The remains of a Cataract oar shaft became our lever to pry the near side of the raft up. We hopped and worked the now-empty oar lock up the face of the basalt and peeked under the raft. John had rigged for a flip, but he'd not rigged for a general scouring. So by this time, the lids of his dry boxes were wide open and sickeningly pulled back on their hinges, allowing the river to gut the contents of both commissary boxes. The cooler lid was taco’ed up around the one remaining strap holding it in the frame, its hinges blown out completely. Essentially everything John had with him that wasn’t directly and well strapped to the frame was gone. Firewood and various colorful items were now orbiting in the eddy below our position on the rock. John had the toilet seat and groover boxes securely strapped in a frame bay. So the irony was that we were now working our butts off to save our shit - literally! We got a line on his Watershed bag and as many rocket boxes and bags as we could.
We settled into a cycle which we repeated over and over: we'd target a strap, then one of us would use the oar shaft to lever the frame up off the rock face while another would slide down the rock and try and reach under the raft, stretching with the driftwood spear-knife to try to saw at that strap. The third would belay the designated cutter by holding onto his PFD. We also had some self-belay hand-loops set up so that as we would inevitably slide down the basalt face, we could arrest ourselves. A surging wave would come, knock the raft around or one of us would lose our footing and the process would start over. Every move had to be pre-planned, shouting over the roar of the river as it crashed past our position.
The gruesome work of cutting John’s rig apart took the next two hours. We stopped to rest and strategize many times. Footing was more treacherous the lower you got on the rock and of course Lava Falls was thundering right beside us the whole time. Glancing over at the water raging by, my thoughts morphed over the course of the afternoon from "And I've still got to run this thing today" to "No way I can run this safely - I'm beat!"
One by one, we cut through the straps. Before the last strap holding an item would be cut, we would make sure the item was on belay so we could swing it into the eddy after it shot through the slot. My memory of Amanda, leaning out at the end of a self-belay line, stretching for all she was worth to get a fingertip on each box and bag, one after the other, until all were safely on shore still brings a smile. At one point, Mike slipped and thankfully he didn’t get tangled. He shot through the slot, grabbed a dangling line for a second, then swam to shore.
Amanda also kept an eye on John as he gradually came back to life. At some point, she made the brutal trek back to the boats for more water and some food. The work continued until eventually we could lever the raft up onto its edge. It was a shocking but satisfying sight to see John’s boat finally slip through the slot with a mass of cut ropes, dry boxes, and straps streaming out below. We lined it over to shore about 30 feet downstream. Now the process reversed as we tried to find enough intact straps to re-attach the frame and reassemble a row-able rig.
Then we lined the boxes of shit down the shoreline and strapped them back into the boat. We found enough oar parts so Mike and John could row John's reassembled boat down to Mike’s boat. By about 4:30pm we were done… in more ways than one.
Throughout the afternoon, un-asked was the question of what we were going to do about running Lava Falls ourselves. I’ll be 60 this year. Growing old is learning to live with a smaller gas tank. By this time, mine had nothing left. As we discussed our next move, I told the others that I would not run – not only for my own safety, but I could offer no real support in the event we had to do an exercise even remotely like this again. Scott and Amanda felt the same way – we as a group of 3 had no margin of safety. We could certainly have run the rapid – but if anything bad happened, we would be toast. We acknowledged that we would spend the night at the Lava Falls scout.
So before John and Mike departed, the 5 of us huddled one last time to make sure we had a plan and that Scott, Amanda, and I would have enough stuff to spend a decent night above the falls (specifically toilet paper and shovel!). We had the stove in Scott’s boat, all the lunch stuff, water, coffee, and all our personal camping gear – we’d be fine.
Mike and John then rowed John's re-born raft out into the eddy and began rounding up what they could of the gear still floating there. Scott, Amanda and I gathered all our webbing and lines and headed back to our boats. Failing to find the route by which I’d arrived, I climbed high, straight up the greasy scree slope until I could find a traverse back toward the scout point. On the way across, I found a satisfying and shady little ledge and plopped down to finally rest. Amanda and Scott joined me there and the three of us just sat and stared at the rapid for another half hour. We reviewed our options once more and considered running the rapid. And again we came to the same conclusion that the risk was too great – we would have no support if any of us ran into trouble, and there was really no reason for such risk. I knew, as spent as I was and at twice his age, if I took a swim like Scotty’s it could be fatal. And another adventure on the Cheese Grater… well that was something that just couldn’t be allowed to be a possibility.
So we concentrated on looking for a line to run in the morning. Having just watched 3 of 5 boats get in trouble on the right, the left side got all our attention. We had a perfect view looking down on it from our high vantage point, half-way down the rapid. As a Washington/Idaho boater, the left side looked pretty damn good to me. I could pick out three separate zones of slower water, with a rocky jog move between each to thread them together into a route. There was plenty of room at the very top to the left of the Ledge Hole - enough to take that feature out of the equation. So the entrance was fine. The only dicey part was the move to the center after leaving the last of the landing zones. The whole lower left side looked like a wrap-hazard. I would need to hit a particular soft spot among large boulders with ample momentum. So I hoped the water level would stay high, making it easier to get back out to the center in the morning.