Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Situation at Pumpkin Springs


On day seven of my raft trip down the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon last week, our group came to a popular stopping point called Pumpkin Springs. The rocks just above the hot springs was a place to jump into the dangerous and exciting Colorado River for a cool, refreshing diversion from the hot sun of the mid-afternoon.

Our guides noted that the landing here would be difficult because it required landing just above rapids. They told all of us to disembark from the rafts with our life vests on, should we fall into the fast moving river just above the rapids.

No one wanted to go into Pumpkin Springs because of rumored high levels of arsenic. It didn’t smell very good, either. But some wanted to do the jump into the river – including me. What happened next surprised me, and taught me a few lessons about taking chances in a group.

We climbed to the rocks overlooking Pumpkin Springs. The guides pointed out the jumping spot and the water below, noting that the life vests caused you to pop right up out of the water, and the prevailing eddy current would actually pull you back upstream to a nook in the rocks – and a rope to climb back up. One of the guides jumped to demonstrate the deep water below, and the route to the rope.

Then came the question, “Who’s going to jump?” Several people announced quickly that they were not jumpers. I didn’t say anything. I was thinking about it. Then I uttered, “I think I will.”

I watched as my friend and fellow physician Howard leaped off the rock to the muddy water only about 12 feet below. He popped up just as predicted. His nose was bleeding. His fingernail caused a superficial laceration when he grabbed his nose to prevent water from going up his nostrils.

My turn. I’ve jumped before from similar heights – but that was about four decades ago. Standing on that rock, looking down at the swirling water only 12 feet below, I could not make the leap. Step up, look down, back off. Repeat sequence. I have no idea how many times I did that dance. My legs were shaking. I could feel the adrenaline rush that comes from fear.

Of course it didn’t help that others in the group were watching my agony. What if I got hurt on the landing? Hours away from any kind of rescue. One of my friends pointed out that I have good health insurance - the moral hazard reason to do something risky.

Another said he was beginning to question my manhood. That always comes up in a group of men – for just about any issue!

I just could not visualize myself in the air, landing feet first and entering the water straight. Then another member of the group decided she couldn’t wait any longer to jump. Watching her helped me visualize what I must do. I was finally committed. I jumped. Easy. Good landing. The current brought me back upstream to the rope, just as the guides mentioned.

Climbing back up to the rock, I jumped again with no hesitation. The cold water felt very refreshing. My agony of fear and indecision was over. Even my manhood was back!

Then I noticed that the eddy current on the first jump that pulled me back upstream – away from the rapids - was different. It was moving me downstream! I swam hard just to stay in place. Finally I made some headway and was able to get back to the rope. When I got back up to the rock, I asked Howard, who had jumped again, if he had the same problem with the current. Out of breath, he said the same thing happened to him. In the cold water longer than anticipated, he was getting cold. We decided not to jump again.

Commitment is important. If you’re not ready to do something, don’t announce that you’re “thinking about it”. It’s hard enough to understand what’s going on in your own mind when faced with a risky decision, and even harder for the group watching to understand what’s behind the indecision. Rumors and assumptions can be quite interesting! Actions do speak louder than words – to yourself, and to others.

Once you’ve taken that initial risk, sometimes everything goes as predicted – but sometimes it doesn’t. There are often unanticipated challenges and dangers. Don’t be afraid to talk about those unexpected events with others in your group. Base your next decisions on the “current conditions” you’re experiencing. Trust your instincts. Maybe my initial fear was justified after all.

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  1. Thanks for the insightful story Dr. Silbaugh. As a student and young future healthcare professional I feel that I still have much to learn about commitment and taking risk. But I certainly agree with the practice of trusting your instincts.

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