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Water Fight!

When choosing which forces of nature to oppose, the smart call is to avoid showdowns with H20

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Sorry for the slow posting this week. I’m in deadline slavery mode, and getting ready to leave for a two-person expedition to Denali on May 30th – along with some spring 14er climbs to tune my carcass for another Mac attack. Life’s getting hectic, but it’s a good hectic.

The impending epics have me thinking about acclimatization and cold, but for most of us, high river levels will form a bigger challenge in upcoming adventures, as winter snows begin heading for the oceans. In fact, by Tuesday I’ll probably be looking at the scene of my first stream-crossing disaster.

About 1975, back in the days when orange frame packs and bib overalls were the height of hippie trail chic, I took a washing machine tumble down flood-swollen Snowmass Creek in Colorado while fording to access Pierre Lakes Basin. Most details are dulled by time, but the recollection is still a wrenching montage of stinging cold water, upside down dishragging as my pack filled and sank, and lots of boulders smacking my head as I was carried 100 yards down steep mountain whitewater before clawing my way, shivering, onto a fortuitous log. The old-school cotton and down didn’t help much either. Ahh, the good ole days – Not.

Drowning comes a close second to scrambling falls as the number one killer of backcountry travelers in the U.S. The two trade first place wherever terrain is more conducive to one or the other. But while falling requires the victim to progress into an accident, water – especially flowing or wind-tossed water – fights you actively. It smothers you, pounds you, freezes you and carries you off.

Coming into conflict with water is a big deal because it’s an unbelievably powerful adversary. It sucks heat from your body at least two dozen times faster than cold air, and every cubic meter weighs roughly 2,200 pounds, the so-called ‘metric ton’. Toss in fast current speed, and it feels like a cross between pillow fighting Mike Tyson, and getting hit by a semi, while having a plastic bag over your face and snowballs jammed down your pants. As the boozing comic W.C. Fields famously observed it’s also “bad for the lungs, and fish fornicate in it.” Eeeew. Make mine a Pepsi.

After Snowmass Creek I never got swept off a crossing again. But I made up for hiking caution by becoming an ambitious whitewater kayaker. This particularly hobby resulted in years of gorgeous rivers trips and surf sessions I still recall fondly. You ain’t lived until you’ve butt-surfed down the front of a glassy 10-foot wave, watching the sheet of bottle green glass slide beneath you, so clear you can see cobbles and flashing trout. But my kayak career also resulted in several ‘Maytaggings’ – kayaker slang for violent near-drowning.

Once I got pinned on a boulder while soloing a Class IV creek. It took a good 10 minutes of struggling to keep my head out, before I finally cut away my snagged spray skirt and swam. The water folded my kayak around the rock like cardboard. Climbing friends who were tracking me in their car had to use a pulley system and climbing ropes to free it. Another time I dropped into a gigantic keeper ‘hole’ reversal in Cross Mountain Canyon on the Yampa River. The foaming trough was so deep all I could see was sky, but I kept fighting until I was exhausted. Then it windmilled me through a series of end-over-end tumbles and spit me into a providential eddy. If I’d swum, I’d have gone through a dozen more such holes. Another time I was ostensibly safe in the desert, but a flash flood swept two feet below my boot soles as an 8-foot wall of logs and mud blew through the slot canyon at 30 miles an hour. And on my last kayak re-match, only a couple years ago, I took a half-mile whitewater swim in the Snake River near Jackson, sputtering through huge spring wave trains with a dislocated shoulder.

As liquid prizefighters go, I don’t have a good won-loss record. So trust me on this: Harsh water lessons suck. Of all the ways an outdoor adventurer can get the chop, and I’ve sampled quite a few, I think drowning would be the worst except, perhaps, for thankfully rare consumption at the hands of a lazily feeding bear.

So go into caution mode anywhere your path intersects with water. We need it to live, and we encounter it often, but it’s happy to turn the tables anytime you get careless. Always stack the odds in your favor. And if plans go awry, keep on strokin’ no matter what. Chances are you’ll have plenty of opportunities to drown another day. –Steve Howe

P.S. As I was posting this, my RSS feed popped up with a drowning incident. Three young men, joyriding in a stolen kayak, capsized on Lake Wanautta near Orlando, Florida with predictable results – a harsh spanking for mere petty larceny. Also, New Zealand authorities discovered the body of an Israeli hiker went missing along the South Island’s Routeburn Track two months ago. Be careful out there.

(What? No one stepped up to depose the Helmet King? Woosies! >:0)

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