Time has been limited for this father of two and as such, I’ve just been sitting on a bunch of images from last year. Finally got around to sorting through some of em and decided to post in a get pumped for spring kind a thing. Then, as I was getting pumped for spring myself, thinking about the above average snowpack in southwestern Utah, and dreaming of another trip to Zion, I decided to finally comment on the shit show which proceeded this thread, Problems on NF Virgin Narrows. I got all riled up and wrote a short novel and it actually took me an interesting direction regarding the International Scale of River Difficulty, so if you’re bored at work read away, and if you’ve only got a minute just check out the pretty pictures.
After Kyle and I published WSR, I knew criticism was going to rain down on us like a southwestern thunderstorm. When trying to describe something virtually indescribable, such as say a river, you’re bound to piss somebody off. But seriously, I was not expecting “arrogant sandbaggers,” to come out of any ones mouth, or in this case, keyboard – at least not in reference to the Zion Narrows. We actually made a deliberate effort not to sandbag runs by adding a layer of beta to many of the runs, which had generally been left out of previous guidebooks, giving a difficulty rating for each water level – minimum, low, medium, and high water.
It’s been a couple years since the Zion Narrows incident, in which multiple parties managed to require rescue over a single weekend. Now that I’ve had some time to reflect on the incident, I’ve come up with a probable cause for a member of one of the parties’ frustration with us and have found a wrinkle in our rating system that at the very least deserves some discussion and clarification. The community had our back, and without either of us having to enter the discussion, I felt vindicated by the numerous responses wondering where the victims own culpability in the situation had disappeared to. Why was he blaming us? Though I hated to even consider it, I had to… Was there some validity to his claims? Arrogant, OK maybe, but did we really sandbag it?
I went back to the description and just didn’t see it. There wasn’t even a single rapid at moderate flows that warranted a rating greater than class III, I mean not even III+ except for the waterfall and the rapid at the take-out, so how could the run be more difficult than class III? Yes there was a log that needed to be avoided in the only solid class III rapid throughout the majority of the run, but a log doesn’t make a class III run class IV, much less class V.
Then I went back to the victims account and noticed that 1) they put on later than expected without even back-up overnight gear, 2) he was getting tired at the point of the incident, 3) it was getting dark as they approached the rapid and 4) they did not scout the rapid in question. So it wasn’t just the rapid that got him. Fatigue and poor lighting appeared to play a major role and of course had the log, a non-permanent obstacle, not been present, the incident never would have even occurred.
I felt even more vindicated. By being in better shape, putting on earlier, and using basic river-running technique (i.e. scouting), the group could have avoided the situation entirely. The problem with making these mistakes on the Zion Narrows was that the victim didn’t just get to feel a little humbled, walk up to the road, and hitchhike back to the car, thereby redeeming himself by running the shuttle for the boys. Instead he had to spend a couple of chilly nights hanging out in his paddling gear, shivering himself to sleep without even a hairy buddy to spoon with.
Considering the facts he himself described in his account, I couldn’t help being pissed. He blew it, blamed it on us and took it far enough to fuck up access for everybody else by writing the park service defaming us, our book and really the entire paddling community as a whole. That was bullshit, plain and simple and since I even vaguely know who the dude is, as he used to live in Fort Collins, I can’t forgive him without a sincere apology. If that ever surfaces he’ll have my forgiveness. Just sayin’. Anyway, back to the wrinkle in our classification system. Maybe he wasn’t entirely to blame for going into the run unprepared.
My understanding of the rating system that most of us abide by, the International Scale of River Difficulty, is that it describes the difficulty of the whitewater encountered on a run. That’s it. It might actually be better titled, the International Scale of Whitewater Difficulty. I mean look at the descriptions for your self (http://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/Wiki/safety:start? ). Nothing about any of the internationally agreed upon descriptions of the classifications say anything about remoteness, commitment level, continuousness, gradient, volume, etc. We leave that up to the individual paddler to understand, and only experience with the system and with a variety of rivers can prepare a paddler for the true range of rivers and canyons that exist within each level of the classification system.
The AW page even advises, “Allow an extra margin of safety between skills and river ratings when the water is cold or if the river itself is remote and inaccessible.” I take this to mean that you should paddle runs a full rating below the level you’re comfortable paddling (i.e. class IV to III) if the run is committing and/or remote, at least until you understand the added consequences that come with making a mistake in these situations.
I might be nervous as shit at the top of a flooding, continuous, committing and cold class IV run I’ve never done, while I might be all smiles and not even worried about a medium water, low volume, pool drop class V run I’m familiar with. Ya, there is a difference. And in my experience we don’t acknowledge it in the rating scale. Now, should we? That’s a whole separate question unto itself, but currently I would argue that we do not acknowledge the difference between the difficulty of the rapids on a run and the actual difficulty of descending the river canyon. How hard is it to scout rapids? Are there any must run rapids? Are there recovery pools after major drops? Is there help nearby? How deep is the canyon? How gorged is the canyon? All these and a million more questions can influence the difficulty of descending the river but in my experience they don’t affect the rivers rating from class I – V.
Part of this is because rivers tend to categorize themselves pretty well. What I mean is that generally the remote and committing runs also contain difficult rapids so they get rated class V. Easy enough. But what happens with a run like the Zion Narrows? The difficulty of the whitewater is class III. It just can’t be argued that at moderate levels it is anything else. The harder rapids can be scouted, however some must be run (not the rapids that might be rated over class III, the waterfall and the take-out rapid). It is pretty remote, though there is help nearby, but the kicker is that it is ultra-committing. As committing as a run gets. Unless you’re a super hero escape ain’t gonna be easy at any point.
As a community we’ve left the judgment up to the individual paddler in regards to whether or not a remote class III run is within their ability level. Or any run, of any class, for that matter. I don’t suggest to paddlers stepping it up to class V for the first time to go to a committing and remote class V canyon. There is plenty of roadside class V where a mistake has a smaller chance of becoming costly to develop those skills on. Physically, a solid class III boater should be able to paddle a remote and committing class III run, however mentally it may be more of a challenge to overcome the thoughts of the consequences of a mistake. Inexperience in remote and committing canyons makes descending a canyon of that nature more difficult. The difficulty of the whitewater hasn’t changed but many of the skills and mindsets have.
Too many paddlers feel confident physically paddling a certain difficulty class of whitewater, yet have not developed the requisite river running technique required for descending a new run in the same classification. Following a confident guide down a run and learning the lines does not teach the skill set necessary to descend new runs. Setting safety, eddy hopping, boat scouting, shore scouting, line analysis, use of judgment, and the required equipment are all lessons that need to be learned before embarking on a new run, and have very little to do with the ability to physically paddle a particular grade of whitewater.
My theory: the rating system works because there is no simple way to effectively account for all of the variables that go into the difficulty of descending a river canyon. The rating system gives you a rough idea about the difficulty of the whitewater you will face, however the only safe way to know you can approach a particular run is with the experience under your belt of having run a similar type run already (similar in every way, not just whitewater difficulty) and knowing you have the correct set of river running skills to make the descent, or by having a guide who is willing to take you. In this way the rating system encourages self-policing and a humble approach to attempting new runs and harder grades of whitewater. Guidebook descriptions are there to give you an idea of what you might face in terms of the canyon, but rivers change and therefore the only truly safe way to approach a new run is to own the river running skills which allow you to make judgments in which you have the least chance of making mistakes that lead to rescue or worse.
Unfortunately even with these skills mistakes can happen and knowing how to deal with these situations also becomes a necessity. It’s a dynamic of adventure itself that shit is going to happen, but step 1 is to use every advantage you can to avoid mistakes and step 2 is to know how to deal with mistakes when they happen. My conclusion: the rating system works and it should never try to take into account any more variables than the difficulty of the whitewater on any given run. Therefore I strongly stand by our rating of class III for the Zion Narrows. Flame away and see you bitches on the river, preferably one of the runs we so arrogantly sandbagged. Must be spring for me to be this fiesty!