Zeta is probably the most anticipated rapid on the Futaleufu, second only to the Throne Room and if it isn’t the most anticipated rapid on the river it is certainly the most anticipated portage. Most paddlers visiting Zeta will no doubt take the well worn portage trail on river-right but for an elite few, running this rapid will be the culmination of a week of world class, big-water paddling on the Futaleufu River.
After False Zeta the river will be relatively flat and calm. The first hint that Zeta is approaching will be a distant rumble from the cascading water of the main jet of Zeta. Shortly after hearing Zeta you will notice the telltale constriction of the canyon walls and the rising mist that signifies another drop. Beyond the horizon line the river plummets abruptly down a large v-tongue and makes an immediate violent turn to the right. The river continues to narrow forming a Jet-Nozzle that blasts between a narrow slot in the river. Here the entire Futaleufu River funnels through a gap of no more than ten meters.
After the Jet-Nozzle, the river starts to decelerate then slams straight into the canyon wall. A third of the current is diverted to the right and back upstream into the Room of Doom eddy. In this eddy there is usually a collection of drift wood floating under Air Rock – a large rock miraculously suspended in the air between two walls. Another third of the river diverts off the wall, then turns 90 degrees and flows along the wall downstream to the left. The final third is a mystery, disappearing under the wall and reappearing downstream as it bubbles out from Jacuzzi like jets emanating from the wall. To the left of this wall the water is an eerily quiet, aerated turquoise stream offering a great place to regroup.
High and Low Water
There is a huge range of water levels where the Zeta looks very similar. Do not be deceived by these similar looks. As the water goes up the features do get larger and more powerful. In addition the hole that causes the Depressed Eddy on the inside of the river-right turn expands outward into the Jet-Nozzle. At lower levels, of around 225 cms (8,000 cfs), it takes up one third of the river. At higher levels, of around 625 cms (22,000 cfs) it takes up two thirds of the river and is very difficult to exit from for some very unique reasons. If this hole goes more than a third of the way across the Jet Nozzle seriously consider walking.
Usually the Expediciones Chile team doesn’t attempt running Zeta until mid January or later, when the Futaleufu is running on the low side.
At under 115 cms(4,000 cfs), a rare occurrence, the Zeta looks like a hazardous creek run. A high percentage of the water flows underground and through the Swiss Cheese like bottom rocks. At 850 cms (30,000 cfs) and above the Zeta alters its appearance again. At the highest water levels the Jet-Nozzle turns into a backward conveyor trapping everything that enters it. When the river is in flood the water can run over the scout rocks, a real sight to behold.
Scout Zeta from the large “Swiss Cheese” granite rock on river right. Be extremely careful while scouting as an accidental fall into the water could lead to a lethal swim. Study carefully your approach as “the game” is decided in the upper third of the rapid. Plan your run with care and have some landmark cues about the entry above the horizon line. This is not a rapid to just throw yourself at and hope that you flush out.
All the rock surrounding Zeta should be considered extremely hazardous. From the scouting area paddlers will immediately notice numerous high-water potholes and the “Swiss Cheese” nature of the rock. This initial view is indicative of all the rock in Zeta. The first hazard, which is very easy to underestimate is the Mother of All Curlers (Mother). This is not a curler that one can brace on with the hope of getting surfed to the right. Mother will engulf and capsize a paddler. There will not be a chance to regain control until rolling up after the Jet-Nozzle. In the main channel of the Zeta, surrounding the Jet-Nozzle, there are two holes, one on river-left and the other on river-right. Should a paddler enter either hole get ready for a rescue. The hole on river-left, called Hell Hole, is truly weird and no one knows exactly what causes the unusual upwelling of water. Hell Hole is most dangerous at low water levels, when it is easy to enter because there is no guard-wave above it. Hell Hole has claimed the life of a kayaker in 1993 at the lowest water level of that year. The Depressed Eddy and the associated hole on river-right is actually a low-point on the river and one has to paddle uphill to get out into the main current and downstream. If a paddler gets rebuffed it can lead to a capsize and repeated roll attempts in the eddy. This eddy becomes harder to exit at higher water because the overhanging rock ledge makes rolling dificult. Depressed Eddy, at a high level has caused the author’s only swim on the Futaleufu in over 20 years of paddling.
The Jet-Nozzle leads directly to an undercut wall with a very serious subduction zone. Paddle hard river-left to avoid the wall and the Room of Doom on the right. Any paddler fortunate enough to miss the undercut wall, but failing to escape to the left, will probably find themselves in the Room of Doom by default. This is a powerful re-circulating eddy that may try to push a paddler under one of the walls. The best strategy here is to get near the wall at the Air Rock where one can find a sheltered area or cove. From the Air Rock Cove one can plan a precise and powerful ferry above the undercut wall to the river-left safe zone. Swimming through the Jet-Nozzle requires another strategy altogether as most people will not have the ability to swim left to avoid the wall.
Where to Swim
Swimming this rapid is not an option and is the biggest reason why this rapid is so rarely run. After the Jet Nozzle swimmers should swim strenuously to the right into the Room of Doom and await rescue. Look for a tiny underwater ledge in the rock near Air Rock Cove where you can rest and get help from friends with a throw rope. Without outside assistance there is no exiting from the Room of Doom.
Where to Rescue
The best thing is to get one kayaker in the Air Rock Cove of the Room of Doom, one kayaker at the bottom of the rapid. In addition, place one rope thrower situated on either shore that could hit a swimmer going into the undercut wall and one rope thrower over the Room of Doom. Even with this set up it is not certain that this system will solve all the problems an offline paddler or swimmer may encounter. Any kayaker attempting this rapid should realize they are on their own out there.
Where to Portage
Take-out above the Zeta on river-right and follow the well worn portage trail to the cliffs on the other side of the constriction. Here you can do an otter slide, seal launch back into the water.
Running the Rapid
One proven way is to depart the scouting eddy paddling upstream as high as possible and then ferrying over to the river-left shore. This leaves all approach options open and gives one time to setup exactly as one chooses for entry into the V-Tongue. If you have memorized the textures above the drop you will know exactly where you are as you come over the horizon line, when the upper part of the rapid appears before you. Aggressively charge across the V-Tongue toward the right shoulder of the first huge standing wave. If you punch the corner, keeping your velocity going with a slight right angle, next up is The Thing. This is a crux move. What happens when you hit The Thing will pretty much determine your run - and your fate. Try and hit The Thing on the weakest spot and power through the white-out into the area of calmer water known as the Eye of the Hurricane. If you make it into the Eye of the Hurricane intact you are on track. You will have only a split second to realize that your are on the inside-right of the rapid. Now that you are right and below Mother it is time to go back out into the main current. Don’t let the Eye of the Hurricane rotate your boat right prematurely. Keep paddling aggressively, straight, as the river turns to the right into the Jet-Nozzle. This could be described as paddling out into the main current as it finishes its right turn towards the Jet-Nozzle. This route looks like it will take you straight to Hell Hole, but when the main current hits the hull of your kayak it will force you quickly to the right and down the center of the Jet-Nozzle between Hell Hole and Depressed Eddy, for a clean run.
Once past these two threatening holes get ready to paddle hard to river-left and into the Promised Land. At reasonable levels you may eddy-out to the right, into the Room of Doom and make a precise ferry in front of the wall. Do not let your guard down or begin to celebrate before you have cleared all the hazards. Under no circumstances allow yourself to get pressed up against the undercut wall.
The line described is not the only one existing but it is one that keeps you in control in this rapid. It is also one that can be more feasibly accomplished in today’s smaller playboats. With a faster hull speed kayak, other variations might be considered that involve Hotel California and the Heaven eddies.
- General overview of Zeta. Video
- Not as easy as it looks. Zeta up-close showing the Depressed Eddy, Room of Doom and Air Rock. Video
- Dean Cummings running Zeta clean. PaddleQuest 1996 Video
Copyrights: (Copyright © 2006, Expediciones Chile) All photos, maps, diagrams, text and computer code is the copyrighted property of Expediciones Chile with all rights reserved.
Disclaimer: Under no circumstances should paddlers substitute the information and diagrams in this guidebook for their own sound judgment on the river and their collective experience running rivers. This guidebook is based on Expediciones Chile's twenty years of experience running the Futaleufu River. However, the diagrams and descriptions found here are only approximations of what paddlers will find on the river once they get here. They are not to scale and nor are they completely accurate. Water levels change, rocks move around, landslide debris can enter the river at any time making the diagrams obsolete. Expediciones Chile also reserves the right to update these diagrams and descriptions at any time as we find better ways to illustrate and discuss the rapids. Use this guidebook at your own risk.Read More: Disclaimer