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River Guide • Altai • Ak-Alakha / Argut
Rivers by Region

Difficulty in August: 4+ (5)
From: Bertek Weather Station Alt. 2200 m (7220 ft)
To: Katun Confluence - Alt. 760 m (2490 ft)
Distance: 220 km (137 miles)
River Days: 6-8
Average Gradient: 7 m/km (35 ft/mile)
Est. Max Gradient: 15-20 m/km (75-100 ft/mile)
Typical Flow in August: Upstream 40-60 cms (1400-2000 cfs)
Downstream 150-200 cms (5000-7000 cfs)
Best Season: July-August
First-hand Information: YES (From Karagem confluence)

Argut area map
Argut area map

The Argut is one of the major rivers of the Altai, flowing in a remote valley between Katun and Chuya Ranges. As many rivers of the area, it starts on a vast damp plateau near Mongolian border and is quite flat in its upper stretches.

The upper part of the river, above Djazator confluence, actually bears the name of Ak-Alakha. From the put-in it is completely flat and meandering, until it hits first ranges of the Altai Mountains. Still, for most of the distance it continues to be flat; all whitewater is condensed in several gorges, each few kilometers long.

As the Ak-Alakha meets the Djazator, the combined river becomes Argut. From here it is almost completely flat for nearly 30 km, until it has to cut through massive gorge, the Karagem Breach, a definite class 6 section. It has been run once in a huge bublik (double-doughnut inflatable), but chances to successfully kayak this 5-km suicidal monster are rather zero.

The Karagem comes in from the right after the gorge, and from here the river is usually divided in three distinct sections:

Steppe Argut is a 25-km nearly flat easy section after Karagem confluence.

Wild Argut is actually what most groups come here for. It is a 50 km long gorge, full of big volume class 4 to 5 rapids; very remote and beautiful.

Swift Argut begins where Argut finally quits its gorge; it is a relatively easy but fast flowing section all the way down to Katun confluence.

The Argut has significant glacier flow component and in dry hot summer the water level can be very high. But the river itself is big and actually far from the glaciers; all the glacier-fed tributaries come in over a long distance; so morning-evening water fluctuations hardly exist.

Access & Logistics
The put-in point for the Argut is rather controversial. A rough local road forks the Chuya Road at Kosh-Agach, the last major settlements on this route before the Mongolian border. The road then crosses over to Djazator valley and follows Djazator down to village of the same name located at the confluence with Ak-Alakha. The road then continues down the Argut, along the Karagem Breach, to the Karagem confluence and some small settlements around.

As this road hits the Djazator valley, another fork (reported as hardly passable for even the best combination of a good 4x4 vehicle and a good driver) crosses over to Ak-Alakha valley and goes along the Chinese border to now abandoned Bertek weather station; it takes about 2 days drive from Kosh-Agach and a borderland permit is required. Due to these two obstacles, very few groups choose to start there.

On the other hand, starting anywhere on the Djazator makes no sense because this river is nearly completely flat, as well as the upper Argut is, followed by a full-day portage of the Karagem Breach. It is still possible to drive all the way down to the Karagem confluence, avoiding all class 1 and 6 headaches; but then it is much more sensible to run the Karagem instead much less driving and much more whitewater! In fact, most groups go this way combined Karagem-Argut trip is an obvious choice (see Karagem description for details about the river and access to the put-in).

Theres no road on the Katun river at the Argut confluence, and you will have to proceed down the Katun to at least Chuya confluence, where Chuya Road comes again. It takes only 2 or 3 hours though, and Katun here, even nearly flat, has quite a helpful flow.

The entire trip must be planned completely self-supported; there are settlements and the road between Djazator and Karagem confluences, but you better not rely on any supplies there. There is no wood in the upper Ak-Alakha valley, so for the camping at the put-in you have to bring a stove or some firewood; but you dont really need to have a stove packed in the boat as the forest begins about 15-20 km downstream.

Emergency escape from the Ak-Alakha is possible by hiking over the mountains on the right side back to the Djazator valley and the road; Upper and Steppe Argut are quite populated and the road exist along the right bank.

Escape from the Wild Argut is an adventure you better avoid; both right and left side mountains require at least basic mountaineering skills and equipment. There are trails on the terraces along the river though, so you may try to hike up or down the gorge (depending where you are), but it may well take a week or so.

River Description

Ak-Alakha: Bertek station to Djazator, 80 km (50 miles) 2-3 days
First 15 km or so the river is flat and meandering on a wide plateau; general direction is north. As the river quits the plateau and enters some kind of valley, it swings west sharply and continues westward for another 15 km; but difficulty still hardly exceeds class 2.

Where the valley gradually swings towards north again, more interesting whitewater begins. On the next 15-20 km stretch there are three definite class 4 sections, each 2-3 km long, separated by some easy water where valley opens.

Finally river exits to an open flat space and a big tributary, the Kara-Alakha, comes in from the left. By the way, the Kara-Alakha is yet another option to start this trip; unfortunately the way to its put-in requires a trek over Kazakhstan border, which is hard to make legal for non-C.I.S. citizens.

There are two more whitewater sections on the next 30 km before Djazator confluence; the second one is quite long (5-6 km) and contains two supposedly class 5 rapids: Svetlana and The Gambling. The latter one finishes Ak-Alakhas whitewater; the river then meanders for some 8-10 km till Djazator confluence. The Djazator village (hardly usable though) is on the right bank.

Upper Argut: Djazator to Karagem, 35 km (22 miles) 1-1.5 days
After the confluence the combined river actually becomes the Argut; but this upper section is a pitiful class 2 and 6 convergence. First 25 km occasionally offer some easy rapids; but most of it is still flat.

A big left tributary, the Koksu, comes in about 6-7 km before the Karagem Breach, a runnable-in-theory class 6 gorge. Watch the road on the right bank the place where it starts to climb up is the take-out for the portage; while it is possible to paddle 1-2 km more, climbing out of the gorge will be arduous adventure. The portage itself is about 7 km, right by the road, and if you are extremely lucky, even a local vehicle may appear; otherwise, reckon on at least 3-4 hours hike.

While walking, you will see most (if not all) of the gorge; as its always the case, the river looks quite flat and perfectly runnable from 400 m above.

Steppe and Wild Argut: Karagem to Shavla, 75 km (46 miles) 2-3 days
You usually would put your boat back on the water couple of kilometers above Karagem confluence itself; or even come by the Karagem instead. As it becomes customary, initial 25 km stretch (the Steppe Argut) is mostly flat and designed primarily to test your patience.

There is no real landmark of the beginning of the Wild Argut; it is said to start after a left tributary (the Kulagash), but generally watch for the spot where valley finally narrows; first class 4/4+ rapid (The Obstacle) is there. The Obstacle actually consist of two long (300-400 m) parts, both scouted right.

About 1 km downstream another long class 4/4+ rapid (or better to say, stretch) begins, The Sapojnikovs Tube (named after a great 19th century Altai explorer). It is about 1.5 km long, but apart from two drops (both scouted left) can usually be run from the boat. But be careful, a difficult class 5 rapid, The Sapojnikovs Fall, comes suddenly around a right bend without any warning. It has nothing about the fall though, apart from house-size pourover at the entrance (not a good idea to jump over it anyhow); the rapid itself is just a mess of nasty drops and holes for some 400-500 m scout right.

Several powerful class 4/4+ rapids follow in the next 3-4 km, until a prominent left tributary, the Yedygem, falls as a 3 m drop directly into the Argut. The Yedygem itself may be runnable for its last 3-4 km before the confluence (its all flat higher up) it worth to check it out as possibly the last first descent in the Altai; although the river is damn steep and may be well littered with trees. There is a trail on the terraces along the left bank.

There are a couple of easier class 4 rapids for the next 8-10 km before yet another big tributary, the Yungur, comes in from a narrow side crack on the right. The Argut valley narrows here again and some class 4 rapids appear. Another long (about a kilometer) class 4+/5- one, The White, comes without noticeable landmark scout left. A small left tributary, the Koir, joins the Argut few hundred meters below the rapid, but it may be difficult to spot.

The river eases after Koir; some 8-10 km are mostly flat but the valley here takes the form of a canyon and becomes very spectacular. Last difficult rapid, The Separator, comes around a right bend scout left. It is pretty much a single river-wide drop that may be class 4 to 5 depending on the water level. The river after it finally enters true canyon with vertical walls for next 3-4 km but no fear, theres nothing more than couple of straightforward drops inside. The river gradually exits the gorge and flattens out some 2-3 km above Shavla confluence from the left.

Swift Argut: Shavla to Katun confluence, 30 km (19 miles) 0.5 days
Theres not much whitewater after Shavla confluence first 25 km or so contain only half a dozen bouncy class 3 rapids, but river flow is fast and helpful. The only rapid that requires attention (rather for its danger than difficulty), The Atlantes, comes about 5 km before Katun confluence around a sharp left bend of the valley. The wrong part of the rapid is a huge undercut in the right wall near the end; scout and keep left all the way down.

There are some nice small rapids in the last 5 km down to the Katun, finishing with a drop (called The Gate) just 100 m before the confluence, but it can be submerged by high water on the Katun.

As you enter the Katun, continue down and take out at Chuya confluence; it takes just 2-3 hours (see Katun description for details).

Ak-Alakha near Bertek Svetlana rapid on the Ak-Alakha The Karagem Breach A bublik in the Karagem Breach
The Sapojnikovs Tube The Sapojnikovs Tube The Sapojnikovs Fall The Sapojnikovs Fall
A rapid below Yedygem The White Rapid The Atlantes The Gate, last drop on the Argut

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