Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Case Study: Vallecito Creek, Colorado

Vallecito Creek
Durango, Colorado
Class V-V+
500-1000 cfs
250 feet per mile

River Description-
Vallecito Creek is a popular 1 mile stretch of class V whitewater in Southern Colorado. Paddlers start the trip at the take out and hike upstream. Typically, paddlers put in at the top or bottom of Superboof rapid. Regardless, there is only a few hundred yards of class II-III rapids before Entrance Falls. Entrance Falls is an 18 foot waterfall into a large pool. Behind the falls on river left is a cave. It is common for paddlers to end up in the cave. After Entrance Falls the creek quickly drops through Trash Can- a jumble of rocks and holes. After Trash Can is Pick-up Sticks, Fuzzy Little Bunny, Boofant, Paddle Bitch, No-Way-Out Gorge, and Finish Line. Once a paddler runs Entrance Falls there are only a few opportunities to escape the gorge overland.

Case Study-
On a late August afternoon, a group of experienced paddlers heads up to Vallecito Creek. Two of the paddlers, Mark and Bob have run Vallecito numerous times, the other paddler, Ted, has yet to run it. However, Ted is an accomplished paddler and has run many class V sections.

It has been raining the past few days and the creek has been rising accordingly. That morning rain had soaked the surrounding areas and large rain clouds can currently be seen to the north--the headwaters of the creek.

Vallecito does not usually run this time of year. But the fall rains have brought it up. The paddlers know that there is a short window before the creek drops back down to unrunnable levels.

The team of paddlers conducts a visual inspection of the creek and the gauge. The creek is running clear and the gauge reads 2.5 (old gauge). This is the highest level paddlers boat the creek, but both Mark and Bob have run it at this level and feel confidant in Ted’s abilities. The group decides to suit up and run the creek.

While suiting up, Bob mentions that he forgot his throwbag. Ted tells Bob to carry his.

Ted and Bob are using new boats. They test their sprayskirts in the parking lot. Both skirts fit, but not extremely well. They seem to pop off with very little effort. The group discusses this and decides that it should be alright.

“Just don’t miss your boof,” cracks Bob.

After the one mile hike up-stream the team reaches the put in. The hike is strenuous, with steep up-hill climbs at roughly 7000 ft elevation. Upon reaching the put in, the paddlers begin to suit up. Each individual paddler scouts the first rapid, but they do not discuss. Bob notices that the water is no longer clear, but rather muddy. Again, this observation was not discussed. The paddlers put in.

Are any mistakes being made?
What are the paddlers options at this point?
What might complicate this decision?

Through the warm-up rapids each paddler stretches and prepares himself for the coming gorge. At the last eddy above Entrance Falls it is decided that Mark will go first with Ted following close behind. This will let Ted see the line necessary for the falls. Bob will sweep.

Mark and Ted proceed. Mark has a good line and eddies out above Trash Can. When he turns around to watch Ted’s line, he sees him miss his boof stroke and melt down into the hole. Mark then quickly gets out of his boat and grabs his throw bag. Ted resurfaces in the hole at the bottom of the falls. He makes several attempts to escape the hole in his boat before his skirt is blown. He comes out of his boat and continues to be recirculated in the hole.

Bob comes over the drop. He lands and sees Mark on shore with a throw bag pointing to the hole. Bob looks behind him and sees Ted recirculating in the hole. Ted again makes several attempts to escape the hole, but is pulled back and recirculated.

Mark makes a throw bag attempt, but the distance is too far. Bob chooses to paddle as close to the hole as possible and tow Ted out. This works.

Upon getting Ted to shore, the group rests for a moment and discusses their options. Ted no longer has a boat or paddle. They have disappeared downstream. Mark and Bob have heard stories of boaters climbing up the wall on river right. There is a chimney that is near vertical for approximately 100 ft. Ted assesses the climb and decides that he can make it. Mark and Bob will continue in their boats downstream. They will meet at the take out.

Mark and Bob now scout Trash Can. This drop is a jumble of rocks and drops 20 feet in about 20 feet. Upon scouting this drop, no rocks are visible and the drop is a river wide hole. At this point, they discuss the fact that the river is higher than they have ever seen it.

They put in their boats and proceed. The creek is flowing fast and their are very few eddies. The two remaining paddlers don’t have time to discuss lines, they are more or less on their own.

At Fuzzy Little Bunny Mark is in the lead and Bob is close behind. Fuzzy Little Bunny is a 10 foot waterfall into a narrow slot at the bottom. Bob runs the drop and his sprayskirt come off. He lands upright and attempts to paddle out of the slot. However, his boat begins to sink and he is being pulled back upstream into the hole at the base of the drop. He quickly gets out of his boat and is able to self rescue on river left with his boat and paddle. The paddlers take a few moments to regain composure and then proceed.

Both Mark and Bob make it to the take out without any other complications. They discuss the fact that the creek was enormous and much higher than either had ever seen. They then head upstream to find Ted.

They find him hiking on the trail near the take out. He is covered in dirt and has numerous scrapes and and wounds. He states that he had multiple overhanging rocks to deal with in the chimney and that he nearly fell three times. It was by far the hardest climb he had ever done without a belay.

The creek, which was running at 2.5 when the group checked the guage, had spiked to 2.9 while they were hiking up. This is the highest recorded decent of that creek, but was done without full knowledge and by mistake.

What mistakes did this group make? What clues should they have been paying attention to? Why do you suppose they ignored those clues? What would you have done in their position?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Decision Making

When working or playing on the river, safety is always our first priority. We know that most accidents are not caused by one single action, but rather a series of small mistakes, that can ultimately lead to a devastating outcome. It is fair to say then, that our safety is contingent on our ability to see any given situation clearly, and make effective decisions.

We are experts at making decisions. A thousand times a day we decide what to eat, what to wear, what to say, and so on. In recent years there has been a significant amount of research conducted on our abilities to make decisions. And from this research, there are some interesting insights into human beings decision making processes that are very applicable to the river.

Most of us think that a good decision is one that has been thought through thoroughly. When making that decision, we would like to know everything there is to know about the decision and what its outcome will be. If we are buying a car we may ask: How many miles are on it? How many owners? When was the last maintenance? How much will it cost to repair? Perhaps we will even write out a list of pros and cons, and even weigh the potential cost of each. However, for most of our decisions, this technique is not applicable. We either do not have the time or the desire to ponder every possible outcome and rarely do we have all the information.

This is very true on the river. Our decisions must be quick. Should I go right of the rock or left? Rarely do we have even a fraction of all the information. There may be a submerged log in the river right channel. And we almost certainly have indefinite outcomes. If I go right, I may float over the log, or I may get pinned.

Researchers have found that one technique we use to make these quick decisions is to create rules of thumb, or as the researches call them--hueristics. These hueristics allow us to make snap decisions by using our past experiences to make a judgement. An example of the similarity hueristic would be that we know we enjoyed a book by a certain author, then we will decide more easily to purchase a book with a similar theme, plot, or characters.

These hueristics are effective and save us a significant amount of time in our daily lives. However, we should be aware that this kind of decision making can lead us in the wrong direction and possibly cause an accident.

In the outdoor industry, avalanche researchers have been the first to jump on this. What they found in avalanche fatalities was that 95% of the slides were caused by the victim or the victims party. They also found that the group usually had at least one member of the party that was trained and experienced. Furthermore, they found that the group had at least three clues that a slide was possible--there was sliding in the area, the forecast was considerable or higher, there was wind loading, they were skiing in an obvious slide path, there were terrain traps, etc.

From this research, they were able to identify six “hueristic traps” that the victims fell for. The acronym FACETS was developed as a tool to avoid future accidents and can be directly applied to river use.

Familiarity Hueristic- “Don’t worry, I have run this river 100 times.” We are more inclined to take risks if we are on familiar terrain. However, on the river, just as on the mountain, conditions change, and our experience before may not pertain to the current situation.
Acceptance Hueristic-When in a group, we choose not to speak up so that we gain approval from friends and peers. We don’t want to sound scared or overly worried, and we don’t want to go against the grain.
Commitment Hueristic- We have driven four hours and hiked two with these boats on our shoulder. We have come too far to turn back now.
Expert Halo Hueristic- “The lead boater has a lot more experience than I do, and he has been here a bunch, I don’t need to worry.” This, however, may not be the case, and if you are worried, then say so.
Tracks (Scarcity Hueristic)- “This is the last day the river will be at this level, we have to go now.” For avalanche terrain this refers to the possibility of others getting the first run down a fresh powder field.
Social Proof Hueristic- This is the lemming approach. “Everyone else ran the rapid, I should be fine.”

As you can see, these traps can easily be applied to the river. Although the research has not yet been done concerning river accidents, it is a logical conclusion that these factors could have played a role. I am sure you can think of a time that you have said at least one of these things to yourself. Next time recognize that this is a possible trap, and that this rule of thumb might not apply today.