20 Seconds of Terror


For a photographer, the Grand Canyon is a 280-mile candy store.   Great images hide on almost every bend, and despite frantic attempts at forcing the trip to be IN THE RIGHT PLACE AT THE RIGHT TIME, no plan ever works; no single trip has time to hike and photograph even half of the magic side canyons. My main attraction to the Canyon is not the whitewater – it’s these side canyons that keep me going into the canyon, by foot or by boat.   My very first river trip was three-weeks down the Grand, which was a helluva way to start river running. I was hooked. Since then I have spent well over a year of my life in the Grand Canyon. Doing first descents of technical canyons, hanging out on isolated rims waiting for photographs, and many three-week Grand Canyon trips, now numbering somewhere around twenty. After three attempts I finally captured a good shot of the confluence of the Colorado River with the Little Colorado and sold a bunch of posters with it, enough to buy a dory. So, naturally, the boat’s deck color matches the electric turquoise of the Little Colorado River as seen in the poster. Last September was the dory’s fifth trip down the Big Ditch, this time with six 14-foot catarafts for company and amusement.


Our first clue that this trip might be a bit different was that summer rains had washed out the road to Lee’s Ferry, the usual Grand Canyon put-on. Nearly every night we had to rig a tarp in deference to dark clouds and wind, just so we could hang out and make dinner; we got very good at tarp 101. It rained many nights, which never happened on any previous Grand trips. Only a couple side canyons show recent evidence of major flash flooding on most trips, but last September I noticed every canyon, even very small ones, flashed sometime that summer.   Floods obviously rip new wrinkles into side hikes, turning them into muddy messes, but big enough floods can warp Colorado rapids literally overnight. Not too surprising when one considers nearly all of the Grand Canyon rapids, 80 major ones and a bunch of smaller ones, which can still flip a boat, were created by side canyon flooding.


Most major rapids last September were much worse than they were when I ran the canyon seven years ago. Soap, Tanner, Hance, Sockdolager, Grapevine, Horn Creek, Granite, Hermit, Dubendorff, – were all pure evil, much worse in person than in old pictures and memory. Many trusted sneak runs were simply not there, forcing boaters to take aggressive lines through big stuff formerly avoidable. All the sidecanyon flooding had a significant influence on the Canyon, all bad. My gut told me Lava Falls, the Canyon’s biggest and most feared rapid, was very likely to be nasty in an epic way. But I didn’t put my fears to voice, no need worrying all the others until we actually saw it. So rather than try to comment in a meaningful way on a 21-day trip, which I cannot begin to do in 3000 words, I am going to concentrate on what it is like to deal with the biggest rapid in the Grand Canyon, the fastest navigable water in the Northern Hemisphere: Lava Falls.



From the high scout trail we all look down at the normal run on Lava’s river right and just stare. I finally break the silence with, good God, that’s nothing but total chaos. I tell them it is the worst I have ever seen it – and that I am going to wait for the water to go down a bit, hopefully taking some of the sharpness out of the huge V-wave and crashing holes.   I should have taken a shot of the rapid, but I didn’t; sounds weird, but I didn’t want to give the rapid even more power. Lava has two logical runs normally. The left side is a thin rocky line between holes when the water is high enough; and on the right, through the infamous V-wave where many people flip. There is no center run in Lava, as the entire center of the river is a huge recirculating hole, which even the biggest of boats avoid. Today the right is a cauldron of menacing recycling holes, each one hoping to slow you down so the next one can eat you for lunch. Bottom right in Lava a single wave waits for boaters, one with its own name: Big Bertha. When a single wave has its own name you can bet it has an ornery reputation to match. But right now both Bertha and the wave behind it are much bigger than the V-wave above, crashing over themselves on irregular intervals like fire-breathing monsters, waiting to chomp at anything that moves. If any boat slams into these waves as they crash, that boat is toast. So we wait. After three hours another trip comes by to scout, so we go to take another look. If anything, it looks horribly, unbelievably worse. One of the women on the other trip says, “I know it looks bad; It makes me want to vomit. But they are going to run it, so we wait to watch the carnage. They enter off line, get washed around backwards, knocked off the oars, washed into waves sideways, most of them almost flipping more than once. And the woman, she gets too far right and actually hits the black rock on extreme river right (called the Cheese Grater rock) with the stern of her boat, slides sideways into Bertha and into the wave below it, but amazingly, through no skill of her own, doesn’t flip. It’s pure luck. She should have flipped. Maybe twice. My wife says, “Well, let’s get going before it gets even worse.” As we hike back to the boats I know we are all thinking that the other trip had much bigger boats than ours – and they practically got their teeth knocked out. So we put on wetsuits, strap into our biggest and newest life vests, pee ourselves a little, and push into the brown river toward the river’s roar.


The current above Lava is slow, squirrelly and deceptive, granting ample time to contemplate former mistakes of friends as well as those of your own: get too far left and you eat it in the edge of the Ledge hole, one friend was in there so deep it actually washed river gravel into his boat; another tucked in just below the Ledge, trying to miss Bertha downstream, but the slack water below the Ledge hole drew him back upstream like the event horizon of a black hole: he had to turn around and row hard downstream just to stay where he was. He could not get out, but lucky for him, the river tired of him and eventually let him float downstream again.   Then again, if you go too far right in the V-wave you might hit the Cheese Grater rock, or worse, get stuck in the murderous eddy beside it for a very scary long time. One friend got stuck there, flipped and ended up washing down a horrifying three-foot slot on the backside of the Cheese Grater. She thought she would never see the surface again. Or have a normal face. Some have said for decades that following a line of bubbles – the “bubble line” – will lead you to the best entry, but they’re not always there, and they’re not always the best line.   It’s pretty amusing to listen to first-time Lava runners talk about all the moves they are going to make in Lava. In this rapid you cannot maneuver. If you can keep the boat straight, you’re a star.


But here we are above Lava again, awaiting mayhem. If anything, my wife Jo-Anne reads water better than I do, being a former National Team member in slalom kayak racing. So when she says, “go a bit further right,” even with horrible rocks on the right, and us in a fiberglass boat – I go further right.   We pass the first small black rock just barely with the stern, where most people start the stopwatch, since rumor has it Lava takes only twenty seconds or less to run. The pool of water suddenly accelerates like the dory has morphed into a muscle car and we’re punching it. We slam into the first waves, immediately getting bent up and twisted, not even near the beginning of the horrible stuff, trying to keep the speeding dory straight with psychotic lateral waves breaking in on both sides. After three quick seconds we are staring into the maw of the the huge V-shaped wave with the top pointing downstream; first one side crashes, then the other and sometimes both at once: think of a huge animatronic monster mouth with dripping teeth. It has knocked me out of this boat before. V-wave beta is to hit it at the center of the V; if you are left or right of dead center either huge lateral wave can flip you. Flips in the V-wave happen with mousetrap speed: snap, and you’re underwater before you know what hit you.

Fortunately, Jo-Anne’s river eyes put us right where we need to be. But as I see the largest incarnation of V-wave I have ever seen -I have no idea what it will do to the boat when we hit it. If the V-wave is this bad, what are Bertha and her mean Evil Twin Sister going to do to us? The bow of a dory through GC rapids is quite possibly the best whitewater ride there is, but when Jo-Anne gets one look at the V-wave, she wisely ducks down, and hangs onto the bow grab bars like a bat. She goes under the V-wave, which hits me like a flying waterbed. I straight-arm the oars in deep and push into the wave like a statue. It’s all dark on deck for a second, (are we up-side-down or still right-side-up?) then we pop out, the dory cockpit filled to the decks in brown water, but deep oars always tempt River Gods, and now fierce underwater currents really want my right oar; I can let go of it, break it, or go flying, so I let go of it. Just great. Trying to keep a boat remotely straight with only one oar in these heavy hydraulics, just before falling over the edge into Big Bertha wasn’t a very pretty picture. But then, in a nanosecond, another wave slaps the oar back into my hand.   Even with two oars I barely manage to straighten up the dory for Bertha. I tell myself it cannot get any worse than the V-wave, but then it does.


I wish I could explain just how terrifying the trough above Bertha is. Although we looked at Bertha carefully with binoculars on the scout, I tell everyone it’s probably not good to look at Bertha or her Evil Twin for too long; either of them could turn you to stone.   On an earlier trip Jo-Anne had intentionally surfed a kayak in Bertha. Twice. It endoed her kayak like a toothpick in a drainpipe. And what was going through her head while perched on top of that enormous wave with her stern pointed straight up? “This is going to hurt. When she rolled back up everything was blurry; Bertha popped both contacts out.

Back in the dory, we fall off the feeder wave and surge down into the gargantuan, massively dark hell of Bertha’s trough. In the bottom, cowering below Bertha in all her evil glory, time stood still for another nanosecond. Although we are going amazingly fast, (the fastest water flows in Lava is estimated at 100 miles per hour – and it feels like it) the wall of water above us looks way too high to ever get over. All sixteen and a half feet of dory begin flying up the wave and we still have more to go. This rapid is all out of proportion. Then the wave crest breaks over us, and stands the dory straight up. The only thing I can see in all the whitewater is the bottom of my wife’s river booties hanging straight down from the bow. I was thinking a dory flipping end-over-end was not going to feel good, especially without a helmet. But the turquoise dory has a mind of its own. The boat full of water helps us slice through that enormous, scary ass-crashing wave and shoots us into the air. We get big air off Big Bertha! (people on a commercial boat which had stopped to watch our run said they could see the entire bottom of the dory…). But there is only one small problem. We slap back onto the water just in time to slam into Bertha’s Evil Sister, which, as we saw from shore, is even bigger than Bertha. At least it isn’t breaking like Bertha was. The angular momentum of the dory does not allow enough time to change direction and go up the wave. Instead we shoot through the brown wave like a turquoise spear gun dart. Here the reptile part of my brain takes over. It tells me to let go of one oar and grab the “chicken bar” in the cockpit between my legs. This keeps me in the boat as the tidal wave washes over us. Thanks Mr. Lizard Brain. We are now on the good side of Lava.


The final two Lava waves were the most nauseating, downright hellish waves I have ever run. From the V-wave the lower rapid looks like it would rip us apart. If it were that chaotic in a sleek dory, what would Lava do to the little cats behind us?


They are lined up to attempt the left side run, a rocky proposition, unthinkable in a glass dory, but in their eyes a much-preferred line over the heavy hydraulics we had just run on the right. The left run is called “the invisible slot” for a reason. In low water this so-called slot is about 6 inches wide, and Larry, running first, discovers waiting for lower water wasn’t such a hot idea for a left side run, and immediately gets stuck on a rock, with John anxiously behind him. This could get real ugly, real soon.

On my first trip rowing the Grand I got over into left side rocks and holes, one of which stopped me dead and threw me to the side of the boat. Thanks to a slick painted plywood floor, one foot slid across the deck and got stuck between the floor and the outside tube. I couldn’t get my damned foot out. I remember thinking, so, this is how you die in the Grand Canyon. But in the next, more forgiving hole, the boat buckled in the opposite direction and spit my foot out. Lucky me.

But meanwhile, back in Lava, John sees Larry stuck on the rock and he doesn’t want any part of an ugly river traffic jam, so he makes an instant and brave decision, particularly since this is his first ride through Lava. He begins rowing his guts out to get back right, ferrying hard just above the ledge hole in the rapid’s center which not only flips big boats, it maytags the hapless, barrel rolls them, rips tubes off frames, and then spits most of everything back out when it feels like it. Just about the worst place to be on the entire river. From our comfortable eddy below the rapid, John’s oars look like a helicopter’s tail rotor. We really think we are going to see him drop into the total gnarl of the center ledge hole, but somehow John skims just above, and amazingly finds a good enough line to navigate the right side’s wicked whitewater. Ric, Steve and Carl quickly follow John. Bondo waits in a small eddy until Larry gets out of his boat, stands on the rock, heaves the tube off and quickly jumps back on; fortunately, Larry’s had lots of practice with that. Bondo then bounces on down, further right than Larry’s line, and gets through without even getting wet. Damn him. I personally thought half of the catarafts would be up side down well before Bertha… I tell Jo-Anne to get both throw lines ready and prepare to try to haul these guys out before Lower Lava where all the current slams into a cliff…   But eventually we count 6 upright cats on the water, so no rescue practice today. As it turns out, our lines were much better than the trip before us in their much bigger boats; with our tiny boats we had to be better. When we later ran into the woman who had hit the Cheese Grater rock with her stern, she said, it was what she was planning all along. You bet. We’re not buying it.


If Lava were at the beginning of the Grand Canyon, I think more people would hike back out to Lee’s Ferry and hitch home. As it is, after a couple weeks of running really big rapids, you acquire a false sense of security having survived so much huge whitewater. There are other big holes and even killer fang rocks in the Canyon that rip boats apart, but somehow they lack the visceral terror of Lava. As one friend of mine remarked once while floating in the eddy below Lava, “Well, now we are all just beginning another long wait to run through Lava again.

The twenty seconds of terror that lasts a lifetime.

4 Responses to “20 Seconds of Terror”

  1. Dennis,
    Is one of the photos included in the article that of Paul Frisby?

  2. Yes, that is Paul Frisby and Will Stokes in the V wave of Lava. I wish the UAJ would include the captions I give them. I think you, as well as other readers, would like the info.

  3. Thanks Dennis. It’s hard to believe it has been almost 20 years since Frisby ran his last rapid. The photo brought back many memories. Can’t thank you enough for including it in your well written article.

  4. Lava has been very much on my mind after attending the AZRA 70’s guide reunion last week. About 30 of us made it to Dave and Julie Winn’s home near Gunnison to say hi to people we haven’t seen in 30 years. And of course it was a slide show extravaganza. In all that time I haven’t read an essay on running Lava that compares to what you wrote here. Its detail is perfect and, from one who’s flipped a 24-foot snout rig on the ledge hole wave when it wasn’t even breaking, readers of this article will have an accurate sense of what running big water is like when you’re on the oars. The old saying that ‘everyone has a plan until you get punched in the face’ really applies to this rapid, doesn’t it? We do what we can and then hold on for dear life. Thanks for the great read.

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