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River Crossings

By Allan Main - taken from the Chinook - June 2007

Two simpletons met by chance, each standing on opposite banks of a river. The first yelled, ‘How do I get to the other side?’ which was answered by the second simpleton, ‘You’re already there!’

- - - - -

You are hiking along, and you come to a river. (I will use the word “river” in this article, as though it means exactly the same thing as “creek”, “stream”, or any other description of a watercourse.) When you first look at it, you notice that there is no bridge in sight, and you’re trying to figure out how to get across. Is it potentially hazardous? How do you assess that hazard? Is there a rule of thumb that could be helpful? No two river crossing locations or experiences are exactly the same, but I’ve put together some things I’ve learned, seen and read to offer some thoughts, and invite a discussion.

Assessing the River

Here are some of the questions I ask myself. Have I ever crossed here before? Do I know of a bridge that would be a ‘smart choice’ rather than fording the river? How wide is it? How fast is the current? How deep is it? Can I see bottom, or is it too silty? Are there standing waves (indicating an underwater obstruction just upstream of the wave)? Have I got an ice axe? Walking sticks? How many people in my group? Am I a solo hiker? Is my hiking partner in visual contact? There are other questions that I might consider that might have to do with the time of day (diurnal rising of water), how cold the water is (any ice floating by?), and whether a rope might be helpful.

Obvious (and Not so Obvious) Observations

The deeper, faster, colder and siltier the water, the higher the risk. If the water is moving faster than you can walk (i.e. can you keep up with a floating stick?), be very wary. If the water is over your knees, it can easily sweep you off your feet. But we still want to continue on our trip. After all, Freedom of the Hills is more than just a book title. So let’s develop a strategy for the most common scenarios.

Where to cross?

If you have the skills, and you’re close to civilization, does a canoe or a rubber dingy make sense? If not, I spend a lot of time searching out a dry route. I consider fallen logs, as well as boulder to boulder as possibilities. If I find a dry route, I am very cautious about wet logs and boulders. They often let me down at the “Murphy moment” (the worst possible time). Maybe putting on my crampons for a three-minute log crossing is a good idea. I always find walking sticks to be valuable (or at least reassuring) to help with my balance. If my crossing is a boulder-hopping episode, then I try to memorize the route, so I don’t have to stop, precariously look about and ponder “Now What”. Algae and slimy rocks always add a sporting element to any crossing, whether they are submerged or visible. Maybe I should follow the river for the bushwhacking kilometer to get to the bridge. Perhaps I need to yield to common sense and admit that this crossing is too hazardous and the trip has to be re-scheduled.

If I must ford the river, I choose a place that is the widest I can find. My reasoning is that the water is probably the shallowest, slowest and the bottom is the flattest at that point. Don't cross through standing waves. There the bottom is uneven and the water is deep. Narrow points in the river are tempting (because the other bank is “right there, so close”), but the same volume of river water is now tearing past at an unknown depth right beside the bank, which might be a problem when I’m trying to get out of the water. Check your choice by throwing big rocks into the water. A hollow "ka-thump" sounds in deep water. If the rock moves downstream before sinking to the bottom, or if submerged rocks can be heard rolling downstream, the current may be too swift to cross at that point.

I also search for a point where the river may have several channels, which will give me a mini-break during the crossing. Footwear is essential for me. Old approach shoes, neoprene booties, sandals with socks, & hip waders are all valid options in my thinking. They will offer protection for your tootsies, from the cold water and the rocky bottom. Trust me on this one, when I say it is an absolute miserable situation to stub your toe mid-crossing. Walking sticks or an ice axe are great too.

I find it is nearly impossible to run more than 5 steps through water that is deeper than mid-calf. When I move, I don’t walk, I shuffle. When you lift you foot off of the bottom, the current instantly tries to push it downstream. So I keep my feet very close to the bottom and spacing them widely gives me more stability against the current. If there is a large underwater rock (indicated by a wave), I cross upstream of it, as the current can scour out a hole on the downstream side. If there is a partial or fully submerged tree, I try to cross downstream of it. Don’t look at the surface of the water, as it can disorient you and make you dizzy. Watch your landmark on the far bank. And lastly, MOVE QUICKLY. Speed is essential to avoid the rapid cooling of your feet and legs. The cold may be tolerable for the first couple of minutes, but then it can become painful and immobilizing. I try to maintain a positive outlook, and at all cost, avoid the brain paralyzing notion that I might go under.

Multi-person Crossings

In general terms, the multi-person crossing is safer than a solo crossing. When I use the term multi-person, I mean more than one person, acting and moving as a single unit. Six people crossing the river one at a time, is six solo crossings, even if sixty toes are in the water at the same time. For the sake of discussion, let’s assume for all of the following scenarios, that there four people in the group.

The natural thing to try to do is form a line when crossing. This line should have the strongest person going first. Let’s refer to that position as No.1. When your line is perpendicular to the current, No 1 should go first and if your line is parallel with the current, No 1 will be at the upstream end, breaking the current for the others. Position No.4 should be the second strongest person and will obviously be in position 4 in both cases.

There is considerable advantage in having a long rigid pole, which will extend the length of the line. But the pole must not be so large as it is too heavy to easily carry. Everyone can give the pole a hug (one arm over, one under the pole) and help balance the other three members. But there are no ‘free arms’ to use an ice axe or walking stick as a cane. If you haven’t got a pole then there are other possibilities. Using a rope for this method is not going to work, so forget about that one. You might use your ice axes to create a longer “pole’. In this case each person grips the shaft of an axe with the axe head upstream with the pick pointing down.


SKETCH 1 from “Mountain Search and Rescue Techniques”

Essentially, you grasp the pack or waistband of the next line member, and move as a unit. Some references recommend stuffing your arm between the pack and the back of your line mates; other references recommend not to do so, but grasping the belt of the pack or the place where the shoulder strap fastens to the belt. I haven’t use this method much so can’t offer a solid opinion which is best.

When you have a single unit like this, there is quite a bit of stability. No 1 & 4 can use an ice axe or walking stick. With eight feet in the unit (and on the river bed) you can work out a step sequence so that only 1 of 8 feet is moving at one instant, and 7 feet at providing a firm anchor to the river bed. You would likely have to count out loud and members would have to remember to move on their assigned count! It might not be super fast, but it might provide a high degree of safety.

Roped crossings

For severe crossings that are less than a rope length, No 1 should cross with one end (belayed or not is your choice) with the aim of setting up a hand line, or a belay. (You could also set up a Tyrolean, but that is more complex than this article will address.) If there is a strong possibility of being swept of his feet, No 1 might need to shed his pack until the line is established. The anchors on each side of the river must be solid.

A hand line can lend a fair bit of assistance to an inexperienced person. This system is a good choice for conditions that are hazardous, but not extreme, or if the pack load is large. The wader should be downstream of the hand line so as not to be ‘trapped’ against it by the current. If the wader is going to be clipped into the line by a carabiner, you should use only a chest harness (which can be simply improvised with a sling). A waist tie-in is a poor choice, as the head of the wader is likely to be forced under in case of a fall. If the wader is using an ice axe in one hand, then the free hand is utilized for the hand line – don’t get your axe in a position where it can be snagged by the rope!

Solo Crossings

Everything above is still true, just more so! Walking sticks are invaluable. If two waders are crossing at the same time, the stronger can be positioned on the upstream side to break the current for the other person.

Belayed Crossing

In this instance we belay No1 to cross to the far bank (either perpendicular to the current or at a downstream diagonal angle), and then set up an anchor at a point perpendicular to No 4. During the initial crossing, No 1 can lean against the rope to help with balance. If he is swept away, the current will push him back to the starting riverbank, but downstream of where he entered the water. If the river is less than half the length of the rope, No 2 and 3 can be belayed by both 1 & 4 and cross to No 1. No 4 then is belayed by No 1 alone to the destination bank. If the river is greater than half the rope, then you will need more than one rope for every one to be belayed safely. It will be difficult to throw the rope back across the river and I have yet to see someone successfully accomplish a toss greater than about 25 meters. One thing you might not have considered is the drag on the rope by the current. It is surprisingly strong and can affect the belayed wader quite a bit.


SKETCH 2 adapted from “Mountain Search and Rescue Techniques”

What if someone gets swept away??

This is an unpleasant thought, but you need to have a plan in place before it happens. If you go for a swim, most references suggest that you get your pack off, but hang onto it. Float with your head upstream and use your feet to fend off obstacles. Meanwhile, the group must still continue to act like a group. They are still dependant on each other for stability and safety. Immediately they must decide either to back out of the crossing, or quickly complete it. Only once they are safe, can they put their rescue plan into operation. Remember the First Aid rule that says you must protect yourself first so you are in a position to assist others after. The same rule is valid in this case.

Opinion & Conjecture on the Pack

Do you keep the pack on, or dump it? I’ve never had to swim (not yet anyway, knock on wood), but have been thinking about this. We have seen a change in thinking regarding avalanches and packs. (Packs are less dense than the human body so they offer buoyancy in an avalanche and should be kept on by the skier.) Would the same logic be valid in the water? Would a pack, with a small amount of trapped air inside it, offer some buoyancy to a swept hiker? Maybe keeping the waist buckle fastened would have some merit after all. A set of rapids is composed of water, rocks and air (suspended in the whitewater). The water has lower capability to support things due to the amount of air in it, so a body in rapids will not float as readily. That means the swimmer will have to work much harder to stay afloat from both the flotation and flowing current perspectives.

I hope that’s an insightful glimpse into the topic. I’m interested in hearing from you on your practices. What has worked for you, and what hasn’t worked? Maybe you learned that swimming should be avoided except in Jamaica ….

 

References:

Freedom of the Hills – Fourth Ed

Mountain Search and Rescue Techniques – W.G.May (1973) Sketches taken from or adapted from this book.

 

Websites

http://www.nps.gov/archive/olym/wic/travel.htm

http://gorp.away.com/gorp/resource/us_national_park/ak/hik2_den.htm

http://www.katmai.national-park.com/hike.htm

http://www.backpacker.com/jargon/0,2672,203,00.html