Monthly Archives: September 2015

Jump Safety – Sept 2015

One more safety oriented post for now: A little bit about jumping safely.

For canyoneers who have never descended a particular canyon before, there are definitely practices that will enhance safety.

If it is a canyon with published beta (or if you have received private beta), take certain things into consideration before doing a described jump:

  • Do you trust the source of the beta?
  • Are you certain that you are in the described location? Different jumps can look similar to one another.
  • Is the beta explicit about where in the pool is safe to jump?

Keep in mind that in many canyons, pool depth can change. Logs, rocks, sand, or gravel can make a previously deep pool hazardous. In particular, be very wary about jumping into pools after a storm event, and especially early in the season, after spring runoff.

If you are uncertain at all about the safety of a jump or the size/location of the landing area, then one person should descend to the pool to scope it out. If there is an existing rappel anchor, great – otherwise they can rappel off of a “meat anchor”.

The first person down should move back and forth throughout the landing area, feeling for obstacles, and demonstrating the depth of the water to those above. A good rule of thumb, if you have difficulty communicating verbally, is to only ever point to the area that is safe. If you point to an area and shout, “Don’t jump there!” the words may be missed, and the next person could think that’s where you want them to go. If the person above points to a spot, asking if they can jump there, be very emphatic if it is not safe. Shake your head clearly, make a slashing “death” motion across your throat with you hand, or form a large X with your forearms. Then clearly point to the safe landing area.

If you expect to be scouting some landing areas in a canyon, consider taking along a pair of swim goggles or a mask. When viewing a pool using goggles or mask, the depth can seem very deceiving; try swimming down a bit, or bobbing in the water to see how deep your feet go.

I wish I could give a specific depth that would be required from various heights, but that is something that comes with experience. Never jump into water if you are not comfortable with the depth. If anyone tries to pressure you into it, stand your ground.

A cautionary tale to finish up…

Earlier this summer, after having considered it for some time, I decided to jump one of the rappels in Box Creek (the seventh).  I had not heard of anyone having jumped it at that point, despite some discussion, but the landing area seemed to be an adequate depth for the approximately 5-6 meter jump.

My partner, Jeff, went down first and scouted the deepest part of the pool. It was at the far end, and reached to about the top of his head. I jumped far, and flat, and had no problems.  It was exciting to be able to completely skip a rappel, as the lower portion works well as a jump or a slide.

Fast forward a couple of weeks or so, and we were again in Box Creek. There had been very significant rain a few days before, but despite the high flow that we were descending in, we had not seen any drastic changes in the canyon as yet.

We reached the seventh rappel, and I decided to jump it again. The black rocks in the pool are difficult to see, but the water appeared, from above, to be as deep as ever. I jumped to the same spot in the pool, and landed very flat on my back to minimize sinking.  I was shocked to basically come to a halt on a bed of gravel right away. While surprised, I was completely uninjured. When I stood up, the water came to about my mid-thigh. Quite a change. I was very fortunate that the pool had filled with a very forgiving layer of gravel, and that I had jumped in such a way that I didn’t go deeper. Upon walking around the pool, there was a deep area off to the side, and that is where Jeff safely jumped.

Definitely a learning experience, and a reminder that pools can change incredibly quickly.


Sticks And Stones

Word has just filtered in of another broken ankle in a local canyon – Britannia Creek. While I don’t know the details yet on this incident, and certainly don’t wish to point fingers, shame anyone, or assign blame, it does give us another good opportunity to talk a bit about safety.

In the last three seasons, I am aware of at least three fractured ankles (including distal tibia and/or fibula fractures) and a couple of serious soft tissue injuries (sprains) in some of the local favourites (Cypress, Britannia, Box).

Ankle x-ray - broken fibula from Box Creek

Ankle x-ray – broken fibula from Box Creek

I just want to go over a couple of the causes of these incidents, and discuss some food for thought on staying safe.

In one of the incidents, a short jump just after the third rappel in Cypress, I was the first person in the group, and I jumped into deep water.  I knew not to jump or slide close to the pouroff, as there is a rocky outcrop in the way there. Rather than discuss the jump with the next person following, I just jumped, and planned to turn around and point where she needed to go. Unfortunately, she slid down the groove of the watercourse before I could do so, and hit her foot sharply on the rocks below. She sprained her ankle moderately badly, and needed to escape the canyon at her next opportunity.

Two lessons to take from this incident: if leading a group, and familiar with the hazards, discuss them prior to making the leap. Tell those following what they can and can not do, if they are not familiar, before rushing ahead. And, if you are unfamiliar, never assume that doing something other than what the leader has done will be safe. The person familiar with the hazards may have chosen that path for a very specific reason. In fact, if leading a group that is unfamiliar, make that part of your briefing beforehand – and never assume a jump or a slide is safe unless specifically told so.

Another recent injury resulting in ligament damage occurred in Britannia recently. The canyoneer had been through the canyon a number of times, and was very familiar with its intricacies. He was using a brand new rope that was quite slippery, so on the first rappel, down the old dam, he had added extra friction on his rappel device (a Petzl Pirana).

The pool at the bottom of the rap is quite deep in the middle, a couple of meters out from the base of the dam. Normally, when approaching the pool, from say 3 meters up or so, he would spring back from the wall, and drop into that deep part of the pool, letting the rope slide freely through his Pirana. However, with the extra friction setting, the rope did not run freely. Even as he jumped off, he realized his error… He tried to jam the rope through the device as he fell, but not enough slipped through, and rather than dropping into the middle of the pool, the rope caught him partway down, and he swung back in to the base of the dam, and the shallow rock there. He ended up bashing his foot badly, and had to be evacuated from the canyon. X-rays showed nothing, but there was definite ligament damage, and he spent a few weeks on crutches with an air-cast boot.

A good lesson from this: Be aware of how minor changes in equipment, conditions, or abilities can change your standard procedures. Just because you have “always” done something, doesn’t mean that you “always” can.

One other good lesson from all jumping injuries: If you are not completely sure that you can safely complete a jump, then don’t do it! Much better to rappel or walk around, than to risk serious, even catastrophic, injury or death.

I’m sure that as time goes by, and as this sport becomes more popular, there will be more unfortunate accidents and incidents. Let’s try to minimize them, and when they do occur, to learn from them.

Be safe out there!


Large groups in a canyon can present their own challenges - and opportunities.

Team Dynamics and Group Think

Safety is a constant concern in a sport such as this one. Recent events have been bringing this to mind.

While last week’s tragedy in Zion National Park doesn’t really bear very strongly on the type of canyons in this area, as far as flash flood danger goes, it is worth thinking about. We will likely never know the decision making process that this group used in electing to descend a slot canyon with a danger of flash flooding, but it may be a good opportunity to think about the perils of “group think”.

It is very likely that at least one of the seven people who perished in Keyhole Canyon had some misgivings about entering the canyon that afternoon. Surely they were aware that, in poor weather, flash flooding was a very real danger – there are signs and warnings in the visitor center, and printed on the permit, which they had acquired earlier in the day. The weather was unsettled that day, and rain was a very real possibility.

If one person had expressed misgivings about entering the slot canyon, might that have gained some traction with the group, and prevented them from dropping in? We will likely never know. Perhaps they did discuss those very qualms and, tragically, elected to disregard them. But there is also a chance that no one said anything about their concerns, because everyone else was putting on a brave, carefree front.  Therein lies the danger of “group think”.

This is a good opportunity to consider this kind of risk. Anyone participating in a potentially hazardous sport like canyoning/canyoneering needs to utilize all the clues around them. This includes getting input from everyone involved.

I work in the aviation industry, and there is a great emphasis in aircraft crews on “Crew Resource Management”. This means taking input from everyone involved into account when it comes to making decisions.  In the old days, the culture gave the pilot-in-command dictatorial powers in the cockpit in all matters of flight safety. The new paradigm encourages the first officer, and indeed the cabin crew, to offer any input they feel is pertinent, and requires the pilot-in-command to take this under advisement. While the pilot-in-command still has the power to make the final decision, there is much more emphasis on utilizing all resources available.

All of which is to say: If you feel worried about a safety decision, even with more experience people on the trip, please voice those concerns. If the flow in a canyon seems too high for your abilities, say something. If an anchor seems suspect, mention it to someone. If you think light is fading too quickly to escape the canyon before nightfall, mention something while there are still options.

Take responsibility for your own safety. Ask questions. Utilize your resources.