I too had gotten crossed up a bit in that 5th wave, but managed to stay upright. So far, that had been the sketchiest moment of the trip for me – all the other major rapids including Hance, Horn, Crystal, and Granite had been interesting and exciting, but provided no moments on the edge. Now as we approached Lava Falls on this perfect morning, I was looking forward to satisfying my long-held curiosity about this famous beast and getting into the challenge and experience of Lava Falls.
We reached the scout pull-in on the right-side and tied up the rafts. Two 18ft yellow rental boats from PRO were already there. I grabbed my camera and headed up the trail to the basalt outcrop that is the traditional scout point for Lava Falls. On the way, I passed the party ahead of us coming back down the rocky trail. A lucky break – we’d get to watch them run first; rookies can use all the help we can get! When I reached the view point, I could see the first two of that other party had already run, their yellow boats nearing Lower Lava rapid off in the distance.
My first impression: Lava Falls was simply huge! The dam-release 'tide' was on its way in and we were looking at something north of 20K CFS and rising. I quickly started trying to find the landmarks that I’d long-ago memorized but never seen in person - starting with the “Ledge Hole”. It's pretty obvious. It spans the middle-third of the river, dead in the center at the top. I won’t be going in there! I next focused on picking out the traditional right side run, skirting just to the right of the Ledge Hole, then proceeding down into the feature known as the 'V wave'. For a while, I couldn’t really make it out. I could count a bunch of big laterals coming off the right bank diagonally down and across, into the center of the river. Finally I realized that one in particular must be the famous one. But it was lost in the general maelstrom much of the time.
Beyond the V wave were more laterals, and then the famous 'Cheese Grater' rock. That particular feature had been mentioned a lot in the preceding days and I came to understand that it was also known by the local guides as the 'Saddle'. The Cheese Grater is a wicked peninsula protruding at least 30 feet from the right bank, exposing a flat tilted plane of jagged basalt – ready to have its way with any unfortunate boat that would slide up against it. While the Cheese Grater looked nasty, the visions of true ugliness were its companions on either side. Just to the right I could see a narrow boat-sucking slot of water raging between the Cheese Grater and the rest of the basalt outcrop that formed the right shoreline. And on the outboard side, there was an extreme wave-hole-thing coming off the shoulder of the grater that looked like it dropped off 10 feet straight down on the far side. Anyone who managed to just miss the Cheese Grater would then fall off a cliff of raging whitewater.
We decided that Mike, John, and Scotty would run in a group first, while Scott, Amanda and I would remain at the overlook to watch and take photos.
Soon, that second pair of yellow rafts came into view, lining up to hit the right side run. I watched the action through the long lens of my camera as the first one made it safely through. It wasn’t pretty, but he survived hit after hit. I could sense it was really big, but only later when examining the photos did I grasp the true size of the V wave. Try as he may to avoid it, the boatman drove right up onto the pillow of the Cheese Grater to put a scary punctuation mark at the end of his run. Luckily, he managed to get off and stay upright as his raft slid over the watery cliff to the left.
Next, we watched three younger guys in the last yellow boat take their run. The boatman elected to enter the rapid backwards with his two bow paddlers looking over their shoulders. I’m sure he was thinking he stood a better chance to pull through into the smoother flow in river-center below the Ledge Hole. But it never worked that way since he didn’t achieve any significant right-to-left momentum as he passed the Ledge Hole. Through the viewfinder I watched as the river gradually took control and handed them a slow-motion flip as they passed to the left of the Cheese Grater. At 3 shots a second, it made for some nice photos: