APA Blog

Human Factors in Packrafting: a story of the Pitt River

Cam Fenton
June 22, 2023
Words and photos courtesy of Cam Fenton, a guide based in Squamish, British Columbia.

The Pitt River might be the most coveted packrafting trip in Southwest British Columbia. On the eastern edge of Garibaldi Provincial Park and less than 100 kilometers from Vancouver, it promises a long, challenging and remote stretch of whitewater accessed only by hiking through beautiful forests, across open alpine and under the watch of stunning glaciated peaks like Mamquam and Nch'Kay (Mt. Garibaldi). Living so close to this river, I spent about 7 years planning and attempting to get into this basin, only to be turned back multiple times by weather, scheduling and a COVID pandemic that first cut off park access and then made shuttle logistics next to impossible. So, when I finally had a window in the summer of 2021 with both a partner and the logistics sorted out, I was beyond motivated to take on this trip.

The trip started well. With an early start on the hike, we traversed Garibaldi Park in a single day, descending off the toe of a glacier into the valley that would take us to the river. One night camping in the valley and another half day of hiking and we were at the river. The river was largely what I expected – steep, rocky and with enough water to be moving, but not so high that we would struggle to find eddies. But, it was definitely class III+ - IV, and it was more continuous than I expected. 

We put on in the early afternoon of day 1 and started making our way downstream, running sections of the river and walking some out of an abundance of caution due to our remote location. Travel downriver was slow, and we pulled out that day after my partner took a couple swims in the early evening, deciding to try and set up camp before oncoming clouds opened up on us. 

The next morning broke with increasing rain. On the river, the day started similarly to the last. We did one long portage through a particularly hairy section and put back on where the valley widened, a section of fun and fast class III that led into the crux of the route, a mandatory portage around a dangerous - likely unrunnable - canyon. By this point it was raining harder, but the easier paddling moved us quickly downstream and relaxing a little bit, which is exactly when things went wrong. 

Approaching the crux canyon, I eddied out river right, hopped out of my boat and started getting ready for the long portage. That’s when I saw an upside down packraft float past me. My partner flipped somewhere upstream and was frantically trying to self rescue as the river pushed him towards the canyon. Panicked about the possibility of him swimming into the crux, I hopped back in my boat and gave chase, plunging into a section of hard class IV whitewater. I watched as my partner remounted his boat, only to drop over a ledge into what I could only assume was a pretty large hole. I managed to clean drops and close the gap, but looking downstream realized I was headed into a dangerous hole that I had little chance of staying upright through. I bailed out of my boat and swam hard to shore. 

Thankfully, by this point my partner managed to drag himself onto a rock in the middle of the river just upstream of a waterfall that marked the start of the canyon. I climbed up on shore and set about trying to get him a throw bag. Unfortunately, the rock he landed on was just beyond the reach of my rope. I walked back upstream and swam across the river to try both sides with no success. I activated my InReach device, recovered one of our boats and set about making plans in case Search and Rescue couldn’t reach us. 

By the time a long line plucked my partner off the river, he had been on that rock, in the rain, on a cool day, for nearly 7 hours. To be frank, without the assistance of SAR, I was left with nothing more than flawed ideas and marginal rescue plans to avoid my partner spending a night on that rock.

We left the river that day with our tails between our legs, but rallied to fly back in and recover our gear a week later. We got most of the gear back, and paddled out the rest of the river with no incidents. The whole way down the lower river, I kept replaying in my head what happened and tried to pull out some lessons learned. Here’s what I came up with. 

The Good

Both of us had rescue training and experience packrafting. We were wearing the appropriate gear for this kind of trip with drysuits, high quality PFD’s, whitewater helmets, etc.

We were carrying survival gear on our bodies, not just in our boats. Both of us had food, emergency blankets and communication devices in our PFD’s which played a huge role in calling for rescue, communicating with SAR about the situation and, for my partner, staying warm during a long wait for rescue. 

We extensively researched and virtually scouted the river before the trip and knew the canyon was the biggest objective hazard. We knew that where my partner was stuck, it would be extremely dangerous to attempt certain rescues with a high risk of downstream flushing. If we attempted that, the situation could have become much worse.

The Lessons 

On hard, backcountry whitewater missions, a longer throw bag is a good idea. It was really frustrating to know that if I carried a slightly longer line I could have potentially executed the rescue. Since this trip I now carry a 30m (~98 ft), lightweight spectra Dyneema throw line on trips like this. It’s not cheap, but it’s better than the 20m (~65 ft) line I was carrying on this trip. 

Don’t underestimate “easy” whitewater. If I was more ‘heads up’ at the portage takeout, I could have potentially rescued my partner earlier, preventing the long swim that put us both at risk. 

Take a breath before chasing a swimmer. Realistically, me paddling after my partner really didn’t achieve much. If I took a moment to better assess the river ahead of me, I likely would have decided to hug the shoreline or walk downstream, protecting myself and keeping more gear at my disposal to execute a rescue. 

The Big One

While all these lessons are important, my biggest takeaway from this near-miss is the importance of considering The Human Factor in packrafting accidents. The Human Factor is a common concept in avalanche education and risk management that boils down to the fact that in recreational avalanche accidents, most things can be traced back not to conditions or “acts of god” but decisions skiers made, in other words it’s how our natural tendencies influence our behavior. In the case of our Pitt River accident, pretty much everything started with my decisions.

I was highly motivated to do this trip, which may have clouded my judgment when it came to a thorough risk assessment. By the time we left on this trip, I pulled the plug on paddling this river four times in four years, and spent three years before that planning it. In retrospect, this might have led me to disregard or overlook certain red flags that were clearly waving.

This trip came after an extended period of heat with some rain expected mid-trip - two things that would increase river levels. On top of this, we lost one member of our paddling crew days before the trip, another strong paddler who would have given us a helpful safety margin on the water. Another factor is that my partner I did the trip with is an intermediate boater. We did a challenging trip earlier in the season with some class III+/IV whitewater on it and did well, but looking back, the reality was he survived those sections more than paddled them. With more continuous class IV water, the Pitt River was likely well above his paddling level and probably right at mine, which didn’t give us a big margin for error.

Another big factor is that for years I’ve been teaching packrafting courses and was asked about the Pitt River. I felt a sort of responsibility to get the trip done so I could determine if it was the truly classic trip I thought it might become.

There were more factors, but this all boils down to the fact that this accident wasn’t because of my partner’s paddling level or him making a mistake. Nor was it my rescue skills or not having a longer throw bag. This accident happened because of the decisions we made - the Human Factor.

In skiing, we sometimes break down Human Factors with the acronym FACETS, which I think also works well here.

F is for Familiarity. The more familiar we are with terrain, the more we’re willing to take risks. In the avalanche world this is the “I ski here all the time and it’s never slid” mindset that can get people in trouble. In this case, this was a river less than 100 kilometers from my house that I spent years planning a trip on, building a meticulous route plan. Sure, I hadn’t been on it, but with the planning and the proximity and similarity to my home rivers, I definitely had a sense of familiarity that contributed to underestimating the risks.

A is for Acceptance. This is the idea that in a group, people often don’t speak up about their concerns because they want to be accepted. No one wants to be the one to pull the plug on something cool. For both my partner and I on this trip, neither of us wanted to play the spoiler.  When we talked after the trip, we both named multiple moments - both before and during - where we felt the trip might be getting too close to the edge. 

C is for Commitment. Commitment to a goal, and the unwillingness or resistance to change the plan despite changes to the conditions is a huge cause of accidents in the wilderness. For us, this happened at least two times before we even started the trip. First was when our third team member pulled out, fundamentally altering our safety margin. Second was when the weather suggested a big change in water levels could happen. We were so committed to the trip we found ways to overlook these serious risks. 

E is for Expert Halo. At the end of the day, I definitely had this. I teach and guide packrafting and my partner on this trip was a former student in one of my courses. We previously completed another hard whitewater trip with no incidents and I was convinced we could do it again. Because of this I don’t think my partner questioned my decisions, or the trip plan in general, the way he might have if I was not leading the charge.

T is for Tracks. In skiing this means both seeing tracks and following them, and taking risks to get into the places that aren’t tracked out yet. In packrafting, it isn’t exactly the same, but we knew that this river had been successfully paddled only a handful of times. The idea of being one of only a handful of people to paddle the Pitt, and of being able to bring beta back to the nascent packrafting community definitely played a role in elevating my motivation to push through concerns.

S is for Social Facilitation. In skiing this has to do with the impact of other people and groups on how we make decisions in the backcountry. Since we were alone on the Pitt, this wasn’t really something we encountered first hand, but I do think another aspect of social facilitation played a role here. In researching this trip, I found a handful of reports about people who attempted a similar trip and either never made it to the river, put in far lower on the river in a relatively benign stretch of class II water or bailed off the river almost immediately after putting on. Digging into all these trips I found stories of undertrained and unprepared boaters without helmets, drysuits, training or whitewater experience. Instead of raising my concern level, reading about these failed trips actually made me more convinced we could do this. We had the gear, experience and training after all. Instead of being more cautious about the river, I was convinced my skill and training would protect me. Something similar happens in the ski world where people see avalanche accident reports and think the same thing could never happen to them because they have training or carry a specific piece of gear. 

There is another aspect of social facilitation to consider in the packrafting world. Packrafts really became popular in the age of social media, so there is a lot of “social facilitation” in the form of seeing cool photos or trips online and wanting to replicate them. However, many of those images, videos and photos can also lead people into some serious trouble. People may attempt to emulate a trip without knowing exactly what they’re getting into. Often we just don’t know what we don’t know. They might see a photo and assume just because that paddler got away with not wearing a PFD or appropriate thermal protection, they don’t need it either. Swimming in a glacially-fed river is a lot different than a swim in a warm lake.

Maybe FACETS isn’t the best acronym for boating, but the lessons still seem valuable. This accident wasn’t something that could have been prevented with equipment. While more training and skill may have helped, my partner flipped in class III water entirely within his ability level. What could have prevented this accident was understanding the underlying human factors at play in my decision to push the trip forwards and implementing systems to help mitigate them.

Some Ways to Mitigate Human Factors 

The first thing we need to do in order to mitigate human factors is simply name them and start talking about them as a packrafting community. The reality is that packrafts facilitate paddling in a way that most other boats can’t. This leads people to push their limits in water without actually understanding the risks. Talking about human factors can help us understand why it’s a common occurrence for packrafters to jump from surviving their first class II river to paddling class III without dedicating time to develop strong paddling skills. 

Second, we can implement some specific risk mitigation systems. One is the -1, 0, +1 system for assessing how much of a safety margin you have on a specific stretch of river. This is a simple system used by paddling clubs and groups. Each paddler on the trip gives themself a grade. A +1 paddler is someone who is experienced/knowledgeable about the run and feels comfortable assisting with rescue at any point on the paddle. A 0 paddler is comfortable at the grade, but doesn't feel like they know the river well or could necessarily assist in rescues. A -1 is someone paddling above their level, unsure about the river and expects to possibly need help on the paddle. Total the ratings of each paddler. A group with a positive rating has a good margin of safety, a group with a rating of 0 is operating without a margin of safety and a group with a negative rating is operating below a margin of safety.

The system isn’t perfect by any means. While it relies on people honestly assessing their own skills, it does introduce an easy, objective analysis of a safety margin. For example, if we used this rating system on the Pitt River trip, we would have started with a 1 (+1, +1, -1) with our original 3 member team. When we lost a team member, this rating dropped to a 0 (+1, -1), showing a clear change in our margin of safety for the trip. I can’t say for sure that would have changed our plan, but it would have at least been an unambiguous sign that our margin of safety changed.  

Third, we need to celebrate backing down. In the backcountry ski community, there is a growing trend among guides, professionals and educators to openly discuss times they’ve bailed on ambitious goals. It’s a celebration of good decision making and a culture shift that took place in a sport where skiing through a sluff cloud used to be the gold standard for footage. Packrafters need to be more vocal about the times we portage rapids or pack up and head to an easier stretch of river when the levels get too high. 

Fourth, we need to celebrate class II water. Packrafts are amazing boats, but let’s be honest, a packraft loaded with a sack of potatoes can make it through a lot of class III whitewater upright. As a result, many of us try to advance to higher whitewater difficulty levels before we are ready. I myself was guilty of this, and I know many other packrafters who have done the same. This has led to a culture where many paddlers call themselves class III/IV boaters not necessarily because they have the skills, but because they have survived rivers of those grades. It’s time to start celebrating class II and class II+ rivers as places to push and build skills. 

Lastly, we need to talk about near misses more because they’re more common in packrafting than we think and because they’re the best way to learn. The more we talk about near-misses, the more we’ll find human factors playing a massive role in packrafting accidents. Every near-miss is a gift. It gives us a chance to learn and change how we paddle in order to prevent an accident and save a life. I hope this story is one small contribution to that cause.