Upper Cherry Incident (Barrett)
On Sunday May 24th Dave contacted me and invited me to join him and Joseph on a possible mission down to Upper Cherry Creek. For me, as for most all kayakers, the prospect of attempting such a world-renowned run was thrilling in itself, and as the days drew closer to the weekend the plan was set in motion and stoke was high. Flows for the previous week hovered under 200 cfs according to the Cherry Creek gauge above Cherry Lake and judging from what I read in write-ups and from what Joseph had said about his previous trips, the flow would be perfect for two first timers (Dave and I) to experience the run at its most forgiving state. We planned to leave on Thursday as soon as we all were free from work and or school, and the days leading up to Thursday were filled with rushed packing and planning to be gone for an extended weekend. Wednesday night (the 26th) we all noticed on the graph that the creek received a bump in flows due to warm temperatures melting what little snow was left in the high peaks, and the creek came up to around 300 cfs (higher than we wanted as well as expected). However, we decided to go anyway with the idea we would portage more but still get to experience such a beautiful place.
We met in and left from Central Point at around 4:45 in the afternoon on Thursday the 27th. The drive took longer than expected and we arrived at the trailhead at around 3:00 Friday morning, exhausted but ready to begin the long hike. We woke up at about 6:00 and we began our hike at about 7:30. As the first few miles passed Dave and I were still feeling good. Joseph, however, we suspected was not as well hydrated and feeling the effects. By about halfway through the hike Joseph was cramping very badly but we were able to make it to the only spring that we found on the map, and we rested hoping Joseph’s cramps would subside. We all tried to take advantage of the water and rehydrate as best we could in hopes to stave off additional cramping. After about an hour resting at the spring we decided to continue hiking believing Joseph’s cramps had gone away. We made it about another half mile before Joseph’s cramps took a turn for the worse to the point where he could not continue hiking. We thought about continuing after another hour-long rest but after discussion we decided to suspend the hike and set up camp so we could all get some rest with the idea of waking fresh in the morning. Joseph sat down and started resting his legs and hydrating, at which point Dave and I decided to walk back down the trail to top-off all our water reservoirs. During the hike Dave and I expressed concern about Joseph’s cramping, having both been in similar situations we were familiar with the pain and lack of speedy overnight recovery in similar cramping situations. Doubting a full recovery would be possible, Dave and I decided that we would communicate with him, when we returned, about not continuing the mission and hiking back to the vehicle. When we returned, Dave communicated that we thought it best (given the current circumstances) that we consider turning around in the morning and hiking out. Dave and I expressed we would both be comfortable continuing only if Joseph could tell us and visually show us that he was 100% physically in the morning. Joseph agreed with the new plan—expressing that he appreciated feedback and group dynamic. We all fell asleep early in the evening with hopes of waking well rested.
At about 5:00 AM Joseph woke Dave and I. He communicated to us that he felt very good, and very capable of continuing the hike. During that time he also suggested that he would get a head start with the thought that we could rendezvous at the put-in at about the same time given the pace of the day before. Though skeptical (given our experiences) Dave and I agreed and decided he had met the agreement made the night before and Joseph left looking strong, heading for the put in. Dave and I silently packed up our camps, ate some food, then again returned to the spring to fill our water reservoirs. We talked briefly about our concerns with Joseph’s state and our decision, but again, we chose to believe that he had met the agreement and so we expressed excitement that the trip was continuing. Dave and I then began the hike hoping Joseph wouldn’t be hit with the same unbearable cramps that would again force us to suspend the hike. However, the remainder of the hike passed, and we made it to the put in without seeing Joseph—which inspired our confidence in the morning’s decision a little more. Dave and I reached the put-in slightly before 9:00 AM and set our gear at the first place we found that was close to the creek off the trail. When we arrived we couldn't find Joseph as there were many areas in proximity where he could have been and we realized finding each other was not as straightforward as expected (an issue we neglected to talk about before leaving camp assuming we’d find each other right away). Dave and I decided to split up and search up and down the creek for Joseph. After about 5 to 10 minutes we both returned and still found no sign of him. We then both decided to walk upstream because the trail continued along the creek moving upstream and we concluded he must have gone farther up the trail than us. We hiked up about a ¼ mile where we came across a separate group of kayakers camped. We asked if they had seen a kayaker matching Joseph’s description, and they said that they had not. We talked with one individual from the group, and he said they had hiked in two days before, but they did not put on due to an outside connection satellite texting them that the creek had again received a bump and was now 380 cfs (a flow check on the drive home revealed it peaked at about 400 that day). At this point Dave and I were concerned. We thought we recognized one member, who is one of the best paddlers we know, and they were expressing concerns for it being too high. After the conversation we maintained our concern but rationalized our decision to continue the trip based on the assumption that they were referring to the water being too high to run Cherry Bomb Gorge (notoriously dangerous at higher flows), which we were planning on portaging anyway regardless of flow. With that conversation now swirling in our brains it was almost 10:00 with still no sign of Joseph. Concerned with our day slipping away and feeling uncomfortable with the idea of needing to rush to make miles with the creek being higher than expected, we hastily continued our search downstream of where the trail met the creek where we ended up finding each other at last (Joseph had gone for a direct line from the trail down to the river, whereas Dave and I had followed the entirety of the switchback trail that placed us farther up the creek).
Relieved we found Joseph, we all walked up to Dave and I’s boats (Joseph left his boat downstream). On the walk back Dave and I told Joseph that we found another group, and told him about our conversation. Joseph then decided he wanted to go up and touch base with them. Dave and I opted to stay with our gear and get a quick snack in before we put on. Joseph returned several minutes later and said he was going to ask if we could join the group but decided not to because they were packing their camp and were about to leave before we would be ready, so in the interest of not inconveniencing whatever schedule they were on, we all agreed that was the best decision. (Dave and I don’t know what else Joseph talked to them about, possibly about the higher flow than expected). Shortly after, the separate group paddled past, greeted us, and were gone. Joseph then told us he was going to go down to his boat, get geared up and wait for us to come down and meet him at his put in spot. Dave and I geared up as quickly as possible and paddled about a ¼ mile down to where Joseph was, where we found him ready to go in his boat. It was about 10:30am Saturday morning and it was time to start the run.
Dave and I followed closely behind Joseph as we ran the first mini slide then the next slightly bigger slide at which point the next horizon looked as if the creek fell off the face of the earth. We followed Joseph’s lead and hopped out to scout.
The rapid which is known as the put in slide appeared huge in contrast to the many videos I have seen. I was in awe of how much bigger it was in flow and steepness than I expected. There was one pocket halfway through the slide that Joseph expressed concern about. Dave and I shared the concern and stationed ourselves in position to throw ropes when Joseph ran the rapid. We waited and Joseph eventually appeared at the top of the horizon and began the rapid. He made the drop look easy, running down and around the next slight bend effortlessly where he eddied out on the right above the next drop that we could not yet fully see (there were eddies on both sides of the main flow before the next rapid). Joseph then hiked up with his rope and prepared to set safety for Dave and I. We both decided to put in after the pocket that we were concerned about, and run only the second half of the slide. I then put in and ran the second half of the slide then eddied out on the left at the bottom of the slide and above the next rapid. Dave soon followed and eddied out with me on the left side. Joseph then walked back down to his boat on the right side of the river and signaled us to ferry over to the right eddy where he and his boat were. Dave and I both ferried across, got out, and Joseph explained that at the current level the first part of the next drop was a portage due to water pushing very hard into a midstream sieve. Dave and I then followed Joseph down to where he had his boat positioned to seal launch into the second part of the drop. We dropped our boats and began preparing to run the drop after Joseph. Though the three of us were all out of our boats at the top of this drop, we did not take the extra few seconds to scout the ledge hole below.
Joseph put his spray skirt on and launched into the slack water between the two parts of the drop and I positioned my boat in the spot he had just launched from ready to follow his line. As I was looking down at my boat, putting on my spray skirt, Joseph disappeared over the horizon. I immediately communicated to Dave, who was also sitting behind me in his boat ready to launch, that I did not see where on the horizon he went over, at which point Dave communicated to me that he didn't see Joseph emerging in the pool below to which I said I didn’t either. Dave immediately shot over to where he could see over the drop with his throw bag and while I was getting out of my boat Dave yelled to me that Joseph was getting surfed, and I quickly ran over with my throw bag. As I approached the horizon and gained full view of the drop, Joseph was in the process of pulling his skirt and swimming. The ledge was about 8-10 feet tall with two flakes on either side of the main hole, with about a 10-15 foot boil line created by the island just downstream (picture below). Dave immediately got his bag ready to throw from our position on top of the ledge, tried to get Joseph’s attention, and threw while I got my rope ready. Dave’s throw landed inches in front of Joseph’s head and he tried to grab the rope with his hands and then legs before the boil from the drop pushed both the rope and Joseph back into the hole at which point, he and the rope disappeared. Dave pulled on his rope but felt no tension, as he was retrieving his rope, he moved behind allowing me to throw my rope, Joseph resurfaced at the edge of the boil and I yelled to try to get his attention, and I threw my rope, my bag also landed inches in front of Joseph’s head, but he again grabbed at the rope with no success before he and the rope disappeared again. I retrieved the slack line from the hole feeling no tension. Dave had his rope almost all the way gathered when the bag on his rope slightly tangled with my line that I was pulling in, but we quickly untangled it. Dave attempted another throw, and again Joseph was unable to grab the rope. I had my rope pulled up and situated for another throw when Dave decided to jump off the dry side of the drop onto the island downstream. When he reached the Island, I had thrown again, and again I was unable to get him to catch the line. Dave then attempted a 3rd throw from the island and he finally felt tension but as he began to pull, the tension was released. We both threw many more times from our different positions landing several more effective tosses. But as we continued, our many throws had resulted in our ropes becoming more tangled on themselves and the throws became less effective, and we began to feel hopeless. By this time Joseph had recirculated in the hole at least 10-15 times and he was no longer fighting to escape or attempting to grab our thrown ropes. At that point Dave yelled up to me to grab his drybag from his boat containing his In-Reach and get the bag to him, I grabbed it then threw it down to the island. Panicking and desperate we attempted to create lassos with our ropes in hopes to snag Joseph but again we were unsuccessful. After approximately two more minutes, on a recirculation, Joseph went deep and finally flushed out and floated past the island into the pool below. Dave, on the island, dove into the water after him and I jumped down from the dry side of the drop into the water, scrambled across the island, and swam out as well. Dave reached him first and began to swim him to shore. I then reached them, and Dave and I pulled him to the shore of the island. Dave attempted to start compressions while I loosened and removed Joseph’s pfd (11:12 am). We then started trading giving compressions and breaths and after a few cycles I took over while Dave went to his bag and activated the SOS on his In-Reach to get help on the way. While Dave was sending the SOS, unsure if he had got the message to send, he noticed hikers on the opposite side of the creek. Dave then ran over to and continued to cycle CPR with me, and told me there were people on the other side and to ask if they had a SOS device (Dave was afraid his message did not get sent). At about 20 minutes, Dave took over for me and continued CPR, I swam across the creek and yelled for help from the hikers. They heard the yells for help and we made contact. I asked if they had an SOS device and explained we were performing CPR and we needed to get help. One of them had an emergency contact device and activated it and the other hiker explained he had medical experience and was a member of SAR and he wanted to help us. I swam back across the creek and continued to cycle CPR with Dave—and told him about the hiker with medical experience. At about 40 minutes Dave swam across and communicated with him about the SOS signal and the rest of the situation to gain any insight on our best chances to help Joseph. During that time Dave learned the helicopter was on its way and the SAR man insisted that we needed to make our position visible so the helicopter would be able to see us and have a place to land. Dave swam back across and communicated the information to me as we traded off CPR cycles. Dave also said the SAR man wanted to help us and be on our side of the creek with us, so Dave traded CPR with me while I swam across and helped the SAR man cross the creek. Once across, I took over CPR and he and Dave began searching for a place to land the helicopter whenever it came. Having located a suitable landing place Dave returned and we continued to cycle CPR until it had been over an hour. The SAR man then told us there was no way continuing CPR would be effective in bringing Joseph back. Dave and I then, both made the painful and very difficult decision to stop CPR and focus on getting Joseph out of the canyon (about 12:28 pm). At about the same time we heard the helicopter in the distance, and we quickly got to visible locations as they passed overhead. They saw us then circled a few times looking for a place to land—and did so several hundred feet up the canyon from the island where Dave and the SAR man had previously scouted. Dave and I then went up to where they landed, and we informed them of the situation. Dave and I then listened to what they were going to do to get Joseph out and how we could best help them to do that. The SAR man then communicated with them and was given the gear that we would use to help them airlift Joseph off the island, the three of us then went back to the island with the gear and put Joseph on a stretcher then wrapped him in the harness system that the helicopter could hook to. Once we were done the SAR man attached the hook from the helicopter to the harness and they extracted Joseph into the helicopter and were gone. Stunned, heartbroken, and in complete disbelief we both quickly decided that we would hike out from that point back to the trailhead and not continue the run.
Main Takeaways (Dave):
**Please understand that my personal takeaways are not necessarily what everyone’s takeaways should be. This is simply a reflection of my thought process immediately after our experience. I hope this sparks conversation and provides valuable insight for the whitewater community moving forward.
- We did not have anything in our kits for severe cramping. Something to consider for bigger trips.
- **Above the weir drop—all three of us were out of our boats near the lip. It would’ve taken less than 30 seconds to walk over and glance at the hole. Barrett nor I looked at the drop, and neither of us remember seeing Joseph take a glance. Barrett and I both agreed that had we looked at that drop, we would’ve portaged on the right.
- When a swimmer is caught in a weir drop—a position downstream of the swimmer provides the best angle for an accurate rope toss. The weir was high enough to make the jump intimidating to me, and I justified not jumping to save time. Joseph looked tired. My first thought was to land a line on Joseph ASAP. In hindsight, getting downstream sooner would have provided a better position for a more accurate throw. This would have given Joseph a better chance at grabbing a line.
- Ideally, the throw bag line lands right on top of the swimmer. When a swimmer is fighting towards a boil line—and you can’t get downstream—error throwing down river of the swimmer, and upriver of the boil line. This will allow the line to drift into the swimmer fighting the current. My first line landed about 6 inches upstream of Joseph’s head. The line disappeared as fast as he did when he reached for it. In the moment, this thought never crossed my mind. I was just trying to put a line on his head.
- This almost went without saying, but I’ve been persuaded that it is worth noting: CPR/first aid training is imperative for river folks. Barrett and I have had CPR/first aid training and knew what we were doing. There were moments that I had to move away from Joseph to communicate with Emergency Response. I was extremely grateful for Barrett’s level headedness and competence in those moments. I will continue to renew my CPR/first aid training every two years. I would highly recommend members of our whitewater community to do the same.
- Garmin inReach Takeaways…
- Worth the buy. For more than just the SOS function. After the accident, Barrett and I were stopped on our first attempt at Styx Pass by a lightening storm. We were pressured to bunker down and stay the night. The ability to communicate to our families that we were safe before they heard the news at home was helpful.
- SOS function…
- My initial SOS button press went out at 11:15am (about 2-3 minutes after starting CPR). The emergency was acknowledged at 11:23am.
- After pressing the SOS button…
- …my inReach device was prompting me to send out a preloaded message. I was unfamiliar with how to send a message only using the inReach—because I only ever send messages through the app on my phone. In a state of urgency—I fumbled through the prompts, got the preloaded message out, and went back to trading off CPR with Barrett. Once Barrett got back from notifying the hikers, he traded CPR and I made a move back to my inReach…Because I was unsure about whether or not my SOS went out—I sent another message out to my Dad (using the app on my phone) with our location asking him to send a helicopter (11:17am).
- The custom message that I sent to my dad contained more detailed information. Emergency Response already knew Joseph’s name and that we had been giving CPR…When you just press the SOS, they will ask for additional information regarding your emergency. In our case, my parents provided that information via their 911 call. Later I found the option to activate SOS via the inReach app on my phone. This would have likely allowed me to give more detailed information to Emergency Response on my first message to them. This is an important lesson because in a situation like this, you don’t have time for texting conversations.
- Heli arrived between 12:28 and 12:44. The pilot explained to us that the inReach is the reason we were so easy to locate.