Thursday, August 22, 2013

Trouble at the Alter

The Little White Salmon River, with it's legendary status and easy logistics holds a special form of respect in the PNW.  Many paddlers aspire to one day travel this special waterway.  The crown jewell of this run, Spirit Falls may hold even more allure than the run itself.   Some paddlers run the Little White many times before finally finding themselves in the pool below this falls.  With a number of pro paddlers moving to Hood River specifically to run this river (for which most probably don't even have the word portage cross there minds on this river at normal flows) and the saturation of media from the canyon there has been a loss of mystique regarding this stream for kayakers.

With the recent resurgence of the rafting community however, this river and waterfall have become a true proving ground for the best in the business.  Only a few years ago I witnessed more than once, and heard many more accounts from kayakers telling Dan it was a terrible idea to take a raft down this river.  He took no heed and today has logged over 50 successful runs down this stream.  There are many other rafters who also run this stream now, with many having logged in the double digits.

However, Spirit has posed a problem for rafts in the past. With a handful of descents, only one attempt was successful.  Most resulted in lots of pain, followed by some downtime.  Dave Saquety and Doc Loomis reported taking the hit of a lifetime on the earliest attempt of this drop.  This low success rate keeps many rafters away, but also creates a draw for the daring to attempt following the few that went before them into one of the most special pools in the PNW for whitewater boaters.

Josh Sheldon is one such boater who wanted his own Spiritual experience on the Little White.   The following account is from Brandon Bloomquist, who was on the trip where Josh took the risks involved with reaching the sacred pool.  Not all went to plan, take what you will from this account.



Sunday was a fantastic day on the Little White, at least once things got organized.  Nice weather made the three hours we were waiting for the final member of our party to show up more bearable.  We finally got on the stream a little after 1:00.  Jacob, Brandon Lake and I put on a little earlier than the raft and we all had nice lines through Gettin’ Busy.  There was a quick scout of Boulder Sluice, and I followed the green tongue in front of me to a porn star finish. 

Brandon ran Island, with a degree of success.  He made it halfway down when he pitoned the nose, which spun him into a tail piton.  He rolled quickly and we kept moving downstream.  Sacriledge and Double Drop were awesome.  I walked S-Turn and had a creative line over wishbone where I didn’t get square to the drop until I was 5’ from the lip.  It wasn’t good, but it worked out.  After watching the raft get hung up sideways on every rock and hole in the gorge, I was happy to see them catch the eddy on right below Horseshoe, which cleared us to follow into the gorge through which I was happy to have a stylish run.   I haven’t run the right side of Stovepipe before, but, wow, that’s a cool rapid. 

We got to Spirit at 4:00 with the sun shining.  We knew the rafters were going to take their time to consider the drop, so we broke out a lunch of smoked oysters, salami, cheese, crackers and snickers right at the lip.  We wave to the gathered crowd of about eight who hiked in from milepost 2, including Paul Thompson, Josh’s Mom and the Manimal, Trevor Sheehan.  

I turned to Jacob at one point and said “this feels civilized.”  I gave Spirit a lot of thought, but decided that I can’t afford an injury right now and told the boys I’d be at Chaos for them.  I was able to lower my boat into the Chaos eddy, where I delicately got in, then ran the ledge to the left of Chaos straight into the proper eddy. 

By this point in the day, I was feeling like the river was actively helping me be a better boater. 
When I got into position, I was surprised to see Jacob standing on the rock on river right in the pool (The Alter as some have called it).  He’d already styled the big drop thinking I was positioned at Chaos.  We were glad it worked out well, because I was a few minutes late.  Jacob practiced his throws, both into the boil and into the current past him.  I uncoiled my ropes a little in my defensive position slightly below Chaos and we wait. 

Jacob approaches the pool.

At 4:51, Brandon signals from the lip that the rafters are paddling.  Dan was on the right, Josh on the left.  They look good coming over at the lip.  One second and twenty-five later, the over-rotation was obvious.  They hit, the boat just went deep, then rebounded straight up with the paddlers still in.  Their weight pulls the boat down on top of them.  Dan and the raft are kicked out to the eddy on the right.  Josh goes deep in the boil and surfaces behind the curtain.  We don’t know it yet, but he didn’t square up his feet on the front thwart at the landing, and severely rolled his ankle (crutches for two weeks). 

Even seemingly good lines don't always work out.

As a recap, we have Brandon at the top, John the Grizzly on the left, Jacob on The Alter and me at Chaos with Josh’s Mom freaking out at the viewing area.  

The folks up top can see Josh moving around behind the curtain, but I can’t.  All I know is that they aren’t panicking, so I’m just staying put.  In any case, I can’t leave my station in case one of them comes around the corner.  Brandon tries to throw his rope gamely over the lip, but because of the undercut, it wasn’t going to work.  John tries to throw through the column of water from the right, but is rejected.  Jacob gets in his boat to paddle over to Dan, and they get the boat flipped over.  Jake gets back in his kayak and paddles over to river left, just below the left side of the falls.  There is an eddy there, where he gets out, then throws a rope to Dan and pulls him across.  It is already 5:15.  Jake has Brandon come to above him to lower a line with the intent of pulling them up the convergence zone and then into the undercut area.  They clip the line onto the raft, have Brandon walk back upstream on the cliff and start paddling, but the rope gets snagged in two places on the cliff.  I’m the only one who can see both halves of what’s happening.

At 5:30, they give up on this approach and move to simply paddling upstream directly.  Dan decides to first pump up the thwart and adjust it back to paddling position.  15 minutes later they make their first attempt and only get to the nub that sticks out on the right, and Dan is getting pounded by the waterfall landing on him.  They are within ten feet of the point where the current flows into the wall, but just can’t do it.  Over the next fifteen minutes, they try four more times and are rejected each time. 

I can’t see it from my post, but John managed to get a rope to Josh behind the veil.  He attempts to pull him up, but can’t.  Josh can’t climb, either, with a bum foot and an overhung wall.  He eventually cuts himself off the rope, landing on the bad foot, making things worse.  He’s getting cold, too, with the constant mist.  It’s been almost an hour.  Jacob switches boats and paddles his kayak through the veil, only to realize there is a secondary room and he cannot contact Josh from this lower room.  He paddles back out through the veil and down to Dan to further discuss. 

At 5:45, Jacob gets back into his boat, to the massive disdain of Dan.  For the first time, I can hear him through the roar.  Jake comes back to the river right eddy to study the situation, then gets in the current to catch the left eddy above Chaos.  He misses, but knows it and turns to face the challenge directly.  I’m relieved to see him simply style it and carry on to get out at the left, where we normally put in after the portage.  He runs up to where Brandon is, where they confer.  They pass a single line down to Dan again, but I know this won’t work.  I frantically motion to Jake and Brandon to clip the lines together.  They do, and start walking.  I blow a short whistle to stop them.  I get Jake to stay put, holding tension on the line, while Brandon walks around the curve of the falls to where we had lunch.  This keeps the line from snagging on the left wall. 

It’s 6:00 by the time that Jake walks to meet Brandon at the top, then with Dan in the raft.  The boys at the top start pulling, with Dan simply highsiding to keep the boat upright .  They are able to pull the raft straight in to meet Josh.  I can’t see this for a long time, as there was mist from both sides of the falls jetting across my view.  Eventually I see a second piece of red clothing, and from the positions infer that it has to be Josh.  Then things get weird, and I see Dan break out the K-pump.  It turns out that they’d deflated the raft a little for the drop in an effort to make it taco on landing, but it is just confusing from my post.  I’m starting to dance to stay warm, and I haven’t been getting blasted by mist. 

Finally, at 6:15, with the left falls pouring on them, I see the raft emerge with two paddlers.  We all cheer, but they are just ten seconds from Chaos.  Dan knows it, and is shouting at Josh, but Josh is so cold that he can’t paddle well.  I see the look of a shelled soldier on his face.  The boat keeps turning to the right with Dan’s power.  They drooooop over the main drop at Chaos.  Josh falls out of the boat, right into the main pourover and loses his paddle.  I’m ready to hit him with a rope, but he grabs the chicken line.  He stays there for a few seconds, yelling at Dan that he can’t get back in.  The fear reaches through the air.  Dan hesitates, as he’s keeping the raft from flipping in Chaos, but pulls Josh back into the boat.  After a few more rounds while Josh retrieves another paddle, they are able to carry on downstream.  I watch the paddle make rounds in the hole for another two minutes before it finally spits out.  When I get back to my boat, it was waiting for me in that eddy. 

We run Master Blaster blind and catch up with the raft below the hatchery.  We drink beers on the float to the take out, where we carry Josh up the hill to the road and analyze how we can deal with situations like this more efficiently in the future.  
Brandon Bloomquist

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