Monday, September 2, 2013

Into the Great Unknown: We Run the Big Rapids, Sometimes in Rafts

The sun rose on day nine of our journey down the Colorado River, into the Great Unknown, as John Wesley Powell had called it. Powell and his men had a terrifying couple of days following their discovery of Bright Angel Creek. They had lost much of their equipment in boat accidents, and their food was running seriously short. The rapids kept their pace frustratingly slow because they simply couldn't afford another accident. They portaged whenever they could, and used their ropes to lower the boats through the worst rapids. And now they were finding some of the worst rapids they had seen, rapids that filled the canyon bottom, offering few places to portage. And the rapids were big, bigger than any they had seen on their 400 mile journey. And that's where we found ourselves on this beautiful morning, facing nearly a dozen major rapids in one day, including two class 8 rapids, and a class 10, the ultimate rating.
The technology of rafting has changed and boatmen have the advantage of accurate maps and descriptions, so the rapids aren't the terrifying experience they once were. Today's rafts are better designed for running rough waters, and even when they flip, usually little equipment is lost (there are exceptions of course; I suspect a disturbing amount of equipment sits among the rocks at the bottom of a few rapids).

But the dangers couldn't be ignored. Crystal Rapid especially is a killer; at least five people have died here since 1983, and ominously, they all were men aged 54 to 66 (just guess how old I am...). Since Glen Canyon Dam was completed in 1963, the river runs very cold, in the low 50 degree range, and ironically, hypothermia can kill on a day when the temperature is over 100. The sudden shock of cold water has given people heart attacks.

But those are the bad statistics, and more than half a million people have run the rapids without dying, making running the river no more dangerous than driving on a highway (oh, wait...). We looked forward to an exhilarating day.
We scouted each of the big three rapids. I took videos of the rapids while we scouted, but no one is on rafts yet. As my brother's GoPro videos get posted, I will link to them. The ones I've seen give a nice feel for what it is like running a rapid.

It's a funny thing...if the run through a rapid goes well, it's over with in a few seconds, and the mind doesn't really have a chance to develop a distinct memory of that specific rapid. I had a bit of trouble recalling particular rapids at the end of the day unless something crazy happened, and most of our runs went well. The run through the rapid begins by floating down the smooth tongue of water at the top, and choosing whether to go straight down the wave train, or to go left or right to avoid holes, pour-overs and eddies. Those in the front of the raft usually get a soaking, and it's not always obvious which waves will do the deed. They often pop up out of nowhere. Then things settle down, and I dig into the dry bag to pull my camera out and take a shot of the receding rapid. That's Granite Rapid below, a class 8 riffle that we hit just a mile downstream of camp.

Then we scouted Hermit Rapid, another class 8 that is often described as the best roller coaster on the river, with standing waves that can be 10 feet high.

The rapids were beginning to get really fun, and with a 9 and an 8 already under our belts, my confidence level was rising. As you may have noted in previous posts, I wasn't an adrenaline junkie who went on the trip for the wild rides. Frankly the big waves scared me (literally a phobia dating from my childhood). It was hard to stand on the shoreline and look at these waves, knowing that we would voluntarily go riding on them in a few moments!

Here's the video of Hermit Rapid:

It too went well (Maybe it went "too well"?). Splashy and cold, but it was a hot day, and the water felt great (in moderation).

We regrouped at the base of Hermit and moved on through Boucher Rapid (4) without incident.

Crystal Rapid lay just two miles downstream. The river, as always, was deceptively serene and the scenery was incredible. We were still floating through the deepest parts of the Granite Gorge, and every turn of the river revealed new vistas of the 1.7 billion year old rocks. At times we could see the Paleozoic sediments far above.
We passed a fascinating exposure of the metamorphic rocks with vertical fractures that reminded me of columnar jointing.

Boatman talk of Crystal Rapid in hushed tones (how's that for a cliche?). Until 1966, Crystal Rapid was barely a riffle, a class 1 or 2 rapid that hardly merited notice. Then an unprecedented cloudburst dumped around a foot of rain in the drainage above. A huge debris flow blocked the Colorado, forming a complicated rapid with a pinball-like maze of holes and whirlpools. What's worse is the length of the rough water. It might take only moments to pull someone out of the water in most other rapids, but there is no place for the other boats to station themselves until hundreds of yards downstream.
The end of the rapid is called the Rock Garden. It contains gigantic boulders that attract rafts, hoping to trap them for a few hours. That's it in the photo below.

So here is my video of the Crystal Rapid scout. Note especially the two huge standing waves at the top of the rapid.

I could hardly foreshadow things any more than I have, but I wandered down to the shoreline where the boatman were discussing the best route through the maelstrom. The picture below that I just happened to snap shows the problem spot at the beginning of the rapid. There's a huge (huge) hole in the main channel, and a problem rock on the right. The raft needs to find a route between them. If you can't quite see it, I've annotated it below.

You can see the surging wave at 17 second in this video I took from the shoreline.
 And so we hopped onto the rafts and started down the rapid. I think my boat ran third..
What happened next was not fun. And that's it for the pictures for reasons that will be clear. From my journal...

 Then, oh sh*t!

We hit the edge of the hole, I saw a wall of water and suddenly I was under water and under the boat. Too shocked to think about it, I bumped on the underside of the boat for a moment, and bobbed to the surface for a moment to face another huge wave, and another. Chaos! What to do? I couldn't think so I did what I imagined I would do over and over before the trip. I couldn't see the shoreline, but I saw the boat about 10-12 feet ahead of me...started swimming as hard as I could, and first I didn't feel I was catching up, but knew I had to...6 feet, 5, 4, 3, grabbed at the line, missed, grabbed again, caught it, hung on for dear life (really dear) and started thinking what next...

They say swim with your feet downstream and don't get in front of the boat...too easy to get caught on rocks. Of course the boat twisted and put me in front...I went hand over hand, past a hanging bucket so I was alongside, feet trailing behind me. Then I hit the Rock Garden and bounced off a few boulders on my behind, but I also found a handle on the boat. The turbulent waves finally ended and I was able to see that Barry and Bev were trying to get to me.

They pulled alongside and I was too tired to kick my way onto their boat (note: I had been in the frigid water for four minutes already, and it was starting to affect my ability to swim). Jeff jumped over to their boat and they were able to pull me in.

I could only sit and breath for the next 10-15 minutes while they wrangled the flipped boat. Pete was okay, he swam ashore near the top of the rapid (note: as I wished I had done). 

We had ultimately traveled 1/2-2/3 miles downstream, almost reaching the next rapid (which would have been a deadly outcome for someone in the water, due to hypothermia alone). We got everyone together and flipped the boat back to its proper orientation, then moved a short distance downriver to a beach where we had lunch and where I could collect my wits. I was unhurt despite bouncing off the boulders, and I quickly recovered from the frigid dunking in the hot sun. I was most disturbed by how my life vest rode up my chest and almost came off when they pulled me on the boat. Some have suggested that now that many passengers on the river these days of pear-shaped like me that life vests need a strap between the legs to prevent them from slipping off in emergencies. I tend to agree.

We assessed the damage. No major equipment missing (it had all been strapped down), but we lost a guidebook (but had a spare). My dry bag with my camera had leaked, and the camera was not working. The thought of losing the 1,400 pictures I had taken broke my heart, and it took a few days to find out that they were okay. And...I had thought to bring a spare camera! The pictures would continue. My journal was soaked. I was able to carefully separate the pages and start drying them off. The red ink had run and was nearly unreadable, but the blue ink was okay and I've recovered 85% of my notes. Pete felt terrible about it all, but really, it was a matter of a few inches on the side of a hole in the worst (or second worst) rapid on the river.

We had eight more rapids to go through that afternoon. We made it without incident. Mentally I was okay, and really I had to be, although it was one of the closest shaves with mortality that I've ever experienced. There aren't many alternatives to continuing down the river. The steaks we had for dinner were pretty much the most delicious delectable culinary objects I had ever tasted in my life.

During the early evening, my brother's tent blew away in the wind. We never found it!

1 comment:

Gaelyn said...

OMG, what a wild ride. You just had to choose Crystal to swim in. ;) I am forever grateful to the excellent NPS boatmen I rafted with, and no one ever fell out. Sure glad they got you out as quickly as possible. That water is frigid. And you still have Lava to go.