Friday, September 13, 2013

Into the Great Unknown: Zero Hour at Lava Falls Rapid

I was going to title this post about our trip into the Great Unknown "Courage, Redemption, and the Triumph of the Human Spirit at Lava Falls: Geotripper Rides the Big Rapid", but I knew my fellow travelers would all yell "Bullschist" in four-part harmony like the townspeople in Blazing Saddles. So we'll settle with what I put up up above for a title.

Still, the oarsmen have a saying: "You don't f*ck around with four rapids in the Grand Canyon, Hance, Horn (or Granite? I don't always listen well), Crystal, and Lava Falls". And they were right. I took a long and harrowing swim in Crystal Rapid several days earlier, and I wasn't anxious to do such a thing again. For several days now, the oarsmen in our group had been talking about Lava Falls, and now having passed the massive volcanic plug of Vulcan's Anvil, we were at the top of the worst rapid on the Colorado River, and one of the toughest rapids in North America. It is rated at Class 10 out of 10 on the river runners scale.

Really, how many rapids rate a 90 page geological analysis? You can see it right here: .

A quote from the ever-staid and formal geological investigators:

Lava Falls, at river mile 179.4 on the Colorado River in Grand Canyon, is one of the most
difficult navigable rapids in the continental United States and is the standard against which all rapids in Grand Canyon National Park are judged for navigability.

I had been thinking about Lava Falls a lot over the last couple of days, and after my dunking in Crystal Rapid, I was pretty sure I would elect to walk around the rapid. Looking at my journal, I see that I even said so twice in the days leading up to our arrival. Still, I told myself that I would take a look and consider it.
Two very strange things happened to me when I climbed up to the scouting ledge at the top of the rapid. First, I didn't panic. It made a difference actually seeing the rapid, in contrast to thinking and pondering on the idea of a monster rapid. Somehow the analytical part of my mind was looking at the rapid and picking out the possible route through the pinball arrangement of holes, rocks and ledges, and it managed to suppress the urge of the other part of my brain to run down the talus slope and await the arrival of the broken boats and injured bodies of my comrades at the base of the rapids. I even managed to see the route we needed to follow through the rapid (confirmed a moment later as I listened in on the discussion taking place between the oarsmen).  Where would you go, looking at the picture above? Take a guess, and then look at the photo below...

The second very strange thing that happened was that I experienced a Hitchcockian case of vertigo every time I looked at the rapid. The whole scene swam in front of me whenever I looked at the waves. I've never had vertigo in my life, and didn't even know what to call it at the time, but I would look away to the cliffs above, and no problem. I'd look at the river again, and it would start wavering and swimming in front of me. As best as I can figure, the reptilian core of my brain was desperately trying to overcome the analytical part of my brain and toss it into the river so I would do the safe thing and walk around the rapid.
Why is Lava Falls such a treacherous rapid?

All the rapids on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon exist because of debris flows. These floods of giant boulders and mud emerge from the tributary canyons and pile into the river, pushing the flow into a narrow channel on one side or the other. The river has to speed up as it passes through the constriction, and it drops anywhere from a few feet to as many as 30. The severity of the rapid is determined by the length of the rapid, the drop, and the arrangement of large boulders along the way. The level of the Colorado River is also an important consideration. Some rapids are better if the flow is higher. Others are better at low flows.

Lava Falls formed because of debris flows that emerged from nearby Prospect Canyon. During intense cloudbursts, water pours down the cliffs of the Supai Group and overlying Permian formations, and drops over a 1,000 foot cliff of Redwall Limestone. The waterfall hits the slope debris at the base of the cliff, and forms the debris flow via what the researchers call the "firehose effect". The deposits along the river record a great many flooding events over the last 3,000 years. One of the prehistoric events dammed the river to a depth of nearly 100 feet. The rapid formed by that event would have dwarfed the present-day Lava Falls. More recent debris flows altered the rapid in 1939, 1954, 1955, 1963, 1966, and 1995. The 1939 event was the largest historical debris flow in the modern history of the Grand Canyon, larger even than the 1966 event that turned Crystal Rapid into such a monster. The flow was estimated at 35,000 cubic feet per second. That would be considered a high flow on the main Colorado River. The pile of debris constricted the river to only 20% of its normal width for a time (about 50% today). Lava Falls had become a monster rapid.

Lava Falls Rapid has a gigantic ledge at the top that forms a huge standing wave that can trap a small raft for hours. Routes can be possible on both the right side and left, but the left side has large boulders that can trap boats near the base of the rapids. High flows can diminish the danger. Most runs occur on the right, but there is another huge hole and standing wave that must be avoided on the far right side. Boats have to punch through the huge V wave, avoid the huge boulder called the Cheese Grater, and then navigate past two other gigantic waves, the Kahunas. It's the worst rapid, but short. The whole ride lasts less than 20 seconds if done right. Done wrong, and you'll be pitched into the water for a wild ride, or caught on a boulder for hours (see an interesting story about one such trapped boat right here).
Let's see what a good run through Lava Falls looks like. Ron was one of the most unflappable oarsmen I've ever seen, and here he can be seen taking Lisa and my nephew Samuel through Lava Falls. He catches the right side of the ledge above...
They punch through the V wave...
They nearly get swamped by the gigantic Kahuna Waves while simultaneously avoiding the Cheese Grater on the right...
And they make it through, wet but unscathed!
My brother Mark and his wife Carol are guided through by their oarsman Gerrish, and even though their boat was oriented almost 90 degrees, they made it through too. 
Mark took a GoPro cam so you can watch the ride from his point of view right here:

Meanwhile, I was still up on the scout rock watching my brother's family running the rapids. The moment of truth had come and someone behind me asked if I was going to ride the rapid. A disembodied voice quite separate from my conscious mind said "yes". I wasn't sure who spoke, but since everyone was looking at me, I guess it had been me. I don't know what I was thinking... I pulled Pete, on whose boat I was riding, off to the side and said to him "I need an honest it better if I'm in the boat (extra weight, lots of it), or not?" He said he needed the weight to help punch through the waves, so I was going.

We got in the boat, and this time the camera and the journal were stowed as tightly and securely as possible. I wasn't going to lose a second camera, and the loss of my journal would have been devastating. I hunkered down in the front of the raft and we pushed off.

A story of redemption and courage would end with a victorious run through the rapid, and a confirmation that it is always better to bravely face your fears. Always get back on the horse after you are thrown. Jump back into the battle after your nose has been bloodied. The story ends with an affirmation of the human spirit, and a slow motion montage of arms thrown in the air in victory. That's how the movie script would end. Here's what actually happened, courtesy of Bruce Burger who was shooting our ride from the scouting rock (his effort to get the movie posted is greatly appreciated!):

Yup, we flipped on the V wave. Personally I don't think anything was wrong with our approach. Our boat was just too short and too lightly loaded, and we simply caught the edge of an unlucky wave. In any case, I was in the water again. It was a shock, but it was far less terrifying this time around. I bobbed up quickly and the boat was right there. I grabbed on, and once again I realized I was in front and headed towards being crushed against the Cheese Grater. I quickly shifted to the side of the boat, but the current shifted left, so we missed the big rock. We rode out the two Kahuna Waves and the river quickly settled down. I was in calm water within a minute or less.

I found out that Pete had a worse time of it, because he got trapped under the boat briefly, and tumbled head over heels in the dark water. That had to be a horrific ten seconds (and seriously, they would have been the longest ten seconds of anyone's life), but by the time I was able to check behind me he was swimming too.

Once again, Barry and Bev came to the rescue, and since I had only been in the water for two minutes or so (and being a hundred miles downstream the water was not quite as cold as before), I was able to help climb onto their boat, and I was even able to be an active participant in catching our overturned raft. We got the boat flipped back, and the only losses were my rowing gloves and my hat (I had a spare). The camera was safe, and a few moments later I snapped a self-portrait of the not quite drowned river rat.
And that was that. We had survived the greatest rapid on the river. It's hard to say if I should have walked. I feel good about facing the challenge and being part of the team, but I also just a bit more nervous every time a medium to large rapid loomed. But for the rest of the trip there were only a few, and I ended up with a neat story to tell.

We headed down the canyon to our camp at Middle Chevron. It was situated beneath an immense cliff of basaltic lava that would be a dominant feature of the canyon for much of the remainder of our journey. We had a delightful meal of chili and cornbread with cheesecake for dessert. I laid down to sleep and watched lightning flicker in the eastern skies. The stars blazed overhead, and soon I was asleep. The trip was now "post-lava-falls". I slept soundly.


Gaelyn said...

OMG, you have definitely been christened by the Colorado. Awesome videos.

I was nervous days before Lava yet had worked myself into the smaller boat, a 22' motorized raft with plenty of weight, for that run. At 26,000 cfs I'm pretty sure we hit the Ledge full on and before I knew it we were through. I wanted to do it again.

Congrats on being a survivor.

Lockwood said...

Looking at the first few photos, it's utterly impossible to grasp the scale of this monster. The in the photos with rafts and people... yeow! Congrats on your courage and success. Maybe "survival" is a better word. Dunno if I could have gone through with it.

intaminag said...

I wish you could see it right here:

But the link is down because of the shutdown. Oh what fun!

intaminag said...

I wish you could see it right here:

But the link is down due to the government shutdown. Oh what fun!