Cheating Death on the Amazon

In 2012, National Geographic explorer and grantee, West Hansen, was preparing to set the record for the fastest expedition to paddle the length of the Amazon River. Amid expedition planning, the game suddenly changed. A new study led researchers to propose the Mantaro River as the ultimate source of the Amazon River, a move that would make the river some 50 miles longer than previously thought (read about the debate over the ultimate source of the Amazon).

With little hesitation, Hansen set his sights even higher. The team “shifted gears,” he said, to become the first expedition to paddle the full length of the Amazon River from this source. Heading into uncharted waters, Hansen and his team had little idea of what to expect. “It’s relatively unsure, the number of miles that we’re gonna cover. We looked to be going approximately 4200 miles … So while I’d like to finish in 60 to 90 days, I’m really not sure how long this is gonna take,” Hansen said.

During their 12-14 hours of paddling each day, the explorers were met with ocean-like conditions, as the Amazon River can reach 300 feet in depth and 30 miles in width, stirring up 12-foot waves. Storms emerged with no warning, leaving the team in whiteout conditions and temperatures below freezing.

Hansen’s team was also confronted with challenges far more frightening than nature’s wrath. They were held up at gunpoint no less than three times and were on high-alert for drug runners and pirates who might not think twice about robbing or even killing the outsiders.

Terrifying weather and criminals aside, Hansen still believes the journey is one most people can complete. “I’m no physical specimen,” he laughs. “Things like this are open to most people whether they know it or not … Every morning I woke up, I didn’t think, ‘I’ve got 1800 more miles or 3,000 more miles to paddle.’ Every morning I woke up and I thought, ‘I’ve got to paddle ‘til the end of this day.’ And then I just kept doing it over and over.”

After spending 90 days paddling and 21 days on land, Hansen completed the expedition in 111 days.

Check out The Amazon Express Expedition to learn more about Hansen’s journey and listen to him describe the adventure on the National Geographic Weekend radio show.


[Updated 5/28/2015]



Meet the Author
Nora Rappaport is a producer and editor on National Geographic's Science and Exploration Media team. She produces content that highlights the awe-inspiring work of National Geographic explorers around the globe. When not working with her colleagues to inspire people to care about the planet, Nora can be found hanging out with any number of dogs.