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  • Writer's pictureKatja

Rafting the Grand Canyon: It's All Downhill From Lava

Day 11 (July 25th)

Today was supposed to be Lava Day, and nerves were on edge all around. For the uninitiated into legendary whitewater, Lava Falls is the 10 on the Grand Canyon's 1-10 scale. Lava Falls is perhaps the most famous whitewater rapid. From Rivers and Oceans:

Lava Falls is arguably the most famous whitewater rapid in the world. It was even listed by the Guinness Book of World Records as the fastest navigable water in all of North America at 20 m.p.h.
River runners usually spend around 20 seconds in Lava as the rapid drops 37 feet in a hundred yards. Approaching rafters can only see the occasional mist of water spurt up from one of the features hidden below the horizon line. However, its thunderous roar can be heard hundreds of yards upstream.

For context, the large "ledge hole" that river runners are warned to avoid is the size of a school bus.

As a rafter, countless hours have been spent watching videos, reading guide books, and doing everything possible to master your chosen craft in the days leading up to this treacherous rapid.

We were only on the water for three hours before pulling out on river left at mile 178, just above the beautiful standing volcanic stone in the river known as Vulcan's Anvil.

The camp, aptly named "Above Anvil" went from a temporary place to stop and chat to a place to stay for the entire afternoon to wait for better water levels. Though sometimes unpredictable, the Glen Canyon Dam does have a schedule of when more water gets released (to meet the surging power demands at different times of the day) and between the schedule and the visual clues of the river levels rising and lowering, one can usually predict when the water levels will be higher or lower. This matters because rapids change significantly with different water levels. An exposed rock at low levels may become a large recirculating hole at higher water levels, for example.

With the swims and near-misses our group had already experienced, we were all nervous about Lava Falls. John in particular, as his dory could not handle the exposed rocks at low water levels, and by early afternoon we could see that the river was dropping for the day and we would hit Lava Falls at lower water levels. After some discussion, the group agreed to wait it out, opting for a long delay over risking a low-water run. What was interesting about this decision is that many of the commercial groups were doing the opposite and staying late in their camps so they could descend in the afternoon at lower water levels. In their motor-powered rafts, running Lava Falls on river right would be better at lower water. I am sure they had mixed feelings about our life choices when they floated past us and asked if we were coming, and we responded that we would be waiting for the morning to take the full-flow left run. I did not have a strong opinion either way. By this point, I had studied every inch of material we had on Lava Falls and knew we would face challenges either way but could run it river right or left. It was also obvious that the group was tired and the constant battle with midday heat and the afternoon monsoons was wearing on everyone. Plus, by this point, everyone had sustained some level of injury, whether from a pre-existing condition that was acting up or a mishap on the river. As miserable as it was to sit on the shore in the sweltering afternoon heat, our group agreed to call it a day and take on the mighty Lava Falls in the morning.

We spent a long time by the river that afternoon trying to stay cool in whatever shade we could make or find. I think there was a mixture of napping, cards, reading, and jumping in the water to try and stay cool. Max was the hero of the afternoon when he dug a large melon out of a good box and used a lifejacket to float it in the river to chill for an amazing snack.

After sitting in the river reading for an hour, I decided I was ready to face the heat and see what kinds of views I could find by following a dry wash up towards the canyon walls. While the natural beauty and views did not disappoint, I was miserably hot and eager to get back down to the frigid river after taking a few photos.

We all opted to sleep in the camp, setting up a mixture of tents and tarps as the dusk arrived with an enormous display of lightning. Just when we thought it would stay dry, the sky opened up with a deluge of rain that seemed to last forever. The cool air and sound of rain falling on the tent was a wonderful change of pace from some of the more hectic evenings thus far, and even with Lava looming on the horizon, I had one of my best nights of the trip and slept deeply.

Day 12 (July 26th)

I think the journal covers Lava Falls day pretty well:

We did Lava! Apparently, we are fairly unique in that we waited until high water to do it. I am so glad we did--the right run looks crazy difficult, and the left run at higher water was daunting but totally doable.
Scouting Lava [from river left] was intense--we had built up to this for the last 1.5 weeks. Everything built up to Lava. This. Was. It. And she didn't disappoint at all. WIth how the river has taught us and brought us to here, I felt like we were ready.
The elation for the whole group at being through is WOW! It's like we are all brand new on the river starting from day one again. Weights are lifted and joy abounds. The happiness is contagious!

A fun note on the two ways I prepared myself for Lava Falls. First, I memorized every feature of the rapid until I could diagram them with my eyes closed in any direction. After finding myself alone in Bedrock, I was no longer going to take any rapids for granted, especially not something as serious as Lava Falls. I wanted to know her features so well that I could navigate us through no matter where we ended up, and could take over with confidence if something went wrong.

Second, I heeded my mother’s advice to dress up for Lava. She kept telling me that “Lava likes the ladies” and how I needed to paint my nails or something girly before entering the biggest whitewater I had ever seen. While I was a little skeptical, I was not about to challenge a game-time superstition after the roller coaster trip we’d had, so as Steve rowed us closer to the thundering rapid, I dolled up: bikini top under a sun dress with lipstick and mascara, check! Scoff if you must, but we had a near-perfect run.

Steve and I traded off rowing the rest of the day and we camped at mile 199, Below Parashant camp. After unloading gear, I changed into hiking clothes (my first time wearing non-water clothes and real shoes on the trip) and went off in search of a legitimate hiking experience. Well, I got it alright, from scenic views and lots of rocks and cacti to getting cliffed out and downclimbing through such a thick wall of thorn-covered shrubs that when I came back, Max and Steve surveyed my shredded flesh with concern and asked if I had gotten into a fight with a ring-tailed cat. I feel like I left more than my pound of flesh in the Grand Canyon this trip.

After nursing my wounds, I decided that any future adventures would be limited to the immediate vicinity of our campsite and I was done with hiking. As much as I had been looking forward to trekking far up into the slot canyons when the trip started, by this point there had been so many exhausting days and close calls that I was ready to take it easy.

That evening, we had the dinner I still laugh about as the prime example of eating meals with a group of men: pork chops with a side of steak! Don't get me wrong, it was delicious, but I have never eaten so much meat for so many days in a row in my life. Then we busted out the wine bags and enjoyed a lot of fun and laughter as the thrill of being through Lava made us all let loose and some of us act a little bit sillier than usual.

A much-needed fun end to Lava Falls day!

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