Monday, December 22, 2008

Day Eight: Alive Below Crystal

Ote & Bob In Crystal Rapids

Crystal Rapid is a fairly new one as far as the Grand Canyon goes. In Powell's days, it wasn't even noteworthy among Inner Gorge rapids. Then in 1969, a flood of Crystal Creek dislodged boulders out of the side canyon into the main channel and creating a demon of a rapid. Another flood in 1983 swept some huge boulders from the top of the rapid down which created a severe challenge to boats especially in lower water conditions that we found upon reaching Crystal in our dories. No one in their right mind would now purposely go through the top center of THE HOLE in the right middle of the rapid and you couldn't go left of THE HOLE if you wanted to avoid the massive rock garden below that would be guaranteed to smash you and your boat to pieces. The only option was to avoid THE HOLE on the right, which was easy in high water but extremely difficult in low water due to a rock shelf upstream of the hole that projected halfway out into the river. The only run that was doable was to just miss the rock shelf in the middle of the river at the top of the rapids and pull for all you were worth towards the shore on river right avoiding THE MANEATING HOLE and not slam into shore.

We got out and scouted the rapid but this time instead of searching for the most likely spot were my body would wash up if ever, I found myself looking down the gullet of THE MONSTER HOLE. As far as holes go, it wasn't as particularly deadly as it looked. It would definitely flip over most boats with easy but it would flush you out fairly quickly. What was deadly and where most people have been killed in this rapid was the rock garden down below where the river wanted to sweep you. The guides were pointing fingers and scowling again but this time I saw a look of worry on their faces. The called a group meeting and confirmed my suspicions. The water was too low to safely allow all the clients to ride the boats through. They needed at least half of the clients to walk around the rapids to decrease the weight and give them a fighting chance to get around the rock shelf to the right of THE HOLE. They asked for volunteers. Nobody raised his or her hands. They said that all rules were off on this rapid and if our boat were to turn over, it was every person for themselves and that we had to swim for the right shore for all we were worth. Nobody raised hands. If they didn't get any volunteers, we all would have to walk around. Nobody raised his or her hands.

About this time, I noticed that most of the clients were now looking at me. Surprised at the attention, I looked at our trip captain Bronco and immediately knew what had to be done. Bronco knew it and I could see it in his eyes. I raised my hand and said that I would volunteer because I wanted to get some action water shots anyway. Immediately about three quarters of the rest of the clients volunteered to walk around too. It was only later in camp that Bronco would pull me privately aside and thank me for volunteering. What he realized and what I realized when everyone was looking at me was that my youth compared to the other clients gave other clients courage. When I volunteered to walk around, they suddenly remembered their mortality and decided that if I was afraid to go through Crystal than perhaps they should be terrified.
Dogweed & Black Schist

My suspicions were proven correct when many people asked me later why I had elected to walk. I carried out my bravado with the picture story but in truth, I had been terrified. But I was also young and naïve and would have ran it anyway had enough people volunteered before me. In the end, I sat on a rock directly across from THE HOLE and took pictures as the crew and a few clients successfully ran the rapid without any mishaps. Our group mantra became ABC or Alive Below Crystal.

After lunch, we oared through a series of rapids called the Gems of the Canyon. After all the adrenalin of the morning, it felt good to drift to Bass Camp at mile 108.5. It is a gorgeous camp nestled among the black schist and pink granite with thousands of brittlebush blooming throughout. After setting up camp, we did a short hike upstream to check out the ruins of an old cable car crossing. Jorge and I per usual, hiked on further and found some old Anasazi ruins. Back at camp when I told our expert crew person Lee Hall about the ruins, he hadn't known about them so I took him back up to where they were. We poked around a bit and found a park service identification tag and lots of pottery shards. It was a beautiful place to build a home with all the brittlebush, prickly pear and hedgehog cactus blooming around the hill.

Supper was ready when Lee and I got back and consisted of spikers, hamburgers, baked beans, mashed potatoes and all the fixings. Spikers are a foot long and similar to spicy Polish sausages but much tastier. After supper we sat around the campfire and listened to stories from the crew about previous Crystal encounters. I'm glad they told us these after we were alive and below the rapid. The assistant cook Mary and myself talked everyone off to sleep with a conversation on books and my journal until we too headed our separate ways. Clouds started moving in and the sand was blowing through the air but I slept outside under the stars anyway and was quickly oblivious to it all thanks to the adrenaline high I had been on most of the day.
Looking Back Towards Camp


Beau said...

Many times we question ourselves, our intuition, circumstances, our judgement... Usually we never know what might or might not have happened, and sometimes it's frustrating. But I believe if we really listen to ourselves, we make the best, right decisions for a given place or time.

Group dynamics are really interesting. I was surprised that the guides didn't have a better approach after the first round asking for volunteers- drawing straws, etc. Seems to me they should not have placed the burden of the decision on the clients. Sort of absolved them of any responsibilty.

Terrified or not, leadership takes many forms... you showed others that there's nothing to prove, and stepped up to the plate when the guides would not.

Ed Abbey said...

Beau - It's interesting about your group dynamics comment. I don't remember thinking much about that before or during the trip. It was only after, perhaps a couple years after that I really started to realize how big a part of the whole trip it was.

My guess as to the guides method on who went through Crystal is that by using some random method, they would get some of the clients who are more trouble than help when attempting a tricky rapids. Normally I was a wanted passenger due to my whitewater experience whenever we came to difficult rapids but in this case, I was a catalyst used to get people off the river that had no business being there.

In the end, we made it through the entire trip without flipping a boat which was a real rarity I was told. The first picture ended up being one of my best action shots of the trip so I have no regrets and if I ever do it again, I will most likely walk the rapids again if the water is low.

The Real Mother Hen said...

If I were there, not only I would raise my hand, I would raise my foot too! I'm just too timid when it comes to rapid, any rapid for that matter.

The scenery in the last picture is beautiful.

The Real Mother Hen said...

Hey how's your wintery condition in IA now? Hope everything is ok.

Ed Abbey said...

Mother Hen - It has been one storm after another. We have one heading here tonight and then one on Christmas night with more freezing rain and snow. The temperatures were a high of zero this weekend, ten degrees today and zero on Christmas, none in Celcius. I'm ready for spring but would settle for being able to see pavement beneath all that ice and snow.

sage said...

I love that last photo--again great story and thanks for taking us along

Ed Abbey said...

Sage - Thanks and you are welcome.