Running a Rapid in the Grand Canyon by Greg Hatten
Time for another guest post from our friend Greg Hatten, in which he replicates a run from the 1962 trek down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. This one is exciting, so hold on.
We scout the big ones – the ones you can hear for a half mile before you can see – the ones that sound like a freight train when you stand beside them. The ground trembles. Their names are spoken with respect and dread around the campfire at night and over coffee in the morning… House Rock, Hermit, Hance, Granite, Bedrock, Crystal, Lava…
Just above Granite Rapid at mile mark 94, we pull our boats to shore on river-left, tie up, and hike down the river over unstable river rocks to “scout”. It’s rated a 9 + on a scale of 10 by Larry Stevens in his River Runner’s Map and Guidebook to the Colorado River – one of the most difficult on the river. Halfway down this rapid is one of the largest and most violent holes we have seen on the trip. We stop at the midpoint of the rapid to have a closer look. We watch, mesmerized, as water pours over a huge boulder we cannot see and then dives ten feet down with so much force it creates a wall of water that slams back upriver to create a turbulent cauldron and a suck-hole that we must avoid. We are transfixed and for a long moment we can’t look away. I wonder to myself, if a boat got sucked into that, would it EVER come out?
Scanning the river for a possible path through the rapid (the “line”) we speak a boatman’s language of laterals, V-waves, pour-overs, eddies, and cheater lines. There is a seriousness in our tone this morning as we dissect the rapid and discuss what we see. I love the banter, I respect the experience, I trust the judgment of these teammates.
Two days ago my boat was swallowed and flipped in an ugly hole at Grapevine – a Class VIII. My boat took a beating and so did my confidence. It’s on my mind as the hole in front of us thunders away and we continue to search for the “line.”
There are big rocks all the way down the left side which appear and then disappear with the crashing waves. At this low water level those rocks would tear our boats to pieces… left side is not open today. We look at the middle run but everything coming down that V-wave is getting sucked into the hole-that-must-be-missed, so it’s not an option either. The only path we see at this level is a far right run where a ridge of water is formed by the current careening off the canyon wall. The run requires a boat balancing act on a tight wire of white water that’s uncomfortably close to the canyon wall.
The hard part is getting up on that water ridge in the first place. There is a hole above the ridge on the far right side of the river formed by the first steep elevation drop. If you can put your boat half in the hole and half out of the hole, it will pop your boat out and fling it right on top of the ridge for a twenty second thrill ride to the bottom. Hit the hole too far right & you’ll get sucked into it. Skirt the hole too far left and you’ll miss the ridge and be swept into the V Wave and the big dangerous hole we must avoid.
We are all agreed – it’s a far right run.
After the scout, it’s a quiet walk back up to the boats. We are alone with our thoughts and visualizing our moves and I pose the question to myself… again… “why am I doing this”?
Robb goes first – he’s been rowing since he was four years old and makes every rapid look easy. He gives us confidence as he hit the exact line we talked about and has a splashy ride down the ridge. Perfection. He pulls into an eddy below the rapid and sets up for rescue as a safety precaution.
Steph is next – he’s rowing the Susie Too – a remake of the original from 1962 and a twin hull of my boat, the Portola. He takes the Susie Too over the first big drop and disappears. His line is a little too aggressive – his boat is too far into the hole at the top. The power of the hole grabs his right oar and almost pulls him out of the boat. The force is so strong it springs the brass oar lock and releases the oar which is now useless in his hand. He slams the oar back in place just as he gets spit out of the hole, a little sideways and twisted, but up on the ridge none-the-less. A quick correction and he rides the ridge like a bucking horse although dangerously close to the wall. Nice!!
I tighten my life jacket, put on my helmet, and row quietly to the other side of the river several hundred feet above Granite. The approach to the infinity edge is slow. Too slow. Too much time to think about my disaster at Grapevine. I snap back to the moment and reach the edge where I can finally see down the steepness of the other side and know for the first time that my alignment is spot on.
This is the nerve that Craig Wolfson talks about. I’m lined up to hit one hole so I can miss a bigger hole and it’s only two days and twelve miles after almost losing my boat and my passenger in a hole that looks a lot like these.
I drop over the top and everything speeds up – now I’m racing for the edge of the hole on the right. Half in half out – I hit it perfectly and I keep my right oar up away from the turbulence (thanks Steph). I’m rewarded by a clean exit from the hole and a little air as I get deposited right on top of the ridge of water. I ride the waves as they explode under my boat and shoot me down the other side. The canyon wall is cozy and I feel like it’s inches away from the tips of my oars. I go speeding by the hole-that-must-be-missed on my left. It’s so close I can touch it with my oar.
One more big wave at the bottom and it’s over. In 20 seconds. Wow…and then I remind myself – “THIS is why we do this!!”
That run at Granite restored my confidence – which would be tested repeatedly over the next 190 miles. Three days later I would flip in Upset Rapid – Class nine.
It had a bigger hole than Granite on the day it got me…but THAT’s another story.
You wreck a wood boat, you fix it. You flip a wood boat, you dry out your blankets. And that’s how you run a rapid.
Coming up in Part III…read about night-life on the Colorado. Ever wonder what it’s like to sleep in the canyon for a month or how we cook, clean, relax, and get re-charged for a challenging day on the river? Read about it next week and enjoy some beautiful night-time shots in “Night in the Canyon”