At ACK, we stand by our slogan, “Outfit Your Adventure”. We like to supply our customers with the paddle, the life jacket and whatever else one would need for their adventure and eventually hear about their experiences. Our business is adventures and I recently had the opportunity to sit down with a man who had a very unique one, an adventure that very few would ever even consider.
The man is West Hansen and the name of his adventure was the Amazon Express. Why that name? Because West decided that he wanted to be the first person to solo paddle the entire 4,225 mile length of the Amazon River, and he wanted to do it faster than anyone ever had before. He finished in 111 days, breaking the previous record of 140.
“I was turning fifty,” says West, “that was part of my motivation. Another part of it is that there are few things that we do well in this world, and I paddle long, long, long distances well.” He explains that he started whitewater paddling when he was 20 through a college course and enjoyed it. Eventually though, West “got tired of rescuing tubers on the river” and transitioned to surf ski kayaks and began his career in marathon racing.
After competing in (and setting a new record for) the Great Amazon River Race in Peru, West found himself reading Running the Amazon which starred his future mentor, Piotr Chmielinski. “Chmielinski became my mentor & friend, and still is,” says West, “He helped me through the logistical frustrations for the Amazon Express and is even helping me plan my next expedition.”
It took West about two years of planning to get the expedition together. He gathered sponsors, talked with local organizations and anyone who might have insights for his adventure. “There was a lot of push back from my family,” says West, “Mostly because of the danger. But eventually they got on board.” In fact, West says that his sister, Barbara Eddington, became somewhat of a team manager, who he talked to every day of the expedition via Satellite phone. His 8th grade daughter also contributed as one of the support team members and headed up a bio-diversity project that accompanied the expedition.
The expedition itself was divided into two sections. The first section was 460 miles of whitewater through ankle deep creeks and a narrow canyon with rapids ranging from class I ripples to class VI+ rapids that required portaging. For this, he was usually accompanied by guide Juanito De Ugarte, renowned whitewater paddler Rafa Ortiz and professional kayaker/cinematographer Tino Specht. After this stretch, West changed from his whitewater kayak to his expedition ‘yak and prepared for 3,800 miles of flat water.
Along the way West hit two snags. The first, which he actually encountered five times, was armed gunman. These ranged from drug traffickers to pirates. “The scariest of these encounters were just some scared kids with guns,” said West, “they looked at us with their wide eyes and triggers cocked and it was not a situation we wanted to be in.” Despite this, West and his support team made it through uninjured and with the only major loss being a camera for Nat Geo. The second snag was a bit more unexpected.
In the final stretch of the flat water, West hit a powerful headwind and huge 10-12 foot waves that considerably slowed progress to a grueling 3-4 mph. As a result, the team hired a river boat that would follow and allow for occasional naps in their Grand Trunk hammock. “Schedules were thrown out the window,” he said, “It just wasn’t something we were expecting.” It was in these conditions that West finally found the end of his expedition.
West hopes his story will serve as inspiration and motivation to others. “What I want people to take away from the expedition is this,” says West, “I’m a fifty year old man with no special ability. What got me through everything was simply to keep putting one foot in front of the next.”
So what’s next? West says we can expect findings and footage from Nat Geo, who sponsored 1/3 of the expedition. Perhaps even another expedition in the future from West. For now, though, you’ll probably find him in his home, catching up on some much needed rest and re-adjusting to a normal Texas diet. Welcome back West, we can’t wait to hear more about this adventure.
For those in the Austin area interested in learning more, West invites you to join him for a reception which will include a slideshow from National Geographic photographer and fellow paddler Erich Schlegel, videos from the expedition and a talk plus Q&A from West. The reception will take place Saturday, January 5th at 5 PM at New World Deli in Austin.