Words rocketed across the internet, showing up on message boards and Facebook statuses. RIP. SYOTR (See you on the River). Panic and questions flooded the kayaking community as people were trying to figure out how such a respected paddler could lay lifeless in a terminal hole on a river he called home. Heated discussions about gear hazards, weather variables and paddling companions dominated discussions in the weeks to follow.
I was a young kayaker at the time, only in the sport a few months, experiencing what I would find out was my first of many deaths in activities that bring such life to us all. As any passionate new comer in a sport, I had questions. We ascertain a certain risk when we involve ourselves with adventure sports. The emotional tornado that bombards us after death needs to be talked about. The decisional balancing process of risk versus reward of our beloved sports cross all of our minds after the passing of someone we know. Because we partake in risky sports does not mean we can’t minimize the impact of risk.
Often people tell me I am fearless, that I would do anything. This is a misconception of who I am. I realize the activities that I do involve a certain amount of risk. I know that my zest for life comes with a grave cost for some. I have learned throughout my recovery, and my life that I need to talk to others about death, and learn from veterans in my activities.
Risk in adventure sports can be greatly reduced by making responsible choices. There are several factors that need to be taken into consideration to become an old adventurist.
KNOW WHO YOU ARE WITH
We all want to get out there and have fun, and sometimes we look for anyone we can to join in. In the kayaking community we often hook up with new people at a put-in of a river and do the pre-river interview. This is also done in the skydiving community before jumping with someone new. What rivers have you paddled? How many jumps do you have? I hear the questions all the time and also have asked them myself, however, we often miss the important questions that go unasked. I realized this when I drove 3 hours to paddle a river with a group of guys. I had never met them before, and as I asked some questions, I realized they may not have been as skilled as their “resume” indicated. I asked if anyone had a throw bag and one gentleman said he had a bag with a rope in it. I chose to drive 3 hours home and not paddle that day.
Instead of asking how many jumps some has, ask them what they focus on most, or what have they done on their jumps. Instead of asking what river they have paddled, ask how often they paddle, or what class rapid they feel most comfortable. There is a difference between paddling a river and surviving a river. Find out the true nature of what someone does and not just their Gnar points they have received.
KNOW YOUR SAFETY PLAN
I sat with one of my skydiving mentors after a weekend of doing big-ways and discussed safety plans. We had 15 people on each jump, and one jump, as I tracked away from the group to get separation to safely deploy my parachute, there was someone right near me. I chose to track a little farther and deploy at the minimum 2500 feet. Opening lower meant that if there was something wrong with my main canopy, how I handled it would be different than if I opened up higher and had more time. I would immediately go to my reserve.
Having safety plans on a river are essential. Setting up safety in rapids is, as of late, seen as “uncool” or there is no need. Safety is needed not when we expect it, but when an accident happens. A mistake. An unexpected turn of events. If safety was set up, it could be the difference between life or death.
Talk about safety, and not in the term of what safety breaks currently are. Know the safety plan of your group, or fellow adventurists, and if they don’t have one, either find others that do or work together with someone seasoned and figure one out. Safety is joked about enough in our outdoor communities, and should also be talked about in a serious manner as well. Especially to new people in our sports. The saying, “you don’t know what you don’t know” doesn’t mean its ok to be naive, it means that the people that do know have a responsibility to demonstrate and teach safety.
Safety also includes how we personally help or hinder a rescue situation. As a kayak instructor and enthusiast, I own a fleet of kayaks. Some days I feel like jamming myself in a tiny Jitsu playboat, and other days my Nomad 8.5 will beast through anything. I have always been told to dress for success, which means if I am brining a newer boater out or newer group, I should know a small boat would make helping someone quite challenging, and could put me in a compromised situation. I need to think not just of what I want to do on a river, but what is the safest and best for the group I am paddling with that day
KNOW YOUR GEAR!
Gear fear is one of the most inhibiting part of sports. So many have use gear or rely on gear that they do not understand or are knowledgeable of. Knowing how gear works could be the difference in saving your life or others, or not. I was climbing out in Kentucky once with some friends. It is not uncommon in the climbing community to share ropes if a few different people have a top rope set up on a climb. We had just led our route, built the anchor and set up the rope for our other friends who didn’t lead. A group of climbers beside us asked if we wanted to swap routes with them when we were done as they just set up a top rope on another route. We said sure! As I sat there watching our climbers, I began to inspect their anchor system. Something looked off. I stood up and took a closer look and realized that they were not using the correct webbing for an anchor, and their system was not backed up in any way, a huge no-no in climbing.
I would not have known this if I did not know gear and what the correct way to use gear was. We politely declined. I also told them politely they may want to check their anchor system.
Due diligence in having information yourself could save your life. Always leaving it up to someone else to know, or be the “expert” could put your life in danger.
TRUST YOUR GUT
And finally, the most important part of staying safe in our adventures, is to trust your gut. That feeling inside, the little voice that says not to do something; that lets us know deep within, something is very wrong. Trust this. It’s telling you some of the most useful information. We all know when something is off, when those little things start to go wrong, but we shrug them off. We all have a tendency of talking ourselves out of trusting the most vital piece of information that we can get. Figuring out how to get in tune with our gut instinct and then listen is the single most important skill in staying safe in the outdoors.
Never think you are overreacting, and never second guess your decision to step away. Also, don’t ever give someone else a hard time who chooses to portage a rapid, or sit out on a climb. There is one little saying that I live by. When in doubt, chicken out. This saves my life. This could save yours.