A Grand Canyon Adventure: Disaster at Hance

Looking down on the Colorado River from above Deer Creek Falls; Photograph by Danny Schmidt
Looking down on the Colorado River from above Deer Creek Falls; Photograph by Danny Schmidt

The moment I caught my first a glance of Hance, I regretted my decision to scout it. What I saw from that rocky promontory under the merciless June sun was less a rapid than a gnashing, boat-eating monster. Boulders lined the mouth of the rapid and littered its left side. Everywhere below was churning, chaotic whitewater. A thick black basalt dike wedged itself into the cliff above, casting a sinister air to the scene. Something about the water seemed to glower at me. Definitely not a place to swim, I thought to myself.

I hiked the scorching path back to where the rafts were eddied out upstream. “Sh–’s about to get real,” I told Adrienne and Courtney. Since the water was shockingly cold at mile 77, I pulled on a neoprene tank, booties, and a splash top. The boatmen were still scouting, trying to finagle the best way for Brad, who had dislocated his shoulder, to walk around and get picked up. The minutes ticked by, and my nerves frayed as I boiled in the late-morning sun. I dipped my legs occasionally, but it didn’t do much. By the time the oarsmen came back, I felt like I had been sitting inside a dutch oven. My head was on fire. They announced the plan. Collin, the boatman I had chosen to ride with that day, was to go first.

Fear is excitement without breath, I told myself, taking slow breaths and attempting to calm my nerves. Looking down, I noticed something sparkly in the sand. I bent down and pushed the sand aside. It was a rock, and it was beautiful. Opal colored with fine glimmering facets and deep-purple polka dots, it fit perfectly in my hand. A rock nerd, I had already resigned myself to not pilfer Grand Canyon souvenirs; I didn’t want any bad river karma. But surely I could hold on to this one perfect specimen as a good luck charm to get me through Hance. I would throw it back to the river before the trip ended, I told myself. Perhaps I was lying. I put it in my little drybag and climbed onto the raft, totally naive to the catastrophe that was about to unfold.

***

The author, second from left, in the surreal waters of the Little Colorado early in the trip; Photograph by Danny Schmidt
The author, second from left, in the surreal waters of the Little Colorado early in the trip; Photograph by Danny Schmidt

It was Day 5 on the Grand Canyon, and I was in the midst of having the time of my life. I had shrieked through Badger Rapid, caught tiny frogs on the smooth walls of Silver Grotto, luxuriated in the otherworldly blue waters of the Little Colorado and slipped into the easy pace of river time as the canyon walls rose ever higher overhead. The lore of the place echoed through the sandstone corridors alongside the winding-down song of the canyon wren, and time grew immense and protracted. Every night at camp, I dug my toes into the hot sand and laughed with my trip mates, a collection of boatmen and women from Utah and Montana. Later, lying in my cot, I tried my best to burn the image of the canyon-ringed stars into my memory. I had thought I was going to the Grand Canyon to disconnect. Instead, I found myself connecting. The magic of the place had a hold of me good and strong.

Our journey across the big, flat eddy to the mouth of the rapid seemed to unfold in slow motion. Collin had a serious look on his face as he pulled us to the right side of the river. I couldn’t see much beyond the drop aside from foam being tossed skyward, but I could hear Hance—a growing, thunderous roar. Collin pulled hard to move us nearly to the right bank, and I tightened my grip on the straps and dug my heels in as we accelerated through the glassy green waves into the violent white box of the rapid. Suddenly, walls of water were everywhere, and we were engulfed in a tremendous force of energy, water and noise. We slammed into one wave, and then another, and I quickly lost track of which direction we were facing. It felt like the rapid was trying to bend us in half, to stall us out, to empty the boat of its riders. Like we were being chewed on by a massive river creature. And then somehow, it spit us out.

We emerged, soaking and triumphant, in the riffles below.

Collin worked hard to catch the eddy at the bottom and we made shore, gasping and jittery with adrenaline and survival, high-fiving in exaltation. “Holy sh–!” I yelped, jabbering about the sheer power of the water. “It’s a powerful drug,” Collin replied.

Our celebration was cut short, however. We turned to watch the other boats come through and watched as Pat and Mike’s boats were bucked through the rapid upright.

As Pat came ashore, he wasn’t smiling. “Your dad’s stuck on a rock!” he yelled to Collin.

***

After 5 hours on the pinned raft in 100 degree heat, these guys were more than happy to see the NPS fly in to help; Photograph by Danny Schmidt
After 5 hours on the pinned raft in 100-degree heat, these guys were more than happy to see the NPS
fly in to help; Photograph by Danny Schmidt

Our 16-foot Sotar raft was hopelessly pinned against the giant boulder at the mouth of Hance. Aboard were Collin’s father Mike and Danny’s uncle Perry, older members of our crew we did not want to see swimming through the rock-strewn whitewater.

They were out of earshot, despite our best efforts to scream to them, were too far away to get a line to, and had already lost an oar attempting to pry themselves off the boulder. The boat was plastered down by 18,000 cfs of water and wasn’t budging. After about an hour of brainstorming, we ran out of options. Up shit creek, as they like to say.

That’s when our trip leader Danny made what we all had considered an inconceivable decision: Pulling out the sat phone and calling the National Park Service for help. This had seemed like the remotest of possibilities just days before when we were loading boats, conducting safety talks and getting our park ranger orientation. Surely we’d be able to self-rescue, we believed. Our trip was populated by guides, experienced boatmen, and capable athletes. But we saw no other way out of this pickle.

With a heavy heart, Danny dialed the number and explained our situation to the dispatch operator. A helicopter was soon on its way.

Huddled in the shade of a thorny tree to escape the triple-digit heat, we attempted to wrap our heads around the gravity of the situation. It wasn’t worst-case scenario, but it was pretty damn close. Filled with dread, we speculated about the potential consequences, sketching out all kinds of doom and gloom outcomes: hefty fines of several thousand dollars, a trip of a lifetime cut short for the passengers, the rented boat damaged beyond repair or lost completely, our names blacklisted for life, erasing all hope of getting another permit for this spectacular place.

The mood was grim. And the worst part is: it may have been all my fault.

***

The NPS Search & Rescue helicopter drops off another load of supplies; Photograph by Danny Schmidt
The NPS Search & Rescue helicopter drops off another load of supplies; Photograph by Danny Schmidt

About an hour later, the unmistakable thwacking sound of a helicopter began to beat the sky, and the next thing we knew, an NPS chopper dropped from the rim into the canyon, lights flashing. The bird circled over us a few times, likely to properly inspect our conundrum, before landing on the stony beach in a whoosh of sand and hot air. It was a surreal sight.

Three men rolled out in fire gear and white helmets, moving expertly away from the whirl of the blades with their heads tucked. When they pulled off their helmets, I think we all expected a good hectoring. Instead, they were professional, courteous and affable, asking only the facts of the situation rather than about the stupidity that landed us on one of the river’s largest rocks. (They’ve seen it all, we would come to find).

After a cursory explanation of the rescue, they kindly asked us to clear the area so the helicopter could do its bidding uninterrupted, and we beat it down the hot path to the parched beach down river. We hid in the shade and waited. Before long, we saw a small figure—a ranger named Brian—carried on a long line and dropped off on the raft. Then we watched as our two crewmembers, in harnesses kind of like big diapers, were plucked, one at a time, from the disabled raft and carried to shore. They had been marooned on the Sotar for five hours.

All in a day's work for NPS Search and Rescue; Photography by Danny Schmidt
All in a day’s work for NPS Search and Rescue; Photography by Danny Schmidt

Getting Mike and Perry back was an enormous relief—aside from Mike’s embarrassment, they were healthy and elated to be on dry land. But it was only half of the equation. The boat (which we had rented from an outfitter) was still firmly, stubbornly, defeatingly lodged against the boulder. Personal effects, food boxes and Paco pads were aboard. We needed it back.

The NPS river unit decided to let the river drop overnight and then rise—this sometimes helps unstick pinned objects, they explained. If that didn’t do the trick, they would bring in a team the following day and employ advanced river rescue engineering. Resigned to having to stay at Hance, we made a scattered camp and scavenged together a meal of veggie sandwiches and ice-cold beers. (That’s the thing about the Grand—even in an emergency, we were riding drinking ice colds.) Over dinner, we peppered Dave, a former Navy-Seal turned Grand Canyon river ranger who stayed to camp, with questions about his job. He talked about stranded hikers, overturned J-rigs and guiding Park Service trips, and when he told us that he spends 150 days a year—nearly half his life!—on the river, we nearly swooned with admiration.

On the hike back to the upper camp that night, I paused for a moment to scan the rapid. The moon was only a quarter full, but I could make out the dark smudge of the raft; it hadn’t moved. At camp, Danny and Adrienne and I spread two Paco pads lengthwise on a tarp, and fell asleep three across, like children at summer camp, under the star-smeared sky

***

The sun roused me from sleep early with a hot ray across my face. Hiking to the lower camp, I could see a change in the boat’s position—it had shifted slightly backwards, moving closer to one edge of the boulder and the river current. Good sign, I figured.

Down at the lower camp, the early risers had brewed coffee and dug up English muffins and almond butter for breakfast. After a quick meal, we cleaned up, broke camp and packed our boats. After that, there was nothing to do but wait. The ranger unit was scheduled to address our situation after they dealt with higher-priority rescues. They would fly in around ten o’clock, Dave told us.

With nothing else to do, I sat on the beach to wait. I decided to study my guidebook and went to pull it out of my little drybag. That’s when I remembered the rock. It was still in the bottom of the bag. I contemplated the alluring stone, the rapid and the events of the last 24 hours.

I had just spent an entire day in Hance’s presence, and there was something I didn’t like about it, something eerie and malicious. There was no part of Hance I wanted to take downriver with me. I dug out the rock and tossed it in the sand.

Moments later, I got up with my drybag and walked down to drop it in the front of Collin’s boat. I was fumbling with the straps when something caught my eye. It was the empty Sotar, bobbing cheerfully by our camp as the current took it down river.

***

Looking down on the Colorado River from above Deer Creek Falls; Photograph by Danny Schmidt
Looking down on the Colorado River from above Deer Creek Falls; Photograph by Danny Schmidt

After a hasty scramble and some furious rowing, Collin and I caught the boat and pulled it into a tenuous eddy, and by noon, our group had recongregated and was floating happily down the river, elated the unfortunate incident was behind us.

Aside from losing a day and arriving late to meet our friends, we emerged from the debacle unscathed. The boat was intact, minus the oar and the spice box that were lost. And despite our dire predictions, there was no hefty fine or blacklisting. If anything, our group of 12 was more grateful than ever to be together. If we could survive that, we figured, we make it to Pearce Ferry in one piece.

I kept it quiet at first, my indiscretion with the rock, my brush with magical realism, river karma and the gods of nature. I was embarrassed of my misdeed, but part of me also wondered if the theft and the hefty consequences that followed were all just crazy coincidence. Did Hance really punish us to exact revenge, or did my imagination run wild?

The Grand Canyon giveth. The Grand Canyon taketh away. It’s a maxim we repeated every day of the trip. And when I think about the ferocity of the rapid, the angry growl of the Hance and that black dike over the water, I know. A mere mortal like me deigned to take from the river. And the river taketh back.

Looking back now, two months after getting off the river, I realize that the disaster at Hance didn’t just slap me on the wrist for my misdeed. It also taught me a lesson in the futility of trying to hold on to a piece of the magic that can only live in the magnificence of the canyon. In that place, which commands respect for its beauty and cruelty in equal measure, the enchantment lives in a delicate balance.

Comments

  1. Chris Kelly
    Topanga
    October 10, 2015, 1:13 am

    UnPredict Your Journey at its finest.

  2. Michael Wiley
    October 10, 2015, 1:17 pm

    Beautiful writing about a mystical place!

  3. Robert Jones
    Los Angeles
    October 10, 2015, 5:48 pm

    Katie–

    I’m amazed to find this article describing your worst day on the Grand Canyon. We were the private river party following you the next day, and the NPS guys and their helicopter were still there when we pulled ashore. They told us the story, and you can imagine the impact it had on us as we spent the night contemplating our own run of Hance the next morning. As it turned out, it all went well for us at Hance, but we often wondered how you guys had fared. Great to hear the outcome was so positive, and I totally agree those NPS rescue guys were totally awesome.

  4. Jack Byers
    colorado
    October 11, 2015, 3:57 pm

    i took the worst swim of my life through Hance, from the very top all the way through. One of the most frightening things that’s ever happened to me. So glad you guys were spared the experience!

  5. John Childe
    Pennsylvania
    October 13, 2015, 8:39 am

    What a story! Ben should have been there to film it. I going to ask Courtney to retell her experience coming behind you.

  6. Karl Brikkels
    Halifax, Nova Scotia,Canada
    October 19, 2015, 4:09 pm

    Afer almost being washed off boulders by a rougue wave, just after a hurricane had passed by Halifax – attempting photographs; I now see some degree of your reasobable fear as I had been thrown from my raft thrice on the Rivierre Rouge in Quebec, bouncing off boulders, submerged in darkness through high frothing rapids and finally surfacing cut and bruised behind our raft, gasping for air. Now, I almost prefer the idea of parachuting again to rafting high water rapids; rapids are rather unpredictable despite losing the starfilled nights you describe under canyon and river skies….Ummm, paracutes have risk too!
    Cheers.

  7. Diane
    California
    October 22, 2015, 8:27 am

    I just wondered how your group fared at Lava Falls. My memory of Hance was of some dark energy, but the long silent foreboding approach to Lava still haunts me. When we scouted it, I asked our boatman on a scale of one to ten what Lava was that day, he paused assessing it. He had run it 161 times in his time on the river. Then he responded, “Well, today it looks like an eleven.” Clearly I wasn’t going to ride the bull on this one and I definitely did not want to swim it. Instead I road in the bow hanging on for life. As we dropped into the steep trough a wave hit us hard. I held on tightly for fear of being thrown into the churning waters. Photos by those on shore show nothing but a flash of vague color inside the froth. We were completely engulfed. i clung to the raft receiving two torn muscles. After over a year of physical therapy, I can say I survived Lava Falls and am grateful for the superb skill of our experienced guide. There is nothing like the deep peace of the river and experiencing it units fury as well as its sweet caress expands the soul. Now that peace is threatened by a proposed tram by Havasu, bringing hordes of tourists into that sacred space without the slow transition that brings one into the rhythm of the river. This would be a travesty. It must not happen. All you who love and respect the river, research this issue and support the river’s unadulterated wild nature.

  8. John Jay Pelletier
    Mesa, Arizona
    October 22, 2015, 1:22 pm

    It’s amazing to read about running the Grand Canyon-We all have the same feelings of a trip of a life time. We just got back from my forth trip down the Colorado river in 50 years time. This last one was with my son Jeff and two other fellows-on a 14th day run from Lee’s Ferry to Diamond creek. We Flip our Raft on top off Upset Rapid-and I was pull under for the whole two minutes of the rapid itself. Got a concussion and was Pull out by a rescue chopper and mile marker 198.3. What a ride and I’m ready to do it all over again. Former Green Beret- The Frenchman