Day 18 – Lava Falls Rapid

Day 17 ——————————— River Journal ——————————— Day 19

Day 18 – Fern Glen(168.6) to 186.4 Mile
River Miles: 17.8
Hiking Miles: 0
April 4, 2013

When rafting the Colorado River through the full length of the Grand Canyon, there’s something that looms like a growing shadow in the back of your mind. It’s always there, day after day, and that thing is Lava Falls Rapid. It’s traditionally considered to be the biggest and most scary of all the rapids, rated as a “9” on the Grand Canyon scale.

Today we would run Lava. Lava. Tom Martin says that a “good run in Lava is less than 20 seconds long,” so it can’t be that bad… right? Right?

Yesterday was such a fulfilling day (And relaxing at the end) that I felt ready for anything. Besides, Lava was still a long eleven miles downstream from our camp at Fern Glen. There was no sense in worrying or getting nervous, at least not until after breakfast!

Team McCumber on eggs and muffins


breakfast at Fern Glen

Things got a little more serious after our bellies were full and we began to wrap up camp. Dave Nally fielded a number of questions about the rapid and ended up drawing an impromptu diagram in the sand:

He went over features like the “V-Wave” and the “Cheese-Grater Rock.


Rig to flip!

I offered to row for the majority of the 11-mile approach to the rapid but Doug said he wanted to get warmed up. We passed Stairway Canyon and Mohawk Canyon, and Doug pointed out a huge rockslide of Supai stones called the “Red Slide.”

It didn’t feel like very long before we came to Vulcan’s Anvil, a huge projection of lava-rock that juts up out of the water in the middle of the River. It’s a sacred site for Native Americans, and it’s awfully sacred for river runners as well.

At this point we knew that the rapid was less than two miles downstream. I wondered for a few moments where the steep Lava Falls hiking route could take off toward the rim, but I was soon preoccupied with the more urgent matters at hand:

We began to hear the roar.

photo by Doug Nering

Scouting Lava Falls Rapid had a bit of a carnival atmosphere – there were so many river parties here! We pulled in behind everyone else to scout on river-right, at quite an inconvenient location along a steep bank. It was such a poor spot that I stepped off the raft into water that was chest-deep! So I was moderately chilled (In addition to the normally quaking nerves) for most of the time we spent scouting the rapid.

photo by Doug Nering
Here it is – Lava Falls Rapid. At the top center of the rapid (Toward the bottom as viewed in the picture) you can make out a sheer, straight pourover. It’s actually a vertical waterfall that’s a few feet high, called the “Ledge Hole” by rafters. Presumably it’s part of the reason that this is called Lava Falls. The majority of successful runs (Including all we saw today), enter on the right side where there’s some big waves and scary boulders. The farthermost boulder on the bottom-right of the rapid (Top-right in the picture) is the “cheese-grater.” We were fortunate to be able to see two or three groups go through the rapid while we watched and studied their maneuvers. Rafts were spinning all over the place like pinballs, but they all made it topside-up.

scouting the rapid – photo by Doug Nering

Soon it was time for us to go. PFD’s were tightened and drysuits and helmets were all fastened up. The boats had been securely rigged early this morning, drag bags pulled up. GoPro cameras were all set to record.

We followed our usual running order – Dave Nally went first, followed by the Nally girls, and then Doug with me and Jackie went next. It was hard to see those two boats in front of ours once they disappeared into the rapid, and frankly I wasn’t paying too much attention to them.

We went into the right side of the rapid. It was okay and seemed as planned. We hit a big wave. It spun the boat completely around – a full 180! Not good!

No time to turn it around. The stern of the raft approached a big hole. Maybe it was the “V Wave.” I yelled “You’re square! You’re square!” and we punched straight through it… backwards! Doug pulled away from the right bank. There was the cheese-grater. Port side. My side. We pressed toward it – sideways. I could almost reach out and touch it.

Then we slid clear to the left. That was it! We were through Lava!

We turned and watched everyone else come through the rapid. A couple of boats also flirted dangerously with cheese-grater, but everyone came out clean! Bo’s cataraft was last – always such a joy to watch him sharply bounce up and down the waves. Another river party cheered us on from the shore.

Here’s some of those GoPro videos from the rest of our flotilla.

Chris Forsyth, Steve Nelson, and Nic Bewsey

Jeremy and Shannon McCumber


I glanced and took note of a small spring to the left amid all the excitement through the tail waves. The Lower Lava Rapid, rated as a 4, was no big deal.

We immediately pulled into a beach for lunch. The campsite is officially known as “Below Lower Lava Camp,” but everyone knows it by its more common, more official name:


The remainder of that bottle didn’t stand a chance.

Another rafting group that we’d been seeing for some time (Led by Jethro Grant) joined us, and lunch was quite a party!

To be below Lava was such a relief! It was the last “big” rapid of the trip. It’s difficult to describe how the full weight of that knowledge sank into us and took hold of the group. We partied hard like rock stars and it wasn’t even 1pm.

The rest of the day on the water was smooth and glorious. It was a hot afternoon as the gentle rhythms of sun, sand, and water had their way with us. Jackie drifted in and out of sleep as she gazed up at the Canyon walls.

Often the smallest of things in Grand Canyon can grab your attention.

photo by Jackie

photo by Jackie

The old lava flows were especially dramatic throughout this corridor of the River, seen here.

Jeremy appeared to thoroughly enjoy the time to relax, with Shannon on the oars. Did I mention that Lava was behind us?

Dorothy had a shot at some rowing, too.

It was somewhat early in the afternoon when we arrived at camp, and the celebratory mood continued well into the evening. Cheers Mike!

We just hung out down near the boats (And on them) for most of the afternoon.

Steve and Bo cooked up some chicken stir-fry with the Nally girls.

I went for a short, solo stroll around the surrounding area. There wasn’t anything particularly noteworthy to see. It was just nice to wander aimlessly for bit.

Well some of the last light before sunset was noteworthy.

We had a funny night around the campfire, as everyone had loosened up after Lava (Figuratively as well as literally with all the booze). The topic of flipping our rafts came up. Josh declared that if you spend enough time on the water, it’s not a matter of “if” you flip your boat, but “when.”

He went on to repeat “It’s not if, but when” throughout the rest of the evening at humorously opportune times. He began to speak as though the trip were behind us, and Dave told him to be careful what he says, because we still had a couple of rapids left to run…

It didn’t rain today.

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Day 17 ——————————— River Journal ——————————— Day 19

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