MT Sobek Celebrates 50th Anniversary (Plus: A List of Sobek 1st D’s)


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Celebrate your own first descents all you want. Unless you’re Ben Stookesberry, you likely don’t hold a torch to those compiled by rafting pioneer MT Sobek, which has more than 100 classic (okay, some not) first descents around the world and is celebrating its heralded 50th anniversary this year.

“Sobek has done a lot more of first descents,” says company co-founder Richard Bangs, who started Sobek with fellow river runner John Yost in 1973. “If you look at final pages of book “The Lost River” from 1999, it has a listing of first descents to that point, and I think it numbers 61. And that was back in 1999, and we have done so many since then. I’d guess we have over 100 first descents under the Sobek umbrella now. Yost is still carrying the flag, and has been doing first descents up to the present—and we are planning another first descent in Angola for later this year.

Join in on Mt Sobek’s 50th celebration in Salmon this September!

Come join as we celebrate our insane history – According to INC, 96% of all businesses fail in the first 10 years. Who in right mind would have predicted Sobek’s passion mission of adventuring and exploring the wild places of the world would still be stout after 50 years?  Time to raise a paddle and feast the beast! We have big plans for a year-long 2023 celebration with a commemorative array of domestic and international trips.  Our weekend-long Golden-anniversary celebration will be hosted at our Idaho Warehouse over the 2023 Labor Day weekend. We invite everyone to join us for two days of festivities and fun. You all have been an important part of this heroic poem of a  journey and we look forward to sharing this future-legendary weekend with you!

“Since our first commercial rafting trip in 1973, we’ve run thousands of rafting and kayaking adventures around the world,” adds MT Sobek’s Heather Howard, whose company is rolling out several 50th anniversary trips this year to commemorate the milestone. “So, whether you’re a novice on the water or an experienced paddler looking for a new adventure, we have the river rafting and kayaking tour for you.”

Named after the Egyptian River God, Sobek was founded by river runners Richard Bangs and John Yost in 1973. During their heyday, the company ran more than 40 first descents on some of the world’s best rivers, including the Bio Bio (RIP), Africa’s Omos and Alaska’s Tatshenshini. In 2022, Bangs was named one of the 100 Greatest Explorers of the Last 100 Years by The company eventually combined with Mountain Travel to become Mountain Travel Sobek—today’s MT Sobek.

In His Own Words: Bangs on the Origins of the Sobek Name

“John Yost and I had a big idea, but small wallets…just a few hundred dollars between us,” writes Bangs in a special 50th commemoration. “So, we figured we needed sponsors, as we had a vague notion that the great expeditions, like Hillary’s on Everest, or Thor Heyerdahl’s across oceans, had sponsors.

“I knew there would be a lot of bugs where we were going, and that some perhaps were unclassified, so that gave me an idea. I called the Smithsonian Institute’s department of Entomology and asked if they might be interested in a sponsorship in exchange for collecting bugs.

“This put the pressure on for a name. I felt we couldn’t present ourselves to potential sponsors without a proper name…I spent the next several days at the Library of Congress, poring over books describing the many ways we could die while rafting in Ethiopia, and thinking about a name. There were many, including the rapids; hippos; wild buffalo; black mambas, spitting cobras, and 20-foot pythons; and a score of documented exotic tropical diseases, from Onchocerciasis (River Blindness) to Elephantiasis, Tripanisomasis (Sleeping Sickness) Trichurus (whipworm) and malaria; and the local peoples, some with fierce reputations. The Blue Nile, the only river previously run in Ethiopia, had taken a toll of victims who fell prey to the ruthless shiftas, the bandits who ruled the outback.

“But the one danger repeated over and over was crocodiles. The ancient Greeks called it kroko-drilo, “pebble-worm”. The man-eating Nile crocodile has always been on the “man’s worst enemies” list, a killing machine. More people are killed and eaten by crocodiles each year in Africa than by all other animals combined. Their instinct is predation, to kill any meat that floats their way, be it fish, hippo, antelope or human. To crocs, we were just part of the food chain. Crocodile hunters, upon cutting open stomachs of their prey, often discovered bracelets and bits of jewelry and human remains. Eating people is their nature. But I thought about the alternative…law or graduate school leading to a real job… and facing crocodiles seemed the delightful evil of two lessors.

“I read as much as I could find about them and discovered there were two major schools of thought about how to cope while floating a crocodile-infested river: 1) Be noisy to scare them off; 2) Be silent to not attract attention. One expert at the National Zoo even warned not to laugh in a certain manner, as it resembled the sound of an infant croc in trouble, and the noise would alert all larger crocs with hearing distance to rush to rescue. He demonstrated the laugh, and it sounded eerily like John Yost’s high-pitched nervous laugh, so I silently vowed to keep topics serious if sharing a raft with John.

It was while casting about for a name that a thin book in the Library of Congress on the gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt wrought inspiration. One chapter spoke of the crocodile god Sobek, worshipped along the middle Nile. It was believed  that if Sobek were appeased, he would allow the fragile papyrus boats used to ply the Nile to remain unharmed. About 300 B.C., when the army of Perdiccas was crossing the Nile at Memphis, it forgot to pay Sobek homage, and 1,000 soldiers were killed and eaten. Naming our enterprise after a deity that would protect boats from sharp-toothed serpents seemed like a good idea to me, so “Sobek” we became.

A Sampling of Sobek’s First Descents

Africa: Zambezi River (Zambia/Zimbabwe), Gabba-Birbir-Baro system (Ethiopia), Awash River (Ethiopia), Omo River (Ethiopia), Blue Nile, whitewater section Mahajamba (Madagascar), Betsiboka (Madagascar), Kunene (Angola/Namibia), Tana (Kenya), Kilombero (Tanzania), Ruaha (Tanzania), Luangwa (Zambia), Shira (Malawi), Kafue (Zambia)

Asia: Euphrates (Turkey), Coruh (Turkey), Great Bend of the Yangtze (China), Indus (Pakistan), Alas (Sumatra), Ayung (Bali), Sala Sadang (Sulawesi), Yarkand (China), Hunza-Gilgit (Pakistan), Zanskar (India), Kayan (Borneo), Boh (Borneo), Dar Jung Guo (China), Biritingi (Sumatra), Kunar (Pakistan), Swat (Pakistan), Ghizar (Pakistan), Tons (India), Yamuna (India)

Europe: Reisa Elva (Norway), Alta Elva (Norway/Finland)

North America: Upper Youghogheny (Pennsylvania), Tatshenshini (Yukon/Alaska), New Gorge (West Virginia), Kennicott/Nizina/Chitina (Alaska), Kongakut (Alaska), Hulahula (Alaska), Canning (Alaska), Tsirku (Alaska), Tkobe (Alaska), Chilkat (Alaska), Six-Mile (Alaska), Eau Claire (Quebec)

Oceania: Bulolo-Watut-Markham system (Papua New Guinea), Tsau-Jimi-Yuat system (Papua New Guinea), Wahgi-Tua system (Papua New Guinea), Motu (New Zealand), Mohaka (New Zealand), Clarence (New Zealand), Hast (New Zealand), Tasman (New Zealand)

South America & the Caribbean: Manso (Argentina/Chile), Bio-Bio (Chile), Roosevelt (Brazil), Baker (Chile), Toa (Cuba), Quijos (Ecuador), Aguarico (Ecuador), Sereno (Chile), Apurimac (Peru), Tambopata (Peru)


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