By Emily Shanblatt
We all have goals in life. Landmark moments we hope to someday achieve. Things that seem to always coat our minds, places our thoughts go when there’s nothing else present, subconsciously always waiting for attention. In kayaking, maybe your goal is a skill, such as mastering the roll. Maybe your goal is to run a certain river, or paddle in a certain place. For years, my goal has been one rapid: Gorilla on the Green River Narrows.
I’d dreamed of someday running “the Monkey” since I’d first seen it when I hiked in to the Narrows Gorge in 2007. My first thought was actually “you have to be totally crazy to run that thing!”…but after several years of running increasingly difficult rapids, my mindset turned from that initial aversion to seeing Gorilla as a possibility. Several weeks ago, all the conditions were in place, and I achieved my personal first descent of this monumental rapid. It went perfectly. I ran the exact line I had planned, boofed harder than I’d ever boofed before, didn’t get held up by any of the numerous obstacles in the rapid, and landed at the bottom with a dry head and a huge smile. It was an unforgettable, landmark moment in not only my kayaking career, but in my life.
This article, however, is not really about me running Gorilla. It’s about stepping it up. Having a goal, and getting there. For me, it meant walking a rapid 72 times, and on my 73rd trip down the Green River, deciding to run it. So what does it take? How do we get there? How do we know when we’re ready? I spent months preparing myself to run Gorilla. Here are the key elements I focused on in my own preparation.
Visualize. Visualize. Visualize. – I had scouted and studied the rapid many times before, but the true work didn’t happen on the river bank. It happened while falling asleep in my bed, while I was driving, as I walked around at work, while eating dinner. I planned my line, then practiced it in my mind over and over and over again. For months I did this. Spotting the right markers, taking the right strokes, edging enough but not too much. All the details were mentally repeated, until I felt like my body knew exactly what to do. It became an obsession. I couldn’t wake up in the morning and NOT think about Gorilla. But just like learning a new language, mental immersion became a key to my success.
When you’re finally in your boat at water level looking at a move, it usually looks very different than it did from wherever you scouted from. With that change in physical perspective, it’s sometime impossible to know what a move will actually look like. As I sat nervously in the setup eddy just above the crux of the rapid, the Notch, I was surprised at how much the mental picture I had created from this vantage point resembled the real thing. I’d seen that picture enough in my mind that I trusted that my practice was about to pay off. I saw the line, and said out load knowing only I could hear myself “I see the move, I can make that move”. My mental practice combined with that moment of confidence is what allowed me to eventually peel out of that eddy.
Mantra – When you finally find yourself on the cusp of achievement whatever you’ve been dreaming of, the mind goes in mysterious places. It can turn to doubt, unease, or negative focus. To keep the mind doing what it’s practiced before, I like to repeat a mantra; a short phrase that reminds you of a key element to your success. The mantra I used during most of the bigger rapids I’ve run, and the one I repeated above Gorilla, was simply “locked in”. Being “locked in” means my boat and I are one. I have six points of contact between my boat and body (two feet, two knees, butt, and back) and they’re all pushing against the boat to create full engagement and no looseness. “Locked in” also means my posture is upright and my abdominals are clenched, forcing my torso to stay forward and aggressive. My eyes are focused on the move in front of me. My whole system of boat, paddle, body and mind is unified. Find your own mantra that takes your mind to the task you have at hand, and reminds you of the key elements you want to focus on.
Calm – Fear is a powerful force. We can choose to use it for good by channeling that nervous anxiety into mental strength and physical energy, or we can let it consume us, making our bodies and minds weak and timid. During my visualization practice, my heart rate would often shoot up to 140 bpm just my thinking about the rapid. I didn’t want to eliminate my fear, because a rapid of this magnitude deserves fear and nerves. Instead, I focused on breathing to relax, lower my heart rate, and stay calm. I would get my heart rate closer to its resting rate, then keep running the rapid in my mind, with a lower heart rate and less anxiety. I was training my mind to go through the entire sequence while staying calm and relaxed. While sitting in the setup eddy of Gorilla, feeling my heart rate skyrocket, staying calm became a matter of simply returning to my practice.
Skills – To step up your kayaking game, a crucial piece of the puzzle is having the right skills. When I was learning how to kayak, my teacher Will Leverette told me that to become a class V kayaker you don’t just run class IV, you master skills in class II and III. Running the biggest rapid of your life is not about only a handful of skills, it’s the culmination of every stroke your every practiced, every roll you’ve ever drilled, and every river experience you’ve had. All of those things have made you the kayaker you are today. Stepping it up always the potential to call on every single one of those skills and experiences, so make sure the foundation is there.
Gorilla, in my mind, involves one other element that is hard to practice: scramble skills. Scramble skills are how you react when things don’t go as planned. Scrambling can include rolling upright, getting back on line, reverting to plan B, C, or even D. It means making moves that you don’t have time to think about, but need to happen instantly. Good scramble skills take time to develop, which is why another key to stepping it up, it so do so gradually. Putting yourself in appropriately challenging situations will test your scramble skills, and allow you to develop good paddling instincts.
Non-Negotiables – I had three specific conditions that had to be in place in order for me to even consider running Gorilla. While they were somewhat logistical concerns, I had them in place to maximize my chances as much as possible for success. My first criterion was sufficient time. I didn’t want to be rushed by my peers, by the sunset, or by the water shutting off. I didn’t want to feel like if I messed up and had to recover gear, or take some time to myself at the bottom, I would be making someone late. I needed to feel like I could sit in the setup eddy for as long as necessary to feel ready. I knew that rushing my process would only create a poor line.
My second criterion was the people I was with. I wanted to be with friends, people I trusted, and those who knew the rapid and how to help if things went awry. I knew where I wanted safety to be; one person in the eddy at the bottom, and one person on shore with a rope. Knowing where your safety is can greatly increase confidence. I wanted to be with people who had run Gorilla before, and could help me release some nerves at the top. Lastly, I wanted my crew to be people I knew would celebrate with me; people who understand the extreme joy that comes with running a scary rapid, and share your happiness by knowing it themselves.
My final condition to running Gorilla was the water level. Not too low, and not too high. Check before you go, or know where the river gauge is so you can be confidence that your pushing your limits on a day where the water level is optimal, and the river is on your side.
When you’ve done the appropriate preparation, your criteria are in place, and you truly know you’re ready, trust that there is no better moment, than that which is in front of you.
My first trip down the Narrows, two years ago, was a monumental accomplishment, but running Gorilla gave me a uniquely different emotion. It became spiritual, like I was completing a rite of passage. I recall landing in the trough at the bottom of the rapid, upright and safe, feeling completely surrounded, as if I was being hit by water from every direction. I closed my eyes, and that moment of impact seemed to last several seconds. It was as if the river was giving me the biggest hug I had ever received – A full body, whitewater squeeze, which then spit me out onto the other side, changed. I opened my eyes to find myself entering an eddy, with my friend Dave, in front of me, grinning. The only thing I knew how to do in that moment was celebrate, so I threw up my hands to cheer for myself. I knew I had finally arrived.
I’ve run Gorilla a few times since that initial encounter. While it’s always an incredible journey to be so scared in one moment, and so relieved and joyful seconds later, there’s no feeling that can compare to that very first time. My final piece of advice about stepping it up is about what to do when you finally reach your goal. Remember it. Thank the people who supported you on your journey. Share it with your family and friends. Write about it. Remind yourself for days to come, that you finally did it! And then, once the shock has worn off, set your sights on a new goal, and start all over again.