Day 18: The Colorado River Swim Club
Today our run takes us from camp at river left–Above Anvil–to Lava Falls, just two miles downstream. I haven’t thought
much past Lava, the biggest baddest most-talked-about rapid in the Canyon. We’ll be camping somewhere below if we make it
that far. Probably not a long day on the river; it’ll take too long filming the boats run the rapid. And–maybe–rescuing
people. At least it’s another warm and sunny day, perfect weather again and again, nothing but blue skies and
shorts-and-T-shirts weather. Which is exactly what I want for a run through Lava Falls, which promises not to be dry no
matter how it ends up.
Looking in Tom Martin’s river guide, though, Lava Falls doesn’t look that bad–except for the 9 in parentheses behind the
name. As in, 9 out of 10. But there are rapids with bigger vertical drops.
“Is Lava Falls really only a thirteen-foot drop?” I ask as I’m giving the map a good study before breakfast.
“It’s immediate,” Greg Hatten says. “Comes in a very small package.”
“Aaaaaaaaaah!” says Tom Martin, acting out a run through Lava with a few appropriate gesticulations. Then: “Next boat.”
Sink or swim, a run through Lava Falls takes about twenty seconds. I’m guessing the long slide down the tongue into the
rapid takes about twenty years.
After the usual heavy lifting, loading, and more-careful-than-usual strapping down of gear, I hand off Fat George’s
oars to Cece Mortenson for the short run down to scout Lava. Almost immediately we’re passing a basalt column forty
feet high in the middle of the river, a formation known–with the usual respect for Native traditions–Vulcan’s Throne.
We’re in volcano country. A geologist could pin that down a little more specifically, but what I know comes from Tom
Martin’s river guide:
“Once past Honga Spring, if you look up and back high up in the Redwall cliffs on river left, you will see a perched
remnant of basalt over 1,000 feet above the river level. Let your imagination fill the entire canyon with lava and you
have the picture. If the “lake” behind the highest lava dams here ever filled, the headwaters were up near Moab, UT!”
Then, at geologic tempos, the huge lava dams were eroded by the silt-laden waters of the Colorado (think 4-grit liquid
sandpaper and a few loooong days in the Canyon boatshop) and the huge lake dropped, leaving the Canyon as we see it
today. Which is, deep and narrow–the inner gorge, anyway–and obstructed by rapids at nearly every place a side canyon
exists to wash debris into the main Canyon. A series of rapids that includes Lava Falls, the biggest rapid in the Canyon,
which we’ll be running soon.
Traffic Jam at Lava
We pull in at river right to scout the rapid, and immediately we’re in the middle of a horde of boats. There are five
separate river trips all gathered here: us, the Brits who rescued Yoshie at Havasu, a group from Arkansas, Scott and
Rob’s group in their multi-colored boats, and a group from Telluride and Vail. Our group, with ten boats, is probably
the biggest, but there have to be somewhere between thirty and forty boats gathered above the rapid, with a gaggle of
kayaks, inflatable duckies, and mini-kayaks buzzing around like hummingbirds between to fat rafts. Everyone climbs up
the trail on river right to a high overlook above the rapid’s entry. Eighty people or so, all staring down at the waves
and holes and rocks and trying to mentally project a safe line through.
Our group, of course, is filming, which slows us down more than most. We’ll let most of the others go first. Today is
a two-camera set-up; Norm runs the high camera at the scout point sixty feet above the river’s level, and Ian is down
low with another camera. Dave Mortenson, again, is poised to take still photos. But all that maneuvering takes time.
Time for those of us just standing around to take a loooong look at the rapid.
Lava Falls, it turns out, may be over-hyped. Sure, it’s a 9 of 10. And yes, the waves are big. But at today’s water
flow–about 10,000 cubic feet per second (less than a tenth of what Moulty Fulmer and Pat Reilly faced on their 1957
trip, though they didn’t make it as far as Lava that year, and wouldn’t have run it if they had)–it’s about as friendly
as it ever gets. Which is not a guarantee.
The whole trick here, apparently, is to NOT go into the Ledge Hole. The Ledge Hole is a big raft-eating hole beneath
a large pourover, a five-foot vertical drop over a rock ledge. This vicious entry blocks the center of the river, right
at the top of the rapid.
Hazel Clark knows firsthand what the Ledge Hole is like, from a run on an earlier trip:
“I felt like I got halfway across, and then it pulls you back,” she says. “And I’m like, ‘Oh, shit, I’m not getting out
of this.’ I didn’t jump off until the boat flipped,” she explains. “Normally I wouldn’t do that–I want to stay with the
boat–but I’ve seen the videos. Quite often when a boat flips there, it stays in the same place.”
“This is where the term “maytagged” comes from,” Tom Martin puts in. “Getting turned over and over and over and over.”
If you want to see what the Ledge Hole can do, search Youtube for a video called “Carnage at Lava Falls,” posted by
Duwain Whitis (the co-author of Tom Martin’s river guide). Luckily, there’s no internet access here while we’re waiting
to run Lava ourselves.
We’ll run Lava on the right side–the left run is too rocky today–so I want to position my raft to punch through the
far right side of the Ledge Hole, barely brushing its tail, where there’s a big lateral wave. Hit this right and you’re
pretty much on autopilot for the rest of the run. The rapid will funnel your boat toward a crashing thunderous white
frothy spot in the river that the veterans call the V wave. I nod and pretend to see something V-shaped as they explain
it to me over and over. The V wave, apparently, is a narrow slot that your raft will shoot through, where a four-foot
lateral wave will break over each side of the boat, burying you in white water.
Once you come through that you’ll meet the BLR–the Black Lava Rock–a name that confuses me at first, until I figure
out that the BLR is no longer black but is a light beige to tan instead. I reorient myself by mentally translating the
B in BLR to Big, which still fits. The BLR is a giant rock at the bottom of the run’s right side. Its foot is coated
with green slime, and there are big waves which might wash a boat partway up the rock. But Lava is a relatively
beginner-friendly rapid, I’m told. It flushes everything downstream one way or another. Assuming you make it past the
Finally most of the other groups’ boats are out-of-the-way and it’s time for some of us to make the run. My boat, Fat
George, is tied directly to shore, with about half a dozen other rafts tied to it. I’ll be one of the last boats down.
First I watch Yoshie shove off, rowing Cece toward the rapid. Then David shoves off and rows out into the current,
disappearing around a corner. Some of the dories have already gone through ahead of them. I’ll be next.
I scramble along the shore and untie my bow line, coil it neatly in my hand. Take a long look around my boat to make sure
everything is strapped and double-strapped. Look again. Tighten the straps on my PFD, and on my hat. Then a shove off
from the rocks and I’m coasting out into the current.
I quickly slide around a corner where the top of Lava Falls comes into view. As in other big rapids, the top is a
horizon line below which the world drops away. The entry ought to be easy to line up; I’m aiming to slide down the
far right side of the smooth V which pours over the Ledge Hole. I keep Fat George sideways so I can make small lateral
adjustments, keeping my boat pinned to the edge of the V, far away from the Ledge Hole. I’m right where I want to
And then the V steepens and I’m sliding faster. I’m vaguely aware of the camera crew and other people watching from
the rocks on river right, but my attention is focused on lining up right. I’m pushed past the Ledge Hole–I think my
entry is still about right, but everything looks different from water level and after all there are no guarantees–and
then I’m into the first lateral wave.
The rest of the run–the brief time I spend aboard the raft, anyway–is a series of snapshots rather than a continuous
memory of events. I’m in my raft, and we seem to be at the bottom of a large hole in the water. I look up. Above me is
a small circle of blue sky. On every side, and closing in on that circle of blue sky, squeezing it smaller and smaller
until its no bigger than a vaguely benevolent eye staring down from the Canyon rim, is white. Frothing waving crashing
thunderous white. Left. Right. Forward. Back. Above. White.
And then a brief sensation of being catapulted through the air, the oars yanking me from my seat like a rag doll, and
I’m in the water, hanging onto the side of my raft. I’ve joined the Colorado River Swim Club.
Later, dry on shore, I ask Norm Takasugawa what happened. He was running the camera on the high scout point, so he had
a good view.
“So what happened?” Norm says. “You fell out of the boat and went swimming.”
Hoping for further explication–I really have no memory other than a trampolining feeling as I was thrown from the
boat–I ask Norm to tell me more. Apparently I made it past the V wave, where white water was pouring in from all
sides at once, but didn’t get quite as far as the BLR at the bottom of the rapid. I slid up on a wave at the base
of the BLR, Norm says.
“And then you were leaning,” he continues. “And the angle of inclination caused a slight ejection.”
A slight ejection, it turns out, is enough to put me in the water. This is water from the bottom of Lake Powell,
four hundred feet below the surface. Water that has not felt the heat of the sun’s rays for a long long time before
being released from Glen Canyon Dam to float our rafts through the Canyon. Water so cold I can’t even stand to wash
my face without a rigorous iron-willed determination–a determination I’m unable to manifest on a daily basis,
or–let’s be honest–even once every three or four days. Water so cold that I don’t even like to wade out knee-deep
If you want to be scientific about it: 47 degrees Fahrenheit, 26 or 27 Celsius.
Seriously cold water.
And I’m immersed in it, wearing nothing but K-Mart board shorts (they have a nice flowery pattern), my newly donated
Patagonia rain jacket, a cotton tank top, a ninety-nine-cent thrift store fleece my wife gave me in 2001, my new
pre-seasoned river hat, and Teva sandals.
And I have not even the slightest awareness of the cold. I’m laughing my fool head off, laughing so hard that it doesn’t
even occur to me to try too hard to climb back into my raft. And when I do try, I find it’s a lot harder than i expected.
The fat rubber sides of the raft give no purchase for my feet. I try to step up on a dangling oar–it’s been popped out
of the oarlock and is hanging from its leash–but finally just give up and keep laughing.
Meanwhile whistles are blowing and rescue boats are converging from all directions. A raft. Another raft. A couple of
inflatable kayaks. I’m in the tail waves of the rapid and there are no rocks to hit, no dangers to face. Finally one
raft crew grabs my raft and pulls it to shore while a kayaker maneuvers close enough that I can climb aboard his boat
and then hop onto my raft.
My new river hat is still in place.
I start whistling the theme from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” as I pull on a dry shirt and jury-rig a clothesline from my
boat to a tree on shore and hang my wet clothes to dry. Then I pull out a celebratory gourmet lollipop, Pina Colada
flavor, courtesy of the Original Gourmet Candy Company of New Hampshire, via Greg Hatten, and watch the remaining
boats make the run through Lava.
While I wait for the camera crew to pack up and make the final run, I’m already dreaming up T-shirts for the Colorado
River Swim Club. A map of Grand Canyon, I decide, with a red X and a swimmer’s name at each rapid someone swam.
Hance: Hazel Clark. Granite: Randy Dersham. Crystal: Tom Martin (with an asterisk denoting a boat flip). Upset: Yoshie
And Lava Falls: Tom Pamperin.