Risk

Accidents always happen to others, until they happen to us.  Last week, I let an accident happen to me.  In the scheme of things it was relatively small, but it could have been avoided entirely.  I thought it might be useful to others to write about it here.


After a day and 2 nights of what some might consider high risk walking over winter mountains in trail shoes, I put in my packraft, just after the class 3/3+ rapids at the head of the River Lyon.  The River Lyon was, I know now with hindsight, too complicated a river to be trying on my first winter solo run, with 2 dams and several rapids and small gorges.  I knew I would be portaging on and off.  I wasn't wearing a drysuit, a helmet, or a legitimate PFD - I am trialing a homemade device at the moment, which is light, packable and inflatable, but therefore susceptible to puncture in the event of a rocky 'swim'.  A 'swim' is what happened, here:



It doesn't look like much, but for a near-beginner this is complicated enough.  I came over from the right (as we look at it, which is 'river left'), hit the 2nd pour-over at an angle, narrowly avoided the large strainer in the middle and tipped the boat from the front right...very slowly.  I didn't come out of the boat straight away, I was dragged along half submerged, committed the cardinal sin of letting go of my paddle, and finally bailed out of my boat, only to get a foot caught in my boat line.  Successfully ejected and the right way up but with one foot tangled, I managed to hold on to the boat hull and drag myself to shore a few metres before the second, and more complicated rock garden, here:

Yep, that is my yellow bladed paddle in the middle, and nope, I wasn't able to retrieve it - the thaw had started about 6 hours earlier than the forecast predicted, and the flow was too way too high.  I tried for an hour, several different approaches, but the river was too deep and too fast to go in higher than my waist, without being dragged down river and hitting a rock.

This incident was entirely my own fault.   What did I do wrong?
1. I didn't scout properly.  I got out of my boat, but didn't even take the time to walk up to the first pour-over, let alone walk past it and look at the second rapid.  To compound my own negligence, I had spotted this section the previous day from the hill far above, so I knew there was white water there, enough to see from 2 km's away... but I was being lazy.  If I had scouted the first rapid properly, I would have seen the safest deep water channel was to the right away from the pour-overs (picture 2 above), but then would have also seen the second set of rapids (picture 3 above), and would have portaged the entire section - given my lack of paddling partner, lack of safety gear and relative inexperience.  Inexcusable.
2. There was a knot in the boat line.  The line hangs off the boat as a safety measure, but I had knotted it when the boat was moored and attached it to my paddle as a land anchor - I failed to unknot it and subsequently my foot become entangled.
3.  I didn't wear a helmet or a full PFD.  Luckily I didn't need the helmet, the river was deep enough, and the PFD worked well and did not puncture, but it's not really designed for this kind of water.
4. I let go of my paddle.

Everything up to where I went in, and after I came out, was within my control.  Without a drysuit, I knew I had a limited time frame once out of the water to get warm and dry again, and was able to use previous experience of being cold and wet in the outdoors to judge this.  What I didn't know was how potentially dangerous the consequences of my laziness beforehand was, whilst in the water shortly after.  The incident began not with my boat tipping, but with my lack of awareness of the risks of not scouting.  I didn't know what I didn't know. 

Did I do anything that worked?  Not much, but...
1. I had fairly decent beta on the route, and an accurate (as possible) weather forecast.
2. I held on to my boat.
3. I had well packed, dry gear to change into, so avoided potential hypothermia.
4. I was equipped with an accessible boat knife so could have cut the line if needed.

If you've only recently joined us, I can guess what you might be thinking... but I'm a fairly long way past pitting myself against the elements.  Either that or 'but that's nary a ripple, what's all the fuss about!'  So, I guess it's relative.  Either way, I've as much patience for outdoors Rambos as for those that talk of 'quiet enjoyment'.  Which is to say, I've got a little with both, and also none with either.  Outside can be a visceral, noisy place, as well as a gentle, contemplative one, and how we interact with it is just as diverse and complex.  The inconvenient truth is that taking risks and getting into scrapes can be a great teacher if I'm willing to learn.  It can help me interact with nature and other people better.  Decisions are about balance, which is a huge part of what makes outdoors experiences so dynamic and informative.  The Tyrol Declaration gives us as robust a framework for that balancing act as I would ever want to see.

Does this mean that if I had made it dry and unscathed, I would be a hardcore boater (dude)?  No, I'd still be a bone idle, inexperienced paddler who didn't comprehend the risks until it was too late... and then got temporarily lucky.  I'd just be stacking my odds for a harder fall next time.  As it is, I'm now more aware of some of the risks.  I now understand the importance of scouting because of the risk I took by not scouting.  I won't be making that mistake again in a hurry.  But there will probably be others, made with what Hamish Brown called 'the confidence of ignorance'.  I'd rather it wasn't so, but that's the inconvenient truth. 

It's useful to reflect on this - and to remember to continue to reflect on it - because I've negotiated this delicate balancing act between risk, awareness and experience as a hill-goer in the past.  Nowadays, maybe I have more experience, and in the main don't feel so pushed.  Maybe I read the warning signs earlier, so resolve, avoid or retreat from potential hazards sooner?  Or maybe I am older, and don't push myself so hard?  Or perhaps a combination of all these.  I'm not immune to feeling out of my depth, far from it, but it happens less often.  But it's interesting that as I start to learn something new, the same old mistakes can happen easily enough - a lack of awareness of natural boundaries, smaller margins of safety, which can have potentially serious consequences.

What's the moral of my sorry, soggy tailed tale?  You don't know what you don't know, until you're presented with it, up-close-and-a-little-too-personal.  If in doubt, scout it out.  Then again, why listen to me?  On the evidence here I was plainly out of my depth.