Raising the bar in the Himalayas

By Mark Hirst
As many of us witnessed the disaster caused by the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, my thoughts turned to how I could personally help towards the long term rebuilding process.

I have had the honour of travelling to Nepal for kayaking and rafting based trips since 1998. Since 2013 I have also run a series of IRF guide training programs and workshops for Nepali raft guides and kayakers.

Nepal Marshyangdi
Marshyangdi was an excellent venue

Nepal has the largest representation of IRF qualified guides on the current IRF guide register.

A large portion of Nepali raft guides now work overseas during the monsoon season in Nepal. I have personally worked with Nepali raft guides in countries as far away as Iceland. Nepali guides have a worldwide reputation for been hardworking professional guides.

I wanted to arrange an IRF instructor workshop and create some new Nepali IRF instructors to ensure that the IRF standards are kept for years to come. I approached the IRF to see if there was anyway they could help with the funding of the course. The IRF kindly decided to waive the administration fees for the Nepali candidates on the course making it easier on the pockets of the guides who wanted to attend the course.

From my previous experience of operating IRF workshops in Nepal I knew to expect big attendance numbers. I needed to recruit an IRF assessor to help me operate the course. I also needed a Nepali raft company to help me organize the logistics and hosting the trip. Paddle Nepal kindly provided us with a bus and the equipment for the course free of charge which was great.

I also recruited Canadian river legend Jim Coffey from Esprit rafting to be my co instructor on the course. I remember I was really impressed with Jim’s series of river rescue videos called Rescue for River Runners. Jim kindly agreed to help with the project which was great.

Nepal Jim
Jim explaining the finer points of the safety talk

Over the following months I noticed that the course was attracting interest from around the globe. We now had bookings confirmed by guides coming from Ecuador, USA, Australia, UK & India  The course was taking shape fast.

I had taken the time to select an appropriate river for the workshop. I needed a testing class 4-5 river that would keep us on our toes for the duration of the workshop. I decided to re-use the Marshyangdhi river which flows from the Annapurna region of Nepal, situated in the Lamjung area between Kathmandu & Pokhara. I have used the Marshyangdhi for previous courses and found it to be a truly testing piece of water. The top section compromises around 18km of continuous class 4 & 4+ rapids. The lower section of the river below the dam has a 15km section of slightly easier class 3 & 4 rapids for those on the course who were looking for their class 3 skills to be developed.

Any 5 day rafting based course is going to be physically demanding. So I decided that the group would need a good base for the duration of the workshop. Again I selected the Mango Tree eco resort on the banks of the Marshyangdhi to be our base for the week. The Mango Tree provided us with 2 really good meals per day and some comfortable tents to rest our heads at night.

The week prior to travelling to Nepal I had been running an IRF workshop in Morocco. This was my first workshop of the season which meant I was primed and ready for the Nepal course.

Nepal Mango tree resort
Going to the river, Mango Tree Resort behind us

After arriving in Nepal I met up with Jim. We both spent a day kayaking the Marshyangdhi as a check out run to identify some potential teaching & trip leader scenario sites. Both myself and Jim agreed that the Marshyangdhi was going to be the ideal choice of river for the workshop.

The evening before the workshop started we held a pre workshop meeting. This was a chance for us to meet the students for the week and collect all of the relevant paper work: logbooks, first aid certs etc.

The rest of the workshop looked like this:

Day 1 0600
Bus departure to the river  was at 0600 hrs. We jumped straight into the course by holding 2 brief sessions on knot tying and river signals. This was the ideal wake up call for the group.
Once we arrived at the river and inflated the rafts we had a PPE (personal protective equipment) check along with a PRE (Personal rescue equipment check).
As we were 2 instructors on the course this gave us the opportunity to be able to assess 2 safety talks at a time. This is where we identified a few key points.

Safety talk key learning points (as previously discussed in other blog posts:)

  • Actions speak louder than words.
  • Avoid using complicated English (keep it simple).
  • Arrange your customers into a place where you are the sole focus with no distractions.
  • Summarize your safety talk into 3 key learning points at the end of the talk.
  • Your safety talk continues during the trip, you should be constantly recapping your talk as you approach the rapids.
We took to the water for a 3 hour paddle down the continuous class 4 / 4+ section of the upper Marshyangdhi. This gave myself & Jim the chance to observe and assess the raft guiding and customer communication skills of the guides as they guided their boats down the river.
Day 2 0600

We decided that early morning starts were the order of the day. This gave us the chance to take advantage of the cooler mornings. For our instructor candidates I gave an example of instructor standard theory session on safety kayaking tactics. This session had 2 main aims.

1. The students got to see the required standard needed for instructor candidates who needed to give their own presentation later in the week.
2. The IRF is the only body to give structured safety kayak teaching. The session was a spring board into a discussion on the role of a professional safety kayaker on a commercial rafting trip. The key learning points were.
  • Safety kayakers who can also guide a raft and have rafting abilities are a big bonus on a commercial trip.
  • Safety kayakers need to be thinking 2 or 3 steps ahead of the raft guides on the trip.
  • Forward thinking safety kayakers are able to put themselves in the right place at the right time in order to play a key role in a rescue if needed.

We took to the water and stepped up the tempo by looking further into the rafting capabilities of the students. We did this by observing the students making challenging maneuvers on class 4 rapids. These maneuvers included forward and reverse ferry glides along with some challenging breakouts. Each of the candidates came off the water tired and tested. We spent the evening looking into some of the rope work components needed for the following days rope work test

Day 3 
Today was called wobbly Wednesday. The intense sun and heat was taking its toll on all involved with the course. We both agreed that today was going to be a park and swim day. We parked the bus at a convenient roadside rapid and spent the day finishing off the guide assessments. It was a pleasure to spend the day swimming in the river to escape the heat. All of the students were today put through their paces and tested on the following skills:

  • A challenging swim
  • Throw bag test making 2 throws with a packed and unpacked throwbag
  • IRF flip drill
  • Ropework test. The students had 5 minutes to construct a functioning  mechanical advantage system using their own equipment.
During the day we also looked at the use of the integrated chest harness on our rescue PFD´s by practicing some live bait rescues.
Days 4 & 5 

The next 2 days were spent running trip leader scenarios. We had started to notice that all of the students were starting to gel as a team of guides which was going to make the trip leader scenarios not only a test but a true learning experience. If you ask any guide who has already completed a trip leader scenario they will always comment that the scenarios are a true test of experience, judgment & skill and most of all the scenarios are fun.

The first set of scenarios for the class 3 candidates were set on the lower section of the river. Both the trip leader and instructor candidates soon learnt the benefit of having well trained and focused safety kayakers assisting them on their scenarios. Between us Jim & myself were setting some challenging realistic scenarios.

The second set of scenarios were held back on the challenging top section of the river for the class 4-5 trip leader and instructor candidates. We witnessed some true professionals at work here. The scenarios attracted lots of attention from the locals to the point where I had to tell one of the Nepali students to inform the locals that we were training and the man stuck in the river under the flipped raft was only pretending. Although we did see a concerned family cut a piece of bamboo to use as a reaching pole for one of our guides who was pretending to be a casualty of the scenario.

Day 6 

Each of the scenarios was passed with flying colors along with all of the instructor candidates presentations. We put on the water on the morning of day 6 with one class 4-5 TL scenario to run. During this scenario we dealt with an unconscious victim. The scenario brought up the topic of carrying AED devices on a river trip. Hopefully in time to come we will start to see more and more AEDs been carried on commercial rafting trips.

Nepal victim
Ian acting as the unconscious victim during the scenario.

The last section of the workshop was to spend the rest of the day testing the safety kayak skills for those who wanted to be assessed for the safety craft awards. We dealt with multiple & panicked swimmers along with unconscious swimmers. We also looked at ways to control a raft from a kayak.

As the course closed to an end each student received a detailed feedback session. The students all agreed that the workshop was a demanding but rewarding workshop with high standards in a fun safe learning environment. New friendships were made and the rafting world is now better off having some more IRF qualified instructors, trip leaders and guides from all corners of the world.

Many thanks to Jim Coffey from Esprit and Paddle Nepal for helping to organize the course!

Congratulations Nim, Josh, Grim, Ian, Chris, Daniel, Franco, Bharat, Dinesh, Bidur, Maila, Suraj, Arjun, Diraj and Manju!

Happy paddling, Mark