It’s a memory I can’t shake.
Our group included 15 students and three instructors. On June 26, 1996, day 24 of our course, the class was divided into three independent, student-led units, with instructions to hike to a prearranged spot on the map and regroup with the guides in the evening for dinner. The Absaroka Range is rugged wilderness, carved out of stratified volcanic and metamorphic rock, and the planned route for the day had us hugging a drainage until we reached the confluence of the South Buffalo Fork of the Snake River, then following it for several miles to the meeting spot. It was a straightforward plan—follow the rivers and nothing could go wrong.
Katy’s group of five students left camp first that morning. Quickly they arrived at the bank of the South Buffalo Fork and decided to deviate from the set plan, crossing the river to make use of a preexisting trail. It was a move in line with the independent student decision-making that NOLS teaches. The past winter had been a hard one, with 45 percent more snowpack than usual in places, and the spring thaw had swollen the rivers. But this early in the day, before the sun had done its work, the river had not begun to rise.
By midafternoon, the water was driving hard and fast. When my group, second out of camp that morning, came upon Katy’s, they were on the far bank, scouting a way back. After patrolling the river for some time, shouting over the rushing water, we all reached the same conclusion: It was unsafe for them to cross. It was agreed that Katy’s group should return a few miles upstream and ford at an easier break. If necessary, they would skip the rendezvous and camp on the south bank until morning, when the river would be down.
I gave Katy one last look, sitting miserably on the rock, and the two groups split up. We headed downriver toward the meeting point and left Katy’s group as they turned back upstream for a long hike. But after backtracking just a short way upriver, they changed their minds. They decided to attempt a cross at a spot where the river divided into two channels, separated by a gravel island. The first, ankle deep, they managed without incident. Then, at approximately 3 p.m., without consulting everyone in the group and before spotters were in position—NOLS protocol—three of the students, including Katy, entered the larger, faster section of the South Buffalo Fork. They were using the chain system, in which the students face upstream, hands interwoven, arms locked, and sidestep across the water. Katy was the center link. It was a technique we had practiced often in the preceding weeks, safely fording dozens of rivers.