Wednesday, August 20, 2008

What we do for plastic - The GC of the Elwha Boat recovery mission

The plan was simple, seamless and bound to go wrong somewhere. Its been a long time since I’ve felt my life was in danger for an extended period of time, a long time at least until Saturday when Jeff and I hiked into the Grand Canyon of the Elwha river on the Olympic Peninsula to retrieve his boat which was left above an unscoutable “unportageable” rapid 3 weeks earlier.

So the plan was something like this:

Start early: 8am

Hike 7 miles up the trail with climbing gear to where we were directly above the boat (2 hours)

Rappel 1000ft down the canyon to the boat (1 hour)

Accend 1000ft back up the canyon to the trail with the boat (3 hours)

Hike 7 miles back to the car with climbing gear and newly acquired boat (2 hours)

Total time: 8 hours

Expected return 4:00pm – plenty of time to enjoy the dozen cold PBR’s we had put on ice the night before.

This is what I knew: When Jeff and EJ decided to abandon their boats at river level and hike out they described the effort as hellish – loose slate scree on top of crumbling bedrock at a 60 to 70 degree angle. Every step caused an avalanche of rock and gravel. 5 pitches at least before you hit trees with another 5 pitches in the woods but still on a 60 to 70 degree slope. It was just screaming fun and I figured a little technical rope work is always good to keep you fresh on your skills so why not, and it was only gonna take 8 hours – that’s a standard honest days work.

A side note, A week before EJ had gone in alone and roped himself down to the river and then paddled out. That was when the river was still running and by the time we were there there wasn’t enough water and our only option was to hike back up. EJ had some rope trouble and ended up leaving a 30m 8mm rope, a throw rope and a 50m static 11mm rope on the last 3 pitches down to the river.

As it turned out things didn’t go seamlessly, the plan remained simple but the execution got muttled and if the fine people who make climbing gear hadn’t put as much thought into how to make a piece of equipment as safe/idiotproof as possible then there would have been even more close calls than there already were. ..

Phase 1: The approach

We brought 3 litres of water with us, finished the hike in 2 hours (right on time) and stashed some food on the trail with plans to eat snickers bars at river level and lunch back on the trail after we had hauled the boat up. Morale was high, we were stoked, we were also hydrated.

Gearing up for an early start:

The hike was cruisey and we were stoked to have phase one complete. Disclaimer - jeff is in fact adjusting his harness and not sticking his finger up his but, however much it may look that way.


Phase 2: The goods

With the last 3 pitches already having ropes set on them, all we had to do was scramble down the wooded slope and get down to the first 2 pitches with our own gear. This was where the fun was had, no real hard work going down hill just lots of scree running, rappelling and good clean fun. It did, however, take us an hour longer than we predicted but eh, who’s counting.

Jeff on one of the pitches down to the river - very happy too, this was some serious fun and the sun wasn't too hot yet.


Phase 2 complete - easy as! We relaxed down at the river, drank a lot of water, ate some snickers bars and enjoyed the shade.

Organizing our ropes and sorting out our plan for the accention con Boat (phase 3).

View from the river: this was the first pitch and a half - 4 more on sketchy ground above it and then 5 more in the woods above that.

Phase 3: Hell

This is where we lost it, pictures were few and far between, we ran out of water, ran out of food, ran out of energy and we still had 2 or 3 pitches to go before we even hit the trees and then 5 more after that in the woods. At one point Jeff and I spent 5 mintues yelling at each other over which end of the rope to pull the boat up with when in fact it didn’t matter at all, it was like arguing whether a cord of wood was 4ft x 4ft x 4ft or 4 ft x 2ft x 8ft. The boat got stuck often, we had to rap down to it and then accend back up more than a dozen times, we got a bit dilarious for a while and it got sketchy with dodgy footing, falling rocks, poor anchors and sloppy rope management.

The boat came up quick and easily on the first pitch and we given a false sense of hope.



The sketchy anchor. The ground holding the rocks in was unstable, the rocks holding the tree in were not overly secure and the little tree was our precious little anchor.


We hit a wall at pitch 4 - anger and frustration began to settle and flicking taking it out on the camera seemed appropriate:

If you were the boat, this i how i felt about you.

Finally we made it back to the trail. It was 7:20pm. Our hopes to be back to the car by 4:00 had come and gone hours ago. We had been going without much of a break for 10 hours and we still had 7 miles to hike out.

We started our hike with no water but 2 miles down the trail we crossed a large trib and sat and drank our fill and then moved on slowly up hill. as it turns out the hike downstream is actually up hill. It got dark on us, we began to fade and sometime around 11:00 we crashed and actually fell asleep on the trail for a while.

Jeff and boat D.U.N. Done


Midnight or so and finally back at the truck - 15 hours after we started.


All told we ate 5 snickers bars, 2 bagels, and a bowl of blackbeans and rice during the day. We each drank 3 gallons of river water. I peed only once in 15 hours and it was the color of pumpkin pie. I could hardly grab the steering wheel of my car the next day - my hand were covered in blisters and cuts from handling the rope all day - all in all we made it just fine and it was a good solid mission.
Apparently the Olympic Peninsula has cannibalistic trees, take this one for example.

The hike out was aided by a full moon. The green dot is some refraction in the lens and the lighter area in the bottom of the pic is the river a thousand feet below.

We found a nice dam to sleep on that night and i passed out to the world.

What an incredible place to open your eyes to in the morning.

The downstream side of the dam. there's some good gradient to be had under this lake if the dam were ever to be removed.

Happy as. Me and Jeff on the ferry to the mainland and heading to the Northern Cascades for a 3 day canoe trip up Ross Lake.

2 comments:

chrsk said...

sounds like a pretty big time mission you boys had up there. wish i could have been there too. you've been doing lots of GC walking this year. hm. hope all's well up in BC and on the dirtbag train again.

Michael Vanderberg said...

Nice work fellas, but a cord of wood is actually neither 4x4x4 or 4x2x8. However, it is 4x4x8, making 128 cubic feet of fuelage. I'll overlook the fact that you are wood scientist.