Pockets of Blue

musings of my mind

Category: River Trips

Grand Canyon 2012 Part Five: Lava!

Continued from Part Four

Day 12: Lava Falls and its aftermath

We got a nice, early start from our pretty mediocre campsite — on the river by 8:40, probably a record. Most of the day went by rather slowly. It was oppressively hot and everyone jumped in the water to cool off — but only for a few seconds since the water was still freezing. The hot/cold dichotomy was quite strange, but the cold water very welcome. Without it the trip would be much less comfortable.

Sometime in the mid-afternoon we pulled over right before Lava Falls, the other grade 10 rapid on the river. And holy shit, did it look scary. Brown, opaque water chundered through massive holes and drops across the entire river. A recirculating 20-foot-wide hole right down the middle looked disastrous, and any sneaks would line the boat up for a huge ledge drop, certainly flipping even my beefy 16-footer. Remember, we were floating the Grand with one sixteener and two 14s, so the big water looked especially intimating for our group. However, we were highly confident, having not had any mishaps thus far, even with our moderately experienced group.

So, we scouted on river right, and like usual, picked the obvious line right away before deliberating over the myriad other options, only to circle back to our original plan after 20 minutes. We all planned to run it far right, plow through a couple massive wave trains, and pull back left before running into a massive boulder just below. Easy…

I said ‘@#$% it’ and elected to go first again. The typical group indecision in these situations tends to annoy me, so I pushed off first and hoped for the best. The run-up to the rapid took an eternity, but soon enough we were lined up right where we wanted to be, if not a little bit left. (Just writing this and re-living the situation is elevating my heart rate!) We slid down the entrance, picking up speed, then hit the first of the massive waves ever so slightly turned left. Immediately, the distinct, familiar separation between river and boat disappeared, and the impact of the wave swept Cam, Zac and I several feet upstream (or up-boat, which were one and the same at this point). I managed to hold onto one oar, which was the only thing still attaching me to the boat, while floating back on the edge of the rear tube by our gear. Cam was swept off the boat, but desperately kept a death-grip on the rope threaded through the rings on the tube. I would have been swept off myself, were it not for the oars, but I quickly scampered back into the rower’s seat to try and straighten us out. The wave had punched us to the left, and we kept spinning until we were careening completely backwards into the next big wave. By the time I got the oars back into their locks it was too late.

WAM! We were pummeled again, but the wave wasn’t large enough to halt our forward progress, and we kept spinning counter-clockwise. At this point Cam was swimming, and we headed sideways into the huge boulder creating a pourover on either side. I’d like to say I deftly maneuvered past it, but in reality we slid a few feet up the water channel pushing up against the boulder, and it spit us river left back into the main current again. Zac and I hooted victoriously, having made it through the big stuff upright. We quickly spied Cam downstream and river left, and were thankful that he had abandoned ship, creating space between himself and the boat before we got anywhere near the boulder. After seeing that we had made it, he starting side-stroking upstream towards us, all while staying in the swimmer safety position. After 30 seconds or so he reached us, and we pulled him back in.

The other two boats had a much more elegant, and dare I say skillful, passage through the rapids, without any mishaps. We rendezvoused just downstream to tell our tales, and played around on an exceptionally cool beach where there were pockets of water trapped beneath the sand. The water beneath made the sand jiggle like jello, and he bounced around like kids, ecstatic from the successful rapid passage and anomalous jello-beach.

After a couple miles we made camp on river left, and had by far the biggest party of the trip. I must have laughed until I cried on three separate occasions throughout the night, and we all bonded with jubilation.

Day 13-15: Wrapping it up

The next day was laid-back but productive. We passed the time playing river frisbee and scrabble. Kevin had brought a gc_scrabble travel Scrabble kit, so he and Zac and I played a spirited game. Soon Falco docked his kayak and joined us. It was a bit challenging keeping the boat in the main current while playing, but I managed to do minimal rowing, and we covered 26 miles before camping at Granite Park, mile 209.

Day 14 brought us past Diamond Creek, and I was happy that the trip wasn’t yet over. We ran a dozen or so fun rapids, up to grade six, before setting up camp in a tight gorge right at the end of the rapids. There was talk of starting the night float early and not worrying about finding another camp the next night, but I wasn’t too excited about the idea as it would entail copious flatwater rowing. Blech.

It ended up being the last night, and it was the hottest yet, probably 90 degrees still after dusk. We stayed up fairly late chatting, reluctant to start the next day’s float.

The next day was long, boring, and exceptionally hot. Graham and Travis rowed like a bat out of hell to try and make the 43 miles before dark. I was far too lazy and didn’t see the rush, so Shawn and I mostly stayed together, even bumming a ride from an outfitter for 5-6 miles. After a long day, the sun went down around nine, and we pulled out the GPS to track our progress so we wouldn’t miss the takeout and take an unwilling ride down Pearce Ferry rapid. It was rather unnerving floating in the dark with absolutely no visibility, but it only took a half hour or so before the roaring of outfitter truck engines greeted us. Docking was a bittersweet moment. We all moved into go mode as quickly as possible, but it was emotionally difficult to so abruptly switch back into real life after so many days on the river. Skipping dinner hadn’t done much for team morale, either, but nevertheless we de-rigged, loaded the trailer, and packed up to find a campsite nearby.

A Grand trip indeed!

Grand Canyon 2012 Part Four: Finally, Some Hiking

Continued from Part Three

Days 8-10: Deer Creek and Madkat
The river had finally turned the color we had been expecting the entire trip — an opaque, muddy brown that would stay with us all the way to the take-out. We had breakfast and packed up at an unhurried pace — might as well wait out the rain so we could dry out some gear. We floated 16 somewhat uneventful miles until right before Deer Creek, one of the better-known scenic highlights of the Canyon. Once again, another Thunderstorm forced us into the big group tent, thankfully after the Pork Loin was sufficiently slow-cooked on some coals on the fire pan. We all ate together in the floorless tent, and some debauchery led to a relatively late bedtime for the group. It was interesting to see the group settle into a predictable schedule of early rising and sleeping, following the daylight hours as much as possible.

In the morning we were interrupted by another group wanting to stay at our site — who gets to their day’s destination at 10 am? (Certainly not us!) We shipped off shortly thereafter and rowed across the river to Deer Creek, a spectacular waterfall shooting out of a narrow slot in the canyon wall three hundred feet up. A hiking trail switchbacked up the cliffside a few hundred yards up from the falls, until it reached the rim and traversed above the raging creek. The knowledge that a slip into the water-filled slot canyon would be certain death made the hike a bit more exciting. We considered doing a longer hike and I enjoyed a bit of rare solitude hiking around the open country upstream.

gc_zacLater in the day we pulled into a flooded slot canyon on river left. Soon the canyon dried up and we tied off the boats to explore. While not a well-known destination, Madkat canyon was probably my favorite hike of the entire trip. It started out in a tight slot canyon with swirling waterslides and polished sandstone, and soon opened up into a stunning amphitheatre. The open area had a distinctly spiritual feeling to it, and it seemed like a perfect natural setting for a musical performance or religious ceremony. Jon and I wandered further upstream in the spectactular canyon, whose walls extended upwards for a thousand feet, until we decided it prudent to head back down to the rest of the group.

Day 11: Havasupai
We set up camp last night in a tight constriction in the Canyon (mile 160.5), with some higher sandy areas and some excellent traversing boulder problems above. Havasupai canyon was coming up the next day, and we were excited to do another longer hike, so we rose fairly early and knocked off the quick float pretty quickly. Unfortunately, the creek had been blown out recently, and rather than the famous turquoise blue hue we were greeted by a dull grey color, the result of the mineral-blue combining with red-brown sediment washed into the water.

Nonetheless we headed up the creek, and underestimated the length of the hike. It was about three miles to a few waterfalls, and we lost the trail to where there was rumored to be excellent swimming higher up. After some deliberation, and a lack of interest in swimming due to the clouds above, we elected to head back down before it got too late. As it was, we almost ran out of daylight as some arguments about chosen camps broke out. We settled on a barely-adequate shelf of terraces and quickly ate and passed out. Tomorrow was going to bring the biggest rapid of the trip, Lava Falls, so we solemnly headed to bed in anticipation of the whitewater downstream.

Next: Lava!

Grand Canyon 2012 Part Three: The Ups and Downs of Rapid Day

Continued from part two

Day 6: Phantom Ranch
We elected to get an early start in order to make it to Phantom by mid-afternoon. There were a few bigger rapids beforehand and we wanted to make sure we didn’t miss out on restocking ice due to a flip, so we pushed off before 9 (by far a record). Hance Rapid would be our first grade 8 rapid, and the biggest yet, which we hit around noon. I had been gaining confidence the last few days on the oars, and the day’s rapids went quite well for everyone. At Phantom it was imperative that we restock the ice for some of our coolers — one of the ones that was still sealed was already not looking too good. We literally bought every block of ice they had on hand (a couple dozen at least) and did some cooler rearranging. The coolers had been the last persistent cause of worry for me so it felt great to finally take care of them.
It was a little odd wandering around Phantom with beer in hand while dozens of scruffy backpackers were cooking freeze dried meals on JetBoils. River trips can spoil you. We decided to camp early and celebrate — best day yet of the trip for me.

Day 7: Mega Rapid Day
Most of the pre-trip conversations between boaters revolves around the big rapids of the trip: Oh yeah, I heard you should run Crystal center right to avoid the massive hole in the middle, then do an upstream ferry river right to avoid the wall. Really? I watched a few runs on YouTube and they just hit it dead middle. I dunno man, that hole looks huge!

And yadda yadda yadda, really there’s not much point to such deliberations beforehand. Rapids are highly chaotic — you really have no idea what they’ll look like until you’re 50 yards away scouting them from the bank. You can hit your line perfectly and still have that sneaker wave crest right at the moment you hit it, tossing you end over end. There’s a significant component of luck.

Granite, Hermit, Crystal. If you’re a boater you’ve certainly heard of at least two of the three rapids as well as their stories. Welp, we were about to hit ’em all in a day, for the most exciting day yet on the river. Granite was first, around mid-morning. The other private party that had launched the same day as us happened to be doing a layover day just before Granite, so we chatted with them for a few minutes, exchanging liquid peace offerings in the process. Then came the scout — not gonna lie, it looked pretty intimidating. Granite might have been the most fun rapid of the whole river. At our level, the right run was doable — just a series of huge waves that you could hit while staying just left enough to avoid the wall. We whooped through them with glee and all three boats emerged without incident. This set the tone for the day.

Hermit was pretty straightforward, too — everything funneled towards a few big waves towards the end of the rapid that looked pretty big, however in a 16 foot boat we sailed over them easily. Crystal was the culmination — one of two grade 10s on the river. We scouted it, picked our lines, and I elected to go first. After the last two rapids it didn’t look so bad. Supposedly at other levels it can be terrifying, but we ran it pretty much down the center and didn’t even get that wet. However, while looking back upstream to see how the other boats were doing, I neglected to maneuver the boat either right or left to avoid a rock garden in the middle of the river. I pulled with all my might but just barely couldn’t get around a boulder that would’ve deposited us in the main channel. There was nothing to do at that point but just hang on as we bounced around for awhile before becoming solidly beached on a log braced on either side by a huge boulder.

Well, shit. Cam and Kevin did some jumping and pulling, but we didn’t budge. We tried getting off the raft, bracing against a boulder, and pushing, and managed to move it around the initial boulder, but there were another half dozen or so downstream that were unavoidable. The other boats docked downstream and hiked up til they were adjacent to us, but there was no way they could have gotten a rope to us as we were 50-60 yards away from shore. Eventually we decided the only option was to unload the boat until the reduced weight would allow us to move it. Luckily we were at a spot in the river where we could pile our gear onto a small gravel bed, otherwise it would have been a much more serious situation. After unloading the heaviest items, we could get out and push (again, luckily, the water there was only ankle- to knee-deep), with one person holding the bowline as a sort of belay in case the boat got caught in the current. Once we got really close to being un-beached again, we reloaded the boat (while it was belayed), and did a final push to get unstuck. The whole ordeal took over two hours, and by the time we were free it was only an hour before dusk. On the plus side, Kevin’s GoPro was running the whole time — you can view the video here. (There are some pretty hilarious shenanigans starting at around 3:00 when we attempt to dislodge the boat, check it out.) I am very thankful to have had such a strong crew that day with Kevin and Cam — both proved exceptionally cool, collected and strong in a hairy situation.

To make matters worse, I missed the pull-in for our desired campsite, and had to tie off a few hundred yards downstream from everyone else. It was a pretty terrible evening compared to the exultation of running the rapids (mostly) successfully earlier in the day.

The next morning we awoke to an intense thunderstorm. While cooking breakfast in our large cook tent with the doors open, we witnessed the river change from crystal clear to muddy brown within minutes. It was very dramatic, and a prelude to what was to come further downstream…

Continued in Part Four

Grand Canyon 2012 Part Two — Days One to Five and Some Scares

Continued from part one

After a stressful two days of preparation, we were finally floating. At this point, as a trip leader, you should really just sit back, crack open a beer, and relax, because there’s really nothing more you can do from a planning perspective. There’s no returning after you pass the “permit required past this point” line.

Day 1: Jubilation
We only floated eleven miles due to our late put in, and they were almost all flat except for a few small rapids to warm up a little bit. Beers were consumed en masse until (and after) Graham whipped up a tasty batch of steaks, and I remember having fairly civil conversation with only a couple people falling out of their chairs. Pacing oneself is an important river skill to learn.

Day 2: Tidal Surprises
We woke up on the beach to find our boats no longer in the water. Oops. We had heard about the “tides” on the Colorado below Glen Canyon Dam, and were now acutely experiencing the side effects. Each day, water is released from the dam in cyclic intervals, with the greatest flows around late afternoon to keep up with hydroelectric demand from the parched cities of the Southwest. 12 hours later, the lowest volumes are released, and this continues in a predictable 24-hour cycle. Our flows were forecast to be 10k – 18k CFS (cubic feet per second), a reasonable flow for midsummer.

So, most mornings we would wake up to the boats either totally marooned on a beach, or floating 15 feet past the waterline. It took about a week to get a feel for the tides, and after that we adjusted the boats accordingly before going to bed.

The first large rapids were right after we put in, which provided some excitement first thing in the morning. I was having a tough time controlling the boat through the first couple 6s (on a 1-10 scale) — Hitting the entry point wasn’t a problem, but I kept getting an oar stuck in the water which tended to spin the boat around uncontrollably. It was not confidence-inspiring for either passenger or rower. It was the first time I had rowed a boat with oarlocks, though, so the learning curve was understandable.

Day 3: Uh-oh
The third day started out well; we were at a spectacular camp (Shinumo Wash) with a large beach right next to a 400-foot cliff and spirits were high. There was a really cool-sounding slot canyon hike just upstream from camp, so we decided to check it out. It was semi-technical, involving fixing a rope for downclimbing a steep ramp into the central slot. Everybody fared well until we ventured up some slick waterslides farther up. Jon was ill-prepared and had to choose between climbing barefoot and with flip-flops and went with the former. This did not bode well as he slipped while climbing the uppermost slide. The ugly sound of skull meeting rock reverberated throughout the slot, and once the blood started gushing it wasn’t quite clear if things were going to be alright. Half the group went down with him to apply medical treatment while the rest of us continued up the slot, which didn’t go for much longer. We carefully climbed hand-over-hand back up the rope and descended to a bummed-out Jon holding a bloody shirt to his wound. After much discussion and waiting for a clot we had applied antiseptic to the wound and covered it in steri-strips while the rest of the group rigged the boats.

Over the next few days we consulted with numerous commercial parties for advice, which varied from immediate helicopter evacuation to staying the course. Kudos to Graham and Shawn for handling the whole situation calmly and professionally. It had stressed me out big time but I elected to step back due to my lack of medical expertise.

What made matters worse was my own medical issue that night — while eating a tasty burrito I had an especially severe esophageal cramp (a recurring condition of mine) which sidelined me for the rest of the night. I couldn’t swallow any food or water as it would just get lodged in my esophagus, and eventually be regurgitated. I suspect it was largely stress-induced, as the last few days were as anxiety-ridden as any in my life, and the condition just exacerbated it. Some good conversation with Shawn and Zac helped a bit (along with everybody’s favorite green pain reliever), and I was feeling better that night. However, it wasn’t until I swallowed a Benadryl the next morning that the dilation cleared and I could finally swallow again. What a relief.

Days 4-5: Rain and the Little Colorado
With the group’s medical problems somewhat relieved, we could focus more on enjoying ourselves. The next couple days didn’t bring any really big rapids, but enough smaller ones for me to get a better handle on controlling the boat. There weren’t any more unexpected 180-degree spins mid-rapid and I was able to keep the boat straight consistently. On the fourth night we had an unexpected rain squall roll in at three in the morning. I woke up to a few people groggily stumbling around setting up the large tent, and soon after I was struggling to erect my own, swearing the whole time. On the bright side, it cooled things off considerably and the next morning was quite pleasant.

On the fifth day we came to the Little Colorado River, an impressive cerulean blue flowing over bright-white, soft limestone deposits. We tied up the boats and hiked a half mile upstream, passing some really fun-looking overhanging conglomerate boulders that I had to play on. Everybody jumped in the refreshingly warm, tropical-feeling waters and butt-floated with our life-jackets most of the way down, shooting through small rapids and giggling like toddlers. It was an absolute blast and the most fun I had had in quite some time.

Next: Phantom Ranch and big rapid day — Hermit, Granite, Crystal!

Grand Canyon 2012 Part One — Preparation

I’ve been doing a fair number of river trips the last few year, and haven’t really posted a whole lot about them here. Over the last four years I’ve done five major trips and a scattering of shorter 1-2 dayers: Desolation Canyon twice, Cataract Canyon once, and the Middle Fork of the Salmon last year (July 2011). The Middle Fork trip was the highlight of the bunch: a small river running through stunning, remote mountain scenery in central Idaho. Ninety-three miles over seven days resulted in a nice relaxed pace, with plenty of time to hang out, read, hike, go on hikes, or have beers around a fire. Just about perfect.

After that trip, I figured the next year would be hard to beat. I wasn’t even all that excited about doing a trip this year and was content to take that extra time to do a climbing trip or two instead. The one trip that might be able to beat it was the Grand Canyon, so I applied to a follow-up lottery in late March, fully appreciating the low odds. I actually thought I might have missed the deadline when I remembered it at 12:30pm the last day of the lottery, but logged on and submitted regardless. Must have lucked out as Arizona is in either Mountain or Pacific Time depending on Daylight Savings.

Sure enough, I get an email a few hours later congratulating me on winning a permit! I could hardly believe it as I pretty much applied on a whim, not really sure if I even had the time to do it. I didn’t even specify an alternate trip leader in case I couldn’t go. July seventh was the date, so I immediately emailed some river-running friends to try and drum up interest. I had about two weeks to finalize some details and pay permit fees (almost $800!) so it was a bit stressful getting commitments so quickly. I got six firm commitments which was good enough for submitting the application, so we were off, with another three months or so to fill the remaining two spots (it was a small-sized permit with a maximum of eight people).

It was remarkably difficult filling those last two spots, especially as we focused on finding interested women to balance out the genders. There was some interest, but after six weeks or so of deliberation I tried to get firm commitments unsuccessfully. We were back to square one with about a month left before the launch date. However, after removing the gender limitation we filled the remaining spots pretty quickly (surprise surprise), and everything seemed to be coming into place. I had notified my clients of my impending absence, cleared it with Katherine, and seven of us rendezvoused in Salt Lake on July 5th to gather gear and pack the coolers. Cooler organization was a nightmare, as we had to find a way to keep food cold for fifteen days in 100 degree heat. We elected to aim for twelve days of cool food, with the food split over three coolers. Only one cooler would be accessed at a time, while the rest would be sealed with duct tape to preserve its contents. That meant figuring out which meal would go in which cooler for 24 meals. I did my best but it ended up being less than ideal as a lot of ice had already melted.

The next day we took off in two vehicles, one of which would be meeting Cam in St. George. He was driving from San Diego to meet us. The pick-up went smoothly and we ran some last minute errands in Page, AZ before arriving in Lees Ferry at around 11pm. Loading and rigging took all morning the next day, and by 1-2PM all three boats were rigged and we were good to go!

Part two

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