Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Rafting on the roof of the world. An IRF Instructor workshop at 3500M In the Indian Himalaya

As I walked down the steps on to the Tarmac at Leh airport that familiar feeling of been short breath as  the altitude hit me. This weeks 7 day  international rafting Federation  workshop was to be based at the base camp of Wet N wild explorations in Nimoo at the altitude of 3500M above sea level on the banks of in lower Indus & Zanskar rivers.

For those unfamiliar with the Northern Indian town of Leh part of the Ladakh region  in the Northern Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir. Let me explain a little :

 First off there is very little humidity due to the altitude 3500M. So expect your lips & skin to start drying immediately.

Second: Ladakh is the sunniest state in India. The Sun in Ladakh is harsh and brutal (My hands  look like they aged 40 years since my last post. We were going to spend 7 days on the water so the sun is intensified by the waters reflection.

Third: The altitude of 3500m affects you. The thin mountain air make the simplest of tasks become breathless ordeal. Standing up quickly or bending down to tie your shoelaces can leave you breathless & dizzy. I have often experienced waking up at night out of breath with a short feeling of suffocation.

This was to be my third trip to the area. I knew that the students on the course were in for a shock.

I had been planning this workshop since February. 7 Months later we were almost ready for the off. The students had started to arrive in the camp. This workshop had a true international flavor. The course was made of  a team of guide who had travelled  from the following countries.
India, Bosnia, UK, Spain, Russia, Argentina, 
The workshop was to be run by myself from the UK & Gaspar from Hungry.
This workshop was going to a mixture of global experience. Secretly I could not wait to let the action begin.

As I have mentioned many times before it is very rare that a guide can present themselves for an IRF assessment  and be polished in all areas of raft guiding. As per the popular trend for this year  I had combined the first 3 days of the workshop with Rescue 3 Europe Whitewater rescue technician Professional certificate (WRT PRO)

WRT day Theroy session
The first 3days of the course were gong to be spent looking at the whitewater rescue skills of the guides and preparing them for the final 4 days of assessment on the course. The WRT gave the guides a chance to update or lean new rescue skills. The WRT also played another silent role. It was allowing the guides to work together as a team and create a working relationship that would help them during the IRF trip leader emergency scenarios.
The International team soon bonded and became close Knit 

Gabby & Dave working through MA systems 

We based the first 2 days of the WRT on the rapid next to the Wet & Wild explorations a 100m long big volume class 3 rapid  on the lower Indus river. We kicked off the first morning in the classroom discussing the Rescue 3 philosophy & rescue theory along with communications & personal equipment.   

We ventured out on to the water to look at whitewater swimming technique. I could hear the guides quietly laughing at me when I gave them a very simple 70M class 2 swim. The laughs were soon gone when the students realized how cold the water was. Each of the students completed the swim the local Indian guides were shivering due to the lack of quality PPE (personal protective equipment) available to them. The International guides mostly had drysuits but were gasping for breath as the altitude was teaching them a lesson. 
The Mid day heat was so hot even the instructors had to cool off

The learnings from the mornings theory lesson were starting to ring home. When working in whitewater at altitude the Self, Team, Victim,  rescue  priorities were ringing big loud bells. 
We continued through the next 2 days working through the WRT syllabus.
We completed day one with a basic ropework session looking at the knots needed for river use.

Double swimmer rescues

Day 2 started with shallow water work and some rescue scenarios. We spent the afternoon looking at pinned boats and mechanical advantage. The team were really starting to gel together now. The instructor candidates were starting to show there experience coaching the less experienced students on Mechanical advantage and ropework skills
On the evening of day 2 we looked at night operations. We discussed search theory along with night rescue operations. I then set up a night search scenario  by hiding some willing volunteers around and in the river all of the first 2 days learnings were put into practice. After the search exercise we focused throwbag exercises in the dark. 

The final day of the WRT was spent looking at the use of a raft in a rescue along with tensioned diagonals. All of the students were now qualified Rescue 3 Whitewater Rescue Technicians.

Day 4 was the first day of the 4 day IRF workshop. Gaspar had joined me as the numbers were high we had 11 students ranging from instructor candidates through too 1st year guides. Gaspar was also observing how I delivered the workshop as I myself am working through the pathway to become an IRF assessor.

The first morning  was spent assessing the throwbag & flip drills. I had already assessed the swimming & ropework skills during the WRT section beforehand. Both myself & Gaspar set up 2 work stations I ran the flip station & Gaspar ran the throwbag station. This way we were both able to keep all of the students active. All of the foreign student mentioned that the flatwater standard IRF flip drill was a challenge at this altitude.

During the afternoon of day 3 we looked at the use of a kayak in a raft operation as we focused on the safety craft assessments. The non kayaking students got to spend some extra stick time coaching with Gaspar whilst I put the safety kayakers through there paces. We looked at dealing with multiple & panicked swimmers. The students also go to look at how to deal with unconscious swimmers from a kayak. the students also got to experiment with taking control of a guileless raft they practiced using vocal commands along with manipulating the rafts position with there kayaks and ultimately exiting there kayaks into a raft to take control
 of the situation.

Flip drill time 

Days 5 & & were spent based on the Lardo class 4 rapid on the big volume  lower Indus river. Lard was also the venue for the recent High altitude ladakh river festival. Lardo is a 200m Big volume class 4 rapid with multiple lines each with interesting consequences if the line is missed. The next 2 days were going to be spent looking at class 4 rafting skills and trip leader emergency scenarios. It was interesting to watch the guides step up when we asked who wanted to guide lardo first. Once the lines had been run a few times confidence levels raised amoungst the students.  

Both myself and Gaspar agreed that we wanted to have a large element of practical rafting skills included in the TL scenarios as any potential scenarios on lardo would be dynamic in nature and would involve customers / victims spread out over a large area. We took turns to set up an assess each scenario. we had 2 days to  run 9 trip leader scenarios. Each scenario had complex issues which were both fun to set up and a learning experience for the students. 
Some of the subjects covered in the scenarios were. 
  • Multiple mid stream stranded swimmers. 
  • Non English speaking stranded swimmers 
  • Lost customers 
  • flipped rafts 
  • Hypothermic  customers 
  • Entrapped customers
  • Customers with shoulder dislocations 
  • Non co operative customers 
The Students did really good jobs in managing the scenarios. The key learning points were. 
  • In a emergency scenario the trip leader needs to be a strong leader with good communication & Delegation skills. 
Once a emergency scenario has been dealt with a good trip leader should debrief the whole team quickly to re gain group control and re motivate the customers. 

Strong communication is a must from trip leaders 

Day 7 was spent observing each of the instructor candidates delivering a 20 minute theoretical classroom based session. The guide & trip leaders had selected the topics that they wished to see a presentation on. Many of the Instructor candidates delivered very interesting presentations. The key learning points for the instructor candidates were.
  • Give your talk a structure (Introduction, activity,summary).
  • Position your students in a style where learning can be maximized. 
  • Don make your subject to big (Keep it simple) 
  • Use as many visual aids as possible involve the students as much as possible).

The workshop was a great successes for all involved. The IRF now has new provisional Instructors from Uk, 
india &Russia.  We have a host of new trip leaders, guides and safety kayakers from India,Spain,Ecuador. A warm heart felt thanks to Chotak & the team from Wet n Wild explorations In leh India and to the candidates for making the workshop a great learning environment.
See you on the river 

All Pictures 
Mark Hirst, Anton Sveshnikov

Mirko Davidovic 

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Is the color of your helmet important?

"Mark fu@k!n go get him" Me " I would if I could bloody see him. Iceland 2010 Godafoss waterfall. 
We were a group of kayakers ( all raft guides too ) Taking a day off and Paddling the famous Godafoss waterfall in Iceland. 

For those who dont know Godafoss it is a horse shoe shaped waterfall with multiple lines. ranging from 3m to 12m in height A popular tourist destination the ultimate park & huck spot I would say. 

We had been warming up on the small 3m drop when we noticed 2 kayakers  on the opposite bank lining up to run the 12m drops. We watched as the first kayaker who ran the fall pretty clean. The second kayaker ran the fall quite quickly afterwards and went deep. Counting in my head  I knew that once I had counted past 6 there was trouble. As he had failed to re surface  I felt the Adrenalin starting to kick as I took the calm down breath all in the same second 

Although we were not with the other kayakers we were there only possibility of rescue for at least the next 6 hours. There are not many water rescue teams in Northern Iceland. 

Both Myself & karu a Nepali Kayaker jumped into our kayaks and went to try and help. The kayaker had been missing for around 5 Minutes by the time we got to the bottom of the drop. I remember shouting  to Karu as we paddle across the pool "dont rush in lets take care of each others safety first"

We both paddled to the PLS (Point Last Seen) and saw nothing. I looked up to literally see hundreds of tourist reaching for mobile phones to make emergency calls. I tried to remember what kit he was wearing I remember seeing a black cag and a white helmet. ( Not much contrast with whitewater & Black rocks. I could not get any type of visual reference.

Eventually we heard a scream from behind the drop as he jumped out from behind the fall where he  trapped. The panicked swimmer grabbed our kayaks and we towed him to safety  (phew) I was right white helmet & Black cag.

Isere river France 2016 the white helments are had to see in this envirom
Working as a guide & safety kayaker over the years I have been involved in lots of rescues of swimmers both from rafts & kayaks. The amount of times i have said to my self I cannot see them mainly because of the color of there helmet. from my own experience I have noticed that there are a few colors that are hard to see in moving water they are. 
Bosnia 2017 The Blue / Green helmet is hard to see 
  • White 
  • Black 
  • Brown 
  • Black 
  • Blue
  • Green 
  • Grey 
My question is why are the manufacturing companies using these colors. I have found that the following colors are much easier to see and track when chasing a swimmer through big water. 
Spot the swimmer IRF workshop Thailand 2017

  • Orange 
  • Red 
  • Yellow
  • Pink 
  • Luminous green / yellow.
Much easier to see . Tara river 2017 

For those that work around the emergency services we tend to know that the color of your helmet represents the level of your training. 
  • White = I/C or person in charge. 
  • Red = Technician level  trained. 
  • Yellow = Responder level trained.
Isere river High water 2016

A really good trend I am starting to see within the commercial rafting industry are companies using   different color helmets  for customers with certain needs eg 
  • Red helmets for non swimmers or nervous customers. 
  • Orange helmets for customers with medical conditions
This way guides & safety kayakers are able to help the above mentioned a little quicker in a situation if needed. 

Of course the color of the helmet is great during the day light but what happens if you get stuck out on the river once it becomes dark ?.

How are you going to see your friends & customers?

For a Few years now I have been providing students on my courses with branded  SOLAS (Save our Lives at seas) stickers SOLAS material is highly reflective and recognized by coast guards and marine industries all over the world. Stickers can be Purchased from to your own custom design 

Morocco 2017
Morocco 2017

Next time it comes to purchasing a new helmet take a second to think about not only the design but the color too.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Over the boarder and back to the snow

Finally having been on the road delivering courses since late March I got to spend some time at home in Finland. June 5th -11th had been in my diary for months for a 7 day IRF Guide training program combined with a Rescue 3 Europe Whitewater Rescue Technician Professional course based at the ideally located Basecamp Oulanka, on the shores of the beautiful Kitkajoki river, in the land of the Midnight sun.

I arrived home in the south of Finland for few days rest before the 9 hour drive northeast to Basecamp. This gave me time to make some lesson plans and prepare for the workshop. Miia told me to check the weather? I happily fired up my trusted weather website of trust to check the weather. Doh -1 degrees and snow, it was June for crying out loud as I reached for my dry suit & extra thermals.

The course was based just outside the Arctic circle in the village of Juuma. June in Finland is normally the beginning of summer and most of the snow and ice have melted. The rivers are at ideal levels and we are blessed with the Midnight Sun. During the drive north I realized this was not going to be the case. All of the lakes were still frozen & there was plenty of snow around still. The forecast for later in the week  was for highs of +25 degrees and sun. I thought to myself I won't hold my breath?.
The guys at Basecamp Oulanka had given me a really nice room and I unpacked my kit and prepared myself for a scouting  trip the next day.

After a quick breakfast I threw on an extra set of thermals under my drysuit and met Henri, the host for the workshop. We were also joined by some of the course participants as this was going to be the first trip down the river of the season. So not only did I need to re-familiarize myself with the Kitkajoki, we also needed to see if the winter had made any changes to the river. Before all of this could happen we had to brake a trail through the ice on the lake in order for us to get to the river. Easier said than done!

 The commercial section we were to paddle today was called the Wild route, a short section around 5km in distance. The trip begins on the Juuma lake and then make it's way down the beautiful picturesque canyon with the Myllykoski rapid class 2+ and the amazing 900m long Aallokkoski rapid before for a compulsory portage around the Jyrävä waterfall. The trip normally lasts for around 2 hours. One of the unique points about this run is that the trip almost completes a full circle leaving a 15 minute walk back to the base so no return transport needed as its' all done on foot.  

The Wild route is the most technical section of commercial whitewater in Finland. Rafting is not a huge sport in Finland so the rafting community is quite small and closed. With the lack of international experience throughout the years rafting trips are still operated the way they were 20 years ago, this includes equipment and approaches to river running and guide training. Hats off to Basecamp Oulanka for having the sight to see that things need to change. 
The checkout run went well, we even got to see an impressive snow bridge over the Jyrävä waterfall.

This weeks course was going to present me with 6 trainees & 2 trip leader candidates one of which (Nathan) had travelled all the way from Singapore to attend the course. The  course progressed the following way:

Day 1
The ice had slowly been melting so we had a bigger pool to practice our basic paddling techniques & commands. I am a big fan of spending some time on the flat water for the first day of a guide training programme. I feel it gives the students a chance to feel how a raft moves before you take it to the moving water. We also looked at safety talks before we got on the water. I delivered 2 examples of a safety talk. One of which was completed in silence to emphasize that actions speak louder than words. We then took to the Wild route to look at basic guiding and moving water skills. I got to test the skills of the 2 class 3 trip leader candidates (Nathan & Henri) on the Aallokkokoski section and they both did a really good job. The homework for day 1 was to learn the IRF river signals. I noticed them practicing these well into the night. 

Day 2
After watching Henri & Nathan give some really solid safety talks we took to the Wild route. The guides were starting to grow in confidence which was heartening to watch. A visit from the local press in the afternoon gave us the chance to look at swimming skills. Having spent 8 seasons working in Iceland as a guide I thought I was accustomed to cold water but I noticed that the water was freezing cold and I was happy that all of the students were in Ursuit drysuits. I made a mental note to myself to soften up a little and maybe start to use some neoprene gloves in my old age. That thought lasted as soon as I watched someone try to pack a throwbag wearing gloves. The local press were really interested in the course and produced an amazing article. Day 2 homework = safety talk planning.

Day 3
Off to Russia we go. The logistics on the Kitkajoki are not easy, every few days the guides need to transport the rafts 20km down the river to the nearest road on the border with Russia. I took the opportunity to give the guides as much stick time as possible so I made them R2 5 rafts down the river  and this enabled them a full day of stick time. We focused on eddy hopping, ferry gliding & river running strategies. The day started with ghosing the rafts down the Jyrävä waterfall. We stopped for lunch at a small fireplace in the Oulanka national park. The weather was now sunny and +18, the weather had changed at last.

Day 4
The morning session started with the candidates each giving a section of the pre-trip safety demonstration. The candidates had the choice to do this in Finnish or English. I had roped my partner Miia & her mother to be live rafting customers for the students to practice and this turned out quite well. During today I wanted to assess both Henri & Nathan for their class 3 trip leader awards. I set 2 challenging scenarios on the river which both included run away flipped rafts and various amounts of devious carnage. Both Nathan & Henri demonstrated strong trip leader capabilities when dealing with the scenarios, hats off to the guys.

Day 5
Today was the first day of the Rescue 3 component of the workshop.  My biggest selling product this year has been the combined IRF & Rescue 3 workshops and this was to be my 5th one since March. I like to keep both of the aspects separate. This way I can concentrate solely on the core: raft guiding skills on the IRF section of the workshop. I can then incorporate the remaining IRF rescue elements into the WRT component, including swimming, flipping, throw bagging, rope work. Both the IRF & Rescue 3 elements complement each other really well. Next year I am already planning advanced workshops combining WRT advanced with class 4 trip leader &  safety craft.

We spent the day working through the Rescue 3 philosophy, incorporating it into swimming & throw bag sessions and then into more complex situations including rescue harness release & tethered swimmer rescues.

Day 6
Today we looked at shallow water skills along with foot & body entrapments. After lunch we all spent some time on a simulated strainer exercise before finishing the day with a mechanical advantage class where we also completed the IRF rope work test.

Day 7
I was starting to feel it I have been running course nonstop since March, today I felt as tired as the students looked. Straight onto the water we spent the time looking at 2 point tethered rafts and tensioned diagonals along with line crossing techniques. The weather turned poor in the afternoon so we finished up the course by looking at the theory side of the WRT programme before the IRF written paper & final debriefs.
During the debriefs I wanted to focus on making the students realize that practice practice practice is the recipe for being able to move forward and gain more experience.I look forward to visiting Basecamp Oulanka next year to see the progression of the guides.

In the meantime congratulations to Henri, Nathan, Jessica, Maiju, Tiia, Janne, Markus, Miia, Kaisa & Ilkka, it was a pleasure to work with you.
Many thanks to Miia Komi & Basecamp Oulanka! 
Next week my travels will take me from the Arctic to the jungle in Thailand where I will get the opportunity to work some more with enthusiastic raft guides.
Happy paddling,


Sunday, 4 June 2017

Are you carrying the correct emergency equipment?

As we now find ourselves at the beginning of a Northern hemisphere season, a quick glance at various social media outlets are awash with various stories of epic high water runs and carnage.

Most of us will have been surrounded by snow all winter and are counting down the days until it begins to melt and all of our local runs start to rise for the season. During the winter you have found yourself watching countless amounts of online kayak porn with our minds mentally writing out mental cheques that we now want our body to pay off on. What can go wrong?

I noticed a comment  on social media the other day that California is finally experiencing a high-water spring. This quote sent a shiver down my spine 

“We are experiencing some of the highest levels in 10 years, a whole generation of kayakers have not experienced these rivers at these level before, its not pretty."

The next day I opened up my Facebook page and watched in horror some of the world's current well known expedition kayakers chase boating a swimmer down a tree infested run in flood. The life of the swimmer was at risk along with the team of accomplished kayakers that were chasing him.

Are we honestly thinking that we can not paddle all winter and pick up where we left off from last season? Are we not warming up on easier class runs first!

Let's imagine for a minute that a paddling buddy takes a swim and looses his or her boat and you both find yourselves stranded on the river. Help is going to be a good few hours away and long walk out. Worse case scenario you may even have to spend the night next to the river and wait for first light before you can hike out. To top it all off your buddy has badly twisted an ankle and is unable to walk.

The odds are now stacked heavily against you.

Do you have a back up plan & are you carrying the correct emergency kit if you need to spend a little extra time on the river?

Are you carrying the correct amount of emergency kit in your kayak to ensure your own personal safety and that of your injured friend ?
I do notice time and time again kayakers spending money on the latest kit: drysuit, kayak, paddle, PFD, sprayskirt and not investing in the correct emergency safety kit or training.
By simply investing  some time and money into the correct training and emergency kit you can rapidly re-stack the odds in your favor.
I personally carry the equipment below in the back of my kayak each time I go kayaking or if I am working as a safety kayaker on a commercial trip. The kit fits neatly into a watershed Ocoee drybag (besides my split paddle).

·         Samsplint
·         Headlamp / Maglite
·         Lightstick
·         Energy bars
·         Lighter, matches, kindling
·         Rescue saw
·         Leatherman / multi tool
·         Mobilephone
·         GPS/ SPOT device
·         Small first aid kit with note book and pen, water purification pills
·         Survival blanket / jacket
·         Woollen hat.
·         Group shelter (optional)
·         Duct tape
·         Spare split / breakdown paddle
·         Water bottle

Let's have a look at some of the items in detail and justify their inclusion.
Sam-splints are a lightweight reformable splint that can be used to splint a wide variety of injuries. Sam splints can also be cut and used in kayak repair or to block the drainage hole if you have lost your bung. Samsplint have some amazing tutorials on their website.

The ability to see and for others to see you is going to help you lots when it gets dark especially if outside help is needed. Hiking out when its getting dark will be a lot easier when you can see where you are going. A headlamp is also going to come in handy if you need to inspect a wound that needs treating or removing a foreign object from an eye.

The batteries on your headlamp or torch will eventually run out. A lightstick is a good back up. Military light sticks normally last for up to 24 hours & can make you even more visible to rescue teams.
Energy bars
Once the adrenaline has worn off you are going to need to eat in order to keep warm & restock energy levels. I like to carry both an energy bar and a drink solution as it will go further.

Lighters/ matches Kindling
Its getting dark and you are cold, wet & tired. You need heat & light, its time to get cracking on with building a fire. A fire will also provide you with a source of light that will make you noticeable to the emergency services. The task of simply building a fire will also keep your mind occupied whilst you are waiting for help. Lighters will also help if you a paddling in areas prone to leeches.

Rescue saw & Multi tool 
A very handy tool to deal with small trees blocking the river or worst case scenario getting through a piece of wood that is causing an entrapment of a paddling buddy. Also will come in handy if you have to make that fire or improvise a walking stick or stretcher for an injured paddler. The multi tool can be used for lots of tasks, it really is a must take piece of kit on all trips.

Mobile phone
If you have reception a phone is indispensable in an emergency situation . For those working in a commercial environment or providing first aid treatment the ability to film and record any treatment given may help you post incident if the courts become involved. I was once taught:
“No Notes, No defence”

GPS / SPOT device
As modern technology progresses satellite communication and tracking is becoming more accessible and most of all affordable. The ability to give someone your exact location or see a route out is going to help you lots. SPOT devises not only allow you to log your tracks they also offer an affordable way to contact emergency contacts or help when there is no mobile phone coverage.

First aid kit
The ability to support an injured limb, stop bleeding and dress a wound or give pain relief is a must. 

Survival blanket / jacket
The technology in survival blankets has increased 10 fold in recent years to the point where ultra marathon runners are now carrying modern survival bags instead of traditional sleeping bags. Foil based bags not only keep you warm & work in the prevention of hypothermia  they will also make you highly visible as they reflect the light. I personally use and recommend Blizzard survival blankets. If they are good enough for the Norwegian airforce and mountain rescue they are good enough for me.

Woollen Hat
2/3 of all body heat is lost through the head, if its going to be a long night you should try your best to keep warm.

Group shelter
Coming originally from the UK I cannot understand why the rest of the world have not started using group shelters. A group shelter weighs around 100grams and can keep people protected from the elements and provide shelter.  A rolled up group shelter can also work as a great improvised stretcher.

Pic Jon Gorman 

Pic Jon Gorman 

Pic Jon Gorman 

Pic jon Gorman 

Duct tape
Gaffa tape, Duck tape, Jesus tape say no more!

Spare paddle / Breakdown paddle
I am amazed to see the amount of kayakers with all of the latest bling kit and eventually loose their paddle I have carried a spare paddle for years. Luckily I have never had to use it myself. I have loaned it out to kayakers who have broken or lost their paddles multiple times. A split paddle can also be used as an improvised splint.

Water bottle
Its important to keep hydrated on a trip. I carry puritabs in my first aid kit. Nalgine water bottles are also water tight which means water cannot enter them so a perfect container for your first aid kit!

If you feel this is too much to carry on one person the kit could be split within a group of boaters. A good pre-trip plan & communication between team members will ensure that most eventualities can be catered for. All up my kit weighs less than 2kg.

Most of all practice,  practice, practice the following as one day you may need them:

- First aid skills and knowledge
- Fire making skills (in a controlled environment please)
- Navigation and electronic navigation skills
- Pre-trip planning and communication skills

Happy safe paddling! 
See you on the water,