Rivers and Ropes and Mutual Support

I’ve written a little about river crossing techniques in the past, and I’m about to do so again. Before continuing, I’d like to stress that this post is not meant to be instructional in any way, so much as commenting on some recent happenings in the world of river safety techniques. Back-country rivers are dangerous beasts that kill people who make mistakes. Judging and crossing rivers safely in an outdoors situation is a delicate skill, and the best way to learn it is through river safety courses and by getting experience in controlled situations with experienced people.

That said, there’s an interesting discussion developing through Federated Mountain Clubs, and highlighted in the November 2011 FMC Bulletin. In it, FMC have published a condensed edition of a report by Brian Wilkins regarding the fording of rivers. It’d be fair to say that Brian is very critical of the Mountain Safety Council’s training materials for the past 20 years which focus on mutual support methods for crossing rivers, and he proposes a return to sufficient training for rope use as an option. The abbreviated article in the printed FMC Bulletin is diplomatic, but FMC have also made the complete 32 page write-up available as a PDF downloadable from their website, and certain parts of it certainly aren’t diplomatic.

Before continuing (and please remember this when reading what follows), I should stress that the New Zealand Mountain Safety Council has since responded to Brian Wilkins’ article with a statement issued on 9th December 2011 (PDF), explaining why it pushes mutual support methods and avoids rope techniques. In short, mutual support methods have been carefully developed by experts over a long period of time, after many trials it was decided that ropes can become very dangerous unless used correctly… which few people can do, and “it was concluded that ropes can give people a false impression of their abilities and can tempt people to try unsafe conditions”.

The entirety of the debate is an interesting read.

For some time now, the New Zealand Mountain Safety Council has been pushing mutual support methods as the best and safest way for groups to ford a river, both in its training material and in its river safety courses. Many variations and specific techniques of mutual support crossing methods have evolved over time, but in essence mutual support for river crossing is where a group of people are connected side-by-side in a line when entering the water, most recently by passing arms between each other’s backs and packs. When applied correctly, the person on the end that faces side-on into the current splits most of the force of the water’s current—whether it should be a heavy person or a light-weight person in this position depends on the specific variation being used—and this effect then eases the force of the water off the others in the group. The group as a whole then helps itself to cross the width of the river in a unified line.

Just as it’s been recommending mutual support methods, the Mountain Safety Council strongly recommends against the use of ropes, which were popular until several decades ago, noting that they can create major and seriously bad situations if something goes wrong. Brian Wilkins, however, has challenged this assertion, claiming that people should be trained in rope use as part of river safety, and that ropes (when used correctly) can often be more safe than the mutual support methods that are presently taught as standard.

Brian Wilkins was a member of the Otago University Tramping Club in the 1940s, for some context of his background, and his article is divided into three parts. Within it, he examines the history of river fording instructions, investigates reports of deaths using particular methods, and eventually presents his own favoured techniques involving rope use and comparably recently available technology, of which he’d like to propose for further research.

The chronology in Part 1 confirms rope techniques as being very common in early instructional literature for fording rivers. The author then notes that from about the mid to late 1980s, instruction material of the Mountain Safety Council (which by then had become the recognised authority of back-country river safety in New Zealand) very suddenly stopped publishing information and techniques for rope use in rivers. Where references to rope use existed, they claimed that ropes were dangerous but, at least in the references presented by the author, presented little evidence as to why they were less safe than the promoted alternative close contact mutual support methods. The author gripes that by the 1990s, much of the training material had become dumbed down and unrealistic, and had an unjustified anti-rope bias.

The latter section of Part 1 is spent looking at statistics and case studies, of several paragraphs each, of river-related fatalities. The author attempts to compare deaths that involved mutual support methods with deaths that involved rope methods. An interesting observation which he suggests from the case studies is that when people were swept away from other groups, they were often observed to be unconscious very soon after, presumably from head injuries. There’s a point made that being unconscious would ultimately mean that attempts by the subject to recover from such an event are not likely to be possible. Thus he argues that being swept away from a mutual support crossing—which involves no anchor to anywhere on the shore—is (on average) likely to be far worse than being swept away from a rope crossing in which the subject is anchored or tied to something that will prevent them from being completely lost.

Whilst there’s undoubtedly valuable information and insight to be gleaned from these case studies, it occurred to me that it can only ever be a partial study. What remains largely undocumented, both for rope crossings and for mutual support crossings, are all cases for which there was no serious incident, or for which there may have been an incident but no fatality. Apart from people’s recalled anecdotes, we really have no idea how many times people might have been swept from a mutual support crossing, recovered successfully and continued on their way. It’s simply not reported or recorded anywhere. Likewise, there’s very little information about crossings involving ropes that had no casualties.

The author ends this lengthy section arguing that the Mountain Safety Council has essentially blinded itself to lessons of the past, and has taken an irrational position in favour of pushing and patching mutual support methods further and further as its official recommendations, even though the author believes they are inherently unsafe when compared with appropriate use of rope techniques. He believes that much river fording technique can be re-learned from the past, ultimately involving rope use, and improved upon. He suggests that current fashions might be a consequence of the recent divergence of tramping from climbing. Trampers typically don’t carry rope, as they used to, and many trampers aren’t skilled in using tools, such as carabiners, which alpine mountain climbers and rock climbers often carry. He then suggests that techniques for crossing rivers with ropes could be made very safe if people were trained appropriately, and if certain items of equipment became more commonly accepted.

Section 2 is a discussion of Brian Wilkins’ proposed techniques, building on fairly recent technology, which he’d like to be evaluated further. He’s identified a 7 mm diameter polypropylene rope, which floats (rather than sinks) and absorbs very little water. He proposes crossing techniques (such as the pendulum technique) that combine ropes, climbing tools and climbing techniques (such as belaying by a person standing on shore), and innovations that include harnesses made with lengths of tape. The article describes some initial field trials for the technique that were carried out in the Hutt River, with generally positive results.

Section 3, short by comparison with the two earlier sections, is an examination of “the third leg”. Many current visitors to the back-country will already be familiar with the use of sticks and walking poles in rivers, and how they can aid with stability when crossing. In this section, the author takes a second look at this history of crossing aids within New Zealand. Continuing with the earlier theme of the divergence between tramping and climbing, he notes that back-country visitors frequently carried long ice-axes which suited the purpose very well and even more suitably than the presently-common walking poles, but many trampers no longer carry ice-axes at all, whilst climbers now often carry shorter instruments that are less appropriate as crossing aids. With further analysis he concludes that there could be room for a new variation of product based on more light-weight materials, able to be lengthened or condensed in size.

There’s no doubt that golden rules about river encounters still apply. If a river is in a flooded state then it’s typically a bad idea to get into it at all, and from its above-linked response, the potential that people might be falsely encouraged to attempt a rope crossing where none should be attempted at all, and that ropes might somehow make an unsafe flooded crossing “safe”, is clearly one of the issues that the Mountain Safety Council is concerned about when it decides what to recommend and how to arrange its training. Portable shelter is easy enough to carry these days that there should be no excuse for endangering oneself and friends by entering a river without waiting for the water level to go down.

That said, I found it an interesting topic and the author’s loosened some of the ideas that had previously been strongly glued into my head regarding rope use. For one thing I think I’d like to learn more about rope crossing techniques when the opportunity arises, even if only to more clearly understand where they might be appropriate and what the likely dangers are. For anyone wanting to learn about river safety, I’d strongly recommend attending one of the MSC’s River Safety Courses, either directly or through a club that utilises its training material. Get into rivers in controlled conditions with experts nearby, ask lots of questions and get used to them. Despite the controversy that this article has raised and where it might or mightn’t lead for future techniques, there’s no substitute for that kind of training and experience.

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