Canoeing Down Everest: Kayaking Legend Mick Hopkinson Talks About His Life on the Water

Legendary paddler Mick Hopkinson kayaking the Kokatahi River, New Zealand. Photo by Ben Jackson

By Tetsuhiko Endo from Murchison, New Zealand

Mick Hopkinson is one of the pioneers of whitewater kayaking. Hailing from Yorkshire, in the industrial North of England, he spent the 70s traveling the world looking for the fiercest, most remote whitewater he could find—an ambition that took him to Switzerland, Austria, Nepal, the Karakoram, Baltistan, and Ethiopia, to name a few. According to Canoe and Kayak magazine, the documentary he and the late Mike Jones made of their first descent of the Dudh Khosi, Canoeing Down Everest, remains the most watched paddling movie of all time. Few people on Earth have as much experience and knowledge of rough water as Mick.

I showed up to his house, which doubles as the New Zealand Kayak School, armed to the teeth with questions, but few of them interest him much. Instead, he talks politics, testosterone, socialism, guns, the British class system, and the future of rivers almost uninterrupted for over an hour. All I can do is set my tape recorder down and hold on for the ride.

Adventure: You made your name on first descents. Have you always been the guy who goes first?
Mick Hopkinson: Awe, it’s just the way I grew up. I started kayaking at 13 in the Boy Scouts knowing absolutely nothing, you know what I mean? Just go and get on the river. Six of us, four life jackets … the scoutmaster would disappear and we used to sit on the life jackets. So it just evolved from there – Darwin—I went first probably because I was the strongest swimmer, not because I could kayak. So that went on for a while. I think I was about 21 before I met anyone else who would go first.

What made you throw yourself into kayaking?
My passion for it came from being cooped up in Bradford, an industrial city, for 13 years. It was an interesting city because I grew up with kids in school who were from every pogrom in Europe: Latvian, Lithuanian, Czechs, Poles … eventually Pakistanis, a bit later. And Irish, too. I used to go down to the Irish club with my grandmother, and we’d sing the Irish national anthem on Sunday night and God help you if you didn’t put money in for the IRA.

So the whole city was an immigrant city; they were there for the work and the woolen mills—dark, satanic mills. I used to go to school past bomb sights, black, grim … then through a big canyon and you’d be doing this because of the noise from the weaving machines.

Then you’d get on a river where the rich people had been all the time up in the Yorkshire Dales—the Duke of Devonshire’s property—and think “Ooh, jeeze…” And I’ve never lost that feeling.

Did you ever get into legal trouble for paddling?
All the time. It’s illegal. Everyone owns a piece of river up to the halfway point. In theory, you have to ask 300 people to paddle down a stretch of river. But in actuality, and this is an example of the British class system, the riparian rights were often bought by the aristocracy or the angling clubs. So we had this standard situation where our parents had fought in the world wars for this new system of freedom, but we still weren’t allowed to go out and enjoy the country or enjoy the rivers because the class system prevailed.

I mean people would actually stop you?
Shit yea. The game-keepers would be all over you. People have been stoned and taken to court, prosecuted. The class system still exists. All you have to remember is 93/7. Ninety-three percent of the country is still in the hands of seven percent of the population.

When did you start to branch out from England?
There was a model—a post World War II British model. Until then rich university types went climbing in the French Alps and the Himalaya. Then, post war, poor British climbers used to go climbing in the French Alps. The evolution of kayaking followed that same pattern. We did a lot of kayaking in Britain, then we went to Australia and Switzerland. Then by sheer coincidence, one of my mates did a river in Switzerland that was reported by a guy called Christian Boddington [the famous British mountaineer].

He had been on an expedition to kayak the Blue Nile with the British military and failed dismally. So as a result of knowing Sir Chris, we went out and did the Blue Nile in 1972.

How was it as an expedition?
People were trying to kill us and the river was full of crocodiles.

But you did it.
We paddled 200 miles of it, but it helped that we had learned a lot from the last expedition. We had better kayaks, we had guns in the kayaks….

You what?

Did you use them?
Shot crocodiles. You know the guy that got killed over Christmas, Hendri Coetzee? The difference between him and me was that when the crocodile hit him, he didn’t have a gun. I had a gun at that same point. Lucky, really.

I also have a little theory that you can take or leave. These days guys are paddling modern creek boats that are 8'6." In 1972 we were paddling ancient kayaks that were longer, 13'2." I was slightly higher up the pecking order in a 13'2" in boat than an 8'6" in boat from underneath.

Is it true you once drove from England to Nepal on an expedition?
Yes. I was teaching geography in a grammar school in northern England. Driving through England was the easy bit, then we went all through Europe, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. It took five months in all. The roads weren’t great, but people were quite nice. This was two years before the Russians invaded Afghanistan, so that was critical.

What kind of car were you in?
A Ford Transit. We had a little joke—FORD: Fix Or Repair Daily. But it got there. And that’s what we did, we drove all the way out and back again because we were following the British mountaineering deal. They used to drive out. Furthermore, airplanes were expensive and kayaks were voluminous.

Was it hard to balance your life in Britain as a school teacher with your life in the river?
We did fly some, too, but put it in context, with modern travel. We go out to paddle the Blue Nile. On Monday I’m shooting crocodiles. Get on the plane on Tuesday, I’m in Cairo. On Wednesday and Thursday, Bradford. I’m teaching on Friday. The juxtaposition was kind of hard.

How does that affect your mental state?
Well, you don’t like being inside ever again … especially not in a classroom with 34 teenage boys. It’s hard work and after a year of that, I took a year off work and came to New Zealand.

What was in like when you first came here?
The biggest difference between here and England was that you owned the rivers. There is a fancy thing ironically called the Queen’s Chain where you have legal access to the rivers. I actually own these rivers [he points out to Kahurangi National Park, literally his backyard]. Well, me and the other 3,999,999 people in New Zealand. Out there is Kahurangi National Park and I own a four millionth of it.

But you are fighting damming now, correct?
Yes. The bottom line is, pre-war New Zealand was a Second World country. Everybody cooked on wood stoves, and they had small hydro schemes, but mostly not much power. Post WW II, the power scheme was revolutionized and 70 percent of rivers were dammed by the ministry of works and New Zealand energy department. Okay, that’s produced the majority of the energy used on the island—hallelujah. We have the highest percentage of hydro energy of any country in the world.

Now they want to dam up the remaining rivers—every single river on the South Island has a hydro scheme planned for it, and they are all private schemes. The one we are fighting the hardest is on the Mokihinui. It’s the seventh largest ecosystem in New Zealand, the haunt of 13 endangered species and 250 thousand long-finned eels, and they want to knock it off for 50 megawatts of energy. But it’s all about money. It’s being sold as a wonderful new tourist attraction, a big lake. We’ve got 3,480 lakes bigger than a hectare in new Zealand. Do we need another?

What’s it like seeing these great river disappear?
It’s tragic. I mean I’m not even the guy to talk. Two of my guys were up in Uttar Pradesh in the Himalaya two years ago trying to do first descents of the tributaries of the Ganges. Right now there are proposals to dam every one of them. Five hundred proposals to dam the holiest river in the world because one thousand million Indians want power…by the time realize what they have, it will be gone.

I’m not going to argue with the Indians, but this is a First World country, we can afford other forms of power. I live in a solar-powered house. But what they are doing here isn’t about creating energy, it’s about making money, and like anywhere, when you privatize the profit, you socialize the loss.

As far as hard kayaking is concerned, what’s left ?
Here in New Zealand there are still rivers left is you are prepared to get out and walk. We did two first descents two years ago, but we are getting into marginal rivers that appear and disappear with rain and you have to be on it. My guys have been out to Tibet and there are still things to do there if you get there before the Chinese come and dam them all. There are a bunch of young guys from the States who are doing a movie called Last Descents – doing all the rivers before they disappear.

As an athlete who is, not old, but…

…Vintage athlete, how long can you keep putting yourself in dangerous situations?

I haven’t done anything really dangerous in about five weeks (smiles).

So you aren’t slowing down?
No. I am. I’m a bit more sensible now. If I go hard boating, I go with my crew so I’m surrounded by a bunch of thirty year old instructors who are fantastically red hot who paddle all over the world. So I’ve got my own rescue team. I wouldn’t paddle with my sixty year old mates. It would be hard because I would have to rescue them.

Does it bother you to feel like you’ve lost a step?
Not at all. I’ve trained them all, and worked hard at it. Now they are paying me back.

How does losing people in rivers affect the way you view paddling?

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It has a massive impact. That’s Mike’s (Jones) helmet [he points to a white helmet hanging on the wall]. I did seven years paddling with him. He was a medical student in Birmingham—you can imagine how chaotic his life was. We were on the fringe of it—British, drinking, partying, dancing, chasing girls…five different women came to his funeral.

Is it similar to a climbing relationship?
Course. But there’s a difference. When he was drowned in Pakistan, we all went home. We didn’t care. Kayaking is much more of a team thing. Mountaineering is all grim with its sponsors and all that – “We got to the top! But three guys died in the process.” I’ve never come around to that ethic.

People always ask these questions and the same clichés abound: Kayaking is a team sport. In fact, I used to have a standing joke. Whenever you are standing at the top of a hideous rapid you know you have endless days of hard Class V in front of you. So instead of fighting over who gets to go first, the joke is: ‘After you.’

Do you still get scared standing at the top of a hard rapid?
I’m less scared now, which is scary. You get to a point in you life, now, where the testosterone is gone, and I get scared that I’m not scared. That’s why I need my young men around.

What do you think about the current interest in running waterfalls?
It’s a whole new realm. There’s a lot of skill involved in picking the spot (where you drop) but after that, forget it. You know the guy who currently holds the record for the highest waterfall? Five of his gang have broken their backs. So they are in suspension of disbelief. I can’t picture being in a hospital bed paralyzed for the rest of my life. Do you know what’s driving them?

The video camera; that one picture. I mean, sure the record goes from 120 to 186 feet. Bob Beaman – remember him? He was the Olympic long jumper who broke the record by two meters, phenomenal, hasn’t been done since. These guys aren’t doing something super human they’re doing something dafter and dafter.

Is that on or off the record?
Well, it’s moderately obvious that at some point you will be paralyzed. It doesn’t take half a brain to realize that. There’s a guy up in Oregon who is a Quad from a smaller waterfall. So what’s the point? Courage? Okay, I’ll give him that, the guy is brave. But slightly deranged.

What keeps motivating you?
Fun. I try and do it inside my skill level and I train.

Was it always fun that pushed you?
Yea. Well, a bit of ego too, when I was young. All my crew were guys who raced and slalomed in Britain. Then we edged into this completely new world where no one was doing the same stuff. We started doing it just for the sake of it.

What’s that like?
It’s a giant privilege. A playground. Halleluja. I mean if you had…My bad joke is that all the people trying to dam the rivers here are passionate Poms (British). Every one of them should go live in an industrial city in the North of England – ‘I sentence you to five years in Bradford!’ And they come out here and are already used to having all this environment. They don’t get it – New Zealand is a privileged place. They are willing to squander their last sixteen rivers so they can have a heat pump or watch television, or have more gadgets.

Where do you think all this damming is taking the environment on a global level?
I think if we are able to hang onto our wilderness, New Zealand will be the only first world country in the world with any rivers left. So people like you who are vaguely interested, I don’t care if you are a kayaker or not, can at least walk next to them. You won’t be going to the Himalayas anymore, or if you do, you’ll be standing on a dam looking at Everest. And don’t forget that dams come with roads, construction towns, power lines…we’ll be the only first world country with nothing. People come here for nothing and idiots want to build cable cars so you can see the scenery. The future of New Zealand is having real wilderness.

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