Monday, 22 September 2014

Swimming, flipping and guiding at altitude

I stepped off my Jetconnect flight at Leh airport and made my way onto the shuttle bus. I noticed a slight shortage of breath which was expected as I was an elevation of around 3500m. A quick thought popped into my head " If I am short of breath now whats it going to feel like when we run flip drills & swimming sessions".

The Zanskar & Indus rivers were to be my home for the next two weeks. During this time I was to run a 6 day International Rafting Federation safety craft, guide & trip leader workshop. Hosted by Tsering Chotak of Wet N Wild Explorations in Leh. After a day of acclimatization in Leh I packed my bags and headed to the Wet N Wild base camp. My first mission was to kayak the commercial one day rafting section of the Zanskar river. During this run I needed to take a close up look at the river in order to plan the course in more detail. 

The Zanskar river is a typical glacial canyon river with big volume rapids and funky eddy lines. The Zanskar was going to provide us with plenty of entertainment during the course.  

Day one kicked off with a typical meet & greet session. The workshop had 9 attendees from India,Nepal & UK. We had a mix of first & second season guides right the way through to seasoned Himalayan guides with a wealth of experience. I did notice an air of nervousness among the team as many of them had never attended any type of formal training course before. To ease the nervousness I wanted to get the team onto the water as soon as possible. As expected the technical rafting ability of the group was perfect as the team could put a boat anywhere I asked. Having run a few courses on big volume rivers before I knew this would be the case. I also knew that safety talks & the technical stuff was where I would need to focus my attention. The end of the day also was the start of 3 days non stop rain. 

The road the Zanskar was closed due to a landslide so opted to spend day 2 on the lower Indus river to allow the guides to strut their stuff on some class 4+. The less rafted lower Indus took the team out of their comfort zone of the Zanskar river and gave them something new to look at. The lower Indus provided us with some long continuous large volume rapids. We paddled 40km with some tedious flat sections, by the time we reached the takeout the team thought we were finished for the day! I then decided to finish the day with flip drills. For those who don't know the standard IRF flip drill it includes a swim to the raft where you must climb in and flip the raft. You must then climb back onto the flipped raft, count your crew, re flip the raft and climb back in. For most fit class 4-5 guides this should not take long. I decided to lead by example and give a demonstration. It wasn't until afterwards I noticed how tiring a flip drill at that altitude was. The rest of the team agreed with me. 

Day 3 was spent at the Nimu rapid based next to the Wet N Wild base camp. During our dry land morning session we took a look into setting up various rope systems and rope work. The outcome of this session was quite simple: all of the guides needed to be confidently able to rig a basic mechanical advantage system in order to tension a rope or to move a heavy load. After lunch we took to the water to cover whitewater swimming and throw bag exercises. Towards the end of the day we spent sometime exploring foot entrapment skills. The team came away from the session with a clearer understanding that not all rescues need to be over complex, a simple approach is often safer and quicker. 

Day 4 started with a few tired looking faces but at least the sun was back out. Today we moved onto the class 3 lower volume section of the middle Indus river. We got to utilize the safety kayakers more. The group got to try various methods of getting a line across the river. We also set up tensioned diagonals & some mechanical advantage systems. The guides were starting to gel as a team and were starting to operate really well.

Day 5 
The sun was out, the road was open so we were back on the Zanskar river. Today was the scenario day. The safety kayakers were given opportunities to rescue multiple panicking swimmers. We also looked at dealing with unconscious swimmers from a kayak. The trip leader candidates were given 1 hour to solve a scenario including multiple swimmers, flipped rafts and all types of carnage including the decision to evacuate or not. The day was completed with a group evacuation exercise. The loose scree and relentless midday sun of the Zanskar tested the patience off all involved.

Day 6  
This gave us the opportunity to re visit any areas that the team wanted to look at. We tackled the IRF written paper and got stuck into the debriefs. All of my debriefs had the same theme, keep up the good work, carry the correct equipment & practice, practice, practice!

By the end of the week the group were tired (so was I) but the team achieved the following and all walked away with  
  • 2 class 4-5 trip leaders 
  • 5 class 4-5 guides 
  • 1 class 3 guide 
  • 1 trainee guide 

All of the candidates also gained an IRF safety craft award. 

My next courses will run on 1-5th December on the Marsyangdi river in Nepal. If last years course will be anything to go by it's going to be a blast.

Happy paddling,


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