Saturday, August 23, 2014

Mistakes We Knew We Were Making

After getting off the North Kings late, Tom and I rally to Shaver Lake for some pizza before finding Dave Farkas for some camping. We spend the next morning resupplying for our next mission: the North Fork of the San Joaquin. We rally up the endless dirt roads to the trailhead for Sheep's Crossing so that Tom and Dave can run down and check the level. The looks on their faces upon returning are not promising, as the run is quite a bit lower than Dave's “perfect flow” from the year before. Darin Mcquoid was planning to join us and shows up just a bit later. We head back to a nice campsite and discuss options. The plan is to get cell service in the morning to see if the day's 95 degree high has water levels coming up.

The next morning is a lazy one before we finally check gauges. Nothing is budging from the hot weather so we decide even though the lower gorges will be high the Devils Postpile run (Middle Fork San Joaquin) is the way to go and hopefully the hot weather will bring the North Fork back in. The trouble is Dave can't swing the time to complete the Postpile (3 days is fast but 4 days is the normal pace). He decides on going climbing in Yosemite and does us a huge favor and agrees to drop of us at the put in, which is only 6 hours from the take out. Huge thanks Dave! So, we drop Tom and Darin's vehicles off at Mammoth Pool reservoir (actually 1 mile up the road since the reservoir doesn't open until June 15th) before embarking on the epic shuttle. En route we find out that Thomas Moore and Chris Madden will be joining us by putting on at dawn the next day

After a quick bite in Mammoth, we headed out to Devil's Postpile National Monument. Dave hiked into lower falls with us before heading back to his truck and Yosemite. We decided to just start the portage from lower falls rather than the typical paddling around the corner to avoid getting wet since it was nearly dark. This was a mistake which ended up getting us lost on a myriad of game trails. Patience was wearing thin as we charged through a thick boggy area in the dark. So much for those dry socks. We camped at the next flat ground we found and went to sleep laughing as Darin enjoyed the modern amenity of riverside 3G.

The next morning we continued the portage for another hour or so down to the double drop. We laze around waiting for a while before boredom overcomes us and we gear up. Tom and Darin drop in with beautiful boofs while I shoot photos and video. I'm up next and drop in with beautiful oof, going deep next to the wall but not making contact. I walk my boat back up to the top pissed off and slap my skirt on. I take a slightly different entrance line and catch a little too much rock, again resulting in no boof. After two failures I decide to leave good enough alone and start portaging the next sievey mini-gorge just as Chris and Thomas show up. It's noon now so we quickly head downstream to the head of the first gorge where the run really gets started. No one likes the first windy one so we portage on the right to the pothole drop. It's a rowdy entrance into a rolling boof over a big hole. Chris steps up and deals through the lead in before stomping a nice one over the final hole. I like it and follow with more dealing in the entrance but a sweet launch clearing the bottom. Thomas and Darin follow, both greasing the entrance but mistiming their launches resulting in short battles in the pothole, but no real carnage. Next is the portage around Tommy's Pothole to seal launch slide. Some not so pure lines follow but everyone makes it to the bottom and finishes out the walled in gorge to a quick portage around a sieve, where we break for lunch and Darin again enjoys the 3G service.

 
Darin with a nice line on the double drop. Photo:JJ

Thomas with another nice line.  Photo: TJ

 
Darin on the rowdy pothole drop.  Photo: TJ

This seal launch isn't too bad with friends to help.  Photo: TJ

The reward for the seal launch.  Photo: TJ

Below here, the boys started routing and we didn't stop much. It was Darin's and Thomas's fifth trip, Tom's third trip (one only to Cassidy), my second trip (first only to Cassidy), and Chris's first trip, so there was a lot of experience. The next section consisted of a few open slides and a few bony boulder gardens down to a long slide that leads into the next gorge. A quick portage around a waterfall that lands on rock and a few ledges led to the double waterfall rapid. Here two side creeks cascade into the gorge over large falls while in between the Middle San Joaquin pulses down a rowdy bedrock entrance into a big hole. The rest of the boys snuck left in the entrance before grinding over the hole on the left wall. I decided to meat it in the center, fortunately timing a big boof over the bottom hole. Below this drop, a few slides lead to the final rolling exit 20 footer. Beautiful boating in a beautiful surrounding!

Darin on the double waterfall drop.  Photo: TJ

We continue at a high pace through some cruisy boulder gardens down to where we hiked over to Fish Creek in 2009 at about the point where the Boofamatic Gorge gets serious (http://gorgedout.blogspot.ca/2009/07/devils-postpile-cheat-codes-now.html). More routing ensues down through boulder gardens and a few slides, some quality and some ugly, before we get out to portage a big slot deep in the gorge. Putting in we ran a few more boulder gardens before a walled out cascading slide and more boulder gardens to the lip of Boofamatic, a mandatory 25 foot slide into a 10 foot kicker. I decide to scout and take photos while the others bomb off with good lines. I get back into the walled out eddy, then fly down the slide before crushing to big a boof to a slightly painful flat landing. Below Boofamatic are only a few exit drops to the end of the gorge, but they are burly and difficult to scout or portage. The first one features a boof over a pocket against the right wall before careening through holes between narrowing gorge walls and into a big pool. The drop exiting the pool has an entrance ledge which falls to the left immediately above a 10 footer into a pothole best run off the right wall. We all made it through with varying degrees of finesse before continuing through the runout slides to a nice campsite on river right. It was about 4 pm and we had only spent 4 hours on the water so we camped and enjoyed the great weather and scenery.

 
JJ dropping into Boofamatic.  Photo: TJ

 
And stomping it.  Photo: TJ

The next morning the routing continued at about 9 am. The first time I ran this section, Fish Creek to Cassidy Crossing took a full day. This time it only took about 3 hours. There were several times that we got to the bottom of a rapid and I realized we had scouted or portaged on my previous decent. The high water mark gorge (aka class IV gorge) features a good bit of class V which we bombed. One rapid featured a plug into a big hole down the middle that pushed into a sieve on the left and exited through a big hole on the right. Thomas, Darin, and Chris bombed in, fighting to get right above the sieve. Tom and I remembered a smear boof on the left into an eddy and a controlled ferry in front of the sieve. Much less spicey until we dropped into the bottom hole and a log was chocked in it vertically. We all came through this drop and the rest of the gorge without incident, continuing down to Cassidy Crossing where we stopped for lunch before committing to the crucible.

After a long California lunch we geared back up and headed into the gorges downstream. The whitewater in this section largely occurs underneath the rocks and portaging is the name of the game. After a few somewhat technical portages we get out for the longest portage of the trip which is high on slab river right. After about 30 minutes we put back in above a rapid we cant scout leading into a walled out section. It goes well and soon we are all making the final portage into the crucible. We all run the lead in boulder garden finishing down the left wall through some rowdy diagonal holes. The Broken Arrow Falls is next and we all slide right down the middle. The moment is upon us. We are now walled out above (maybe) the most notorious rapid in California. We decide to take the left driving middle to middle slot line. My four partners commit and boof off the far right side of the left channel. Now it's just me. Time to commit. I drive right, but make sure not to take any rock. The landing is a bunch of spray but I emerge heading for the middle slot where a late grind on the right edge delivers me to the pool. Now only the pothole drop separates us from Shangri-la, where Granite Creek falls 200 feet into the slot canyon. One by one we drop in and battle our way out. It's over now, and it went quickly. We're now through the part of the trip we'd been thinking about since we put on. It's only 3 pm, but we decide to camp and enjoy the spectacular surroundings.

 
The crucible.  Photo: TJ

 
Shangri-la camp driftwood carvings.  Photo: TJ

Nice ambiance at camp.  Photo: TJ

 
Stars over the moonlit crucible.  Photo: TJ

Morning comes early. Chris and Thomas have there shuttle driver coming that evening and Darin, Tom, and I are planning to finish or camp on the lake depending on how tired we are. The water has come up about 6 inches since the previous evening due to the hot weather. We make our way down to the next gorge and immediately portage around the river right dome. After we launch back in we are soon routing through huge rapids on verbal from Darin and Thomas. Thomas gets out to scout and quickly returns with instructions: “Down the right charging a little back to the left through a big wave hole. Catch an eddy on the left but if you miss it run the right slot cutting back to the center.”

Thomas gets back in and leads the charge, with Darin only about 10 ft. back and Chris only another 10 ft. back. I hesitate for a second to give them a little space before peeling out. I drop into a maelstrom which requires an over the head brace to remain upright. As my eyes clear I see Chris is the only one in the eddy. I decide to go direct and not risk missing the eddy. I head right and prepare to drop back to the center. As I'm dropping into the slot I catch a glimpse of the stern of Thomas's boat under water, looking like a swamped boat after a swim. After coming clear of the rapid I start scanning for Thomas but nothing appears. I eddy out on the right to wait as Tom comes through behind me. Darin is already below us and has Thomas's paddle. Then, after a disturbing amount of time (maybe 15 seconds?), Thomas pops up. Darin and Tom grab him immediately and I wait in the eddy for his boat. Only a few seconds later Tom is yelling for me to come down. Tom is holding Thomas next to set of rocks against the right gorge wall. Darin and I get out quickly and drag Thomas up onto the rock. Tom lets us know that Thomas had said he couldn't feel his legs, but once out of the water, it's obvious that Thomas's left leg is badly broken and displaced. (You can read Thomas's account of what happened here: http://crossfiteastsac.com/workout/functional-fitness-its-a-life-and-death-kind-of-thing/)

We quickly stabilize Thomas on the flatest rock of the three we can reach. After a quick look at the gorge walls surrounding us the SPOT devices are fired to alert emergency personnel, as we know we won't be able to evacuate Thomas on our own. Tom is a nurse and leads the evaluation. Both of Thomas's legs are badly damaged, although the left seems worse than the right. No blood is evident so the fractures don't seem to be compound. Thomas self administers the best pain killers we have while the rest of us go about finding the best splinting materials we have. We settle on several sleeping pads, pieces of a breakdown and a sam splint. We use the ridge rest and breakdown pieces on the left leg with some duck tape to hold it all together. We then use the sam splint on the left leg with additional ridge rest and duck tape. We use a standard thermarest to elevate his legs while we place a neoair under his back to increase comfort. After splinting him we cover Thomas in a sleeping bag to keep him warm. We decide the left leg isn't well enough supported and straighten it slightly so we can tighten our splint. Chris heads over to rocks on river left to make sure the SPOT signal gets out. Then we wait.

It seems to go on forever. We keep chatting with Thomas to make sure he stays aware and to try to keep his mind off the pain. We can still see the Shangri-la waterfall where we camped the previous night. It seems a world away. As the time passes we trick ourselves into thinking that we're hearing rotor wash, but no choppers appear.

Then, at about 1 pm, about 4 hours after we pulled Thomas onto the rock, it happens. A faint drone, just like the ones we'd been tricking ourselves with, grows to a roar. The chopper appears over the gorge wall and drops a man on the rim. He shouts down to us to find out the situation and asks about options for moving Thomas. We tell him there are none. The chopper picks him back up and stays put for a minute.

Then it rises again before moving towards us and hovering directly overhead. The man begins lowering out of the chopper on the cable, spinning his way from the sky down to the rock. I comment to Tom that if the chopper gets loose towards the wall I'm diving under the rocks. Once he disengages the cable the chopper quickly retreats and lands. Only Darin is on the rock talking to him. He assesses Thomas and takes a quick history of what happened and the treatment we provided. He radios back to the chopper.

Another minute passes before the chopper is back lowering a basket on the cable. After the basket is released the chopper disappears again. He asks Tom and I to come help load Thomas onto the basket. We open up the red body bag. It isn't easy or fun to lift Thomas into the basket, as it raises his pain level through the roof, but it has to be done. Once we have Thomas positioned, we work at cinching down the straps, trapping Thomas. Like a tight mummy bag, only the center of his face is exposed. Once Thomas is secured, the chopper is summoned once again. A few minutes later the cable is lowered and we attach the basket, give a final check, and the basket is winched up into the sky with a small tag line to prevent spinning. I comment that it must be terrifying to be in the basket and he responds that he's terrified of heights and it's scary enough just to be clipped into the cable. The chopper disappears for a minute and returns to pick him up. Then, they're gone.

It's about 2 pm. We still have a lot of ground to cover. We eat a little and decide to try to push through and get out today. We boat and portage our way down to the South Fork confluence with only a minor undercut incident. We eat a little more and continue. The portaging and kayaking continue. The boating is better than I thought it would be and there are less portages, but we're only concerned with getting out of the gorges. Finally we make the Mammoth Pool bathtub ring. It should end soon. The boating and portaging continue. The reservoir is low, really low. Finally we reach the pool.

It's late, but Tom and I decide we're not camping out, so we start the crankfest. Tom remembers it being about 9 miles. The wind is bad at times. We crank on. A little over an hour in, we take a break and eat and drink. Tom thinks we're about half way. We round the corner and start seeing roads to the dam. Tom remembers that the boat ramp is not near the damn and we head to the right side of the lake after spotting a person. It turns out it's Drew, Chris and Thomas's shuttle driver. We hike up the hill a mile to the cars. We made it.

The Devil's Postpile section of the Middle San Joaquin is enormously dangerous and committing. Going in, everyone must be prepared to run several unpleasant sieved out rapids without scouting and with no (reasonable) option to portage. This hardened mentality is only required for a few sections of the river, but it is easy to let it cross over to the rest of the run where scouting and portaging options exist, greatly increasing exposure. Our team made this mistake and I and I'd guess other team members knew it while we were on the river. Our sport is usually very forgiving, until it's not, and it's only in these rare occasion where having all the cards stacked with you is important.

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