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Taking on Lava Falls

By Kevin Cool

When students awoke on September 10, the mood in camp was subdued. Everyone was thinking about Lava Falls.

It is the most notorious rapid in the continental United States, and the only one on the river that makes lead guide Alan Fisk-Williams truly nervous. Rated Class 10, the most difficult, it is characterized by turbulent channels on either side of a massive lava formation just beneath the surface in the middle of the river. The left channel is treacherous because negotiating the narrow passage is highly technical and requires avoiding rocks protruding from the water. The right features a giant "V wave," named for the shape produced by colliding water to create a "hole" that can swallow a boat and overturn it. Explorer John Wesley Powell was so daunted by the torrent he chose to portage around it.

Accidents are rare—about 2 percent of boats flip—but when they do occur, serious injury and even death can result. (Less than a week after the students returned home, a 64-year-old man drowned there.)

All the boats pulled in to shore a few hundred feet upriver from the falls. Everyone piled out and climbed to a promontory overlooking the rapid. The guides clustered to discuss which way to go. Shay Hester, somewhat under her breath, remarked that "the V wave is huge."

In Powell's day, before the dams were built, the volume of water in the river was determined by nature. Now, its flow is regulated by the amount of water released at Glen Canyon Dam. Heavy flow diminishes the danger in some rapids and intensifies it in others. The conditions on this day conspired to make Lava Falls particularly savage. "It's an ugly level," Dave Edwards said.

Hester decided to go left, and Kim Fawcett agreed. Edwards would follow them through. Fisk-Williams and Matt Halter would go right.

Fawcett went first and got through safely. Then came Halter's boat. Approaching the V wave, some combination of luck and synchronicity allowed Halter to simply hop the gap, and his boat glided almost serenely on the water's surface. Later, Halter admitted he had no idea how that happened. "I can't explain it."

The paddle boat was next. The previous evening, 10 students had indicated they wanted to paddle, which would have required drawing straws to determine the seven who would get seats. As it turned out, only seven stepped forward. Because of the crew's inexperience, the paddle boat was the most likely to flip, but this group powered through the rapid without incident, whooping with glee as they careened through the final waves.

Edwards followed a few minutes later. Still guiding at age 70, he has run this rapid more than 150 times, but it still tightens his stomach. As his boat neared the rapid, he stood up to inspect it. The entry point is key: Choose wrong and there isn't much the oarsman can do to steer—"the river will do what it wants with you," Edwards said.

A massive wave caught the bow, shoving it sideways. Edwards lost his grip on the right oar and gave a backward tug on the left to correct his position. Another wave crashed over the boat, slamming Edwards backward in his seat and inundating everyone on board. The boat listed upward and for a perilous moment seemed ready to swamp. Then Edwards had both oars again, and yanked the bow back into the teeth of the final big wave. One more pounding, then they were through and into quieter water.

Fisk-Williams had been thrown from his raft at Horn Rapid a few days earlier while standing up to perform a "high-side" maneuver in which the occupants use their weight to keep the boat from flipping. He was unhurt except for "some contusions on my ego," he said. This time, the river punished him more seriously; he banged his leg hard against the interior when a wave smashed him. But it was a good run and his boat pushed through unscathed.

As the rafts gathered below the falls, adrenaline still surged. Cheers, exclamations and high fives all around. Edwards hollered to fellow septuagenarian David Kennedy in the next boat over. "Hey, Dave, let's have a pour!"

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