Escaping Desolation

Added on by taylor reilly.

There we were, laughing at the top of our lungs about everything, and enjoying every second of rafting 91 miles on one of the most remote stretches of river in the country, the Green River through Desolation and Gray Canyons in Utah. Then it struck us and the laughing came to a halt. We were out of beer! It was day six of our seven-day voyage and our three man crew only had one six pack of pumpkin beer left in the cooler. Obviously times were desperate, we were floating through an expansive desert canyon in the middle of nowhere, and all we had was a flavor of beer that made unfiltered river water seem appealing. The mission was clear; we needed to find more beer. Somehow.

Just three weeks before my good friend Tres called me excited that he had just picked up a last minute permit for a rafting trip through Utah. He had just spent most of the summer rafting rivers all over the west and was trying to find friends to join him on one last trip before ski season began. It didn’t take long before Tres had convinced myself, and our long time friend Bobby to join him for a mid-October Green River trip.     

Standup paddleboarder during sunset in Desolation Canyon along the Green River, Utah. Photo by Taylor Reilly, 2016.

Standup paddleboarder during sunset in Desolation Canyon along the Green River, Utah. Photo by Taylor Reilly, 2016.

Our 3-man crew has all been friends for many years. Bobby and Tres had grown up together and I had met them both in college.  Since then, we have taken many trips together and we had all gained a substantial amount of outdoor skills and experience. On top of skiing, climbing and backcountry hiking, Tres, our captain, has been piloting his raft on multiple big rivers across the country, for several years.  Bobby grew up hunting and backpacking but now he spends most of his weekend’s mountain biking, and climbing. He has worked in the outdoor and action sports industries for years and he is extremely organized and motivated when it comes to any outdoor adventure. I myself have ample experience recreationally and professionally in the outdoors. I have been a climber for just about 20 years, I guided for 6, and I have been around water, rivers, and boats my entire life having grown up in Texas. While we all had various and ample outdoor experience, this would be the first big multi-day rafting trip for Bobby and I.

Our vessel was a 14ft raft with a 4 bay oar frame, and a pile of gear in the back so big that we could have been mistaken for a floating version of the Beverly Hillbillies. For a bit of relevant rafting knowledge: Rafts used for overnight trips use an aluminum frame that holds dry boxes, an ice chest and oar mounts/oars on either side. The captain rows the raft using two 10 foot oars while two passengers can either relax and drink or pitch in as “paddle assist” to help keep momentum through pushy rapids. This is how our 3-man 1-raft team was set up. We had just paddled out of Desolation Canyon the night before and into Gray Canyon earlier that morning, and the “take-out” for our trip was only 12 or more miles, or 1 day, downstream. The plan for this last night of our adventure was to camp just after “Rattle Snake” rapid (2+). First, though, we had to get some beer.

It was around noon and we hadn’t seen anyone on the river since the previous night, and being that it was off-season, we didn’t expect to see anyone from here on out. So imagine our surprise when we came around a large bend and found a group of people spread out over 5 rafts and some paddleboards. They seemed to be having as much fun as we were, and the rules of the river dictate that we had to strike up a conversation in search of a trade. When we found out they needed ice, we gave them two of our solid 5-10lb blocks for an 18 pack of Tecate. Success! They invited us to do a short day hike on the west side of the river just before Rattlesnake Rapid, but we decided to keep paddling and get to our camp, so we said our goodbyes and parted ways.

Rafter accompanying a standup paddleboarder through Desolation Canyon along the Green River, Utah. Photo by Taylor Reilly, 2016.

Rafter accompanying a standup paddleboarder through Desolation Canyon along the Green River, Utah. Photo by Taylor Reilly, 2016.

Heading downstream with a full case of Tecate to get us to the end of our trip, we started into Rattlesnake rapid. Leading into the rapid Tres suggested that Bobby should row this one. This was Bobby’s first big rafting trip and Tres thought it was his right of passage to captain the boat down a “named” rapid.  After all, Bobby had put in his time working hard rowing miles of flat-water into headwinds in the days before, now it was his turn to try something a little more rewarding.  I looked over and told Bobby to zip up his life jacket, all the way up to the top. He smiled, laughed, and thanked me. It would be his first Class 2+ rapid to paddle. This stretch of the Green River is in general very mild when it comes to rapid strength, especially during the fall. If anything, the river was shallow and slow most of the way. At this point we were all confident that the end of our trip was just around the bend. 

We entered the rapid with Bobby on the oars, while Tres and I were relaxing in the front. The rapid formed a wave train down the middle of the river, however the raft spun to the right of the ideal line, and started heading straight towards the 40’ cliff that walled in the right hand side of the river. The raft was now being pushed hard by lateral waves and the three of us realized simultaneously that things were about to get ugly.

 As we neared the sandstone cliff jetting out at the apex of the river bend, Tres started yelling, ”Back row right! Back row Right!” Tres started to move towards Bobby to help him slide the right oar into the raft and away from the cliff to keep it from catching and swinging. But it was too late for that.

The front right of the raft hit the cliff and we were all thinking the same thing: the raft would bounce off the cliff and spin us back towards the center of the river. If only we would have been so lucky. The force of the river pushed the raft further downstream and into the cliff. The right oar finally hit the rock hard, shoving it through the mount, swinging the handle forward. Then, all at once, it happened. The back left side of the raft was overtaken with swift, rushing water and the front right began to high side. We all yelled at one another to get out. Tres reached over to push Bobby out of the pilot seat, knowing that he was in the most dangerous spot to be during a capsize. I leaned far left to avoid the impact with the cliff as the back of the raft got sucked down, flipped over, and launched me into the rushing river.

The first thing I recalled after coming up out of the water was taking a deep breathe and immediately realizing that the raft was gone. I went to look around and back upstream for Bobby or Tres, but I could not see them anywhere. Then it struck me, I was headed downstream, and fast. I didn’t have a helmet on, so my head immediately felt vulnerable. I aimed my feet downstream in front of me, with my head up trying to read the river. I had been pulled back left towards the center over a rock fan that extended from a creek delta on the left side of the river. One by one I started to hit boulders with my feet. They were not gigantic, but the momentum and shallowness of the river began forcing my body to stand up and out of the water as I pushed off with my legs. I would plant off a boulder, be launched upward in a standing position, fall back into the water and repeat.

Rafters tackling a rapid in Desolation Canyon along the Green River in Utah. Photo by Taylor Reilly, 2016.

Rafters tackling a rapid in Desolation Canyon along the Green River in Utah. Photo by Taylor Reilly, 2016.

I began yelling in frustration and cursing at the river! After launching off half a dozen boulders or more back-to-back, I got into some smoother flowing but still shallow water that was heading left in the direction of the river. I could tell I had a straight shot for a bit, so I turned forward and began swimming hand over hand downstream towards the calmer left shore. Then I saw something bright and orange floating a little further downstream. It was the dry bag that contained our daily snacks and lunch! Even though I had a chance to swim to shore, I instinctively swam straight towards the bag. I had no idea where our raft with all of our supplies was, though I was pretty sure it was all gone, and I had no idea where my friends were. I just knew I had to get that bag of food for our survival.

When I got to shore, I stood up on the beach, laid down the bag, took a deep breath, and turned upstream, running as fast as I could back to where the raft had wrecked to look for my friends. For a split second, while running, I was ironically happy to realize I still had my Chacos sandals on. I ran about a 1/8 mile along the shore just before the wreck scene and looked up to see Bobby just having stood up in the river along the same side. He had been in the most dangerous position in the raft when it flipped and I was incredibly relieved to see him on shore and safe. Bobby explained to me that he was actually under the raft and he thought it was a miracle that he had managed to push out from under the raft and away from the undercut cliff.  He had drifted to the outside of the river just before the shallow rocky section of river I had been pummeled through. I yelled out his name to get his attention and he looked up and yelled my name back at me. Both of us in shock and full of adrenaline, we quickly started looking around the river for Tres. He was nowhere in sight and neither was the raft.

Then we saw him, cowboy hat and all. Tres had somehow climbed an overhanging piece of rock from the water above where we had just wrecked the raft. He had made it to a small ledge about 5ft. over the water. Tres was barefoot, crouched on the slanted ledge, staring into the water passing swiftly below him. Bobby and I quickly noticed what he was staring at. The raft! It was hard to make out, but the front end was upside down and sticking out from below the cliff’s edge.

Remember, just before we struck the cliff, we had all thought that the cliff went straight down into the water. Well, we were wrong. Over thousands of years the current had undercut the cliff creating a roof that went back several feet underwater. This shape of the rock is what caused the water to subdue the back end of the raft under the front, flipping and pinning it upside down under the cliff.

Glow in the dark bocce ball in Desolation Canyon on the Green River in Utah. Photo by Taylor Reilly, 2016.

Glow in the dark bocce ball in Desolation Canyon on the Green River in Utah. Photo by Taylor Reilly, 2016.

Bobby and I called out to Tres. He looked up and finally noticed us. We tried to communicate, but the roaring sound of the rapid against the cliff made it impossible to hear. Bobby and I almost simultaneously said to one another, “We need help!”  We needed help, first, to get Tres off the cliff, and second, to get the raft out of it’s now watery grave. Bobby and I agreed that our best, and only, hope was the 5-raft, beer-trading team we knew would be day hiking back just before the rapid, and he immediately started running to find them. He didn't get very far, because like Tres up on that cliff, Bobby was also barefoot.

Help was about 1/4 mile upstream, and me being the only one still in possession of his shoes, we both knew it was now my job to go get it. I started to run, but turned back to Bobby and told him not to let Tres do anything crazy, like trying to save his raft by himself. I know my friends all too well. Bobby was on the same page and we both nodded silently to one another.

We were alive, but we knew we had a lot in store ahead of us, trying to get Tres safely off the cliff’s edge and potentially recovering our raft. We were on one of the most remote stretches of river in the country, and in some of the most treacherous terrain anywhere, surrounding us for miles in every direction. There was no cell phone service, no help, and no easy way to escape Desolation.

I sprinted as fast as I could across the large cobble beach. My adrenaline never had a chance to calm, so I was running at full speed. I knew I had to get to the other side of the river to get help from the other team. Though, I was going to have to run further upstream in order to find a safe enough place to accomplish that, especially, since I was now on my own without support from my friends. I finally got towards the end of the large pebble beach and saw that the only place for me to traverse the shore was right along the waters edge, which was mostly deep river mud.

I continued to make my way as fast as I could, slipping and sliding and eating it in the mud over and over. Then getting my feet stuck and unstuck over and over. My instincts kicked in and I was suddenly conscious of being in snake terrain. The last thing we all needed right then, was for me to get bitten by a rattlesnake. Though it would not have mattered. Bobby and Tres, and the other team I was trying to get help from would never have known, and even if they would have, we were still a full day’s float to the only boat ramp downstream, our take-out spot, and it would’ve been far too late for me.

Rainy day rafting in Desolation Canyon, Utah. Photo by Taylor Reilly, 2016.

Rainy day rafting in Desolation Canyon, Utah. Photo by Taylor Reilly, 2016.

I finally ran far enough upstream to where I knew I could swim diagonally downstream straight to the rafts in the eddy on the other side of the river. Adrenaline pumping, I dove in and swam as hard as I could. When I got to shore I immediately began yelling and blowing my whistle that was attached to my lifejacket. I knew the group had gone on a day hike up to a rocky point above the big bend in the river we were all on, but they were out of sight. The yelling didn’t last but for 5-10 min, until I started shivering and was out of breath. The adrenaline was leaving my body. The cold of the river water was taking over, and the shock of what had happened to our raft, my buddies, and my current solitude in the wilderness, was setting in.

I spotted a women’s silky tie-dye wrap lying over one of the rafts, so I grabbed it and threw it over me to keep warm. I then saw the pilot seats of the rafts all had dry boxes strapped down right next to them. I hopped in a raft and pulled one of the boxes open in the search for anything, a satellite phone, a walkie-talkie, a hot cup of coffee, anything. Then I saw it, a bag of rolling tobacco, and inside the bag, a pack of rolling papers.

Yeah, yeah, smoking is bad for you, but I knew that a nicotine boost would warm me right up, calm my nerves. Plus rolling a cig would give me something to do with my hands, while I thought about my next move. In general it just seemed like the right thing at the time. I rolled it, took a few drags, warmed right up and immediately went back to yelling and blowing my whistle

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 At this point Tres was waiting on us to get the recovery/rescue started. He had been on the cliff for a couple of hours, and he was getting cold since he was stuck in the shade without anything but his shorts, PFD, and cowboy hat. We communicated through hand signals that we were going to send a raft by with a throw rope attached to it and a carabineer on the end. The goal was to throw the rope from the raft to Tres as the raft moved swiftly by. He would then have to take his throw-rope, currently attached to our sunken raft, and connect it to the passing raft’s throw rope. And all this had to happen before the passing raft’s rope spooled out.

View from a raft in Desolation Canyon along the Green River, Utah. Photo by Taylor Reilly, 2016.

View from a raft in Desolation Canyon along the Green River, Utah. Photo by Taylor Reilly, 2016.

The hope was that the attached raft would be able to dislodge our sunken raft from it’s watery grave with a hard tug as it passed. Or at least that we would be able to get a rope all the way across to the opposite shore where we could build a “z-drag” hauling system, which I’ll explain later. If it sounds like taking a big chance, that’s because it was. Tres understood the plan and also understood to watch his feet and arms when it came time for the rope to spool out, so he didn’t chance getting snagged and pulled into the river.

The recovery/rescue began. Two members of the rafting team hopped in a raft and started towards Tres; one pilot with one rope thrower on the back. The throw was made, and missed. Everyone sighed together loudly knowing we only had so many rafts to make this attempt. At this point most of the big group had congregated across river from the wreck except for one raft and a pilot who was waiting upstream as a swift water rescue boat incase they were needed.

The water was swift and rough, making the whole plan seem out of reach, and now one raft was downstream, leaving only four more rafts and attempts available. Though, we now had a downstream safety raft, which was good in case Tres or anyone else went into the water and needed a pickup. The second raft launched for another attempt. The throw was made and Tres snagged the rope and made the connection just as the rope unspooled out of his hands! The passing raft quickly caught the tension of the rope jerking on the line hard. Everyone cheered loudly, but then we watched the force of the towing raft barely move our sunken raft only a few inches, and the cheering turned into another big sigh.

We had a new situation now. The tow raft was surfing, hanging off of the rope attached to our sunken raft. The big raft was handling it fine and the two on board were safe and in control, but now we had to move to plan-B. Plan-B, was to get the rope clipped to our sunken raft attached to a rope all the way across the river to the team on the riverbank. From here we could create a “z-drag” hauling system.

A z-drag hauling system is where you take the tow-rope being used back and forth through pulleys attached to the same rope with auto-locking devices (in this case, prusik knot cords were used) creating a 5:1 pulley auto-locking system. A 5:1 pulley system like this can create an extremely strong tow force compared to just pulling on a single strand of rope. Also, the auto-locking mechanisms create enough friction on the rope to keep the rope from giving out slack after being towed through the pulley system. The plan was to anchor the z-drag pulley system to large boulders on the riverbank and have the entire team pull slack through, hoping to eventually create enough force to dislodge the sunken raft. Sure it sound crazy, but it works for stuck rafts all the time… some of the time.

Ok, so just because you have a plan, it doesn’t mean it’s going to work, or in this case, work right away. We attempted to throw a throw-rope from the cobble riverbank to the surfing raft team, so that they could connect the sunken raft rope to ours. Several attempts were missed, as the surfing raft was too far away. The pilot tried to steer the surfing raft towards the middle of the river to get closer to the rope throws being made, but the river was too strong and forcefully kept their raft inline with the current. This is when Joe, one of the leaders from the big group, also an apparent rafting guide badass and swift water rescue extraordinaire, decided to step up to the plate.

Joe planned to swim into the river, attached to a rope held by the riverbank team, climb onto some large protruding boulders located closer to the middle, and from there hopefully throw a rope to the surfing raft team. This would complete the full rope connection from the sunken raft to the riverbank team. Being a badass, this is exactly what he did, and we now had a rope all the way across the river. Joe then swam back to the riverbank through the strong current. After a little struggling with rope work and a knife, the surfing raft was able to de-tension and disconnect from the original throw-rope attached to the sunken raft.

Setting up camp in Desolation Canyon, Utah. Photo by Taylor Reilly, 2016.

Setting up camp in Desolation Canyon, Utah. Photo by Taylor Reilly, 2016.

Now, we had a rope strung out across the river and the rope was cutting the swift water, as it ripped downstream. Exhausted, our team didn’t skip a beat. The anchor and z-drag pulley system was built and we all started hauling rope. Though the rushing water cutting over the rope was creating hundreds if not thousands of pounds on the slack. We had to get the initial slack out of the rope, before we were even able to create tension and tow the sunken raft.

There were about 6 or 7 of us putting everything we had into pulling rope through the z-drag. We were in a tug-of-war we had to win. Knuckles turned white, feet slid on the cobble riverbank, and tensions ran high both on the rope and our efforts. We pulled for what seemed like 20-30 minutes until, bammm!!! The rope was free from the weight of the river and was making a straight line across to the sunken raft. Finally, we were ready to actually start towing and putting real force into dislodging the raft.

The riverbank team was now in the shadow of the west riverbank cliff face above the sunken raft. We realized that we had about 20 minutes of sunlight left. It had been about 5-6 hours, since the raft first wrecked and we had been attempting its recovery now for about 4 of those hours. It’s crazy how fast time flies when you are having fun… The temperature was dropping fast, Tres was sitting cold and wet on the cliff above his sunken raft watching us do what we could, and the entire team was exhausted. Remember, we had all been on the river for 6 days at this point. We were tired, dehydrated, and had now thrown in a raft recovery on top of it all. With the setting sun, we knew this was our last shot. If the z-drag didn’t work, we’d have to call off the recovery.

The team began pulling the last bit of tension out of the z-drag.  The 5:1 power ratio means that we were putting an amazing amount of pull force onto the raft, and that was why all of the sudden it happened! Snap!!! The rope broke and the pulling team fell back a little as the rope came free! Our rope was no longer connected and our last efforts had come to an end. Tres, at this point was done. He was ready to get off the cliff and get to safety. In one last attempt to recover his raft, he climbed down the cliff face below him, pulled his knife from his lifejacket and stabbed holes in two of the front main tubes. He did this with the hope that the raft would eventually sink some, and dislodge itself from the bottom of the cliff that it was trapped under.  Even from across the river I could see the sadness in his body language, sinking his own boat was the equivalent of putting down Old Yeller. Did I mention that it was also Tres’s birthday? 

Tres then climbed back up to the little ledge on which he had spent half the day, tossed the standup paddle board in to the water, and then did a cannon ball into the deep rushing river as one of the other rafts swept by and picked him up. Everyone was alive and no one was injured. We had lost our raft and all of our gear, but our lifejackets, boards shorts and a dry bag full of snacks. I was the only one who still had his shoes.

Our now joined teams boarded the rafts and we all made our way downstream just past the rapids to a long sandy beach on the same side of the river as the sunken raft. With dusk setting in, this is where we would camp for the night with the desperate and unlikely hope that the raft would dislodge overnight and make an appearance somewhere along the river the next day.

Flipped raft being recovered on the Green River, Utah. Photo by Taylor Reilly, 2016.

Flipped raft being recovered on the Green River, Utah. Photo by Taylor Reilly, 2016.

Despite being shocked, wet, and cold, Bobby, Tres, and I were back together and stoked to be alive, even though we had lost everything. Now that we were safe, we were able to have proper introductions with the big group that came to our rescue. Turns out they were all experienced rafters from Aspen and they liked to have fun too. Quickly, the worry about the day’s adventure turned into laughter. They setup up their camp, kitchen, and started dinner. They gave us water, warm dry clothes, shoed Bobby and Tres, and then gave us beers that were greatly appreciated. Since it was the last night of the trip and we had just sent the last case of Tecate to a watery grave, we all were eventually forced to take turns swelling gulps of warm gin out of a plastic bottle around the fire. It was great.

The cooks made grilled cheese and tomato soup for starters, and then a big pot of mac and cheese with the veggies we found in our trunk, to help warm the soul. Hot food never tasted so good! After Dinner, we walked down the riverbank some to see if any other gear or supplies had washed up.  To our surprise, literally the only thing we found on that beach was our set of light up LED bocce balls.  Honestly, it was probably the best thing that could have washed up.  The three of us played a wild drunken game of light up beach bocce ball.

Back at camp, we proceeded to enjoy the evening sitting around the campfire drinking, telling stories. The experienced rafters explained that they were not surprised about our boat wreck at all. They all had their own river tragedies as well; it is just part of the world of rafting. We were just lucky to have a group nearby to help rescue us and get us out of the deep Utah backcountry. The three of us were the center of attention for the Aspen group, and the jokes were flying hard.

Since it was getting fairly cold out and none of us had sleeping bags, someone from the Aspen group got an idea for how Tres, Bobby, and I could keep warm, and they brought out three festive white and pink bunny rabbit onesies. So there we were, three full grown men, who had sunk their raft, and lost everything were now wearing head-to-toe Bunny outfits while laughing and drinking warm gin with our newly made friends.

The next morning we woke up early to see if the raft had dislodged.  From across the river we could not see the raft, however the day before it was difficult to see too.  Our raft had either dislodged and floated by our camp overnight, or it had been pushed further under the undercut cliff and would not be seen again till the spring. The only thing we could do was head down stream on our way to our take-out spot and search for the raft and lost gear along the way. We broke camp, hopped in the rafts with our new team and headed downstream, finding small debris and remnants of our belongings along the way. Eventually we floated up to a large group on the riverbank that flagged us down. I was stoked to find that they had found my yellow waterproof Pelican dry box with my Nikon DSLR camera, iPhone, and all my memory cards with photos from the 6 previous days on the river, swirling in a giant eddy where they were camped. However, there was still no raft insight.

We headed downstream and were only about 3 miles from the boat ramp, our trip's ending destination, when Bobby, riding in the raft out front, spotted the raft!  It was flipped over; half deflated and had somehow managed to float 8+ miles downstream before it got hung up in a shallow area in the middle of the river.

The team eventually reached it. We all got out into the shallow water and flipped the mangled raft over with two flat tubes and twisted aluminum framed deck. As surprised as we were to find the boat, we were even more surprised to find that 90% of our gear and dry bags were still strapped to the raft. We were really “rigged to flip.” However, we had lost what was in the UN-locked captain’s dry-box: wallets, cell phones, and keys... you know, all the real important stuff.

Never having gotten off schedule, we flipped our mangled raft over and tied it off to one of the Aspen team’s rafts. Our rescuers were so helpful they even towed our sunken vessel the rest of our way to the end of our trip. We were excited to arrive at our final destination, throw our flat raft and pile of twisted aluminum frame and plastic decking on to our trailer, said our goodbyes to our new friends, and began our drive back to Denver.

Rafting the Green River through Desolation and Gray Canyons was an awesome experience. Even though we had the crap scared out of us for about 24 hours, we were alive, unhurt, had recovered our raft and most of our gear, and had made some new friends to share an epic adventure story with. Without making a simple friendly trade to fulfill our need for beer in the middle of nowhere we may never have escaped from Desolation. As I’m writing this, we are only a month away from taking a trip down the Yampa River, this time our two groups are going as one.

Rafters towing wrecked and mangled raft on the Green River, Utah. Photo by Taylor Reilly, 2016.

Rafters towing wrecked and mangled raft on the Green River, Utah. Photo by Taylor Reilly, 2016.