I feel like a combat journalist fresh back from an assignment to observe some of today’s packrafting elite. This is that report.
Trent Pearce took the cover photo for this post and will make a sweet video. Here is my quick highlight reel until then:
I’ve had a strained relationship with ‘the elite’ since high school when our progressive teachers incorporated texts such as Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and Parenti’s Power and the Powerless (thank you Steller!). So, the positive role of the elite in Lito Tejada-Flores’ 1967 essay, Games Climbers Play, really stuck with me.
In Games Climbers Play, Lito Tejada-Flores reminds us that climbing is a game that climbers choose to play. The game includes several variants—bouldering, big wall, sport, expedition, etc.—each with a set of community-defined rules. Here is Lito’s example: “… it would be an absurdity to use a ladder to reach the top of a boulder in Fontainebleau, but to use the same ladder to bridge a crevasse in the Khumbu Icefall would be reasonable since Everest defends itself so well that one ladder no longer tips the scales toward certain success.“
This assessment feels appropriate for other sports as well. Note that the elite don’t get to define the rules (unlike in politics!) … that’s a good thing.
According to Tejada-Flores, the role of the elite is to evolve the sport by playing the game with better style. In the case of climbing, better style usually means reducing equipment and technological advantages. The modern era of free solo climbing (without ropes) is a perfect (and disturbing) example. The elite show us what is possible through creative objectives, self-expression, and less equipment. But if we all tried to match their accomplishments there would be a lot of incidents. That’s why the elite don’t get to set the rules.
Applying this analysis to packrafting, several of packrafting’s elite come to mind. Dick Griffith proved the application of inflatable rafts for packing and rafting in the 1950s. Then Sheri Tingey sculpted the modern era of packrafts from her garage. In 2007, Erin and Hig’s beautiful route from Bellingham to the Aleutian Peninsula proved the versatility of the boats for expedition travel. Timmy Johnson installed thigh straps and documented the packraft roll in 2009, which gave Roman Dial the green light to prove that packrafts could be used on technical water (Class IV).
My contribution to the elite was in 2013 when Todd Tumolo and I brought new-to-market zippered packrafts to Mexico and tested the zipper strength learning how to boof and land 20- and 30-foot waterfalls. In the years leading up to that trip, my DIY problem-solving included PVC-coaming and kayak backbands that eventually became norms.
But then a lot of things changed. Rob drowned, I started my relationship with Sarah, and my priorities shifted from pushing the boundaries of the sport to developing its culture of safety.
The Black Canyon
So, ten years later, it was with a mix of excitement and anxiety that I joined some of today’s packrafting elite to run the Class IV/V Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado. I was in Colorado anyway, for a boating safety conference and public service award for my culture of safety work.
The irony of following a safety conference with a high-risk outing was not lost on me.
Soon after I stepped away from challenging packrafting in 2013, Jeff Creamer and Dan Thurber took the reins. I’ve been watching their videos for years and marveling at what they do and how well they do it. I love their collaboration: Dan brought technical rescue training and Class V kayaking skills. Jeff brought expedition experience and access to the design team at Alpacka.
Our Black Canyon crew was rounded out by six others: Mike Curiak, Thor Tingey, Will Blum, Trent Pearce, Chris Thomas, Eric Shedd, and me. One surprise … I expected the elite to be younger. A few of the guys are younger, but I bet our average age was 40.
Here’s what Saturday night looks like for today’s packrafting elite: one fruit-flavored beer and a Ziploc bag of Advil.
Thank you Dan.
The Black Canyon has many Class V rapids, serious sieve hazards, and a well-known kayaking fatality in the 1990s. To manage this risk, I was very clear about my limitations: I hadn’t done much paddling this summer outside of my classes, hadn’t paddled Class IV in a packraft in years, and have a hip injury that makes for slow transitions in and out of the boat. I ran this all by the crew to make sure there was a place for me. My biggest concern was that folks wouldn’t give me time and space to portage what I needed to portage. Dan’s group email was reassuring:
The pace and group dynamic will be casual, conservative, and supportive. We have all the time needed to set safety, run rapids in groups, take photos, videos, and walk the things we don’t like.
Even so … the human stuff is what goes wrong. Objective hazards (environmental) are easy to identify on a run like this: waterfall, sieve, undercut. Subjective hazards (human) are harder to manage—things like group dynamics, decision-making, and communication. It seemed possible, even likely, that our group would go in with the best of intentions but that decisions would tip toward the skillset of the majority Class V paddlers, which I am not.
I studied Mike‘s notes and Jeff’s video to evaluate whether the rapids were within my abilities. One of my big concerns was stepping back into a packraft, so the week before the trip I took my packraft to two Class IV sections near home. I started with a few laps on the Little Su. I always struggle to re-discover my lack of secondary stability when I transition from a kayak to a packraft. I swam half a dozen times, rolled a few of those, push-rolled off the bottom a few, and lost a shoe during one of my swims. Not confidence-inspiring. But two days later I went to Sixmile, took all the aggressive lines, boofed my brains out, surfed, rolled, and felt like a rockstar. I had gotten used to the packraft. I intentionally didn’t paddle again to leave on a high note.
So, down we go. I walked all of the Class V rapids and a few Class IV with sieve hazards (sieves are where water can flow through rocks but larger objects, people and boats, can not). Given another opportunity, I’d add two rapids to what I skipped, but erring on the side of caution was definitely the right strategy this time.
I spent Saturday night sleeping on the sand, warm in my +40 F bag, marveling at the lack of bugs. What a treat. I didn’t even take any of Dan’s Advil.
When we reached the take-out, my one-sentence summary was that the trip was exactly as advertised. This is actually quite a feat:
We managed a group of nine down the canyon without it ever feeling scary.
This accomplishment speaks to the accumulated experience of the group. I went into the weekend wanting to learn how the elite play their game, and this aspect impresses me just as much as their actual paddling ability.
Here’s what worked:
- Time management: A grumblingly early start ensured that we had time for everyone to portage anything they wanted. Except for the mandatory 18-foot waterfall!
- Familiarity: Five of our group had been down the run at least once. They described what was coming and when we would want to scout vs. portage.
- Skills: More on this below, but everyone had significant kayak experience and/or time spent packrafting Class V water.
- Training: Most (all?) of us have formal rescue and medical training. Formal training is reassuring and builds trust in new partnerships.
- Pre-trip communication: We had solid communication before the trip that accurately described the hazards, objectives, and group priorities.
- On-the-water communication: We had a pre-brief in the morning to revisit our objectives, review who had group gear, what was most likely to go wrong, and what we would do about it. This set the tone for continued communication down the river.
- Group management: We split into two pods for the descent. I expected we would split into groups based on ambition but Dan proposed an even split and this worked great. Each group had a few folks more inclined to scout and run stuff and a few who were already portaging and then often in a position to help with safety. The pods gave each other space to accommodate small eddies and limited shoreline at the portages. We piled up a few times and helped each other with safety. This all worked flawlessly.
Our team consisted mostly of kayakers who use packrafts for remote destinations. A few of the guys, like me, started in packrafts, fell in love with whitewater, and then learned to kayak. And a few of the guys started in packrafts and stayed there. So, kayaking isn’t a requirement for proficient boat control, but it sure helps.
Watching the other paddlers, what I envied was better boof-stroke timing and edge control. This crew was really good at getting on edge before boofing, riding rails and pillows, and using the edges to snap into eddies. You can see this in other circles as well, such as this video from Mark Oates and Dan Hall in Tasmania. I practice all of these techniques in my kayak, but I’m simply not as good at it. Yet.
The role of the elite in Games Climbers Play doesn’t feel like a great fit to packrafting when it comes to equipment and technology. Everyone except for Chris paddled a Valkyrie (I borrowed a 2024 “v3” model from Thor). The Valkyrie is the most technologically advanced packraft on the market—an equipment upgrade—but it isn’t a cheat code. I assume the elite climbers wear the best climbing shoes. Paddling the Valkyrie, on these waters, still requires advanced paddling skills. It does make hard water easier, but, in my opinion, not at the expense of ‘style points.’
The Valkyrie is Alpacka’s ingenious solution to the ‘secondary stability problem.’ Secondary stability refers to the stability of the boat while on edge. Packrafts have excellent primary stability (flat) and terrible secondary stability because the hull tubes are perfectly round. Why does it matter? Without secondary stability, a boat that is knocked on edge (by leaning or turbulent water) is likely to capsize. Alpacka’s solution is a high-pressure semi-rigid floor that creates chines—hard edges along the floor of the boat. Unfortunately, building these boats is very labor intensive and therefore expensive.
Here’s another way to describe the secondary stability: if you start tipping in a Valkyrie, the additional flat section of the floor will hit the water and stall the rotation. Imagine slowly rolling a wheel that has a flat section (or a bent bike rim—a nod to Mike Curiak’s work). When the flat section is on the ground, the tire sticks and requires additional force to roll again. The same is true for the Valkyrie—the flat section gives you another chance to right the boat. Here’s a visual example:
Perhaps the best way to capture the spirit of the Valkyrie is to share this thought that popped into my head once we were out of the Class IV/V canyon and running the first of the easier Class III/IV rapids (below Chukar). I thought to myself, “Now, this would be fun in a packraft!”
The reality is that the Valkyrie is more like a kayak than a packraft.
My big takeaway after spending a weekend with the elite is that the ‘metadata’ is the true secret of their success—the information around the actual paddling, which is often hidden from view. Yes, the Valkyrie is an amazing boat, and yes, these guys have Class V skills. But none of that matters without elite-caliber risk management. You can refer back to my bullet list above for more details, but this is what stood out, in no particular order:
- Time management
- Pre-trip communication
- On-the-water communication
- Group management
So how do we get better at this stuff? I think we have to paddle with better paddlers. If you don’t have access to mentors within your community, the next best option is probably advanced training courses. Mark Oates offers these in Tasmania, and here is what Dan Thurber does for SSI. Jule Harle teaches some advanced courses in Alaska; her women-specific courses are especially popular. I haven’t done much of this, but my experience this weekend makes me wonder if I can/should.