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Rivers and Ropes and Mutual Support

I’ve written a little about river crossing techniques in the past [1], 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 [2]. 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 [3], 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) [4], 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.

8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "Rivers and Ropes and Mutual Support"

#1 Comment By gazza On 23 December, 2011 @ 2:25 pm


I have done some swift water rescue training a few (quite a few) years ago and found the use of ropes to be quite useful in certain situations. I can remember two uses (and I am sure theres a few more I have forgotten):

1) As mentioned in an article a person tied to a rope stands a good chance of being swung back into the river bank if they get swept off their feet.
2) A rope can be thrown and secured in such a way as to provide support and help free a person who gets pinned by the water because their feet have been trapped and they are being pushed over by the force of the water (I think theres a term for this situation but I have forgotten it)

That being said I wouldn’t feel confident in using a rope for either of those situations without some practice beforehand or a refresher course, preferably both. In addition I probably wouldn’t carry rope of significant width and length to be useful in either situation on a standard tramping trip.

In the end I would like to think I would simply choose not to cross a river where I suspect such techniques would be required.

#2 Comment By Mike McGavin On 23 December, 2011 @ 2:44 pm

Hi Gazza, thanks for the thoughts.

Pop quiz arising from your final sentence: With suitable training, do you think you’d be happy to cross a river with a rope in a typical situation in which you’d already think it reasonable to use mutual support? Or would a rope (even with the “right” technique) make it less safe?

I think part of his argument is that although some rivers are simply too dangerous to get into (and perhaps that doesn’t change irrespective of the method), using ropes correctly in situations when crossing is acceptable provides more safety than mutual support in the event that something goes wrong. A related one of his points was that if a river is “safe” to cross, why even bother to take these measures such as mutual support and/or ropes at all? (That exclamation would be, uh, section 1.e.2, titled “Hip belt grasp method” underneath his reference to the “North Canterbury Tragedy”.)

If the two techniques really are equal in all safety respects, then mutual support is probably more convenient because (as you’ve noted) it doesn’t require all the extra equipment to be carried.

This is just me speaking without any real river authority beyond a perpetual-student level.

#3 Comment By gazza On 23 December, 2011 @ 4:10 pm

Pop quiz answer: “maybe”

Assuming, based on my limited knowledge of rope stuff, that we are talking about the following situation:

“The crossing comprises of a combination of depth, river speed and unsecure footing that makes me believe that a solo crossing is unadvisable but a group mutual support crossing is do-able”

If I believed that there was adequate and safe run-out room for the rope to catch me and swing me into a safe landing spot I suppose I would consider a rope crossing as well (which I imagine as being someone I trust anchoring the rope while I cross, as I said there are probably other methods but the only other ones I can recall require someone having already gotten across to tie the rope to something solid).

The question I suppose is really “does a rope crossing allow a safe crossing in a circumstance where a mutual support method does not?”. I don’t consider myself knowledgeable enough to answer that question. I would assume that a mutual suppoet method offers greater stability and less chance of being swept away while a rope crossing offers a better recovery chance in the event you are swept away.

But all this is just speculation based on some training i did over 10 years ago, memory get rusty and techniques change.

#4 Comment By Stormy On 1 January, 2012 @ 9:37 pm

Having recently, (yesterday), undertaken several river crossings in Tongariro National Park between Mangaturuturu Hut and Whakapapa, I am firmly of the opinion that a rope would have been a significant asset on all of the crossings which required mutual support.

I was lucky enough to catch up with a group of four less experienced trampers with no river crossing experience who were attempting the first river individually and without footwear, after explaining the process of mutual support and going through a short training exercise we crossed all rivers slowly and without incident. I would consider these rivers to be in “low flood”, they were no deeper than mid thigh, usually around knee height and lower than other rivers I have encountered with more experienced people. What made them dangerous was the velocity of the water.

The key issue which immediately became apparent during the crossings was finding an area wide enough to walk 5 abreast or even 3 abreast through. It simply was not possible to find such a passage, large rocks blocked every crossing and getting around these rocks was a significant challenge for the group to shuffle around.

It was very timely to arrive home early this morning to find my copy of the FMC Bulletin in the post.

Being an experienced “rope user” (I am not sure what the correct term is for someone who has spent many years abseiling, rock climbing and mountaineering?) I am firmly of the opinion that using the rope method in these situations would of been significantly safer.

The use of a rope would have allowed the belayer to “lower” the fording member downstream so they could easily avoid the large boulders walking in the eddys behind them while providing the necessary support against the current.

While I do not believe that the rope method is suitable for all river crossings, I do believe that it has it’s place as a suitable support mechanism and should be taught as an alternative.

Principally I would agree that rope skills are a must to have for this. I would not give a rope to a novice and say belay me while I climb this cliff any more than I would trust them to belay me when I cross a river.

I long ago stopped carrying rope on my tramping expeditions, now I will be looking for a suitable one to carry.

#5 Comment By Jamie On 3 January, 2012 @ 11:06 pm

Nice post! It is certainly an interesting debate.

As someone who has learnt their rivercraft in the last 15 years I perhaps have an anti-rope bias…the teaching has worked well.

This discussion has made me think about situations when I might use a rope as an extra tool in my outdoors toolbox. After all there is no difference in the inherent value of risks taken climbing a mountain or crossing a river.

However, for beginner or intermediate courses, the current approach which focuses much more on where and whether to cross a river, rather than how, seems to be serving the purpose of keeping people safe.

#6 Comment By Amelia On 5 January, 2012 @ 9:32 am

A good discussion as always Mike!

I, too, have been in situations where crossing more than two abreast in a fairly well pumping river was not an option. Thankfully on most of those occassions it was just Mark and I, who know each other well enough to handle such a circumstance.
We had one trip, however, where after overnight rain, a stream crossing had become quite challenging (still doable though), and we wound up both standing in the stream for about 10 minutes to help a less experienced party across by showing them footing and being their “third leg” in effect. Hard work! But still faster than belaying individually with a rope.

Personally, I wouldnt carry a rope on a tramping trip, because you would also need other gear to go with it. But then I dont do back country epics where I am likely to come across rivers that cannot be crossed in mutual support very often.
Mutual support also has the advantages that it should be faster in most situations to actually get across (which is excellent in average weather – the less time the party spends standing around wet waiting for the rest to cross the better) and it is probably both easier to teach and to remember – as Gazza (who obviously has some experience) says above: its something you would need a refresher in on a regular basis as you probably wouldnt use it that often.

#7 Comment By Mike McGavin On 5 January, 2012 @ 7:55 pm

Hi-ho. Thanks for all the fantastic responses. (I’ve been distracted lately.)

@Stormy, thanks for the thoughts. If you’re looking for a suitable rope (of which I know nothing), Brian Wilkins (in his article linked above) identified a specific rope that he thought was really good because it’s relatively light, floats, and doesn’t absorb much water. He also pushed a system that involved a harness made of tape, which is something I’m still having trouble latching onto in my head but I guess that’s where training comes in.
Good point, @Jamie, about how the courses focus largely on safe places to cross. Obviously that’s an extremely important part of river safety that kind’a trumps a good crossing technique in many ways.

Mutual Support is certainly something that’s counter-intuitive for anyone who’s not seen it. Some months ago after I explained the gist of it, I ended up in [11] (scroll down on that page), and was eventually given a lecture by someone stating that it all sounded like something intended only for experienced “search and rescue personnel and, not for the rest of us Joes”, and that mutual support sounded “less like good stream crossing tips than a recipe for getting soaked, provided no one gets hurt”, followed by a lengthy explanation of how chaotic water could be and that a line with someone directing themselves into a battering ram position on the end to break the current might as well be a recipe for disaster, or something like that.

Certainly that’s a big reason why it’s important to get on a course and regular refreshers from time to time and find out what happens when things go wrong. In such a forum I suppose there would be some fundamental differences globally in things like typical river styles and common equipment. eg. New Zealand’s one of very few places, I think, where it’s common to have a reasonably large pack with a full-on waterproof pack liner that turns the pack into a flotation device, and this influences the recommended crossing techniques, even things like leaving hip-belts fastened so as to secure the mutual support, albeit whilst being ready to unfasten them if the pack becomes a problem.

Picking up on what Amelia said about needing a refresher on a regular basis, it reminded me of the comments I’ve often heard regarding rope use for climbing, in that people tend to lose the skills if they’re not using them (and so need a refresher from time to time if they’re in that group). Technical climbing is something that so far hasn’t interested me very much, except maybe the subset of skills that might be useful around glacier travel some day, but from time to time I’ve thought an AIC or other rope-style course could still be interesting just to help recognise when ropes are useful or essential, and as importantly when they’re of no use at all. I’m thinking the same about rope skills in rivers, and in some ways it’d be nice if the MSC did offer advanced courses that included water-based rope skills, partly to have a better understanding of rivers and what makes a rope safe(r) if it is used, and to some practical experience in a controlled environment of how horribly bad things can get when ropes go wrong.

And hey, as Jamie put it it’d be another item in the toolbox and maybe I’d use it some day, and I guess therein lies the danger that MSC seems concerned about, that teaching anything about rope techniques presents a risk of validating all rope use, and opens the likeliness that sooner or later, people (trained or not) will start using it badly and they’ll suffer for it.

#8 Comment By Mike McGavin On 24 March, 2012 @ 8:06 pm

The latest March 2012 issue of the FMC Bulletin has had a fair follow-up of this issue following its appearence in the November 2011 issue. The response includes a letter from Arnold Heine (page 8 ) and a Back-Country Accidents column by Johnny Mulheron (page 36). Both are generally positive about further research.

The March ’12 bulletin is not yet online, but eventually [2].