White water rafting on the Owyhee RiverThis past week I had a great opportunity to help take a group of 14 Scouts on a High Adventure trip to the Rio Costilla Park on the south side of the Colorado/New Mexico border in the beautiful Sangre de Cristo mountain range (a sub range of the Rocky Mountains).

It was an incredible reminder of the beautiful areas that fill our world, including vistas of extensive forests of pine and aspen trees and meadows that extended uninterrupted for miles. There were beautiful lakes and trout streams that had fly fisherman trying their luck at pulling native trout with their hand-tied flies. Although it was the middle of June, snow still capped the tall mountain peaks at 14,000 feet. We experienced temperatures from just below freezing at 30 degrees F to just over 90 degrees F during the hot afternoons at lower elevations. We stopped counting after spotting over 130 pronghorn antelope, and over 30 types of other animals and birds including deer, turkey, elk, mountain sheep, coyote, red-tail hawk, and peregrine falcon.

Taking Chances with Whitewater

A highlight of our trip was a full day of whitewater rafting on the Rio Grande in what is known as the Taos Box (near the popular Taos ski area). I was in a raft with our guide “Crawford” and five youth, only one of which had rafted previously. We were part of a group of 5 rafts and 30 people (which included 6 guides). We had read up on the adventure knowing that we would experience many Class III and Class IV rapids.

Our guides spent adequate time explaining the inherent risks and safety procedures we should adhere to including following commands, rowing together in rhythm, keeping our helmets secure and life vests tight, and what to do in case of getting thrown out of the raft or in the event of capsizing. They explained that we had about a 10% chance of having someone thrown from a raft and went through rescue procedures.

As the day began, the water was smooth and still. We crossed our first Class III rapid, which was a good indicator of things to come, but for the most part we were enjoying scenery and casually working on our maneuvers as the guide informed us that the second stretch was where the action was, including the “hour of power” with consecutive Class IV rapids. Some of the boys began to think more of lunch and we might have even been somewhat lax in following the guide’s commands.

Facing Down a Risk Event on the Water

Things changed quickly, however, as after lunch our two guides carrying our gear capsized and our first rescue ensued. As we approached our second Class IV rapid and knowing that it was the longest of the day, we rowed quickly to try and avoid the rocks lurking just under the surface. The water flow was quite high this year as was the speed of the water flow.

After seeing the first raft make it through we quickly followed without the same luck. We hit a rock that threw all but the guide and one of the youth out of the raft. I quickly found myself struggling to get enough breaths of air as the waves came one after another for 200 yards. After a rescue (in the truest sense of the word!) and getting a headcount that all were safe, we proceeded down the river.

I have to be honest—and I think this view was shared from those who had been thrown from the rafts (which ended up at 16 people overall)—that the focus, the mood, and the desire now was survival mode for the next hour of rafting.

GRC Lessons Learned?

This experience, I believe, parallels strongly to a company’s risk environment and its navigation of these risks. Typically it isn’t until a large risk event occurs, and the consequence is felt, that a balanced approach is taken towards risk and compliance efforts and activities.

While the acceptance of some level of risk is expected, this experience highlighted that proper attention and focus is required in both calm and troubled waters equally…. A good reminder!