Thursday, January 24, 2019

To Hell in a Hearbeat revisted

In the fall I was made aware of a contest that the Spark snowboard company was sponsoring that involved submitting an essay about how a local avalanche center helped the backcountry rider community.  The prize was a pair of Spark bindings that I actually didn't want or need (since I have the remarkably simple Voile Mtn Plates that work perfectly with AT ski boots and are way better than snowboard boots for challenging skinning, and Voile actually makes a comparably-great regular snowboard binding as well) but more importantly Spark was willing to throw down $1000 to the winner's local avy center.  Especially given the uncertainty surrounding this ridiculous government shutdown (not that I had a sense last fall that our "leaders" could be so stupid as to do that sort of thing!) the $k would have been helpful to the Utah Avalanche Center, which had been bold and innovative enough to produce the film that re-enacted the avalanche I was involved in a decade ago with Matt Clevenger, "To Hell In A Heartbeat." Given that I was pretty confident of the win, but alas, I did not win one for the UAC. 

But given that we are in the heart of the season and I took the time to write it, I thought I'd include it here in the blawg, so it's pasted in below, and at the bottom is the link to the winning essay.  Note that Spark did actually feel compelled to throw a token amount at all of the avy centers that were represented by the writers....

Our dreams of a white Wasatch Christmas in 2008 were answered by a 2-3 foot storm, and with associated 30-40mph winds the Utah Avalanche Center had issued an avalanche warning due to the new load sitting on top of buried facets.  But there were safe zones to ski, and after our typical early-season lean snowfall we were keen for some powder skiing.  However, as always happens in avalanche accidents the line between safe and unsafe was an easy one to cross. 

After skiing a thickly-treed line off of the flank of Little Water Peak between Big Cottonwood and Mill Creek canyons Paul, Matt, Dan, and I headed for the aptly-named Shangri-La line; a fairly low angle ridge speckled with nicely-spaced aspens that’s a natural go-to on high danger days.  I was breaking trail and was trying a low, flat traverse but let myself get forced uphill by a fence of trees.  I arrived at the edge of an opening to cross that was steeper than we wanted but was still less than 30 degrees, so I asked my partners to wait while I sniveled across as quickly as I could.  At the edge I stopped to watch Paul follow.   He carried on into the lower-angle trees as I watched for Matt to cross, and it only took Matt two steps onto the slope when it shattered and started to run.  We all screamed, Matt did a quick kick turn to get back into the woods, but it was too late; the snow from the steeper slopes above came streaming through the trees, the snow slid to a stop, and Matt was gone. We screamed his name, but got only eerie silence in reply. 

After reading many comprehensive reports of avalanche accidents over the years my partners and I had taken it upon ourselves a few seasons prior to take the Utah Avalanche Center’s advice to not just do “beacon drills” but do simulated rescues, where we buried a pack as deep as we could and created as much “debris” as possible to force the “rescuer” to hone in on the beacon, deploy and use our probes, and actually dig for the “victim”.  This practice snapped to the fore when we realized that Matt was buried, and I quickly organized a rescue effort, with the confidence that we could execute.  Our closest beacon reading was 2 meters, so we knew he was deep, and though the snow was soft because it hadn’t moved far/fast enough to set up we were hampered in our digging efforts by the branches of the tree that he was pinned against.  When we did reach his head he was blue and unresponsive, but after a couple of quick rescue breaths his eyelids fluttered and we nearly burst with the realization that Matt was going to live. 

The Utah Avalanche Center has long been a leader in promoting avalanche safety and was among the first to adopt social media short videos to teach avalanche awareness and skills. Two years ago, they came to Matt and me to ask if we’d be interested in the painful process of re-creating our fateful day as the baseline for a longer, more provocative video, and we were quite keen.  Ultimately the UAC produced a video that conveyed not only the frenzied panic associated with a burial and rescue, but to also show the claustrophobic, stark reality that Matt faced six feet down.    After many painstaking hours of filming and editing, “To Hell In A Heartbeat” debuted in fall of 2017.  

The Utah Avalanche Center is rightly proud of its stature in the avalanche world, and with tens of thousands of followers it would have been easy for them to assume that their reach would be sufficient.  But the UAC reached out to celebrity snowboarder Travis Rice, who enthusiastically agreed – in a win/win – to host the video via his social media.  As a result of this alliance, the video has received over 2.8 million views worldwide. 

The unprecedented ability for a local avalanche center to produce a top quality video with a distribution strategy that both covered and – more importantly - transcended the avalanche community is extraordinary.  Although I would not wish my experience on anyone, I am proud to be part of the legacy that the Utah Avalanche Center has created, and more importantly, I’m convinced that the skills I learned from the Utah Avalanche Center made it possible for my group to save my friend’s life that day.

Here is the link to the winning essay (and the runner up!):

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Argentina's Rio Grande - tres and last post

Further tales and pics from our Grande trip, but first a bit of a rant/promo for doing international river trips....

Doing an international raft expedition is - compared to doing them in the US - a fairly refreshing endeavor in that there are very few rules.  In the intermountain west and southwest US each river has a veritable - ahem - "raft" of rules that need to be followed closely, and it can be a dizzying process to keep track of them all.  Simply applying for the lottery takes management since there are so many different systems, and most need to be applied for by January 31st.   If you are trying to get on something unusually good like the Selway or the Grand Canyon, well, expect to join the thousands of others who are disappointed annually.  If you have the good fortune of actually being one of the chosen few, then you gotta read up on the specific river regs.  The "Grand Canyon NoncommercialRiver Trip Regulations" is 35 pages long!  And in case not every one of your 16 participants has read each page the rangers love to hold you at the put in for a couple of hours while they go over all of the river rules.  On several rivers your camps are assigned, which takes away a lot of the beautiful spontaneity that is provided by the rhythms of the river. And if your trip leader takes any compensation for the big task of setting up a river expedition for 16-25 people, may God have mercy upon your soul after you face the NPS's wrath over that transgression!

But in South America and other farther-flung places....Go any time you wanna go (and there’s enough/not too much water)!  Fires any time!  And burn your trash in the fire!  Camp at whatever beach suits your fancy! (no one has ever camped at any of the beaches, so you don't need to negotiate with any other groups!).   Do whatever hike you want, when you want to! The “groover” is a hole in the ground, and the contents are not hauled down the river for 2 weeks quietly generating a methane bomb.  And  - an important one for me, since I have a hard time hitting my mouth squarely when I eat - crumbs on the ground from your sandwich that become micro-trash that would otherwise attract mice on the Grand Canyon?  In Argentina, if the wind doesn't blow them away the birds will eat them, or…they are just bread crumbs on a random beach. 

The reason that the rules exist is because trips like the Grand Canyon and the Middle Fork Salmon are getting loved to death and would - literally - be shit shows without these rules, but it is refreshing to get out of the Land Of The Free with its myriad of rules and simply do river trips in a bit more of a "raw", unmanufactured manner.  

And indeed, the Rio Grande is pretty raw.  There are literally no trees along the entire river (aside from tamarisk; apparently South America got beset with those as well!) but that doesn't mean that there's no life; as mentioned earlier, theres a wide array of super-prickly, thorny plants, and the bird population that the river supports is crazy. In addition to the aforementioned condors, we saw lots of different raptors (some of which loved to dive bomb the soaring condors), a huge array of waterfowl including big ol' swans (are those waterfowl?), 

I saw a torrent duck:

 eddy hop through a class 4 rapid just for fun.

There were plenty of Ibises (Ibi?)
and small flocks of screeching parrots blasting around.

But the main flying creature that we were concerned about were the Tabanos, which is Spanish for Horsefly. 
I woulda called them more of a deerfly, but regardless, these sneaky bastards were able to land on your skin gently enough that you couldn't feel them, and they seemed to sort of revel in the moment before rearing up and diving into your skin with jaws of steel.

 Their blood lust usually cost them their lives when we'd yelp and smack them, but they died happy knowing that another chunk was removed from a human.  

The remainder of the river was generally class 2-3, the water and the air temp were both pleasantly warm, the hikes were interesting, and the food and socializing continued to be top notch.  One memorable hike was at an inconspicuous spot that Lucho had remembered as being good for "fossiles".  After about 20 minutes of walking we got onto the lower slopes of some hills and realized that literally every rock we were walking on had fossils embedded in them:

Or were fossils themselves:

And Rocky remembered a nice little hike up another relatively inconspicuous wash:
that got damper and wetter 'til we finally met a nice little waterfall:
Ralph appreciating some clear water
And we got into some other canyons that were surprisingly reminiscent of Utah:
This canyon came complete with a native savage....

Ash and Rocky in southern red rock sandstone

Ash found a rock she desperately wanted to save from falling down completely....
we celebrated Christmas in the desert:

Mike realized that he -sigh - found another toy that he absolutely has to have:

And even the great global raft and kayak expeditioneer Rocky Contos thought the pack raft was pretty fun:
After getting shut down on flying two hardshell boats down south and missing out on a raft held in customs, a pack raft that fits in the overhead bin sounds pretty appealing.....
Some other random pics:
Daniela and Antonela are a couple of great local paddlers who joined us on the 2nd half of the trip, and Daniela was able to wear the Birthday Tutu

The Line Of The Trip, by Ken:  "There seems to be a lot more action at the nude beach where the girls paddled over to for bathing than here at the Scrabble game at camp!"

a great thing about being down south this time of year is fresh fruit!  we ate a lot of cherries....
and bananas, and melons, and apples, and oranges, and apricots....

it wasn't so dry that amphibians couldn't make it happen...
A coupla wannabe Bohemian Gringos

A bridge over the river seems like it'd be a bit of a challenge when all the slats are hanging vertically.  Those Argentinians must be nimble! 
I've got a good rant about "water shoes" (and sandals) that will eventually become a blawg post.  Here's Blair finally giving up on a well-loved pair
And speaking of well-loved pairs, Ash went with her tactic of bringing some pretty hammered things on the trip as somewhat disposable; here are her long undies:
Usually it wasn't her arm that was showing through.....
And their unceremonious demise:

Of course, all good trips must come to an end, and once again our trusty bus showed us to drag us kicking and screaming into civilization:

and no trip is complete without a flat tire:
We actually fixed it at the home of our Chivo Chef, and we got to meet some of our meal's compatriots in the living form:
And in his yard he actually had a pair of Salomon SpeedCrosses that they hung up as a nest:
As I mentioned in the first post, the most important part of any trip is the people, and we were blessed to have such a great crew.  Many thanks to Blair, Kate, Ralph, Andy, Sara, Fico, Ken, Pedro, Rocky, Barbara, Anto, Daniela, Lucho, Mike, and Elise for all contributing to a fabulous trip, and of course to Ash for going ahead and turning 50 and having the idea and motivation to initiate a great adventure! 

Also thanks to Rocky, Kate, Blair, Elise, and Andy and Sara for "contributing" (ie me poaching without consent!) some of the fun pics in these three posts.....

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Argentina's Rio Grande Part Dos

A day or two below the first portage came the second significant obstacle we faced.  Like the first, the river entered a tight basalt gorge that's about a kilometer long, but this one was wider and was mostly easy but contained one short, big, and violent rapid, which made it unrunnable for our crew.  However, once again our local support team (and chivo chef) showed up to help us out, and at the head of the gorge we pulled all the bags off the rafts, piled them in the pickup for a couple of runs down to the end of the gorge, where we hauled them back down a gully to the river.  The boats - with coolers, dryboxes, and oars strapped down tight - were then sent on unmanned on their merry way through the rapid, to hopefully be retrieved at the bottom. 

A side note here:  In the US raft companies sometimes run challenging rapids (on the Gauley, Gore Canyon, Cherry Creek on the Tuolemne, etc) but almost always with a moderately strong paddle crew and only on day trips, so there's no gear.  Classic American river expeditions are almost always on Grand Canyon, Salmons, Selway, Rogue, etc. that do not have any class 5 rapids on them, so it's rare that US-based rafters get the opportunity to deal with rafts and unusually big rapids.  But as Pedro pointed out, particularly in Peru, they run trips all the time down rivers that have class 5/6 rapids and have to deal with getting rafts through/around them, which we experienced three years ago portaging the infamous class 6, kilometer-long Wasson's Slide and I experienced last year at the Gauntlet and Black Wall Cavern rapids on the Blue Nile.  So for those guys this wasn't a big deal, but for those of us who had maybe kayaked plenty of challenging whitewater without rafts and/or had only done relatively uneventful raft trips, the concept of lining, portaging, and ghost boating rafts is a bit of a different deal (last year I was on the end of a line holding the raft and basically held it too tight and the raft flipped!  But at least I shredded my hands in the process; much to learn for this gringo rafter...).  

So after a couple of hours of moving and sorting, we were finally ready, and Rocky sent the first boat bobbing sans capitan down towards the entrance to the gorge:
Hoping that it won't eddy out or get caught on any rocks, which one did, for a while.
Sitting in my kayak the eddy behind a wall that blocked my view upstream I watched Pedro closely as he stood on a rock across the river.  He held his hand out in front of him, palm down.  We hadn't discussed this signal before, but I knew that it meant that our first "ghost boat"that was running the class 5+ rapid by itself, without anyone in it, was still upright.  But abruptly his right hand flipped over and his other hand clapped his forehead.  The boat had flipped:

which we knew would make it harder to get it out of the swift current below the rapid to the shore where most of the crew waited with the pile of gear that we'd portaged around the rapid.  Moments later the overturned boat came into view, and Lucho and I peeled out of the eddy and gamely tried to push the ponderous beast into the eddy.  However, the boat was determined to head downstream and we couldn't get it to shore, so we floated downstream around a wall that separated the eddy where the crew was and finally - after switching directions to push it to a closer eddy on the opposite shore - we were able to muscle it to shore.  We were only a hundred yards or so downstream of the crew and all were safe and accounted for, but this was a bad sign; if we couldn't get the remaining rafts to the eddy with the people and gear, we'd have a huge cluster on our hands.  Here is a drone shot of our vain attempts:
Lucho and I secured the raft and knew that it was unlikely that two of us would be able to flip the boat over with the full cooler/dry box on it and prepared to portage our kayaks back upstream to try the strategy again with the next boats, when Pedro paddled up in another kayak and said "Those coolers are full of food and might not be watertight.  We gotta flip that raft back over or we could lose a lot!"  Once again, my lack of experience with rafts was offset by Pedro's foresight.  But if two of us couldn't get that raft over, three of us was not much more likely.  But we gave 'er a go.  

Our first attempt was pretty weak; we only got it to about 45 degrees before it flopped back down.  We took a few seconds to rest, reconfigured ourselves a little to get more leverage, and lunged into the flip lines that Mike Brehm had kindly brought down and mounted on his raft.  We quickly got the boat to 45 degrees, then hauled harder and inched it up to 60, 75....and started to fade.  But at 75 degrees we were so close, so we kept straining, but we couldn't rest at all to make that last lunge or it would flop down, so imagining ourselves as mothers lifting the car off our babies, we gave one last oomph and pulled the boat vertical and it flopped over.  Even above the rapids we could hear the cheer of the rest of the crew anxiously waiting upstream!  (note:  yes, we coulda set up a z-drag, but ironically I had given my kit to the eddy crew, and as above, time in the water was of essence). 

We carried our kayaks upstream and hoped the next raft would be better.....and it was.  The raft came through upright:

I quickly learned (more raft expedition education) that "plowing" a kayak against a raft is not as effective as coming in hot with a direct hit to the tubes, and we were able to get that boat into the eddy where the crew waited.  And the same was true for the next two rafts as well.  Shortly the three rafts were re-rigged, the gear and crew made it down to the wayward raft, and we were on our way again, all the wiser.  And for what it's worth, Rocky has designed himself some "auto rights" for his rafts along the lines of the "Creature Crafts" that he thinks will run that rapid just fine (I agree). 

Downstream lay the best play spot on the run, and even in creek boats we were able to have some fun.  

Ash and Andy surfing it up:

'til we realized we could get some sick old school enders:

Andy executing a perfect pirouette

Pedro was looping this Nomad, but nobody got him upside down. 
Downstream were a couple more rapids that were much more runnable and fun, and the crew did great.  Magma was in a wide spot but went over a 10 foot ledge so it felt big, and Zeta didn't have as much of a drop but was constricted enough to be quite turbulent.  
Some Magma pics:

Andy pointing out to Ken exactly where the beat down zone is
Then Andy got this shot of Pedro demonstrating the aforementioned beat down. 

for the rafts it was no problem....
Tho Blair chose to kiss the hole:

Some Zeta pics:
Ash on the entrance

And charging through the crux
Packraft boy gave 'er a go:
it doesn't look like it, but I'm paddling hard!

taking the hit

gamely trying to brace to keep myself upright

And almost rolling  -even with my head way out of the water! - but bouncing off the wall and ultimately swimming out into the tailwaves below, but not til after I got sucked deep by one of the boils, to the point where I grabbed my chest to make sure my pfd was still on!  
And with the biggest rapids and portages and such behind us, there was much rejoicing:

And we even did a Burning Man to celebrate:

The rapids mellowed a bit after this but the fun did not let up, but of course I got carried away enough on this post that I need another'n to finish it up.