Tucked in the Scottish Highlands between some of the most impressive Munros in the country is the winding River Etive. Its rapids are well known to kayakers and have gained popularity with paddleboarders too.
Pushing the limit: Whitewater SUP in the Scottish Highlands
On March 26 this year, with snow still in the hills, Sam Garthwaite set off from Perth for the 2.5-hour drive to Glencoe with his paddling partner, Cameron Hopkin. Garthwaite packed his five-millimeter wetsuit, Indiana carbon paddle and nine-foot inflatable river paddleboard. His brother, Jake, brought his camera to document their frothy—and frosty—adventure.
On previous trips to the River Etive, Garthwaite and Hopkin had worked toward mastering Triple Step’s three drops—eight feet, eight feet and 12 feet, respectively—and the rapids in between. “We kept trying bigger features, trying to talk ourselves into running Right Angle Falls,” explains Garthwaite.
Farther downstream, a narrow gorge is buttressed by the Glencoe Mountain Resort and another Munro towering 3,000 feet high. This is where Right Angle Falls and its daunting grade 4, 20-foot drop is found. Whitewater kayakers know the drop well, but it has not been run by SUP to date. If landed, it would be one of the biggest drops, if not the biggest, successfully completed by paddleboard.
On this day in March, Garthwaite and Hopkin were headed to Right Angle Falls—they planned to ride over the lip and jump, unless water levels were too high or too low. They warmed up at Triple Step, then drove a few minutes down the road, left their boards at the top of the bank and climbed down to Right Angle Falls.
Garthwaite recalls standing at the top of the waterfall. “In my mind I had every intention of throwing myself off it, but I could have just as easily walked up to it and said no. It takes some motivating to attempt that beast.”
He and Hopkin discussed the line and all the possible scenarios for about 10 minutes: “We said, ‘As long as this doesn’t happen, it should be fine.’”
Garthwaite decided to go for it.
A glimpse behind the curtain
“It felt quite nice at the beginning,” Garthwaite says. Then the scenario he was hoping wouldn’t happen, did. “I felt the clip of the fin hitting the rock, and then my board got sucked in, and I did a big, amazing flip. My board ended up behind the curtain of the waterfall and I landed on my back in the soft, aerated water.”
Garthwaite wasn’t deterred and was now fueled by adrenaline. He set up to go again. “I’ve learned that if I have a bad time, I need to run it again immediately to take the fear out of it, otherwise I may never run it again. The plan was to paddle over the lip to try the line and then bail. But it felt good enough that I rode right down the tongue and attempted to land it. My form was off so I ended up disconnected from the board a couple feet from the flatwater. I landed too heavy to ride it out.”
Whitewater SUP is in its relative infancy, but has picked up speed in the last few years, now attracting paddlers, snowboarders and skateboarders.
“It’s quite similar to skateboarding; if you have the right momentum and speed, you can grab air, and it’s almost like you have glue on your feet,” Garthwaite explains.
Garthwaite is at the forefront of the sport, with five years under his breakaway waist leash. He enjoys pushing the limits and creating content to inspire others. He’s convinced that if he can hold his form, Right Angle Falls is possible.
When he’s not out taming whitewater on his SUP, Sam Garthwaite is a senior instructor at the Willowgate Activity Centre in Perth, a local watersports and outdoors skills centre. When the official instructor courses catch up to the sport, Garthwaite plans to teach and guide whitewater paddleboarding. Follow his pioneering whitewater SUP adventure on Instagram, @frothysup.
Sam Garthwaite making the drop over Right Angle Falls. To capture this shot, Sam’s brother, Jake, was positioned on rocks at the constriction point across from the pool at the bottom of the falls. | Feature photo: Jake Garthwaite