Yesterday I watched the cliff I had just paddled under minutes before give way, an avalanche that dammed the entire river with a pile of rocks, dirt, and broken trees. It turned the river off for 15 minutes. The last member of our party to go through there had come out two minutes before.

See photos and videos at

We were on the Sultan River, just downstream of Marsh Creek Rapid, which is no more. I will claim the distinction of having the last descent of said rapid, which now lies under 30 feet of water, backed up behind the landslide. It was a good line, worthy of the rapid – a fun class IV drop with a spanky hole on the right and a fun right-to-left move to avoid it. Another in our group holds the distinction of having been the last person to get sucked upstream into the hole. The rapid had a good last day. When the next group coming downriver arrived, it was underwater.

The Sultan River isn’t commonly run – there are several dams on this stretch of the river and it takes a serious rain event to make it boatable. The first dam is at the outflow of the lake, and this one wasn’t releasing, despite the 4-plus inches of rain in the last 36 hours, and the 20 feet that the lake rose. We put in at the end of our 3-mile hike to maybe 200 cfs, which grew every couple hundred yards or so as side-stream waterfalls fed into the river. By the time we made it to Marsh Creek, downstream of the diversion dam that feeds the power plant, but upstream of the plant itself, there was close to 2000 cfs in the river.

The day had started for me at 5:am, and had featured a pre-dawn meet at the usual park-and-ride, a rally out to Sultan, and by sunrise we were getting our gear set for the hike in to the river. Nobody in our group had done this reach of river before today.

The day started out beautifully – clear and cool with sunshine that occasionally made it down into the canyon. Just downstream of Marsh Creek falls, before the landslide occurred, there were some fresh trees in the river. Our group moved through pretty quickly, pulling our boats over the wood without really considering where it had come from. Wood in the river is so common in the northwest that we didn’t bother considering where it had come from. Looking back, it seems obvious that it had come from the right bank, hundreds of feet up, probably within the previous couple of hours.

As we were crossing the trees, we noticed some rocks coming off the wall on river right – some of them big enough to kill a person. We got out of there as quickly as we could, and then realized that our friends were still upstream – we didn’t want them to blunder into that, so we hung out just downstream, waiting to warn them. As we waited, more and more rocks came off the cliff, and for intermittent moments there it looked like the river upstream of us was being hit by artillery.

Andrew Oberhardt started shooting video, just in time to catch the main event. We saw hundreds of tons of the cliff pile into the riverbed, damming the river up to 30 feet above current levels. This sent a small surge wave headed downriver, and chunks of flying tree and rock flew to within feet of where we were, some 200 yards away.

As the water flowed away, leaving salmon struggling to find the deeper parts, we looked around (pretty much stunned) and then realized that we were standing downstream of an unproven dam, in a gorge, without enough water to paddle away. :-P We got to higher ground, and I started up the river left wall to be able to signal about the situation to the group that was still coming downstream toward the landslide.

By the time they reached the landslide area, the river had crested the dam, and was shedding torrents of mud and mangled trees. The rapid caused by the low dam was a nightmare of settling boulders, embedded logs, and just plain bad news. And more importantly, the only available portage route was under this wall, which was still periodically showering boulders. With a little yelling and waving and whistle blowing from my perch on the wall, I managed to convey to them that not only was this rapid unrunnable, I didn’t want them to go on the obvious portage route. I would discover later that they didn’t understand why, until the next torrent of falling rocks explained to them what I was yelling about. Their initial thought had been that this was the Marsh Creek rapid they’d read about, and they figured we’d already portaged it.

Of course, that left us with one choice – send them up the river left wall and out of the gorge. We split the downstream party, sending four people on downriver to handle shuttle, while Andrew and I cached our boats up a gully and climbed out of the gorge with all of our ropes and rescue tackle – after all, we didn’t even know if there was a place where they could get out without top rope support. It turned out that by the time we got there, they had one person to the top of the first pitch, which was some 300 feet above the river.

The initial plan was to assist the upstream party with their portage, but even with the extra help, by the time we got everybody with boats and gear up to the top, daylight was long gone, and the group decided on a plan B – mark this location on GPS, leave our gear, and hike back in the next day during daylight to get the rest of our gear. In the dark, we could hear continuing periodic avalanches from across the gorge.

This group was remarkably well-prepared. Among us, we had ample rope and extraction gear, and an understanding of how to use it effectively. We had a GPS unit and at least one of us had a good understanding of how far off the nearest road should be. Six out of the eight of us had headlamps, and we even had a Cyalume stick to mark the base of operations at the top of the ridge in the dark. Everybody was appropriately dressed for the occasion – as dark fell, temperatures dropped into the 30s and noone demonstrated symptoms of exposure. We had enough food and water to keep everyone functional, even while working hard enough to haul loaded boats out of there. Everybody was strong and fit – and in an environment where getting hurt would be easy, nobody so much as sprained an ankle. Everybody was thinking.

And we had one masterful moment for morale – once we made it to the top, and got everyone gathered together, we pulled out the video camera and showed them the footage of the landslide – and for the first time, the upriver group got a chance to see what the river had looked like before they got there, and what had happened. “WHOAAAAA”, we all yelled, every time the video showed the side of the gorge giving way. It spoke to the little kid in all of us who likes watching big things happen.

It may sound funny, but we were having a lot of fun.

That was the tone as we set out for the nearest road. Several steep pitches later, we spotted a light, and headed toward it – the promise of a road was highly alluring after blundering through the woods – where it was steep, the soil was loose and scary. Where it was level, the mud was knee-deep, and covered with patches of blown-down trees in the dark.

We knocked on the door of the house, which was answered by a confused-looking elderly lady whose English was a little spotty – and then we realized what we looked like: We were all profoundly filthy, wearing full paddling gear with helmets and headlamps and ropes and such, trudging out of the woods and into her driveway. We didn’t even know how to explain so she would understand, so we settled for directions that would get us out of there and started walking.

The fact that we blundered out of the woods and into a nudist colony didn’t even faze us.

A day that began at 5 a.m. and a 70-minute hike in to the river was complete at 8:30 p.m. (three hours after sunset) when we reached our vehicles. Food and beer never tasted so good.