Thoughts about river safety issues

The flooded Waiohine River
The Waiohine River in flood,
seen from Totara Flats.
It’s probably not a good idea to
attempt a crossing.

In the past few days there’s been another river crossing tragedy in New Zealand, this time at Eggie. Once again, as often seems to be the case, it sounds as if it was someone quite experienced who may have simply made a bad judgement call about whether or not to try and cross, possibly distracted by the bad weather, as well as the thought of being so close to home compared with possibly having to spend another night out.

Drowning accidents are one of the most common ways for people to be killed in New Zealand’s back-country, especially after cases of hypothermia have fallen with the advent of better gear for keeping warm. This is why, I guess, it seems a good idea for anyone who goes tramping a lot to get properly educated in river safety, and to get as much experience as possible. I’ve been working on trying to learn about river safety for a while now, partly through experience and I also signed up to a river safety course about 18 months ago. I’m still nowhere near being an expert, but I’ve noticed a few things I find interesting.

Note that in this post I’m writing about river crossings, and it’s entirely my own opinion. I’m not a qualified instructor (or even notably experienced) and what follows is definitely not authoritative. If you’re interested in learning about river safety, you should consider taking a course taught by an expert. If you’re in New Zealand then a good place to start is New Zealand’s Mountain Safety Council, or a club in your area.

A while ago I was on a club trip and we needed to cross a river, which often happens. This time it had rained overnight and although it wasn’t completely flooded, the river was more aggressive than usual and I quickly made up my mind that there was no way that I was going to get into it by myself. Fortunately this sentiment was shared by others, and we decided to do a group river crossing.

We had to back out of the first attempt. On that occasion I’d linked up on the right-hand end of a line of three people, facing into the current. I was caught unaware because the guy to my left, who was from another group and didn’t know us well, had reached for where the clip was on my hip-belt and it immediately came undone. He seemed as surprised at me having such a clip as I was surprised that he’d tried to grab my hip-belt at all. We eventually figured out that instead of whatever he’d been trying to do, he’d slot his arm between my pack and my back, which had been what I was expecting anyway, and we continued. We managed to get about a metre into the river before having to return to the bank, partly because on the end of the line with an uneven surface, I was having a difficult time finding my footing around some rocks. We eventually made it over in a group of 6, continuing to debate the technique quite vigorously as we were crossing, even though it was probably far too late by that time. So far I have to admit that’s the freakiest experience I’ve had when crossing a river. Although it still turned out okay, I was very relieved when we made it to the other side. Perhaps the best kind of good luck is the kind that you learn something from.

As I mentioned earlier, I took a River Safety course in early 2007, which relayed the current techniques (at that time) being promoted by New Zealand’s Mountain Safety Council. Please don’t actually try to do this unless you know what you’re doing or you’re with people you trust, and if you think I have this incorrect then please post something below and I’ll do my best to correct it, but the basic technique is as follows:

A group of 3 to 5 people (an ideal group size), should stand in a line with one end of the line facing into the current, and with arms linked between backs and packs. Hip-belts are fastened because as long as everyone has a pack liner (which they should), the packs will float people if and when the river gets too deep. Sternum straps are undone because if and when pack-floating begins, people’s packs will lift up and a sternum strap could potentially choke you or cut into your throat. Ditching your pack is something that can be done quickly if absolutely necessary by unclipping the hip-belt — apparently some people even cut off part of their clip to make it even easier to unfasten quickly. Doing this is generally supposed to be an absolute last resort, though, because packs typically offer a lot of protection in a river.

The weakest (or lightest) person goes on the end facing directly into the current, with the strongest person next to them, and everyone else lines up behind them in the shadow of the oncoming current. If the weakest person isn’t confident with being on the end, it may be necessary to re-arrange things. One person, ideally near the centre, coordinates the group by telling everyone what to do, and ensures that everyone stays in a straight line and in the correct orientation during the move forwards. This can be complicated if the ground’s surface is uneven, so everyone has to be prepared, both mentally and physically, to take things as slowly as necessary and to make sure everyone in the group is happy to move every step. There are several techniques for backing up if it turns out the current is too strong, beginning with a simple walking backwards, or alternatively performing a special technique which I think is called “the zipper” (if I remember correctly), and entails a careful and coordinated turning of the line mid-river such that everyone ends up facing back to where they came from.

The unusual trick with this technique of crossing, which can seem counter-intuitive at first, is having the weakest person on the end facing into the current. This contrasts a common variation, which is to place the strongest person on the end into the current. In the technique described above, the weak person on the end is there entirely to break the force of the river, and to make it considerably easier for everyone in their shadow to stay on their feet. Meanwhile, the stronger people in the group have a much easier time in moving the group forwards. Effectively the light person on the end could have their feet completely off the ground, held up by the stronger person next to them, and get a free ride to the other side. They’re fine, as long as they’re not released (accidentally or otherwise)… which is why it’s important to have someone strong holding onto them.

Despite having been in lots of rivers since I took the course, including several group crossings, I haven’t yet experienced a textbook group crossing that matched the techniques we were taught. This might be because I tend to stick to the lower North Island. With a few exceptions, most rivers in the Tararuas and Ruahines stay relatively low unless they’re seriously flooded, in which case nobody should be going near them whether in a group crossing or not. I think another reason why I haven’t experienced a textbook group crossing is that despite the currently promoted techniques being “current”, it’s uncommon for everyone to be up-to-date. This can be seen just by looking at the wide variety of literature on the topic, both from home and abroad. People also vary a lot in skill, experience and intuition of rivers. I’ve been near the occasional river for which my first impression has been that it looks quite risky, yet someone else who I’m with will cross it easily with their trusty walking pole before I’ve finished considering my strategy, as if it’s no problem to them at all.

A few months ago I picked up a book in The Warehouse called The Outdoor Book for Adventurous Chaps (by Adrian Besley) that was reduced to $8 on a bargain shelf. The book’s aimed at a North American market and had sections on all kinds of things, with one section explaining how to cross a river. The technique described in this book is one that’s nothing like I’ve ever encountered before. It suggests that groups of 4 people should hug each other in a kind of circle for stability, with the strongest person facing into the current but being shielded by the others in front of them. In contradiction to what I’ve heard everywhere else, it also suggests undoing all pack straps to make it easier to remove one’s pack in case of an emergency.

Closer to home, Water Safety New Zealand provides a website dedicated to River Safety, complete with a page all about river crossing techniques, which once again contradict other advertised methods when it comes down to some of the details.

Hans Willems (author of such interesting works as North Island Back Country Huts and North Island Back Country Dunnies) describes several techniques in his Tramping Smarter book — which is a beginner’s guide to tramping in New Zealand. One technique involves linking arms in a line while holding a pole to keep the line straight. Another technique (if a suitable rope is available) sends one person over the river at a time, making sure the rope is always anchored in some way by at least two people. The author quite correctly also warns readers not to start using the techniques based simply on the description in a book. This is important because, for instance, using a rope incorrectly can also add other elements of danger such as creating a situation where someone might get tangled up and held underwater. In fact, Water Safety New Zealand goes as far to proclaim on this page that “while ropes may appear to be a good life saving device, unless you have had extensive training it is dangerous to have them in rivers”.

I have to admit that early on I was surprised that there wasn’t simply a clear message about “how to cross a river”. When I first began to learn what I could about river crossing techniques, I’d assumed that the whole thing would surely be very standardised by now. People must have been trying to cross rivers for millenia, and the fact that respected authorities are still debating and discovering techniques for doing so is an intriguing thing.

There are often contradictions between what is advised by organisations between different domains, between countries, and especially by independent people who simply have experience. Add to this that in the space of decades, recommendations groups have changed, sometimes quite dramatically. The idea of putting a light person on the end of a line simply to break the current is a relatively new idea, as is the “zipper” idea that I mentioned for more safely turning the group around mid-river. This means that even for people who have had some formal training, a person’s belief about the correct way to cross a river will often be a reflection on the time when they received that training, especially if they mostly go out on their own or in the same small group of friends.

Underlying the contradictions, however, there are many similarities which transcend specific techniques for getting across. For instance, virtually anyone I know who’s experienced around rivers would advise that it’s silly to even try crossing rivers in certain flooded states because it’s too dangerous. The occasional person, even some very experienced people, won’t follow their own advice for the usual reasons, but nearly everyone will say that attempting to cross flooded rivers is a bad idea under any circumstances.

It seems that much of the skill of crossing rivers when using any system is about identifying when you shouldn’t be crossing at all, and being assertive enough to not try. Other important factors that lie outside the specific techniques include things like choosing an ideal location to cross, and assessing what’s likely to happen if one or more people get swept off their feet, possibly taking the group down with them. (In other words, where will you end up down-stream, and is there anything to stop you?) Irrespective of the technique for crossing, these are the sorts of things that I think predominantly come with experience rather than any kind of instruction, even though instruction is likely to be an important guide. There’s no match for experience, and from a personal perspective I think the experience angle is what I really have to work on at the moment. These days when I’m out with people, I make a point to try and ask them questions about the decisions they’re making.

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Changes to the creek outside
Triangle Hut after overnight rain.

Usually I think we’ve been perfectly fine and safe around rivers during trips that I’ve been involved in, and we’ve made good decisions. From time to time there’s a good experience that can be learned from, though. At these times, I think nearly all of the complications that have come up have been either directly or indirectly related to misunderstandings between the people involved. Common issues might be that people don’t necessarily understand what the overall plan is (which is exactly what happened when that guy grabbed the hip-belt of my pack causing it to come undone), when there’s no clear person leading the crossing, when not everyone clearly understands the intended role of themselves or others, when people are pressured into doing something they’re not confident of doing, and when it hasn’t even been made clear what the actual plan is. This assumes, of course, that there even is a plan. There’s more to it than just good leadership, too, since everyone has to take responsibility. In hindsight when I had concerns about the crossing conditions that I mentioned earlier, I probably should have taken aside the trip leader beforehand and discussed them.

I have often wondered if much of it is simply that there’s so much information out there which is inconsistent. Advised best practices change so frequently that it’s completely feasible to have four people in a party who all have different ideas about which way is “best”, and they’d all be correct in their own way. I’m not sure what can really be done about this because obviously it makes sense to keep examining whether current best practices can be improved upon. Furthermore with the evolution of available gear and technology that people have on-hand, it makes sense to expect that this may also have an effect on what are considered best practices in the future.

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