A Few Thoughts About Trip Planning

A Few Thoughts About Trip Planning, by Rich Phillips

A recent trip that had its share of issues, both minor and major, caused me to do some thinking about trip planning and management.  A few of those ideas seem worth sharing.

1. When you're assembling your crew, in addition to how the group will mesh for three weeks, give at least a few minutes thought to if/how they would be able to cope with demanding physical tasks, like righting a heavily loaded 18' boat.  It's nice to have a well-experienced crew of old-timers.  But, it's also good to have a few young, strong folks along who can add muscle to the task.  When time might be of the essence, you can't depend on some other trip coming along and helping you.

2. In that connection, consider what it will mean to the trip if someone's physical infirmities seriously reduce that person's ability to perform.  (This is something that I dwell on a bit more now at age 66 than I did when I started boating.)  Of course, there is no way to know if someone is going to have a serious health problem while on a long trip in a remote locale,– no more than you will know if a serious accident will incapacitate someone.  But the reality of this issue came to me on this year's trip, when I unexpectedly experienced a recurrence of a serious auto-immune condition that had been dormant for 20 years.  (I joked that I'd have to duct tape my swollen hand and fingers to the oars so I could get through Lava.)  Rowing a 20' cat with a lot of group gear, a boat that no one else on the trip could readily have taken over, meant I was not easily replaceable.  So think along those lines for just a moment when working up the trip roster.

3. As we get older, situations like that inescapably take us to a decision point about not just how much risk we personally are willing to take.  But in my case, it also raised thoughts about how much collateral damage would have resulted to others on the trip if I hadn't been able to continue to perform.

Another example:  Three years ago, on a three boat, three person trip, one of the boatmen experienced a serious and debilitating recurrence of an old health problem, well below Phantom.  It subsided in a day, as he predicted from past experience.  But had it not abated, and had evacuation had been necessary, there would have been no other boatman to take over.  We would have been faced with either towing his boat and letting it ghost through the rapids, or de-rigging it, redistributing it and all his gear onto the remaining two boats, and somehow finishing the trip in a much different mode than we had planned.  Likewise, if I hadn't been able to slow down my auto-immune flareup this past year, my disability would have rippled through the rest of the group, likely negating a great deal of their enjoyment.

Yes, we all need to be prepared for the unexpected.  But there's a balance somewhere between my personal comfort level with risk-taking and how much potential infringement my frailties might place on others.  And as I get older, that balance point has noticeably shifted, sad to say.

4. This leads to a related topic: How to recruit one or more folks who are capable of rowing competently in a backup role, but are willing to be passengers most of the time.

Some trips launch without any solid backups in case one of the boatmen goes out of commission.  From what I just described above, I've been guilty of that myself.  Of course, most experienced boatmen will not readily sign on for sitting down for a GC trip; they want to be rowing.  Offering timeshare rowing duties is one possibility.  Often an answer is, "Well, we can put Wendy or Jack on the oars if we have to, and they can learn on the fly."  It works in many cases, but it's not without a risk of non-acceptance.

5. Here is another lesson from this past year.  When that very heavily loaded boat is upside down, you may not be able to get to the sat phone you carried on it because you thought that boat was the least likely to flip.  Not many groups are going to carry multiple sat phones on separate boats.  Yes, eventually some other group may come by with a phone.  In a situation where there is some urgency and you can't get to the phone right away, alternate means of signaling are still useful.

Aircraft radios are still effective in notifying authorities there is a serious problem on the river.  I've carried one for years with no more use than a radio check at the local airport before a trip,– never thinking I'd have to use it. However, this year it enabled me to contact a helpful Southwest Airlines pilot within 10 minutes.  He relayed our situation to the Park.  As it turned out, the time it took us to get organized to re-flip the boat and get to our sat phone was not critical.  But knowing the Park had been notified seemed to provide a huge psychological lift to us, particularly since we didn't know if the phone would still be there, or would be operable once we reached it.

6. If you have battery powered emergency equipment, make sure it's fully charged and that you have a spare battery.  'Nuff said.

7. Another piece of equipment I carried for a long time and never really thought I'd use was a rope-type come-along.  In our situation, righting a fully loaded, very top-heavy 18 footer, we found it quicker and easier to rig and use than a Z-drag (for which I still have a separate rescue kit for smaller jobs).

8. Along with that, consider who is carrying major rescue equipment, and how you'll get to it, if it's on the upside down boat.  I carry my come-along, pulleys, carabiners, slings, and a long static rope in an elongated waterproof case that is strapped (cross-wise between the tubes) to the rear frame of my big cat.  That way I can get to it even if the boat is upside down.

9. This last point won't be for everyone, for a lot of reasons.  But, a motor rig can be an immense help in rescue operations.  This last trip had three occasions when people were out of a boat.  In each case, if our lead boat had been motorized (and our original plan was for me to run a motor on my 20' cat), recovery of the swimmers and the boats would have been much easier and quicker.  And, given the risks of hypothermia and other injuries while swimming (we had two folks out of a boat at the top of Hance, who swam a good portion of the right side), the quicker you can get someone out of the water the better.  A properly powered motor rig deployed as a safety boat is ideal for this kind of rescue/recovery.

Here's hoping this will provide some useful food for thought as you plan your upcoming trip.

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