Download the presentation that Will gave at the January 2012 meeting:

A Class V Cataraft State of Mind

January 02, 2012 at 7:00 PM

A Class V Cataraft State of Mind

Submitted by Will Conley

(originally printed in the American Whitewater Journal, Nov/Dec 2011)

 “Want a rope?” I heard Mark shout from the bank as I pulled myself into the cockpit and leapt into the seat.  I was upright but increasingly at risk of missing the eddy as the boat drifted.  “No!!” I shouted, aligning my oar-lock for my one chance to re-set the shaft before being swept over a horizon line and a series of as yet unseen class V drops.  The oar popped into place and I made several pulls to join Dave in the safety of the eddy.

I had just pulled a sacrificial flip after being wallpapered on cliff and my adrenaline was pumping after re-flipping on-the-fly.  A quick scout revealed that another solid class V was upon us with a meaty crux at the intersection of two big diagonals.  The river then disappeared over another large horizon line below the short runout. 

We all nailed the line, but the hydraulic force of the fold blew both of my oars and I was scrambling again.  Only this time, I didn’t get the oars re-set until I was past the eddy.  I looked at a small wave to my right, decided to skip an emergency surf, and back-stroked at the lip for a quick boat-scout.  Mark hollered, “Right-third!” as I stood on the scout rails and the full magnitude of the fifteen-footer came into view.  The landing looked clean, so I made a quick downstream push on the oars and drove my 11-foot cataraft over the edge.

I patted my head as I headed for the eddy and Dave and Mark followed with clean lines.  “You OK?” they asked as they pulled-in.  “Yup.”  I was unhurt and my gear was fine, but I was a bit shaken.  Both are good friends that have been in similar positions and gave me the mental space I needed as I took a deep breath and regained composure.  My first twenty minutes of day-three on the South Fork of the Merced had been exhilarating: failing to fully execute a must-make move, pinning, intentionally flipping, re-flipping, having a freak gear failure (I’ve never blown both oars at the same time before or since), and running a very large horizon line blind.

There wasn’t much else for me to say except, “Mind if I lead?”

Whitewater is a great activity because there is something for everyone...captain or passenger, rafter or kayaker, client or guide, roadside or wilderness, day-run or multi-day.  Different boaters may find similar degrees of satisfaction in class III and class V.  Having the physical ability, experience, and proper gear for a run goes a long way.  However, if your head isn’t in the right place, that other stuff may not matter.

Regardless of skill level, one’s mental approach ultimately shapes success and enjoyment.  Push into wilderness and/or multiday class V in a raft without anyone that knows the run and one’s ability to prepare, problem-solve, maintain objectivity, and manage stress affects not only the quality of the outcome, but survival. 

There were two ways I could have gone that morning on the South Merced. Boating timid in class V is a recipe for disaster and spending the rest of the trip following my buddies would have been a disservice to us all.  My mind needed to be re-focused and there was only one way turn a confidence-shaker into a confidence-builder: get in the lead.  I’ve been fortunate to run with two guys that bring an analytical approach to whitewater similar to my own.  Mark Cramer, Dave Nissen, and I have assembled a mental tool-kit that has facilitated safe and enjoyable passage through some of the most challenging whitewater any oar-boater has seen.   Though refined in wilderness class V, a disciplined application of the following considerations will increase the safety of any trip on any class of water:

On river rules…have them, love them, live them.  The structure of these rules should be sufficiently comprehensive to apply to all situations, but flexible enough to facilitate improvisation while dealing with the variability across rivers.  Many of these are well-known:

  • When in doubt, scout.  If you can’t see the bottom/exit from a rapid or an intermediate eddy prior to committing, you should be in doubt.
  • The lead boat is in-charge.  If they signal to ‘eddy-out’ or ‘hold’, do it (or be prepared for a talking-to).
  • Maintain (preferably visual) contact with your group.  Unless explicitly agreed upon, keep upstream and downstream boats in-sight.  Have radios or some other contingency plan in place if there is a chance for extended separation.
  • Have a briefing prior to launching.  The briefing should focus on communications and known hazards.  We’ve been using the same briefing for over four years.  Though we’ve heard/spoken it many times, the review is always beneficial.  It also helps calibrate the mindset of other boaters that may join us. 
  • Don’t get separated from your boat.  This is the #1 rule of the class V catarafter.  Your boat is your lifeline.  Your PFD is a distant back-up.  We’ve all violated this rule at some point.  We all work hard to ensure it never happens again.
  • Self-Rescue.  Each boater is responsible for their own safety.  Just because you’re in a group, doesn’t mean anyone will be able to do anything for you.  Be mentally prepared and rigged for self-rescue.  Help will come if it can, but be wary of any plan that depends on it. 
  • Preserve gear.  This may mean portaging something you know you could run, but recognize some potential for major gear failure (e.g. frame breakage) that would compromise the integrity of the trip and everyone on it.

Being honest about one’s abilities.  This is an important part of AW’s Safety Code.  I’ve seen folks run well-established IV+ runs with the occasional V- rapid get self-congratulatory and throw the phrase “class V boater” around.  This is OK as long as they stay within that realm.  There is a huge difference between the boater that runs the occasional class V rapid and those that do class V runs more regularly.  It doesn’t matter which you are, just be honest with yourself.  Be trained and practiced in rescue and first aid.  Talking about being safe is one thing, living it is another.

Situational Awareness.  Be continuously cognizant of your surroundings and comprehend their relationship to your objectives.  This includes anticipating how a sometimes sudden change in one variable will affect the course of events. At a minimum, have a plan, a back-up plan, and back-up for your back-up plan and sequence in order of probability.  When scouting, it is easy to be distracted by the roaring unknown presented by the river.  However, once standing on land, the river is no longer the primary hazard.  A disproportionately high number of river accidents happen near the bank.  Minding foot and hand placement on scouts and portages can prevent falls and rattlesnake encounters, reduce poison oak contact, and avoid other pitfalls that can derail a trip.  Maintaining situational awareness assists an objective assessment of runnability on a rapid-by-rapid basis.  Upon having several portages in a concentrated area, it is possible to slip into the portage doldrums and keep portaging when it is unnecessary.  Aside from improving safety, maintaining situational awareness helps conserve energy and time.

Wilderness experience, there’s no substitute.  Dave, Mark, and I have 90 years of collective wilderness experience, with no one of us with less than 20 years working and playing in remote settings.  There’s an acquired attitude that comes with such experience that governs self- and gear-preservation as well as contingency planning.  Navigation of any river is super-imposed on top of that.    In a true wilderness setting, be willing to portage and don’t expect a government agency to swoop in when the going gets rough. 

Be prepared.  Yes, I was an Eagle Scout.  Much of what I learned as a boy has served me well through adulthood, but one doesn’t have to have been a Boy Scout to reap the rewards of preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.  While gear is an essential part of preparedness, this article isn’t about that.  Prepare yourself with the knowledge to succeed.  Real-time and historical streamflow and weather data are invaluable. Be knowledgeable and practiced in technical rope rescue and first-aid techniques. 

Be ready for the askance look.  Look up nearly any class V run in the guide books and, more often than not, it will say “No” next to “Rafts”.  Many of these runs can be rafted, some quite enjoyably if you’ve got the skills and a willingness to work for it.  The hard part can be determining which runs are, in fact, raftable; especially if you can’t find anyone that’s done it.  Direct communication with kayakers will be of varying degrees of assistance, but will tend to echo the guide book.  I rarely bother to ask “Is it raftable?” because fact of the matter is, most kayakers don’t have the perspective to know.  Most will be happy to share what they know of a run.  Most won’t want to be there on the same day you are if you decide to go.  That’s OK.  While eating lunch on the 49 to Bridgeport section of the South Yuba one day, a group of kayakers drifted by, waved politely but avoided eye contact and wasn’t interested in talking.  No biggie.  It was obvious they figured we were in over our heads and didn’t want to be around when carnage ensued.   Which brings me to what I call….

Cataraft pride!  There’s a common perception that having a kayaker along makes every trip safer.  However, the notion of “the safety kayaker” is a bit dogmatic.  While I’ve lost count of the times I’ve rescued kayakers and/or hauled kayaks and other equipment down-river, I’ve been rescued by a kayak exactly once…the third time I was ever on a river.  Having one or more kayakers along may provide some additional safety, but kayaks and catarafts have their relative strengths and weaknesses.   Cats are just as capable of probing a line and setting safety in the pool below.  The mid-rapid performance of a cat with a swimmer in-toe is hindered less than a kayak and the boatman has a better angle on the water when boat-scouting.  Kayaks are smaller and faster and capable of catching micro-eddies where setting safety or scouting would be difficult to impossible for a cat.  It is difficult to describe the satisfaction of completing a run none of your group has ever seen before in rafts-only.  If you want to invite kayaks along, do so because you want to, not because you feel like you have to.

Take your time.  Yeah, the guide book says it’s an overnight trip.  Yeah, some hair-boat kayakers have blazed through it in 6 or 8 hours.  The guide book also said it wasn’t raftable, remember?  Rafts can boat-scout, but not like kayaks.  Further, they can’t run everything kayaks run, and in, general just aren’t as fast as kayaks.  Once you’ve accepted this truth, you’ve freed your mind of the irrelevant constraints of “the guide book.”  Bank-scouts take longer and portages with prudently loaded rafts take 4-5 times (or more) longer than with a kayak.  When we do class V multi-days, we find it best to add at least a day or even double the guide book estimate on travel time.  Just to be safe, add a safety factor and bring another day or two’s worth of food.

Don’t forget the home front.  Inform family and friends of your intended whereabouts and schedule as appropriate.  It definitely helps to “coach” their expectations in terms of when to expect communications and when or (more importantly) when not to call in the authorities.  A couple years ago, a friend’s wife graciously agreed to run the epic shuttle for the upper Kings for us.  However, she was unfamiliar with our approach and called Search and Rescue when we hadn’t returned to camp prior to dark while packing our boats in.  We set out to find a phone and/or rangers that night, albeit unsuccessfully, to hopefully pre-empt a search.  I was woken from my slumber atop the raft trailer at about 3 AM when a very nice deputy shined his spot-light in my face.  We got things cleared-up and, thankfully, a search team had not been mobilized.  As we headed to the put-in for the Rubicon this summer, we knew there was a significant rain event coming.  We had contingencies for spending several days off the river, including a temporary hike-out, and we notified folks accordingly.  Making sure that our loved-ones are aware that we plan on self-extraction and budget extra time can avoid having the authorities notified pre-maturely and unnecessarily putting first-responders at risk.   

Past performance is no guarantee of future results.  I know people that pride themselves on having boated class III or IV for 30 years without a flip.  Upon venturing into IV+ or V- water, their first flip may not come on their first or second run, but as the saying goes, we are all in between flips and swims.  When they inevitably have their first flip, they are caught off-guard because they carried an unrealistic assessment of their ability into heavier water.  This may or may not result in some analysis which may or may not lead to the actual cause of the problem.

Get back on the bike / Dance with the date you brought.  Upon having trouble in more difficult runs, some folks conclude that the problem lies with the boat, sell their gear, and buy the latest-greatest.  This will get them by for a time, but when you’re off-line, you’re off-line.   While newer catarafts are more generally enjoyable and forgiving, they are still in-between flips.  They just flip differently.  An old boat underneath a skilled boatman will perform better than a new boat driven by a class V rookie.   

The river doesn’t care.  This is one of the most important points in maintaining perspective.  The South Fork of the Merced doesn’t care how many times I’ve been down the North Fork of the Payette.  For that matter, the North Fork Payette doesn’t care how many times I’ve been down the North Fork Payette.  Last winter I passed the 100-run mark on my local training run.  Despite having a similar regard for the Wind River as for an old friend, I can never be lulled into thinking that sentiment is reciprocated.  No matter how familiar with a run you are, if you put your boat in the wrong place, the river will stomp you.  Sometimes you’ll get a pass; be very thankful when you do, but never expect one. 

“Never give the river a free shot,” is a saying of Mark’s that I like.  In class V, you will get beat down and the effect is cumulative.  Therefore, preparing and executing to your potential reduces the likelihood of a technical knock-out.

Know your place.  We’re all guests on the river and should be humble in our approach.  Humility is individual-specific and can be in short-supply in many adventure sports.  “Boater Ego” can create conflict amongst group members and cloud judgment.  I’ve found a number of humbling places over the years such as when scouting Taffy Puller on the North Payette.  One of my most memorable was a short walled-in section of the Middle Feather shortly before the big portage where the canyon seems to whisper, “You don’t belong here.  You might pass through, but you’ll never belong.”  Coupled with a humble attitude, I use Leave No Trace tactics.

“Meter your adrenaline,” is Dave’s synthesis of energy conservation.  Folks that whoop and holler after completing their first V rapid of the trip are borrowing prematurely against the reserve they’re going to need for the next 15 class Vs, 5 or 10 portages, and 50+ scouts over the subsequent three days. 

After-action review (AAR).  AARs are common practice in wildland fire-fighting and emergency response.  Whether things go as planned or not, it’s helpful to have a constructive discussion of what worked, what didn’t, and why.  This can be at the end of the day and/or the end of a trip, but should occur in close temporal proximity and in the absence of alcoholic beverages.

The challenges presented by whitewater are a big part of the appeal.  Being competent and confident without being cocky is important, but that can be a challenge unto itself.  A strong, but flexible mindset prepares one to deal with contingencies while facing-up to tough decisions.  A disciplined implementation of the above mental tools will increase one’s probability of safe and successful navigation in remote and hazardous environments.  Which brings me to the final and most liberating part…

Guide?  We don’t need no stinking guide!  A number of years ago, we were getting ready to run 49 to Bridgeport on the South Yuba with some of our cat-brethren from California.  Unfortunately, our friend Steve’s boat blew a seam on the bank while waiting to launch.  A couple of the other guys mentioned calling-off the trip since Steve was the only one that had seen the run before.  Dave, Mark and I made our intentions clear that we were running as soon as we helped Steve pack his boat back up the hill.   We also made it clear that we wouldn’t fault anyone for not going.  The others decided to come along and we had a great run.  To this day, that is one of my favorite day-runs and nothing that some prudent scouting couldn’t address.  As the saying goes in class V, “If you need someone to show you the lines, then you probably shouldn’t be there.”  

Tags: rescue Class V
Category: Trip Report

Photo Credits

File Name


Photo Credit


Dave “Madcatr” Nissen dropping into “Superslide”, South Fork Merced

Will Conley

SFMerced_052409_0917_Cali Tongue_Will_025.JPG

The author buried in “Cali Tongue”, South Fork Merced

Mark Cramer


Mark Cramer victorious after running the last big drop on the Rubicon

Will Conley

Trip Reports