To paddle class V......is there a luck element?
I have been paddling quite a long time, and I would, as modestly as possible, describe myself as a “Class V Kayaker”. By that I mean that I feel comfortable showing up to any Class V rapid, anywhere in the world, at any given time and decide after looking at it weather or not it is good to run, where to go, what the dangers are, where and how to set safety etc. There are a number of definable qualities that all Class V paddlers have and these go beyond the obvious technical ability to paddle down the rapid(s), these skills include but are not limited to, decision making skills, logical/critical thinking, being able to work as part of a team, being able to communicate efficiently, understanding and being able to efficiently implement safety skills and rope work, being prepared for many different outcomes, and possibly one of the most important skills of all, staying calm under pressure. I am lucky to have met and paddled with other ‘Class V’ kayakers all over the world and I wanted to share a story from a few weeks about which highlights what it means to be a Class V paddler and how those skills which we all posses made an epic situation not the end of the world.
Good Friday, we were experiencing the end of a very rainy week on the North Island of New Zealand. All of the best paddling in the Kaimai mountain range is very rain dependant and drops out fast. I had already missed a great day paddling the day before as I was working in a different area but I was stoked to rally a crew and get out there on Friday. Sam Ricketts, Rob Collister, Johnny (not sure of his last name) and myself headed out.
After the usual amount of faffing around we settled on a river which looked to be still at a good flow and also one which our group hadn’t paddled before, the Mangorewa river. We set shuttle and hit the river prepared for what the guidebook described as a 34km up to class IV+ paddle. We knew before we started it was likely to be a bit bigger than the class IV+ in the guide book as we were putting onto the river with quite a bit more water than the guide book would suggest. However we had some info from another local paddler that this would only make our experiencemore enjoyable and that for a solid crew it shouldn’t be too much of a problem. The guide book described tons of read and run whitewater in a beautiful gorge with a notable drop near the start then 2 more mid way through followed by lots more ‘read and run’ goodies and a long flat paddle at the end.
We set out and found the run to be exactly as described if not better whitewater and much prettier than expected. Around an hour and a half into our trip we encountered a crew ahead of us who had pulled over, so we stopped to say hello and make sure all was good. As it turned out this group had already had a little carnage and were looking for a way to hike out of the river. Of their three man group the most seriously injured was Bevan who had a possible cracked rib which was making it extremely painful to paddle (hence why the team was looking for a way to get him out). John had a solid gash above his eye with blood on his face, but seemed very upbeat and Will was uninjured. With no way out available I used an app on my phone called Maps.Me which stores maps directly to the phone whilst online so that it will still work offline and out of reception as we were in the gorge. I could see the river and the stream next to where we were and from the map, determine we were not even remotely close to the road but there maybe be other options later on. Bevan, after some decision making decided to try and push on until another option presented itself.
A short paddle down and we had stopped at another stream, Bevan was in a lot of pain and struggling to paddle his boat. With more serious rapids still ahead of us he was adamant about getting out at this stream. John and Will went for a quick scout of the stream which did not hold promise for an escape route. At this point there was an extensive amount of deliberation as to the groups next move. It really came to 2 options:
1: Push on and find a better escape route somewhere down stream, or at least somewhere a search and rescue helicopter would be able to do an extraction from.
2: Mark this location (using the app on my phone which gives precise GPS co-ordinates.), paddle out then call search and rescue to make the difficult climb into the river via the stream bed.
Option 1 was not Bevan’s first choice, but realistically option 2 meant help wasn’t coming until tomorrow or even the day after. After a little cajoling and some more pain meds Bevan agreed pushing on would be a better move. We paddled on into an increasingly tight canyon. We stopped at a narrow spot to scout and that was the point when Bevan could not continue downstream. He was in too much pain and the river was increasing in difficulty. I took emergency contact details of their team who would be staying with him, whilst we paddled out to send help. We handed over any emergency supplies we had to the three, they had a bivy bag already and all them understood that if they couldn't find a hiking route out then they would be there overnight. We set off to paddle out and call for help.
Our crew knows better than to rush, getting help for the others was a big concern for us, but not at the risk of the safety of our own group. We continued downstream at what I would consider to be a medium pace, boat scouting our way down the river, we expected to tackle a couple of ‘bigger drops’ and then the rest of the run to be largely winnowing down to the end. We made our way downstream, staying tight and keeping on the move, taking turns at the front and everyone loving it. The knowledge that the other group would still need our help had melted off to focus on the task at hand. We tackled a number of rapids that could have been the ‘bigger drops’, they were certainly bigger than the rest of the river but there seemed a never ending amount of excellent, fun rapids. We were on guard for any situation and kept moving down at a steady medium pace.
I was paddling at the back of the crew when I suddenly saw Sam give the aggressive “GO LEFT” paddle signal, I hit a small one boat eddy in the middle of the river and looked downstream. River left, one eddy down from me, I can see Johnny climbing out of his boat in a small eddy and reaching for his throwbag. River right and at the end of the rapid, Sam is out of his boat and also grabbing for his throwbag. In the middle of the river as I look downstream to my horror, I can see Rob’s helmet and Lifejacket stuck as though it were an inviting boof rock in the middle of the river, with water piling over the top of him, his helmet and lifejacket still visible through the water which is pushing on him. Another look around to re-asses and my first move is to shout to my friend who is pinned on what I assumed (and later confirmed) to be a log. “Don’t move Buddy, we are coming for you” I shouted, hopefully he can hear me, but I know that I want to establish a dialogue with him as soon as possible to ascertain if he is breathing and stable. I also know that if he moves he might go from being in a situation where he can breath to something much more serious, so at this point it is important to slow things down until we can make a plan. A quick whistle to Johnny and I indicate I am coming to the eddy where he is, he starts moving his boat to make room for me and then I call him over to help me climb out of my boat and onto shore. Once I am out I grab my throw bag and shout again to Rob. In the time it took me to climb out his boat has shifted, his stern has sunken down below the bulk of the tree, he is holding onto what could be the trunk of just a heavy branch. He is breathing with his head out of the water and now facing upstream head and shoulders well clear of the water. I shout as loudly as I can, to attract his attention, but he is working to get his spraydeck off of the log. Johnny looks unsure of what to do, and since Rob is still trying to balance I get Johnny to throw him a rope to help him balance. Rob tried using the rope to help him but found himself more stable with one hand on the log, so Johnny quickly wound the rope in. Finally Rob looks at me, “My spraydeck is stuck around the log”. Ok cool, he’s staying calm and hasn’t dropped into an instinctive fight or flight panic. “Rob, wiggle out of the waist tunnel” I shout after a second or two. I can see Rob has freed a leg but is still held in their by his spray deck. “climb out of cut it off” I shout over to him. He looks to me and nods his understanding. After around thirty seconds of wiggling he loosens his lifejacket and is able to climb out to be half kneeling, half standing on his pinned boat, spraydeck still very much stuck on the log. I tell him I will throw him a rope with an attached karabiner and he catches it and clips his boat. Sam indicates he is ready to catch him down stream and so Rob jumps downstream and swims towards Sam’s waiting throwbag.
Over the next 30 mins, Johnny and I tried to pull the boat free, we changed positions a couple of times to manoeuvre the boat off the log but with little success. We also set up a 3-1 Z-drag system, and then a 5-1 when it didn’t work, but even with a 5-1 advantage the two of us were unable to shift it. Rob was on the other side of the river and climbing his way upstream to get to a vantage point, evidently the boat would not be coming off in our direction. Sam was in his boat and waiting for Rob’s spraydeck to float out so that he wold be able to paddle on after we rescue the boat. We throw the line over to Rob and he tries to pull it of from his position but he is too far downstream to be effective. Through the next 15 mins he changes position a number of times but no dice. Finally he gets to a spot which looks like it will be a suitable angle but he needs help, he can’t get it alone. Sam climbs up to help and I hop into my boat and paddle to Sam’s spot. From downstream I can see the log holding the boat is a big one. By this point over a full hour has elapsed. It takes Sam some time to climb to where Rob is, the rock is slippery and the climb is at best, treacherous. Once he gets there team work pulling does little. They begin to set up a Z-drag.
As the boys are rigging up John and Will paddle down to us, safely avoiding the log/pinned boat/ropes etc. They were unable to find a way out and Bevan has sent them to the takeout as well. After being assured that we were all good and would figure out getting the boat off they pushed on.
The Z-drag was difficult to set up, but once they eventually started hauling I sat ready to grab a spraydeck as it came down. I then saw one of the most ridiculous and scary things I have seen in a pinned boat. As they hauled they pulled the entire log over to their side of the river. The log and boat combo made it to the side until the angle of pull stopped the system working any more. The spraydeck floated free and I grabbed it, and returned to my position to catch anything else. Before my eyes the water of a pour over at the top of the eddy pushed Robs boat under the log completely disappearing. Another 30 mins of climbing and pushing and pulling from Sam and Rob and they were able to get the boat out.
From there I grabbed out my breakdown paddle as Rob’s was lost. We packed down all the ropes and pin kits and made our way downstream. There was still another hour and a bit of quality whitewater followed by over an hour of flat paddling. We reached the car at the takeout car as the sun finally fell behind the trees. Hungry, tired and happy everyone had made it out.
I called John and Will’s numbers to pass along the co-ordinates for where Bevan was. Happily they told me he had somehow found/climbed his way back to the put in and with everyone present and accounted for we headed for home.
In my mind this story is a prime example of a group of Class V kayakers putting all of their skills to work to resolve a situation which could have easily gone a lot worse. Because everyone was able to keep a level head and make the right decisions, at the right time without being panicked (too much) and implement the skills from our broad range, it all worked out ok. Of course there is a factor which helped, and although it’s never talked about, and difficult to quantify/qualify, but still incredibly relevant to us, a little bit of good luck. It only takes a little bad luck to everything to go differently. Sometimes everyone else can do everything they can, all the right things and a situation can still end tragically. Of all my friends and extended kayaking family that have passed away in the last few years I know a little bad luck was the contributing factor and the groups they were with did everything they could, everything right. That is the unfortunate reality of life on the river, we train and plan and practice until we are beyond ready but really sometimes it just doesn’t work out. That is a pretty hard pill to swallow sometimes but it is something I have come to realise as I paddle Class V more and more all over the world. That doesn’t for a second mean we should stop preparing, practicing, training and being ready to paddle Class V, and if anything it motivates me to prepare myself more to try and keep luck, good or bad, out of the equation as much as I can.
Keywords: Kokatat, New, Whitewater, Zealand, adventure, blog, explore, kayaking, landscapes, photography, travel
Salve, New Zealand aguain...que massa, me parece que pegou um riozinho feroz...estava hoje tentando achar sua conta para finalmente depositar o que falta do laser, me passa depois...boa sorte ai...estou trabalhando em um rio maior...estou indo todo mês para o Rio Trombetas...perto da Guinana Francesa., construindo oara o Imaflora...de escape acabo indo para Alter do Chão...abração
Thanks for that story. I wish the paddle boyz here in Brazil would read AND understand what you guys went through, why you had a good outcome while still realizing that besides all your paddling and rescue skills, training and team work, which is essential, you also needed a piece of good luck.
But that all the good luck will run out very fast without the above.
Hi, enjoyed the read especially this section : """That is the unfortunate reality of life on the river, we train and plan and practice until we are beyond ready but really sometimes it just doesn’t work out. That is a pretty hard pill to swallow sometimes but it is something I have come to realise as I paddle Class V more and more all over the world. That doesn’t for a second mean we should stop preparing, practicing, training and being ready to paddle Class V, and if anything it motivates me to prepare myself more to try and keep luck, good or bad, out of the equation as much as I can.""" , this piece really hit home with me a Paramedic said to me recently Bernard, You show up to the courses and are ready yo help your "paddle buddies" will they be ready for You ?.......one can only hope ;)
This is really well written my friend! Enjoyed the read
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