Kayak, Thinking

A Tough Call…

If things start to unravel on the river, the thing your heart is telling you to do is not always the thing the mind knows you should do…

It had been such a good day on the Soča.  The classic Graveyard section had been all sweet lines and playtime and we were feeling great, so the group on this week’s Live2Flow Slovenia Whitewater Holiday had decided to continue on into the harder Slalom section.  I had led down this a number of times and had a pretty experienced group behind me with only one, young JG, who hadn’t paddled these rapids before.  A quick inspection of the first few drops and we were back on the beach and ready to launch.

The ‘Slalom’ section is a noticeable step up from the ‘Graveyard’ section…

And it all went well, the group hitting the lines and making the eddies.  Not textbook perhaps, but controlled enough to make it clean and safe through the biggest drops.  It all looked good as we approached the final couple of features before the get out when suddenly it all turned sour; JG caught the edge of a stopper and went over, his roll failed twice in the confused, boiling water and he was out.  SWIMMER!!!

…suddenly it all turned sour; JG caught the edge of a stopper and went over, his roll failed twice in the confused, boiling water and he was out.  SWIMMER!!!

The timing could not have been much worse.  The Slalom section runs straight into the Grade 5/6 ‘Katarakt’ section, a place known for it’s siphons and undercuts which has claimed the lives of a number of paddlers.  JG quickly made it to shore but his boat continued down into the Katarakt, which would have been annoying but an acceptable consequence, after all, it is only a piece of plastic.  However, for some reason my good friend JM was chasing it.  Holy crap, why would he do that?!?!

My last view of JG (red boat) before his roll failed and things started to unravel…

I checked that the rest of the group were now safe and then tentatively followed JM into the Katarakt.  There is a very clear constriction as the whole river passes between two enormous boulders which I thought was impossible to miss, turns out it is only almost impossible…  I was able to ‘read and run’ the first drop but was then faced with a horizon  of huge boulders and had no idea what the safe line was or where JM had gone. To race into this unknown was hugely dangerous.  Why had JM risked going into this section?  What on earth was he thinking?

I hesitated, weighed down by the seriousness of the situation and the severity of the consequences of making the wrong call…

It is no exaggeration to say that I feared for his life, but I feared for mine too.  Instinct was telling me to follow my friend, but would that really be the best way to save him or would I simply be risking us both without any chance of rescue?  I hesitated, weighed down by the seriousness of the situation and the severity of the consequences of making the wrong call.  Quickly, head overcame heart, logic won and I paddled hard for the shore, got out of my boat, grabbed my paddle and throw bag and rushed along the bank…

It was a difficult, almost panicked minute or so of scrambling along the trail scanning the river features for any sign of JM before I finally saw him, safe and making his way towards me on the trail.  But with no boat or paddle.  So many competing emotions in that moment; mostly relief at seeing him safe, more than a little exasperation at his actions and also now curiosity – what the hell had just happened?

The scene of the incident that could have ended badly…

Turns out it is commonly called ‘Siphon Canyon’ for a reason.  After initially being so focused on chasing the boat that he had no awareness of where he was, JM had dropped backwards over a feature and rolled, then realised he was now all alone in unfamiliar surroundings.  He’d paddled hard for what looked like an eddy but instead found himself in a side flow drawing him towards a jumble of boulders.  Quickly broached across a gap and acutely aware of the precarious situation he was in, he ditched his paddle, pulled his deck and scrambled out onto the boulders.  The moment his weight came off the boat it was sucked down under the rocks, through the siphon and reappeared 7-8m downstream.  Narrow escape.

…he had become so task focused he had completely missed the bigger, dangerous picture…

The oddest thing is that it wasn’t until I told him that he realised where he was and what he had done – he still had no idea he had entered the Katarakt.  This became the thing that really shook him, well both of us really, that he had become so task focused he had completely missed the bigger, dangerous picture of where he was on the river.

So, what lessons can we take from this ‘near miss’?  After some time to process, I took away three key messages.

1.  Always see the bigger picture… You cannot become task focused when you are on a serious whitewater river.  Losing your spacial awareness as you chase a boat on easy water is not generally consequential, but can be fatal on difficult water.  Equipment is much easier replaced than friends…

2.  Brief, brief and brief again…  Although most of the group had done the section before and all knew how important it was to get out before the Katarakt, it seems that it was only me who was aware of where we were when the incident occurred.  Perhaps, either insisting on inspecting the full section, or at least reminding the group on exactly what the exit looked like would have brought this important issue back into focus before we set off.

3.  That’s just how we roll…  JG had swam earlier in the week when his roll had failed.  It seems harsh, and I always like to see the best in my groups, but perhaps this fact, coupled with the consequences of a poorly timed swim, should’ve made me ask him to sit out the section or only run the top half.  Still undecided on this but it warrants consideration…

A final irony was that JM’s orange boat and paddle were not recovered, but JG’s red boat beached itself downriver and with a bit of effort we were able to recover it.  If JM had not chased it the overall outcome would have been better!

Afterwards, therapy was required as we reviewed what had gone wrong…
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