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Entrapment, Fisherman's Nightmare - Gore River

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No s#@%, there I was - September 1st [2002], working a commercial rafting trip up in Gore Canyon [Colorado], I experienced a wicked leg entrapment. Fisherman's Nightmare (Applesauce) is the first big drop of the day. A one-move class IV rapid that drops probably 5m over 20m. A relatively easy move, charge right and straighten out for the drop. Over the past week a seam has been developing and strengthening in the middle of the drop as the water levels have continued to drop, at the bottom of the first chute, before the main drop. It has been hitting harder with the lower flows.

The flow this day was 16cu [563cfs] in the am, lowest we had seen it. The day before, 16.7cu [590cfs], we noticed it was hitting harder. 560 is harder still. As we set up for the drop I told my clients to hold on. I was still guiding, steering, as we hit this seam and got rocked across and out the other side of the raft. My thoughts at this point were f#@%, I'm buying tonight! Not sure, but think I was entrapped before I surfaced.

My right leg must have hit one of the rocks in the middle of the rapid (to the left of the kayak in the photo) and shot my foot down. My knee lodged on a large rectangular column of rock angled 35 degrees or so up from left to right, and as my momentum took me forward my ankle was levered back upstream into a rock below and slightly upstream. Pinned solid, my body pushed forward, my leg levered in mostly an upright position, I was completely submerged. Don't know if I had air at first, but within seconds I had positioned myself so that the stream of water passing around me created a tunnel of air extending 4-5 feet, a metre and a half, from my body.

Completely unable to move my leg, I knew I had to grab the rock where my knee was and work my way upstream. Simple, the only problem was the current. It took me 30 seconds or so to reach as far as my knee against the current, an incredible amount of force, an incredible struggle. There was a moment in there where I thought there is no way I am going to get out of this. This wasn't a panicked thought, and I certainly took it as no reason to stop trying. As I reached the rock, I thought I ought to let my co-workers know where I was, and stuck a hand up through the water, two or three short waves, and back to the real fight, pulling myself upstream.

The water pressure was fantastic - I felt as if I would feel my leg snap at any moment. The strain on my thigh and calf muscles, the pull on my ligaments and cartilage as I was hyper-extended forward and laterally was intense. I worked my arm more and more around the rock where my knee was and got to a place where I felt I could begin to look for some footing with my other leg. I found some solid ground, but as I looked for footing my foot kept washing off. Finally I found a firm hold and was able to push with my leg.

At a minute into the event, my first view was brief, but Billy was in the eddy below the drop, yelling and pointing. A few seconds later I had pushed up a little further and saw Billy again, enough to realize he was telling me there was a rope at my right shoulder. At this point a little over a minute had passed by. My right hand was stabilising me as best as it could, so I was able to grab the rope with my left. Between my efforts from my right hand, my left leg, and the rope in my left hand, I don't think my head went under again.

Tor was pulling on the rope and my arm was pulled back exposing my shoulder. His pulling wasn't going to get me out, but he did offer some relief. He was doing what he could at the time. A second tag-line appeared before me. This must have been 90 seconds into the event, tensioned from shore to the eddy in front of me. They were trying to get another rope attached to that and pull both from upstream. That tag-line was also a help to stabilize my position, but the work still needed to be done by me, from the rock below, and getting my hip upstream.

At two-plus minutes into it, I had worked myself up enough to rotate the leg so that my knee bent around the rock, freeing my ankle. I still couldn't get my leg around the rock. I started scouting out the route I would take when I did finally come free. It was the left slot in the middle of these rocks. It looked as clean as anything there, not that I would have much to do with it, but I knew where I would go.

Still trying to get my leg around the rock, approximately three minutes into it, I got washed down, like a high jumper clearing the crossbar, backwards, head-first into the pool below. Exhausted I assumed the starfish position face up and floated towards the shore. My co-workers got me up on shore and began to examine my leg. Nothing broken. Limp and completely worked. After five minutes or so I tried to put weight on it and decided I could certainly hobble my way out of the canyon. Had to hike an hour and a half, three miles with one of the guides, until we met up with the safety kayaker who had blasted out to get the van.

Today I am non-weight bearing for a few days. X-rays were negative, off to see the ortho guys and get an MRI in the next day or two. Ligaments seem to be attached anyway. Doc seemed to be preparing me for cartilage damage, and my muscles are more than maxed out.

Thank god this wasn't a client. I can't say I wigged out at all until possibly when I was floating limply in the pool below, I started yelling at my friends to get me the f$@% out of the river. The ropes helped me get what could be loosely called a rest, but what got me out was my knowing what needed to be done and doing it regardless of the forces around me. My training and practice, though not a conscious part of my experience, obviously played a key role in my survival. The torque on my body was tremendous, the fight was incredible, and I slept pretty much through the whole day yesterday. I will end up with some minor knee injuries (minor though it is my knee!) and some orthopedic work to do.

The guys I work with are the best. Of the nine or so guides we have working up here I don't think any have less than 10 years experience. To have two ropes to me within a minute and a half, working on the third, is incredible, and the only thing to do, to be able to respond so quickly. I won't call this a bad experience, though I don't care to do it again. I am not calling it a good experience yet, though I am sure I will have my student's complete attention during the entrapment section of my next rescue class. Right now I am calling it a wicked experience. I was entrapped, I fought my way out, here I am. It was wicked!

Advice:

  1. Realise the forces involved when boating, and train for the inevitable, sooner or later you will be presented with rescue issues. Ultimately self-rescue is the best skill to have.
  2. Know the skills of those boating with you and choose your boating partners wisely.
  3. Wear a soft brimmed hat! The air pocket I had while underwater was definitely greatly increased by the brim of my hat; I had air the whole time.
  4. Don't give up. It just isn't an option.

My heartfelt thanks to those that were there doing what needed to be done, and those who sent out all those positive vibes as well. To those I work with and train with, and to Grumpy Dave for the greenstone fishhook I wear. My boat had a sweet line by the way!

Epilogue

Rob was keen to make people aware of the injuries he ended up with:
"I had two fractures that didn't show up on the x-ray, one of the tibial plateau and one of the head of the fibula, a torn calf muscle, a torn thigh muscle, minor tears to three ligaments (MCL, PCL & LCL) and a sprained ankle. I was non-weightbearing for six weeks while the bone healed and today, eleven weeks after the event, I am still working on strengthening my leg. I give it an 85% rating. I still have swelling in my leg but get stronger every day.

I feel it is important to let people know the realities of boating, the forces and the potential, that this type of thing and worse does happen. This is my experience and I do want to pass it along. I have seen a number of pinned boats but in 13 years of boating this is the first leg entrapment I have seen.

We train for this in every season in rescue classes as well as other scenarios, and know that it is a bad situation to encounter, that there is little to be done and less time to do it in, but discuss this, practice different things that can be done, and practice them. The bottom line is self-rescue is the best rescue and being comfortable in the actuality in the river environment is essential."

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