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Old 06-28-2009   #1
Dave Frank's Avatar
Boulder, Colorado
Paddling Since: 1995
Join Date: Oct 2003
Posts: 2,727
Tethered swimmer in the Gnarrows? details please!

I heard a 3rd hand (at best) story of a botched rescue in middle narrows, resulting in rescuer and rescuee swimming most if not all of lower.

I heard someone was tethered to a boat and unable to get free of it.

Tell us about it so others can learn from your (assumed) mistakes.


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Old 06-28-2009   #2
Ft Collins, Colorado
Paddling Since: 1977
Join Date: Oct 2003
Posts: 160
Dave, thought you might have had it better that 3rd hand, since most of us were with you Saturday! Anyway...

A local posse of 10 or so were doing middle laps at about 3.9ft on the Pine View gauge on Frideay evening when we had a swimmer in the Green Bridge drop. Gnarly enough that he got beat up and went under the tree on the RHS of the rapid below before he self rescued. He MAY NOT have gone under the tree (and been able to self rescue faster) if his paddle had not come back to him and he did not try to swim with it. The desire to rescue his gear probably exposed to a greater hazard (lesson #1 - gear is cheap). I wouldn't consider this a near drowning, but it could have been a lot worse had he got hooked up in the tree.

The swimmer's boat stayed in or near the hole for 30 or so more seconds, where one of our party started to connect his lifevest rescue tether to the boat. This was above a the pretty juicy class 4 section below the Green Bridge drop. Fortunatley we manage to wave off this action and the boat was allow to wash downstream (lesson #2 part a - gear is cheap).

The swimmer's boat proceeded towards lowers. Another of our group attempted to haul the boat to the side with is lifevest rescue tether, starting about 2 rapids above lowers (lesson #2 part b - gear is cheap). Even though these are relatively easy rapids, he could not get the boat to the side, even with some help pushing. At a point about 100 yards above the road bridge above lowers, he started trying to disconnect his tether. I'm not sure if he tried unclipping from the boat, but he certainly tried to release the tether from his life vest. Regardless, he could not disconnect before being washed into the lead in to lowers (under the bridge) where he swam.

At this point one of the crew chased him into lowers, which is a burly class 5+ as this level. His run through the rapid featured a number of rolls, and by about 1/2 way down (or less) he could be of no assistance to the swimmer, and was paddling for his own survival. Although he did well to run the rapid, he was pretty much as the river's mercy from the 1/2 way point, with some tired looking rolls at the bottom (lesson #3 - don't make yourself a victim, even for a person).

We believe our second swimmer was disconnected from the boat before entering the large entrance hole at the top of lowers, where he recirculated several times. The recirculations allowed two of our team to get into a good throw bagging position at the 1/2 way point. They landed a bag across the swimmer as he passed, but the swimmer did not respond to it. By the time the swimmer flushed through to the bottom of the rapid he was close to done, but realized that he was at the bottom and found the will to self rescue (although other rescues were close to him by that time). This was as near to a drowning at I have witnessed on a river. Although he did not ingest water into his lungs, he was on the verge of blacking out.

This series of events unfolded extremely quickly, and there were a lot of good reactions by many. However, we managed to repeat the same mistake three times... we put ourselves at MORE risk, creating MORE potential victims for the sake of gear in two cases and a person in the third case. Although there are more lessons to learn, this is by far the biggie. We are all very thankful that we can learn/reaffirm these lessons with only a few bruises.


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Old 06-28-2009   #3
Mad Scientist/Creeker
Join Date: Oct 2003
Posts: 803
This was one of, if not, THE most scary river situation I have experienced.

Friday after work crew plus Leif in town for his birthday were lapping Middle Narrows at approximately 4 ft. On the third lap shit hit the fan. One member of the party swam at the right boof in Green Bridge rapid, swam under the big log on river right and got out with a banged up knee. Numerous members of the group pursued his gear downstream towards Lowers.

One member during the pursuit clipped in to the unmanned kayak with his tow line two drops above the road bridge. He was unable to tow the boat to shore before the Middles take-out eddy. He attempted to release his rescue harness but the boat did not free in time and in his attempt to release the boat he capsized.

At this point he had passed the take-out and was headed for Lower Narrows. In a moment of panic he chose to swim, however he was still attached to the boat. The boat ended up releasing before Lower Narrows proper but he ended up swimming the ENTIRE rapid and was lucky to be alive at the bottom.

I was also chasing the boat and was downstream of the paddler who clipped into the boat. As he passed the take-out, myself and another paddler who was already on shore began sprinting downstream in an attempt to get downstream of the swimmer and bag him. Leif chose to paddle into Lowers after the swimmer. Another member of the party began to run his boat around Lowers and yet still another member of the party jumped in our shuttle vehicle and drove downstream.

While the swimmer did a lap in the big hole above the main rapid, we passed him by foot. My partner in the sprint was in front of me and dropped down to river level below the airplane move at the top. He threw his bag a little too early and the swimmer was unable to grab the rope, although it was still in the water when he passed it. I watched the first toss as I continued to sprint downstream and dropped to river level below the middle hole. I hit the swimmer in the head with the bag (literally) with an overhand short toss however the swimmer was so winded at this point that he was unable to get his hands up to grab the rope.

This was by far the most dispiriting thing I have ever seen. As the swimmer floated towards the bottom two ledge holes on the right I continued to sprint downstream however in my mind I was having bad visions of the possibilities and I began to go over unconscious swimmer rescue scenarios and CPR in my head.

It was like a miracle to see him still moving and making strokes at the bottom of the rapid and a few hundred yards below the rapid he was able to get to shore and cling to some rocks until the two runners could get down to him.

HOLY SHIT. I hugged him and was grateful that he was still alive. I am taking the time to write this because I believe there are many lessons to be learned here.

1. Gear is just gear. Fuck it.
2. Never clip into a boat in serious whitewater. I don't clip into a boat in anything above class 3. Not even in class 3+. Especially at high water. Especially with rapids downstream that you are not planning on running. Especially when you are tired. And especially if you don't know how to use your rescue harness. Your rescue harness will not release unless there is tension on the other end, i.e. you are hooked and dangling downstream on it. A boat floating next to you will not release very easily because it is moving along with you.

The victim was a very experienced paddler and also an instructor, however he made the wrong decision to clip into the boat. Fatigue likely played a role in his decision and also in the swim which set this situation in motion.

3. Stay sharp even on the backyard run for the 5,000th time.

Our party reacted well to the second rescue situation but not the first. The swimmer at Green Bridge took a nasty swim and was eventually left alone, although he was out of the water and determined to be OK, this was still not the best decision IMO. Obviously clippinh into the boat was a bad reaction to the first situation as well. Another paddler almost clipped into the boat in the pool below the boof and the chase for his gear was scattered, unorganized and had little communication. These things are tough with a large group, however we definitely could have done them better.

My plan was to head downstream, have one or two members of our group get out on shore and for the other paddlers to attempt to push the boat close enough for the members on shore to wade out and grab it. Unfortunately I only communicated the plan to one other paddler and while we were heading downstream the boat was clipped into above us. This plan may not have worked, but we would have much less chance for someone to go into Lowers and we would have still had a chance to recover the boat downstream of the Lowers if we didn;t get it above.

If you read this whole sotry hopefully there is something you can take away. So, so thankful that both victims are safe with minor injuries cause I love them and I wish that bad situations always turned out this good.

Evan Stafford
Cub boater: "What do the spiders mean?" Old fart boater: "Trust your intuition." CRCII
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Old 06-29-2009   #4
GAtoCSU's Avatar
Eagle, Colorado
Paddling Since: 1994
Join Date: Apr 2005
Posts: 696
Holy shit. Glad to hear that everything turned out ok. Thanks for posting this.. I know I've clipped onto boats in rapids that I should not have, and this serves as a great example of why we all should be more careful when we're in a situation like this.

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Old 06-29-2009   #5
funkins's Avatar
Colorado Springs, Colorado
Paddling Since: 2005
Join Date: Jun 2005
Posts: 438
Damn, glad you fellas are all ok.

Thanks for telling the tale so we can all learn from it.
Drew J.
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Old 06-29-2009   #6
Dave Frank's Avatar
Boulder, Colorado
Paddling Since: 1995
Join Date: Oct 2003
Posts: 2,727
Brutal. Thanks for sharing. Hopefully many will learn and avoid this by reading, which was my main goal above and beyond morbid curiosity.

I have been removing my tether if I am paddling class 5, and I would probably want 3 minus to warrant clipping in. I usually just float along side the boat and wait for it to pin, unless it is super mellow, or I REALLY like you.

Don't forget to tie your float bags in either.

Anyone else thing these things might need to be redesigned for these bigger creek boats? 2 5 gallon floats don't do much for an 80 gallon boat.

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Old 06-29-2009   #7
V for Victory
9300ft, Colorado
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WOAH! Thank you for writing that up! Glad everyone is OK!
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Old 06-29-2009   #8
Cisco, Utah
Paddling Since: Dawn
Join Date: Sep 2007
Posts: 351
Rescue PFD ~ Know your equipment

Interesting incident, with LOTS of things to consider... First off glad to hear no more than bumps and bruises. Second, Sounds like a few ppl learned a number of lessons, good experience to take into the next 'situation', builds better judgment for next time.

I am curious about how the rescue harness was worn. A friend of mine with little experience came to me a few weeks ago with his Stolquist rescue harness and wanted to know how to work it. It had the plastic toggle release buckle AND a metal clasp similar to a climbing harness. His intuition was to thread it through the metal piece, then back again through the metal piece, Then through the plastic release topple. I saw that and thought 'Oh my god, that thing will never release!" Looked it up on Stolquist web site and this full fold 'option' releases at over 1000lbs. So full on Chest harness. I told him to just use the plastic toggle. Point here is he had an idea what this thing was for, but no idea how to use it.

It seems to me that when I pull my harness it release with very little load, and that I could also assist a release with a flick of my thumb on the webbing as well.

So not to second guess any decision here, point fingers or blame at all, just curious if there is more to the story around the release mechanism.

Also to reiterate the 'Know your Equipment' component. In adventure sports we must know and trust our equipment. But do we trust it just because the advertising and sales pitches tell us to, or because we have actually gone out and had experience useing the equipment and training ourselves to use it in various scenarios. A parallel pet peeve of mine: how many ppl buy avalance beacons and go ski the backcountry without having practiced using them.

Alot of good discussion points here, thanks for bringing this incident to the forum. To all you guys with various rescue equipment that haven't used it yet or maybe not in a while, take 10 minutes or an hour before your next trip to try it out with your friends, find strengths and limitations (of the equipment and yourself!), think of different scenarios you can use this stuff in. You'll be more confident when you need it ( and sooner or later you will need it).

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Old 06-29-2009   #9
KSC's Avatar
Boulder, Colorado
Paddling Since: 2003
Join Date: Oct 2003
Posts: 2,032
Good lessons and super glad everyone turned out ok. Even though there were mistakes, I'm also hearing that 2 people got their shit together fast enough to sprint downstream and each hit the swimmer with a rope and multiple people, at least one with a boat was at the bottom of the rapid before the swimmer flushed through ready to assist. That sounds like a damn good crew to me.
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Old 06-29-2009   #10
rideon's Avatar
Chico, California
Paddling Since: 2003
Join Date: May 2005
Posts: 148
A few good calls...

Another thing to keep in mind is that when the shit hits the fan it is HARD to think straight. There is no substitute for clear thinking and good decision making in a situation like this. All the training and experience in the world doesn't do a bit of good if bad decisions are being made. Since the story is out, accurate and complete I think it is also worth mentioning a few good decisions that were made in hopes that they will be repeated in similar situations.

-The call to paddle/sprint downstream and get as far ahead of the situation as possible was a very good one. We were in position for what I thought was a good boat rescue set up. Once we saw that there was a second swimmer in the water it was easier to react to the new situation and start running. The point is that we were (slightly) mobilized and ready to react to the unfolding situation. When you have a crew that big, it is totally worth sending a few people to get ahead of the situation.

-Getting a boat to the bottom of Lowers was also very helpful. In the event of a longer swim (as if it wasn't long enough already) it would have been very useful in attempting to get the swimmer to shore, plus it added to our numbers for a rescue attempt below Lowers. In our case we ultimately ended up with two boaters below, thankfully by that point the only thing left to rescue was two boats.

-I can only speak for the second swimmer but I saw him drag himself out of the river in a solid last ditch self rescue attempt and he basically saved himself. This says a lot for being able to keep it together and get to shore on your own if all else fails. He barely looked concious when he went past me at the top of Lowers so I am extremely impressed with his effort at the bottom. This is a testament to keep on fighting and get yourself to shore.

-Since I have scrutinized my own throw bag attempt all weekend I saw Evan pull off a great attempt after the swimmer went by me. He had told me earlier in the season about his new technique and I should have heeded his words. From an elevated position he tomahawked his bag directly at the swimmer's chest and hit him squarely. In a situation where you have a semi-concious swimmer, this to me seems like your best bet. Mine was out in front and didn't give the swimmer good enough odds to get at it.

-A considerable amount of care and attention went into both swimmers medical needs after they were out. I overlooked this since everyone was on dry land again but several of the crew took good diagnostic steps to ensure that the swimmers were stabilized fully knowing that the consequences of the situation don't end once the swimmers are out.

Anyways, just my own thoughts after some time to process. Pretty scary, and a very good reminder of the power of the river. Be safe.


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