The host of the screening at the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival presented the next film, and a focused girl in a Red Bull cap climbed up to the stage. It turned out that she had paddled three rivers in Ladakh in one week and shot her adventure on camera. Solo.
The next day as I was walking around campus, stuck on my phone and typed in a message to my local contact: “Help me get in touch with Nuria Newman!”, I almost hit her coming out of the corner. Another day later, sitting with a glass of water in Maclab, Nuria told me about her life and the decisions she made to play on the edge.
By Elena Dmitrenko
[To remind you what we’re talking about, let’s watch the movie again.]
How did you appear in Ladakh? Alone on the river.
Before I used to do the Olympic discipline, all my kayaking was competition, competition, competition. And I would just travel from one competition to another. So, when I stopped that, I decided that I no longer wanted to just travel from one competition to another, that I wanted to take more time to do other stuff, not just race and leave and race again in other places because you don’t get to see and experience the places. When you go there, you train, you race, you leave, you get that little bit of an idea of how it is, but you don’t get to meet people or see how they live or find out a lot about their culture and whatever is happening in this country.
So when I flew for this competition, I decided I would stay longer and I joined a team of German and one American kayaker to do a little bit more than two weeks of exploration in the state of Goa.
So we got a part of our expenses covered by the tourism board there and we showed up and thought we were going to have the permits we requested and we got there and we had no permits. Every place we tried to go was not possible. The police were stopping us. We visited a few foreign stations. We tried to get permits, and the only permit we got was one for a section of river that’s too dangerous and the other rivers requested permits. They did not give it to us because that was said it was too dangerous, but it was not true. I was frustrated with India. For me, it was really frustrating because I got stopped by the police for two weeks and I couldn’t do what we had come here for. And then on top of that, they had no concept of personal space.
What do you mean?
So every time you tried to get changed, they tried to take a selfie when you were half-naked, it’s really bad. Or they opened your life jacket and started looking at what you had in your pockets without asking you. And I think maybe it’s just a little cultural gap. But I was really struggling with always having people who talk to me and take selfies and take photos and I understand because, at the same time, they’ve never seen people going down those rivers in the plastic kayaks as we do. So it was like: “Okay, I understand”, but it was just too much for me and I thought “if I leave India right now, I would never go back because I don’t like it”.
Sounds very familiar. What has changed the situation?
I didn’t like it. And so I decided to go up North to Ladakh to try this trip that this Indian friend had told me about. And so at the very last minute, I was trying to find out how I could afford it because I didn’t really have money for the plane tickets up North and I was losing my plane ticket back home. So I made a deal with “Red Bull India” that I would create content for them and I’d give them all my GoPro footage, and they’d pay for my plane ticket up North. And then “Red Bull International” helped me with the other plane ticket and, and then I could go to Ladakh. I just had to record GoPro.
That’s how I did that at the last minute, mostly because I didn’t want to see anyone anymore as I was a little bit over it. And then it just started because I’m really messy and disorganized, I guess.
But it went fine, in the end, it looks like everything ends fine and everything is okay. Some moments in the movie are on the edge.
Yeah, I messed up on the second day.
According to the movie, some moments were “on edge”, right?
I did a lot of mistakes when I went there and I think all those mistakes led me to a bigger one and that was when I was going into a rapid and I didn’t look at it and usually, we stopped and looked at the rapids, but I had the information that that section of the river was easy, so I wasn’t worried, I thought that easy part was good. And I started thinking about other things and I had just seen Shami, it is like a mountain goat, they’re cool.
They are beautiful!
And I was just watching the clouds and the mountains and next thing were that I could not turn around because the current is pushing me and I was going into this rapid and I made a mistake and it was really bad because I got stuck above a siphon and then I tried to get out, but in the end, even if I fought for a long time, I went under. And when you go under it’s like all the water gets sucked under the rocks, so you go under these rocks, it’s like a tunnel cause eventually it goes out somewhere but you never really know and you don’t know if you fit. So when you get stuck you have no idea if you gonna make it out or not. And that’s the most dangerous thing in kayaking. I tried to fight and then when I got sucked in, I was just thinking: “You are an idiot. You’re such an idiot because right now is it’s 50/50% chance you’re going to make it out or not.” Like there’s nothing I could do. It’s like: if I’m lucky, I’m out. If I’m unlucky, I am drowning, and it’s such a stupid way because it’s such a stupid beginner’s mistake of not being focused and not scout.
I think I did so many mistakes. Like I had so much time to think about all the mistakes, I should’ve had a dry suit and I didn’t have one because the customs didn’t know what it was and they kept it in quarantine. So I didn’t have my warm gear because after dealing with stupid Indian police for two and a half weeks and getting arrested, now the Indian customs kept my dry suits, which wasn’t new. It was used and they’re like: “We don’t know what this is. So we keep it”. And I got it after the trip. That didn’t help.
Then the morning when I was leaving, my driver got drunk. So instead of leaving at 5:00 AM… When I showed up at 5:00 AM I tried to wake him up, I pinched him but he was just not moving cause he’s too drunk.
Adventures happened not only in the water, right?
We need to wait till he gets better because otherwise, he cannot drive the car though”. So we waited and then I was on my way later than I wanted to when I started. And I think that unconsciously I was trying to make up time and go faster because I just did so little kilometers on the first day. I did maybe a third of what I should have done. So I was just trying to make up time but it wasn’t a good idea.
And then I bought a paper map because my “InReach” satellite device was not working super well in Ladakh because of technical problems. I was not even sure it was allowed to have it because of the conflicts with Pakistan and China and India. There was some attack coordinated with satellite phones in 2005, so satellite phones are not allowed. And I don’t know about the “InReach”, but I always go with this one because it’s safety. So I went for it anyway and I though: “Well, if they’re so bad at customs and with the police, there is no way they will arrest me for having the “InReach”. But then I met some mountain guy, he told me he got to court for using a satellite phone and when he had his earring at the court, they had all the transcription of his conversation with his girlfriend at the time. So I was like: “Oh, actually maybe they’re good. So I hid the “inReach” when I flew back home, I put it in the bottom of stinky kayaking shoes just in case.
So, there were the elevation lines on the map I brought. They were wrong. So I bought a topo– map and the lines were wrong. It did not make sense and I thought maybe I did a mistake, I had a node book tried to calculate how much the river dropped in the distance, I did the gradient and it did not make sense. Sometimes for three kilometers it was going to be almost flat, and then they paddle in its big rapids and I thought: “Oh my God, I’m so bad at math or I don’t know what is wrong”. And then I found out eventually that the map was wrong. So all my estimation was based on something that was not accurate. That’s why I would just be surprised all the time.
I didn’t have a tarp to sleep, so I went to buy a poncho, which was made in China, a fake Decathlon poncho, size XXL. That worked pretty well. But it was a little bit disorganized. I think I’m always a little bit disorganized. I think it would have worked really well. Just the accident was really bad.
Sometimes shit happens. It’s good for you that you were lucky enough to escape…
Yeah, it was stupid and I was lucky, but at the same time, I did everything to be lucky, like pushed the boat, unclipped, and tried to jump out.
How many years you already kayaking?
Now I’m 28 and I started at five, so 23 years. I started a little bit younger than five but it was not hard because when you’re from four to eight years old, you just don’t do much. You sit and you have fun and it’s okay, but if you start at eight or start at four it’s the same.
Did you manage to carry your passion for whitewater through your life?
Yeah, I guess so. I really like it. I think it’s bringing a lot of different things in my life. When I started, the first time I asked my parents to go kayaking, I was four, and the only reason I wanted to do it was that I was a very big fanatic of Playmobile plastic toys. I had the car, it was blue and yellow and some of my dad’s friends came home with plastic kayaks, they were made from the same material, blue and yellow. And I thought: “This is the giant Playmobile! I want to do this!”. And my parents were not stupid, they said: “No, you don’t do this, you don’t know how to swim”. So I went to swimming lessons all summer and then I got the certificates. It was the thing with the golden duck, which said: “you can swim by yourself”. So, as I could do this, I went go to the kayak club.
I think we’re like Russia and France: we have the clubs and you can join the club and it’s pretty cheap for kids to do sports after school. So, my parents couldn’t say “no” anymore. So they drove me to the kayaking club, which was really nice, and then I started. But at the beginning, I just sat in a kayak and did nothing in the lake and I thought I was going on a great adventure. To this day I still have images of being so young and in my memory, I was in those big bush in the water under my kayak. Honestly, that grass in the water was about 40 centimeters max, but in my memory, it was so high, I was almost in a jungle. It was associated with the “Jurassic Park” era I thought maybe there were dinosaurs and things like this and that’s how I started kayaking. It was just like a game.
And eventually due to the club you can be in and you get into it more seriously. That’s how the clubs work in France. Then I got into it more seriously. I think the first time I started taking part in competitions was mostly because they gave us candies for going to the other bank and back. If you were well at the race you would get a present. It’s like Christmas. And for me, racing was not about doing well, but it was just about getting candies. And eventually, you grow up and you understand more how it works.
A lot of people grow up and understand that to be a professional sportsman, to be a professional climber, kayaker, and so on, It’s not very funny sometimes.
People always see the good sides, they say: you travel the world and it’s amazing and you go down those beautiful rivers or you climb up those mountains. I think it’s a part of the sporting industry responsibility that it’s always seen as something like ideal, it’s like: “Wow, your life is so cool”, like a dream almost. I think it is a dream and it’s cool because I get to do what I love most. But what people never see is what it takes to get there, all the hours that I’ve spent doing the most boring workouts, when I was training slalom or when you get injured, you come back from injury, or when you get scared, or when you have limited it’s kinda a little bit harder.
What price do you pay to live your life?
Sure, I’m traveling all around the world and I’m doing amazing things. But at the same time, I spend more time sleeping on the ground or some friend’s couch than in a bed. When I’m home. I live at my mom’s and I’m 28. I don’t have a car. I don’t have a house. I’m just really thankful that my mom considers that her house is mine too because she’s an amazing mother. That’s the hardest thing because the bars are not so comfortable. I haven’t been home since April’19.
(Nuria finally had a short break at home in France in November’19 – Note Auth.).
Sometimes we just need time to be a little bit at home. Where do you live? Where is your home?
My mum lives in Pau, the South of France, it is really nice. It’s a small town, but quite big.
Did she already see your movie?
Yeah, she saw the movie. It was not a good idea. I think it’s really hard for me. My daddy is a kayaker but it’s not as main, he started at the same time as me. It’s not something he was good at and he pushed me with him. We were not even in the same group. Like he started in the club with the adults, the tourists, and I was with the kids, we were in separated groups and sometimes we battled together, but it’s really rare. And my mom is not a kayaker, she does sport, but she’s not really into sports. She likes museums, culture, and other stuff, a sport not so much. And I think she knows kayaking is dangerous, but I think there were two moments when she realized how dangerous it was. One time when I was 16 or 17, I broke my nose on the waterfall and I had a bad crash. She picked me up and I had no skin on most of my face. I got a cliff into my face. So then for her danger was the waterfall. And as long as I didn’t do waterfalls, it was okay. And I think this one was hard because she realized that it was really dangerous.
Of course, she knows it’s dangerous but it’s a different thing to get the image associated with that. Even for me: I know it’s dangerous and I’ve lived that situation, but watching the images of that accident is always really hard because sometimes I think: “you forget how dangerous it is because you focus on your line and you focus on calculating the risks you’re taking. And once you do that, you don’t leave that room for what you don’t think will happen”. Everyone is talking about risks, but inherently risk is always going to be there. Like if you’re mountaineering, if you are kayaking, if you’re climbing, there is a risk and people always associate the risk with the direct consequences and in kayaking it’s simple: you’re good, then you have a couple of injuries like a shoulder or a broken back and then you’re down. There’s nothing in between. In some sports, like mountain biking, you have a collarbone injury or you break your leg or you have a concussion. They are more gradual. For us it’s different: pretty much you crush, sometimes you have horrible crashing and you can’t get away with nothing, like “I had a little bit of a problem but I wasn’t injured”.
Seems like it’s impossible to avoid traumas?
It just can go from nothing or just die in the same sort of scenario, which is a little bit crazy, but when you talk about the risk I think it is really important to not just focus on the consequences but also focus on the probability. Because the risk is the probability that something bad is going to happen. It’s not something that could happen or is luckily to happen. For example, if I run a class free rapid, which is easy for me, even if it has some dangerous parts, the chances that I am gonna flip upside down and hit the rock are very low, but for someone just new to this sport, if it’s a different class rapid or they’re not quite ready, it’s risky. It’s riskier than for me because the chances that they’re gonna flip and something bad is going to happen is higher and the consequences will be the same for both of us if we mess up. So it’s important to take that into account.
And I just fully messed up as I could not even stop and scout and make a calculated, smart decision because I was thinking about something else and it was too late by the time I realized what was happening.
But when something bad happens, like that accident in Ladakh, which was on the second day, it is important how you act after the accident because it was a river you used to paddle anyway. Someone would be destroyed in such a situation.
And I think, yes, but you don’t have a choice. You cannot stop. There is nothing to do. And I could not go by helicopter, because there was no helicopter.
I know some accidents in the mountains when a situation began from one thing and people didn’t have a choice too, they needed to go further and after that, they just couldn’t deal with it. And more worse things happened. So, you must be strong in your mind to conquer your fare, to understand your mistakes and not to repeat it.
I think I just didn’t have an option. And so you do with what you have. I think a part of the adventure, expedition, and exploration is when you decide to go, if are you ready for that?
You have a plan, and my plan was to go down that river in seven days and to have a great game spot and an amazing time. No crash. I think inherently if you decide that you want to go on an adventure and explore and go on an expedition, you have to be ready that things are not going to go as planned because you’re also in the environment that’s so much bigger and more powerful than you. You can be the best in the world, it doesn’t matter, you still have to struggle at some point, when it gets cold or wet or you have a rapid death that is just beating you up. And that’s part of it is to be able to [continue].
You are tired and cold, scared, and hungry. And you just put your head down and you continue. And I don’t know if it’s a strong mind, bravery, or other words people put in what it is. I’m not sure if it’s that, I honestly think that if I had an option, I would’ve rather just stopped there and got a hot chocolate at my mom’s place straight away. If teleportation existed at that moment, it would have been straight back home, asking for a hot chocolate. But unfortunately or fortunately it was not an option. So I had to continue and maybe it was more than being brave or having a strong mind, it was about being able to shut your mind off, because you have all those bad thoughts about what had happened, and I think that the hardest time was right after that, it (the river) was flat for a good half of the day and the next morning.
And that’s really hard because you don’t need to think it’s flat, you just need to paddle. But then you think about the accident and everything you did wrong and some of the things that had happened in your life and you start questioning everything, even your degree: you don’t use it, because you are doing this thing, which seems to be useless for society. You ask yourself: “I’m just doing what? Kayaking? But it is useless!”.
So, that was the hardest part I think, maybe harder than the accident. Being with your inner demons afterward.
It was nice to see those kids. I think they helped me more than they realized themselves.
Were these kids from the close villages?
There were no villages but there was a monastery and they’re the students to become monks. So their families send them away for the full year and they learn how to be monks, it’s pretty crazy because the youngest ones were about seven years old. They’re really young, but they were away from their families at seven, learning with monks, that’s why they speak really good English and French. I was surprised because I was in the middle of Himalayas, the only way to access that temple is to hike for two full days. And it’s kind of crazy to see those kids with a perfect French accent.
But it’s something to remember from this trip, such a meeting, such a cultural connection.
That was really good and helpful because I got out and I just gave them my gear and I showed them the camera and played with it. Just gave them the paddler, life jacket, and everything. And then they’re playing with it and I was just watching them. I was apologizing to the teacher that the class became messy. And I was thinking: “If you’re not having fun if you’re struggling on your way down because of this accident, you’re doing something wrong. Like you’re doing this because you love doing this and you love doing this because it’s supposed to be fun. And I think those kids were like a big slap in my face, that was like: “ hey, this is not the attitude that you should have and it might be hard, but you need to make things proper.”
And so it is good to get that little reminder of “why do you do things?”
And those kids were great. Very helpful.
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The struggle is real but it’s feels good to put in some work and hopefully get stronger in 2020. Also stoked to meet @utaibrahimi8000 who is preparing for Annapurna and K2 (Uta snap a few photos of the rivers of you see cool rapids on your approach hikes 😉🙏🏼) #workhardplayhard #OB #kayakerswithchickenlegs
Do you train a lot?
I trained a lot when I was doing an Olympic sport, I was training every day to two times a day, sometimes three times a day. And now it’s different because I do what I want, I need to pick my projects and do them. And so I don’t necessarily train. I kayak almost as much as I can, now it’s been four days out of the boat. It’s crazy. It hasn’t happened a lot. maybe since January, I had less than 20 days off. I don’t think I change my training, I still run, I don’t go to the gym anymore because I hate the gym, I find it so boring, but sometimes I tried to go. I try to run, I try to do other sports If I can for my endurance, and I kayak a lot, more than most people.
Maybe now you do a little bit more dangerous things because the Olympic sports ended.
Yeah, I think it’s very similar in a lot of ways. When you miss your line and you lose the race, the consequences are a little bit harder, but sometimes it hurts less to crash than to lose.
Are you a competitive person?
Yeah, for sure. I wouldn’t have competed if I wasn’t. And I think everyone who competes and tells you they are not a competitive person, they are just weird. You don’t take part in the competition if you don’t care, doing it just to have fun. This is a hypocrite. It doesn’t seem very well to say “I’m super competitive”. But I think if you do it, you are. And I think when I started to race, I wanted to do it really well: to take a podium or middle or I tried to win. And everyone who tells you “I just want to have fun” – it is ridiculous. Otherwise, you don’t compete, you don’t need that to have fun. Now I have fun. I don’t need to compete. It’s a little bit freer.
From all of the projects, you’ve done already, what is the one that you like to remember, to return, to picture, maybe to tell us about? I think everybody asks you about Ladakh, but maybe you have a favorite one.
I think I have few favorites, two of them were in Argentina. I went there with Ben Stucksberry and some Argentinian boys. And we did some expeditions along really amazing rivers, the river Diamante and the river Tunuyan. And the other one, that was outstanding, was when Ben and Eric Boomer, they invited me on that expedition in the expeditions, the big ones in Wyoming, and we found two new rivers and we did two cool first descents. And we weren’t on the expedition of the year. (It had happened last year.) I think it was good because they’re Americans, it’s close to their home and we didn’t travel super far to do something crazy. We just found something that hadn’t been done in their backyard and it was pretty crazy.
I like that you can find those things. If you look enough, you can find your little challenges or adventures, they are not as far as you think. And you can go on really fun stuff with friends, combining things. I really liked that because those two boys are legends in the whitewater sports. Ben Stucksberry has done more expeditions in whitewater kayaking than most people. And Boomer crossed Greenland towing a kayak and he has been doing circumnavigation in a sea kayak to Ellesmere Island. And he has so many crazy stories, for example about polar bears and things like this. They are normal, but they’ve done the most hardcore expedition, and for me just to be able to go with those two guys, and to be a part of their team is a great opportunity. And we went to Pattaya in Thailand this winter (winter 2018-2019) and it’s really good, I had so much fun and I learned so much from them because they have more experience.
(two days after this conversation Nuria went to Canada for kayaking – it was late autumn already)
Would you like to repeat your solo experience? Would you like to go somewhere solely again?
I promised my mom, I wouldn’t paddle solo ever again. And my promise lasted about two months after India because then I was back to school in Paris and I had this weekend off and I really wanted to paddle as much as I could before I go back to city life and studying. It’s hard in Paris to go out in the city and do things.
One day I felt like I wanted to do something crazy and said: “I want to do that river”. But I wasn’t allowed to make a solo and I had to join a random group of kayakers. I went with this crew and it was horrible.
And then I was in Squamish and I did another solo recently on the big river and that was scary, scarier than in India, I think because it was harder. But I didn’t have an accident, but I think it was harder. The only accident I had during this solo trip was that one: I had the bear spray and at some point, I needed to portage one canyon because it’s not runnable, at least not solo. So I was portaging that canyon and it was hard to portage it in British Columbia because there were so many trees and it’s hard to go around the trees all the time and I found a way with not so many trees, and then I realized it was a bear track.
I saw a bear’s footprints and thought: “Yes, that’s where they go. That’s why all the trees are down and it navigates well. I should get the bear spray out and have it on me in case if I see a bear and it wants to mess with me”. But I’m not a Canadian, I don’t know anything about bears and bears’ spray. So, I was trying to go through with a big kayak and the bottle in the bag, trying to fight branches and I heard hissing and I realized that I had sprayed myself. And The first reflex was to close my eyes and stop breathing, but then I realized that I did not know where to go because I could not see anything. And by the time I opened my eyes, I also needed to breathe. So I breathed and opened my eyes and I had bear spray in my eyes and they really burnt, they hurt. So I bear sprayed myself, but I remembered that my Canadian friend had told me “if you spray yourself to spore water in your eyes and try to rinse them and don’t touch it”. So, I reached out to my water bottle and there were only ten centimeters in it. And so I had to continue, and luckily in the next five minutes, I found a little creek. It was under the river which was about 15 minutes far from there, it was really good. And after that, I’ve put the bear spray away as I was so dangerous with it. If there was a bear, I would probably just kill myself, I am so incompetent with this that I should probably not use it. And maybe if there was a bear that saw me it would have been probably laughing so hard just from watching me, spraying myself.
Then I saw a bear it was close, so I was scared. But I was in my kayak on the river, but it was really close. I was trying to go away, but there were rocks in the water and I could not go further and he didn’t care. He looked at me and I had a big bright kayak and I was trying to scrape rocks to make a little bit of noise but not too aggressively.
He saw me but I didn’t scare him and he just looked and did his things and I swept and continued.
There is something about solo, that’s different. Whatever you do, you have to deal with the consequences by yourself. And there is something about that forces you to be better or not necessarily be better, but whatever you do, you have to do it. And I like to have that part of the responsibility and sometimes you choose adventures, the nice ones, with all the difficulties.
The classical claim to those who make solos sounds like: others can decide to follow you and die.
It’s really hard to convince some kind of people that they are not able to do something. So, you want to hike 19 kilometers on day one, paddle across the lake for six kilometers, all of this in the snow and then, on day two, to hike up across the glacier back down. There is no trail. I think it goes down, but I’m not sure. And then we get the river, maybe it’s runnable, but most likely not so much. And it’s hard to tell someone “do you wanna come?” because they all look at you and say “no”. Unless there is Ben or Boomer and some people who like. It motivates, when they come with you, it’s good, but otherwise, it’s quite hard. I really don’t want to drag people into my bad ideas. And I have a lot of bad ideas.
Thanks to Asya Mirova and Anastasia Chepurova for help with the material.