Accident Database

Report ID# 13

  • Flush Drowning
  • Does not Apply
  • Cold Water
  • High Water

Accident Description

On July 11, 1982 a strong group of eastern paddlers attempted the "Golden Canyon" of Idaho's South Fork of the Clearwater. This is a very steep roadside run that drops over 200 feet per mile. During the shuttle they took note of several landmarks where the river became steeper. They put in several miles above the first steep section so they would have some time to warm up.

The group pulled out above the first drop, with all but two paddlers coming ashore. The others moved downstream to a lower eddy to shorten the walk to scout or carry. We were scouting the lower poirtion of a steep double drop when someone called out that Chuck was out of his boat. He'd gotten back in his boat, passed the group in the lower eddy, and flipped in the top drop.

Charlie Walbridge had brough his throw line down with him. Chuck was only 20 feet away and he hit him easily.. Chuck grabbed the bag, allowing the rope to pay out to its full 70 foot length. This put him in the lead-in of the next drop and swung him into the backwash of a small hole. The penduluming action of the rope stopped, and he was held there for some time. He held on as long as he could, then let go, floating helplessly. He washed into a tree at the bottom of a small eddy on the opposite side of the river.

The group mobilized quickly to render assistance. Charlie Walbridge flagged down a pickup truck, which brought him back to the top of the drop. He threw his boat inside, then was driven to a point opposite where Chuck had stopped. The rapids here were tough Class IV, and it took several ferry attempts to get across. In the meantime another paddler hiked down the far shore, and the two met where Chuck was in the water. They pulled him out and began CPR, which was continued for over an hour.

The other members of the group, assisted by two rock climbers, got a line across the river. This became the basis of a tyrolian traverse. Chuck's body was attached to the line and pulled across the river. Police and ambulance had been called, and Chuck was carried to Grangeville Hospital where he was pronounced dead.

1) The group clearly underestimated the run. To their Eastern eyes it looked like a small creek carrying 300-500 cfs. In reality it was five times as large, with very significant holes. Had the realized what they were dealing with, they would have been more careful.

2) In retrospect, many in the group feels that they should have strongly discouraged Chuck from making the run. He had not done well on this Idaho trip; he had lost a boat and taken a number of long swims. In fact, after he lost his boat on the Middle Fork of the Salmon he bought a new one in boise and was outfitting it as we ran the shuttle. He decided to run at the last minute to put on rather than shuttle the vehicle downstream. But Chuck  was an experienced adult who did not mind swimming tough whitewater. Everyone felt that if he had problems they would simply put him up on the road where he could wait for a pickup afterwards.

3) Why did Chuck run the drop? We'll never know for sure, but he had a reputation for following people into rapids that he couldn't handle. He felt that "it was only water" and that he'd always wash through in or out of his boat . The group had split into two sub-groups to avoid crowding the drops. When the first group pulled ashore to scout Chuck also landed, but he put back in quickly as the two people he was paddling with moved downstream. He remarked, "Well, I guess we're going to run the rapids" and put back on. He did not see the others catch a small eddy on river left and continued downstream.

4) Throw bag techniques used in this accident could have been greatly improved. Back then, the preferred technique was to hit someone in the face with a throw bag "to get their attention". We now know that this encourages swimmers to grab the bag, not the rope. The line then pays out to its full length, complicating the rescue. The preferred technique is to throw a line over a swimmer, so they can grab the line as high up as possible. Chuck was only 20 feet from the thrower, and if he had caught the rope this way he would have been rescued quickly.

As it became evident that the rope would not pendulum Chuck into shore it took time to formulate an effective response. He was not snagged, and yet they could not bring him to safety. There was a mile of continuous hard rapids below, so letting go was not an option. They eventually decided to have a second person work their way hand-over-hand down the line along the shore. Now known as "vectoring the line", it increases the angle of the rope to the current until there is enough force to swing the person holding on to shore. Chuck let go before this could be put into play.

Lastly, when recieving the rope, Chuck should have held the line close to his shoulder and rolled over onto his back. This would have allowed him to breathe and would have permitted him to hold on longer, which in turn would have given the group on shore time to figure out how to help him.

We have learned a lot from this accident that is now reflected in teaching swiftwater rescue.

5) CPR application was extremely difficult. It was hard to find a place to put Chuck among the huge rocks lining the shore and we had to prop him up against a flat, steeply sloping, rock. Then we had to prompt each other to remember all the parts of this vital skill. It was probably not very good CPR, but the delay in reaching Chuck was almost certainly fatal by itself. 

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