Swiftwater Rescue course with the Swiftwater Safety Institute
After guide school and Wilderness First Responder training, the last part of my jam-packed month of river guide training was taking a swiftwater rescue course. I signed up for the SRT PRO-I course from the Swiftwater Safety Institute. The class was in Cañon City, Colorado, training on the Arkansas River.
I was looking forward to getting some more experience in the water. During my first swim in guide school, I went over a pourover at the top of an eddy and got dunked pretty good, driven down for about five seconds. We’d planned to swim a rapid on the second day, but that got called off when a student broke an ankle. We did swim Lower Black Bar Rapid on the Rouge later in the class, but that wasn’t enough to really feel confident in the water.
The course description for the class didn’t absolutely require a dry suit but really emphasized having one. I bought a Kokatat Meridan suit, by far my biggest single purchase when it comes to river guide gear. They also wanted students to have enough carabiners, pulleys, and prusiks to set up a 3:1 mechanical advantage system. The class required everyone to bring their own PFD, preferably a rescue vest.
Before the Class
Due to COVID, the Swiftwater Safety Institute moved the classroom portion of the SRT PRO-I course online. You get a link to the online course two weeks before the class. It’s basically a bunch of videos, each followed by a quiz on the subject matter. In my case, the Wilderness First Responder class I was taking started two weeks before the swiftwater class and soaked up almost all of my time. I used the one day off in the middle of the WFR class to go in and do the online work for swiftwater.
My Wilderness First Responder class wrapped up on Thursday. I had three days to make it from Chico, California, to Cañon City. On the way, I stopped to see a friend who lives near Grand Junction and visited the north rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
The first day of class was only a half-day, so class started at 1:30 at Royal Gorge Rafting (RGR), about 15 minutes west of Cañon City. We started with some waiver paperwork before moving on to some introductions. The instructors for the course were Matt McDonough and Joe Bailey. Matt’s a manager for RGR, while Joe guides elsewhere in Colorado. Most of the students were river guides, many from RGR. We also had a substantial contingent of first responders from Kansas (firefighters and Sheriff’s deputies).
After a quick talk about the Swiftwater Safety Institute’s philosophy and approach to river rescue, we started with some knots. This was one of the things that was covered in the online portion, but they wanted to make sure we could actually tie these. Getting live feedback from Matt and Joe helped me with a few knots.
We moved on to shore anchors. If you’ve got one feature that you’re sure will hold, like a big tree or rock, anchoring to it is pretty straightforward. They showed us a bunch of different ways to do it. In the event you need to distribute the load over multiple features, we learned how to set up a two-point self-equalizing anchor. This distributes the load equally between two anchor points.
Next up were mechanical advantage systems, using pulleys to increase the amount of force you can apply to a load. The basic system is a 3:1 or Z-drag. This can be done with a pair of pulleys, rope, and some carabiners. They also showed off some more complex systems, like a 5:1 and 7:1. We had the opportunity to pair up and set up our own 3:1 systems.
Our last topic for the day was the other end of the system: boat anchors. These mechanical advantage systems can exert a lot more force than one D-ring on a boat can take. They showed how to use the end of one rope to set up a two-point self-equalizing boat anchor attached to a pair of D-rings.
The next morning we did some review and Q and A on the previous day’s topics, including practicing both shore and boat anchors.
Matt also demonstrated a “pig rig,” a 4:1 mechanical advantage system using a pair of pulleys, carabiners, and some prussiks. It has the advantage that you can tension a rope, then disconnect all of the pulleys and use them to set up another system. Useful for raft guides with only a limited amount of gear available.
Next up was throw bag practice. We set up in the parking lot and started out just tossing the bags themselves back and forth, then moved on to deploying the ropes. The goal was to get it within arms reach of your partner. I definitely need some practice on this. Throw bags take a while to repack, and sometimes you may need to make a second throw more quickly, so we practiced coiling up the throw-bag rope and tossing the coils. The goal is to be able to deploy a throw bag, coil, and make a second throw within 20 seconds.
We finished up the morning by going over some hand signals. After a break for lunch, we’d met down in Cañon City at a city park along the Arkansas River, where we’d get in the water.
After everyone got suited up, we started the afternoon with a quick walkthrough, going up and down the riverbank to look at the water features we’d be dealing with. None were particularly nasty, but the Arkansas was running relatively high, so we’d be dealing with a lot of water.
Our first swim was pretty simple, jumping in, heading downstream, and catching an eddy on the opposite side. Once everyone did that, we swam back across to an eddy downstream of where we’d gone in. This was more of a familiarization swim, but as someone whose whitewater swimming experience before the class was pretty limited, it had the benefit of getting me used to navigating the river from a duck’s eye view and switching between defensive and aggressive swimming (defensive being floating along with your feet downstream near the surface, while aggressive is a front crawl stroke).
The next swim was a bit more challenging. We swam out into the current a bit further downstream and went through a hole (where the water flows over an obstacle and curls back on itself). Then we caught an eddy on the opposite side of the river. This was a bit of a ride. Our next task was swimming back to the other side and catching an eddy. About half a dozen of us (all river guides) decided to walk upstream a bit and catch the hole again. I definitely got dunked a bit more the second time around.
We did some throw bag practice with live victims. Here it’s not just throwing the bag accurately but also being prepared to belay the victim once they’ve grabbed the rope and swing them into shore.
The order of operations for rescuing someone in the water is “Reach, row, throw, go.” Getting in there with them is generally a last resort. However, part of being a trained swiftwater rescuer is being prepared for that, so we worked on some contact rescues. Here you’ve got to time your jump into the water as the victim floats downstream, swim out, grab them, then grab a throw bag rope and swing both of you to shore. If you don’t get a throw bag, you’ve got to swim them to shore yourself, which is quite a bit more work.
One way to avoid the issue of missing the throw bag is to tether a rope to you before you go in the water. This is a pretty dangerous operation since getting tangled up in a rope that holds you under is a good way to drown. A critical piece of safety gear for this is a PFD with a quick-release ring on it so you can detach yourself from the rope. We did some practice just swimming out with a tether and feeling how the water flows over you when you’re stationary at the end of a rope. Then we pulled the quick release and swam to shore. On the other end of the rope, the person holding the rope and belaying the swimmer was tied into a shore anchor to keep them securely in place.
Moving on to applying this skill, we did a “live bait” rescue where a tethered rescue swimmer grabs the victim. During my first run at this, I had just gotten to the victim and barely grabbed on before the person belaying me yanked me to a stop. Matt let me have another run right away. On that second run, I got a good grip on the victim. As we were being pulled to shore when the rope suddenly went slack. It turns out the belayer had run out of rope. We were both left floating downstream and had to catch a throw rope and swim to shore.
During the day, I’d accumulated quite a bit of water in my dry suit. Partway through the afternoon, I discovered that the main zipper wasn’t completely closed, so I didn’t know whether it was operator error or an issue with the suit.
We were back out at Royal Gorge Rafting again for Day 3.
Our first big topic was the tensioned diagonal. This is where you set up a rope running diagonally across the river, which you can use to get people and gear from one side of the river to the other. To simplify things, we set one up on dry land.
Next up was extracting someone from a foot entrapment. Getting your foot caught in a rock may not seem like a big deal, but it can be one of the most dangerous situations on the river. The force of water flowing downstream can push someone over and hold them down, drowning them in water they could easily stand up in if it weren’t moving. Matt and Joe did some dry land demonstrations of a couple of techniques, including sending a tethered rescuer out on a rope and throwing ropes out to a victim to help stabilize them and give them something to push against to get their foot out.
With the dry land stuff out of the way, we got geared up and moved down to the river. We started with some shallow water crossings: basically wading out into the river. They talked about how to use a paddle to support yourself, as well as two and three-person techniques for supporting each other in the water. Finally, they talked about using six or more people to form a big wedge and support each other in a strong current.
We set some people with throw bags as our downstream safety and practiced wading out to a rock about a third of the way across the river. Once everyone was out in the eddy behind the rock, we formed a couple of wedges and walked back to shore.
Since the people who had been doing downstream safety hadn’t gotten a chance to try this stuff, Matt divided us into two groups and sent half of us to be downstream safety while the other half walked out to the rock and practiced the wedge formation. Once they were done, we swapped. This time, rather than walking from the rock back to the shore after we formed the wedge, we walked out further. Eventually, we reached the point where the river was deep enough that people started floating and lost traction, so the wedge began sliding backward. At that point, Joe called a “blowout,” and everybody separated and swam for it.
We had a quick foot entrapment scenario where Matt played the entrapped victim out on the midstream rock. We assigned various roles, and a group of folks walked out to him, formed a wedge, and floated him back to shore.
After lunch, we split again, with half of the group tossing throw bags while the other half did some flip drills. I’d had a little bit of boat flipping experience in guide school, but I hadn’t gotten a chance to do it by myself until now. Joe also showed off an interesting technique for flipping a boat while someone’s underneath it, grabbing on so that they end up in the boat when it’s upright.
The two groups swapped, giving me a chance to do some throw bag drills. I managed the certification standard of throwing the bag, coiling up the line, and throwing it to a swimmer within 20 seconds, though it did take me three tries.
Our next project was setting up a hasty diagonal. Unlike the tensioned diagonal, rather than using anchors and pulleys to keep the rope taught, the hasty diagonal has people on each end belaying to keep everything tight. Several people swam the river, and we (eventually) managed to get a throw bag across to them. After using a second throw bag to extend the rope, we got set up on both banks.
We attached a pulley with a prusik loop to the rope so you could hang on to the loop and let the current and the angle carry you across the river. Initially, our angle wasn’t steep enough, so the first guy to go across stalled out about 10 feet from the bank in some heavy current. We moved the anchor a bit upstream. I was the next to go. It was quite a ride, holding on in the face of a strong current. We got a few more people across before some rafts came downstream and we had to let the rope go.
To get folks on the far bank back across, we set up a pendulum rig. Joe swam a line across. We tied some loops near the end and clipped in carabiners for people to hold on to. While they belayed the rope on the opposite shore, we hopped in the river and let the current swing us across. Well, most of the way across. The river’s geometry and our anchor point were such that we stalled out about 2/3 of the way over. What we really needed was a tag line running from the rope to shore to pull everybody in. Instead, I ended up letting go and just swimming/wading the rest of the way.
That finished up our time in the water. I had paid particular attention to getting the zippers on my dry suit completely closed, which seemed to have paid dividends. I was nice and dry in there compared to yesterday.
We got our gear stripped off and moved to our final exercise: pairing up and setting up a 3:1 mechanical advantage setup.
With that, we filled out some course evaluations and wrapped up the class.
After the class
The RGR guides in the class asked if anyone wanted to go boating. I’d never been down Royal Gorge, so I said yes, as did half the class. Some folks with more space in their cars than I drove down to Cañyon City to set up a car shuttle where we’d take out. The rest of us got some boats down to the beach and rigged. As we did so, more RGR guides showed up wanting to do a play trip, so we ended up with half a dozen boats and a kayak in our little fleet.
We got on the water at about 6:30. I was in a little 10’ raft with a fellow student from the class guiding from the rear seat and a pair of first-year RGR guides up front with me, paddling. The little 10’ boat was pretty sporty and quick, but we also got tossed around quite a bit. I ended up getting tossed out right at the top of Sledgehammer Rapid, a pretty big Class IV.
First, I tried to swim back to the raft. They turned upstream and were trying to paddle up to me, but before we made contact, we went into a hole, and I got pounded down deep. I remembered getting dunked in guide school and thinking, “It’s OK, I’ve been here before.” I swam back up to the surface, and when I came up, I didn’t see the raft anywhere. Later, they told me that while the raft slowed down the hole, I went deep enough to stay in the current main current and popped out downstream of them.
I had a few moments on the surface to get a breath and try to get in a defensive swim position. As I was bringing my feet up, I hit a submerged rock at the top of a hole, banging my shin pretty bad and flipping me face-first into the hole beyond. I got driven down deep again. It was kind of a blur at that point, but later I heard that I got recirculated at least once. While I was down there, I realized this was a pretty serious situation.
When the hole spat me out and I came up, it seemed like everyone on the river was yelling at me to swim left. I did, and later I found out that I’d managed to avoid a nasty recirculating hole. That got me close enough to another raft that I managed to barely get my fingertips on the T-grip of an outstretched paddle, but before I could get a grip, the current swept them to one side of a big rock while I got swept to the other.
At that point, I was basically at the bottom of the rapid. The kayak rowed by one of the guides was able to get close enough for me to latch on. He paddled me over to the raft I’d been in.
We made it the rest of the way down the gorge without incident, arriving at the take out in Cañon City around 8 pm. It’s definitely a beautiful trip with some great scenery, but that’s probably not what’s going to stick in my mind.
After shuttling back to Royal Gorge Rafting, I was getting packed up and changed into some dry clothes when I ran into Matt. He’d heard from the RGR guides that I’d swam Sledgehammer and asked how I was doing. After I assured him I was fine, he said that he’d swum Sledgehammer before. That made me feel a bit better.
There aren’t many places to eat in Cañon City at 9 p.m. on a Wednesday, so we all congregated at Chili’s for a well-earned late dinner.
Even before my big swim, I felt like the biggest benefit of this class for me was getting much more comfortable with swimming in whitewater. That said, I hadn’t been expecting to put those skills to the test that same day.
Beyond the additional swimming experience, this class taught me a lot of great rescue techniques, from contact rescues to rope work to shallow water crossings. I definitely feel like I’ve got a good toolbox to draw from if something happens on the river.
The class also reinforced that I need a lot more throw bag practice. I need to spend some time chucking ropes after this experience.
Matt and Joe taught a great course. They explained the concepts well and provided good coaching and feedback to the students. I’d definitely train with them again.
I also need to give props to my fellow students. They were great folks to hang out with. I also really enjoyed the opportunity to raft Royal Gorge, even if it was a bit more excitement than I bargained for.