Check out the Hotel Charley 4 trailer here.
Northern California’s Ben Stookesberry is living the whitewater dream. He works construction jobs during the winter with the legendary Knight brothers to help finance global whitewater exploratory missions, produces films under the Clear H2O brand, was recognized by National Geographic Adventure and has a host of corporate sponsors that help make his lifestyle possible. He’s currently on tour promoting his latest film, Hotel Charley 4, that chronicles his “biggest year yet” of whitewater and cultural exploration. Paddlinglife caught up with Ben to find out more about his lifestyle, his latest film and the real deal on Pedro Olivia’s 127-foot waterfall descent in Brazil.
PL Your projects have come a long way since the original No Big Names! How have things evolved since then?
Ben At my core, I really don’t feel like things have changed much for me since my “No Big Names days,” and that is probably why I am still doing what I am doing. I still love to be on the river more than in any other place. And I still believe that the rivers and the places they take you are more important to promote than those doing the exploring. In other words the underlying ethos of No Big Names is still there, but I guess now a days we are a little better known and well traveled.
PL You’ve stepped your media presence up a bit in the last couple of years—Nat Geo Adventure recognized you in 2007 and you had a big morning talk show interview in March. How has this increased media presence changed your trips?
Ben Really the increased media presence has not significantly changed the trips. For me, it has always been about choosing spectacular and remote locations in which to explore rivers. There have been a few times where we have brought non-paddling photographers and writers along to capture our experience, and to that end we try to accommodate them as best as possible. But when I wake up in the morning the first question remains the same: What is the most amazing river experience that we can have today?
PL What adventures did you have during the filming of Hotel Charley 4?
Ben The filming of Hotel Charley 4 encompassed my most spectacular year to-date. I started off in the Southern Rockies with first descents near Casper, Wyoming and high water runs on a couple classics in Northern Colorado like Big South and Gore Canyon. From there Darin McQuoid and I put together the most thorough Cali Sierra Nevada season to-date, putting up 3 major first descents along with runs of nearly every classic multi-day expedition in California. From there I helped my best friend Devin Knight and his crew build a two lane 120-foot span bridge in Northern Cali over a creek that I had first D’ed 10 years earlier. Like many of my peers I keep up a few months of a “Day Job” to finance the spectacular trips that I do in the winter.
Speaking of spectacular trips, Pakistan was my next destination. Our mission was to attempt the mighty Rondu Gorge of the Indus River with Phil Boyer, Chris Korbulic, Darin McQuoid, and Rafael Ortiz. Of course, this trip would have never happened without the guidance of Roland Stevenson, my long time friend of many an Indian expedition. Pakistan was beyond description and is best experienced a) in person or b) by viewing Hotel Charley Vol. 4. The Indus was certainly the most challenging and biggest river that I have ever run.
From there, I brought Chris Korbulic over to India with me to finish a river that had thwarted attempts by both myself and a vaunted Ellard/ Abbot led team the year before. After 11 days of self-support, Chris and I completed the first descent of the largest River in Bhutan by entering the Twang Tchu River in Arunachal Pradesh, India and 120 miles later exiting the mighty Manas River back in Assam, India.
By that point, I felt like I had all the footage I would need to put together this years film, but my partner Jesse Coombs and Brazilian hucker Pedro Oliva insisted on making another trip to Brazil in search of the tallest runable waterfall on the planet. I guess the rest is history from that Brazil trip, as not 6 weeks later Pedro was in the headlines all over the world for his groundbreaking descent of 127-foot Salto Belo in Central Brazil. If that wasn’t enough, Rafael Ortiz bated me back to my old stomping grounds of Chiapas, Mexico and the steepest runable section of river on earth in the Rio Santo Domingo. After 4 days of trying, we succeeded in making the first complete, top to bottom, descent of the Santo Domingo and thus capped off my 10th and biggest year ever in a kayak. Unfortunately it was simply impossible to fit all of this into a single DVD, so I ended up picking the best of the best for this year’s film. I am still considering a second DVD for release around this year’s O.R. show in July.
PL Tell us about Pedro’s descent. There’s criticism that he botched his line and some doubts that he stuck the landing. In an interview on the Jackson site you addressed this by telling people that the film would clear up any doubts. In your experience, has it?
Ben I truly believe that Pedro absolutely stuck his line except for his angle of entry. There is so much that goes into running a big falls that can get by the lay person or even the kayaker that has never probed a big 15-plus-meter drop. The 38.7 meter drop that Pedro selected to run was absolutely perfect except for the difficulty of maintaining angle off the lip. In the case of our footage, you can see Pedro for nearly all of the 2.97 seconds of free fall so you see him over rotate. I just helped film T Bradt’s new record setting descent, and that was truly amazing, but there is absolutely no proof, other than his word, that his angle upon entry was any better. After 30 feet of sloping entry to the falls he disappears for the next 130 to 150 feet of free fall… But I digress. The final scene of the movie (Hotel Charley Vol. 4) certainly clears up any misconceptions about what actually happened to Pedro when he flushed behind the falls after his record setting descent. I just completed the 8th public showing of the film, and there are literally few if any questions after people see this last segment.
PL You used a track by YGP founder turned Rev-Inn director turned rap star, Rush Sturges aka Adrenaline Rush. How did that come about?
Ben Yeah, Rush is a super cool and talented guy, who just happens to live in Northern Cali as well. So we definitely run in some of the same circles. But beyond that proximity, he is bringing an ethos of collaboration to our sport that is somewhat unprecedented. He not only helped me out with some music, but has also contributed his lyrical stylings to the Risen Sun and Here and Now. His interest and help with my film was the main reason that I was so stoked to help he and Tyler with the filming at the Palouse Descent. I would be stoked to work with those guys in the future.
PL So what’s next?
BenI have been talking for a while now about finishing the Tsang Po. And when I say this, I do not want to take anything away from Scott Lindgren and crew’s massive, paradigm shifting effort. To make my dream a reality, it will take at least a few years of research on the ground and then a very well funded effort in order to pay the Chinese there exorbitant visa fees. What can I say other than, it is a dream?
For Hotel Charley 4 tour dates, Ben’s blog and more info on Clear H2O films, check out their website.