Monday, May 26, 2008

Swiftwater Rescue on the Grand Canyon

One of the major perks of living in the Southwest is the close proximity of the Grand Canyon. Since moving to Telluride in 2006 I have gotten on 4 canyon trips. The following is a post of a swiftwater rescue course Mitch Sasser and I taught in March of 2008.

My friend and mentor Mitch Sasser got the contract to teach the guides of Arizona Rafting Adventures a Swiftwater Technician course on their annual Grand Canyon training trip. Mitch lives in Futaleufu, Chile where he manages Patagonia H20. We’d worked together on the Futaleufu river for Expediciones Chile 2000-2004. He dropped me a line in February indicating he needed help with this course. This was quite the opportunity for me to get on the canyon and teach some rescue since I had just recently become certified as a instructor.
An interesting side note about this trip was the fact that Glen Canyon Dam was going to be releasing 50,000 cfs during the first five days of our trip. Although we didn’t get to see the big drops at the high flows, it was just cool seeing that much water in there. Here’s a few shots:

After the water dropped back to normal flows we started into our course. The group was a great mix of very experienced boaters and rookies. One stand out Brad Dimick a legendary river guide wowed us with his historical interrup and geologic knowledge of the canyon.

Our rescue courses start off with some traditional class time, which is usually a bit of death by power point. Obviously power point was not options, so we made do with a dry erase board and the incredible back drop of the canyon. During this lecture we cover swiftwater rescue absolutes, river hydrology /morphology and the details of the certification. The certifying body that recognizes this course is the IRIA (International Rescue Instructor Authority). The IRIA is an independent third party governing body that sets a very high standard for participating rescue organizations to adhere to. The IRIA has set itself apart by forming the Risk Management Matrix™. To learn more about IRIA visit A major portion of this technician level course is the testing of all the skills that we cover.

Throwbags: This can be the most effective tool for a quick rescue. Many Grand Canyon guides complain that they are never used and can be dangerous. This is especially true when you don’t know how to use them. We generally start off with a throwbag course so students get the feel of just throwing the bag without deploying it. There a lot of different types of throw bags out there and they all have their advantages and disadvantages. The key is to find one that works for you and became super familiar with it.

Why are most students initially so horrible at throwbaging? it’s a pain in the ass repacking it. We address this issue with excessive target practice.

The second throw: After students get the hang of deploying their bag we move into the throwing of the coiled rope. Coiled throws work well for two situations. First being you missed your victim on the first throw and you still have time for a second toss. Rescuers aren’t going to stand there and repack the bag as the victim floats out of range. We teach students an effective method of quickly re-coiling and deploying the rope without the bag. This technique is also good for short throws when your victim may only be 10’ away and throwing 75’ of rope on top of them would only add to the victim’s problems.

Swimming: Self-rescue is the name of the game. You cannot be an effective rescuer if you are a victim. This means aggressively swim for your life and get out of the water. Only assume the defensive whitewater position if you swimming shallow and steep whitewater. And never stand up until the water depth is below your knee.

Entrapment: This is the one of the big killers in whitewater fatalities, along with flush drowning. Entrapments suck!! And there are some situations that are futile. The bottom line is to get that victim an airway,, quick!! (I carry a long tube which maybe helpful in some situations). The standard methods of a fixed line stabilization and then additional synch lines is good team- rope-work practice, though this technique is pretty much worthless if your victim doesn’t have an airway. At rapid action rescue we teach some additional rescue methods for entrapment.

Knots: Know your Knots: Family of eights, Bowline, Munter hitch, Clove hitch, Water knot, double fisherman’s, prusiks knots. These are the building blocks of both river running and mountaineering.

Mechanical advantage: Students love to set up z drags. Just remember that in large part that mechanical advantage is for stable situations and gear retrieval. These systems also help students put the whole rope and knot puzzle together.

Testing: Yes testing is stressful especially the throwbag staion. This requies two 50’ throw into 3’ diameter circleThis added stress does force students to truly learn the skills, and it is garmented you will be a throwbag nija after the course.

Thanks to AZRA management for hiring Mitch and myself to put on this course. It was a blast. Many companies teach rescue in-house, though we believe it is worth it to have a third party come in and offer fresh perspectives & testing. AZRA is blessed with some very talented guides! Hopefully we can do it again.