Always above Lava
Updated: Jun 23, 2020
Formed by a debris fan at the base of Prospect Canyon at river mile 179 on the Colorado River, Lava Falls looms as arguably the most intimidating rapid in the Grand Canyon (although a strong case could be made for Crystal, and I still contend that my 2002 frenetic run straight up the fin of Horn Creek in a gathering dusk remains my most terrifying whitewater experience of all time). Lava is a long rapid in a constricted channel, with a ledge hole and lateral wave at the top of the typical line, a pourover feeding into a violent V-wave, large boulders in the main flow of current, and at the bottom center, a gargantuan wave whose aloha-type name "Big Kahuna" conveys a laidback island vibe that is wildly inconsistent with its terrifying character. It's dark, frothy, boiling, thundering, erratic, and fearsome--all of which is painfully evident from the scouting site on river right, which is also the place where you have passed the point of no return and are committed to running the rapid. Author Michael Ghiglieri called it "a King Kong conveyor belt of liquid insanity," and although my companions on every Grand Canyon trip I've done get a lot of mileage out of that overwrought description, not a one of us would call it hyperbole.
Lava is the stuff of legend. During trip planning and driving to the river, during rigging and packing, and even during the final safety briefing with the Grand Canyon ranger at Lee's Ferry, you can put Lava out of your mind, studiously ignoring its ominous rumbling miles downstream. But once you launch, it's impossible to deny its menacing siren song. You know that the very current that is carrying you deep into the heart of the Grand Canyon's wonders--past Vasey's Paradise, past Red Wall Cavern, past Tapeats and Deer Creek and Elves Chasm and Olo Canyon and Havasu Creek--this same current is transporting you straight into the maw of Lava Falls. For the first couple of weeks of the trip, you are above Lava, knowing it awaits, and you talk about it endlessly.
My first time kayaking Lava was in December 1997, on a private 23-day river trip. Until that point I'd only seen Lava in pictures, so it was easy to dread it in a detached sort of manner, the way a child would dread the appearance of the wicked witch in a fairy tale. I knew I'd have to run Lava, of course, but I naively assumed that by mile 179, the "King Kong" scale of Grand Canyon rapids would have rendered it nearly benign, the way that earlier rapids--ones that were 4s and 5s on the Grand Canyon's unique rating system, ones that were the largest rapids I'd ever seen at that point--had shifted in my altered perspective into mere riffles. The night before Lava we camped just above it on river left. The mood around the fire that night was decidedly somber, as we consciously discussed anything but the rapid downstream, whose roar we could hear faintly.
The following morning--after what must have been over an hour of scouting, searching in vain for a sneak line that never revealed itself--we ran Lava without incident (although not without the need to pull out the groover at the scouting site and make some deposits before throwing ourselves at the rapid's mercy). And just like that the mood lightened; we were giddy with relief. "Yes!" we shouted, to each other and to ourselves. We were, suddenly, blessedly, no longer above Lava.
That trip ended, and another one commenced two years later. Once again, I was above Lava. But this time I knew what that meant. That ledge hole that would swallow a kayak, that thrashing V-wave, the chaotic crashing of rebounding currents--all that haunted my dreams. I visualized the line over and over, each stroke, each brace, each lean. Once again, the nearly paralyzing fear at the top of the rapid, drawing out the scouting as long as possible to delay having to run it, deliberately going through the motions of stepping into my boat, fastening my sprayskirt, applying a little paddle wax, and breathing deeply. Ten seconds of turbulent hanging on for dear life later, I was, for the second time, below Lava.
When we returned home I talked to my friend Saranne about the overwhelming relief of running Lava successfully. I said something like "I just love that feeling of calm that washes over me once I'm below Lava." Notoriously optimistic, Saranne responded balefully, her words both portentous and prophetic . "You're always above Lava," she said.
And indeed I was, as just three years later I crouched around a driftwood fire at the last campsite before Lava. We scouted Lava for ages, as had become our habit. My husband ran the rapid ahead of me and sat waiting in an eddy. I eased into my cockpit, and pushed off from shore, trying to breath deeply above the thudding of my heart. I entered the rapid right where I wanted to, braced against the lateral wave, just avoiding the pourover. When I faced Big Kahuna ahead, I was pointing downstream, paddling hard, and hit my line with a precision I have probably not pulled off since. The wave crashed into my chest, stopping my boat and pushing me backwards. I felt my boat move into a position perpendicular to the river, tossed about like a toy. Because I wear contacts and because I was sure I was a nanosecond away from being upside down, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, preparing to wait to roll until I had washed onto the smooth(er) backside of the wave.
What I remember is this: holding my breath longer than I ever had, hunched forward on the front deck of my boat, setting up for my roll. What those standing on shore saw was this: Me, upright, leaning forward, my paddle parallel to my boat, doing absolutely nothing. Eventually I figured that the wave had somehow flipped me back over, and I paddled through the rest of the rapid. The details came out when we all gathered, once again below Lava. I had never flipped over in the first place, but had spent several long seconds eyes closed, breath held, believing myself to be underwater.
Below Lava yet again! But somehow, this was different. I remembered Saranne's words: you're always above Lava. No longer a mantra just for a Grand Canyon trip, it was a motto for life. That next thing you dread, you fear? That next thing you don't think you can do? It's always downstream of you. Sometimes you choose the right line and run through smoothly. Sometimes your line is off; you change course, adapt, and figure out how to stay upright. And sometimes you just close your eyes, hold your breath, and wait for your chance to come up for air.