, under the close supervision of Ten Mile Creek Kayaks owner Matti Wade.
When Wade first told me about Nicolas, I thought the aspiring kayaker was nuts. Just another of the many who think you can jump in a kayak and teach yourself to paddle in whitewater. Turns out, I wasn’t that far off, at least initially.
“I underestimated how hard it would be,” said Nicolas. “When I first got in North Pond (for a lesson), I thought, ‘Uh-oh, this is going to be harder than I thought.’”
When I met Nicolas after watching him attempt to roll in a pool session with Wade — his third time in a boat — I thought he might be overly ambitious. Going from never paddling to racing in a two-week time frame sounded ridiculous and fringed on unsafe. I was tempted to tell him about a kayaking trip of mine that ended at urgent care with six stitches in my forehead.
I thought, I had been paddling for five years at that point, and this guy thinks he can just jump in a river and go.
It was the Tuesday evening before the GoPro games. I saw the potential in his roll, but he still didn’t quite have it. And he had still never been in an actual whitewater setting. To someone who has never paddled, that might not seem like a big deal, but reading a river is about as complicated as reading a putting green, with much bigger consequences. A slight miscalculation and you’re upside down and potentially in trouble — and in frigid water, around here.
Still, I admired his drive. He was excited about getting into something new. Maybe that’s why I didn’t tell him my story. At that point he was still considering running the race in a hardshell. Wade convinced him otherwise later that evening.
The two planned to go to Gore Creek for a test run, and I jumped at the opportunity to witness.
The Thursday practice run was to get him comfortable and to get a feel for the stretch he was hoping to race on. Wade and I were there to help out if he got in trouble.
I watched as he was about to face the first real test of his burgeoning kayaking abilities, just two days before he’d compete in his first race.
As we pulled into the current, he seemed in control. Wade led the way and I followed behind running safety. I was thankful Nicolas had elected a sit-on-top kayak. It was a much safer decision. If you fall off of a sit-on-top, there’s a good chance it will stay upright and you can get back in. Flipping a hardshell will put you upside down in fast-moving shallow water, and the rescue effort is substantially more challenging.
We were about halfway through the run, just before a good-sized Class III drop, when I passed in front of Nicolas. He’d been paddling well, and I wasn’t too concerned. After I punched through a standing wave, I turned to see Nicolas out of his boat, floating in the current. He seemed unable to get back in but unrattled by his predicament. Wade and I were ready to help, but Nicolas had made his way to shore on his own, with boat and paddle still in hand.
We soon realized that the boat he’d rented had come without a cover for the large drain hole on the top of the boat.
By that point the boat had filled with water, and when Nicolas hit the drop it submarined under a wave. That he was able to bring the waterlogged kayak to shore was fairly remarkable.
Wade was able to jerry-rig the boat using an inflatable ballast to cover the opening. The rest of the run went without incident, and we took out in Vail Village.
Albeit in a short period of time, “He went about it the right way,” said Wade of Nicolas’ decision to take lessons. “I think next year he might be able to do it in a hardshell.”
On Saturday, Nicolas participated in his first race as part of the Ultimate Mountain Challenge.
“It went great; it was really exciting,” he said afterward. “It went so fast I almost don’t remember it.”
Charged by a cheering crowd, Nicolas ran the entire course without incident, witnessing others flip and swim. He said he even passed a few paddlers. He credited Wade’s help for his successful run.
“I sure am glad I was on a sit-on-top. It took a lot of the stress off me.”
With the kayak sprint and the mountain-bike race behind him, Nicolas will compete in the 10K trail run and road-bike time trial today.
Now hooked on kayaking, he’s excited to keep with it and improve. Next he hopes to tackle the Upper Colorado.
“It’s one of the most exciting things I’ve done in a long time.”