Expert Offers Safety Tips for High Water Season

Mark Hammer, owner of Colorado white water rafting company The Adventure Company and 28-year veteran rafting guide today released guidelines for safe rafting in high water.

“We’re one of the few Colorado whitewater rafting companies offering Class V expert rafting trips,” said Hammer, “so it’s imperative we remain in the lead on safety.”

Each summer, as winter’s bounty of snow melts, Colorado rivers swell with refreshingly cold runoff. Typically, the rivers rise toward a peak in early June with high water extending throughout much of the month, or even through July after an above average snow pack. Last winter’s abundant snowfall has resulted in higher than average flows with a higher peak and an extended high water season lasting through July. Each year, it seems that many people have the same burning questions: Is it more exciting to raft at high water? Is high water rafting safe?

To accurately answer these questions, Hammer examined the factors affecting excitement and safety at high water.

Excitement is one of the emotions that really add to the fun of whitewater rafting in Colorado. Very often, it is the big splash or “exploding wave” that creates excitement. Surprisingly, these waves are not necessarily more “splashy” at high water. Sometimes, the rocks that help to create white water can be too deep to disrupt the surface compared to when they are just barely covered with water. Therefore, it cannot be said that higher flows create more exciting rapids, although they may. Some rapids will actually “wash out” becoming smoother at the highest water levels. Each rapid will react differently as water levels rise. Some will create bigger waves and can be more exciting, while others will become smoother. The only thing consistent about higher flows is that the river moves faster or more powerfully.

We cannot say that the whitewater becomes more difficult or more exciting. While it may, it is completely dependent upon the factors that create each particular rapid such as rocks, constrictions, and drops.
Safety is evaluated based on risk and one’s ability to manage or offset that risk with preparedness, appropriate reactions, experience and training. With any increased risk, there is an appropriate way to offset such risk. Since a river’s speed is the only thing that increases proportionately with higher flows, we know that the fast-moving current of high water can add to risk. Speed can increase in two ways.

First, it can allow less time between maneuvers making a rapid more difficult, but not always since sometimes rapids “wash out”. Secondly and most importantly, if someone falls out of a raft at higher flows, the river’s speed and power could lead to a longer recovery. A thorough understanding of these factors allows for appropriate risk management. While speed adds to risk, it does not necessarily mean that rafting is less safe at higher water.

Several things can be done to maintain safety with the increased risk of faster water. Since increased speed creates a smaller window of opportunity to recover from a problem, then greater preparedness can offset such risk. For example, running multiple river rafts together can provide additional backup if help is needed. Adding a safety kayak to remain downstream of the river rafts can provide an additional safety net. Always reacting as if there are swimmers that need help below every rapid can cut down on reaction time when help is needed. For example, running with tight spacing and turning each raft around to face upstream and paddling against the current to provide a safety net in case assistance is needed can greatly reduce reaction time.

Finally, the most significant factor affecting excitement and safety at high water is the river raft guide’s level of skill and experience. The skill of putting a raft exactly where you want it amongst turbulent rapids can only be mastered with many years of guiding. Boat control allows a river raft guide to attack the biggest and most exciting splashes without adding to risk because of the ability to square up to these “hits”. This means that an experienced river raft guide can anticipate and execute the best angle and position to take the biggest “hits” without creating an unstable raft, causing people to fall out. It is also a river raft guide’s years of experience that has taught them when and where to anticipate a problem amongst the other boats on a trip. Therefore, this vigilance and positioning at high water significantly cuts down on reaction time offsetting the shorter opportunity for recovery.

“The Adventure Company,” said Hammer, “is Colorado’s only river rafting outfitter requiring a minimum of four years of guide experience. “This policy is a key component to our outstanding safety record.”

While white water rafting in Colorado can be more exciting at high water, often excitement is more related to the river raft guide’s skill and the chosen section of river. River rafting in Colorado during high water can increase risk due to the faster water. However, proper precautions greatly reduce that risk.

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Buena Vista, CO
9:34 pm, June 5, 2023
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Breckenridge, CO
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