Luca Chiarabini was one of California's most prolific and most loved canyoneers. He was a mentor to many and had canyoneering partners through out California and the world. Luca also belonged to the San Bernardino Cave and Vertical Rescue Team.
On Wednesday August 2, 2017, Luca and two partners hiked down the Yucca Point trail to the Kings River. Their plan was to canyoneer a creek on the north side of the river. They had brought ropes and wetsuits for the canyon and flippers for the river crossing, but no boats or lifejackets.
They crossed the main river to the north side right at the confluence. The main current at that point pushes against a large granite ledge on the south shore (river left). They were able to leap off this ledge, bypass a big part of the main current and swim the rest of the way across the river. Rick estimated that the river was about 100 feet across at this point. The flow was approximately 2600 cfs which is a moderate flow for the class 3 and 4 rapids in the immediate area, but is high flow for the class 5 rapids downstream.
Once across the river they scrambled up the north wall of the canyon, worked their way into the Deer Creek canyon. They downclimbed and rappelled down Deer Creek back to the Middle Fork Kings. They then worked their way along the middle fork back to the confluence.
They got back to the confluence at night and slept on the north side.
In the morning, Thursday August 3, 2017 the river was flowing at approximately 2900 cfs, but the difference in flow was not visible to them.
Their thoughts were for one person to swim across the river with a rope to then help the other two get across. Rick tried it first. He wore his wetsuit and flippers and a harness with the rope tied to the front of the harness. They anchored and belayed the rope from upstream. Rick swam out about halfway before the current got too strong and he realized he could not get to the south shore. He signalled and his partners pulled on the rope to bring him back across the river.
They discussed what to try next and Luca offered that he might be able to make it across. Luca tied into the rope and swam out. He did make it further, about 2/3rds of the way, before he signalled that he wanted to be pulled back. However, because of the current dragging on the rope, they had fed out a lot of rope to keep it loose on Luca. They could not pull the rope in fast enough to keep Luca from being swept into the downstream rapid. Once into the rapid the rope went taught and Luca was trapped. He may have been using a releasable knot, but was not able to release it under the pressure of the current. Luca quickly lost strength and was not able to catch ropes thrown from shore. The partners cut the rope holding Luca and he floated downstream. However, the free rope soon caught on rocks and held Luca underwater. His body was freed by rescue personel later in the day.
The two remaining partners had a rescue beacon and activated it at about 9:50 am. The Fresno County sheriff's helicopter and a highway patrol helicopter both responded and quickly spotted Luca's body in the river. Ground based search and Rescue personel arrived and were eventually able to retrieve the body in the late afternoon. The remaining 2 members of the trip were airlifted to the highway above
Initial analysis: Being tied into a rope in whitewater is clearly a grave danger. It is worth questioning why tying into a rope seemed reasonable to 3 pretty experienced individuals. In this situation, anchoring the rope was equally dangerous.
Canyoneers often rappel on ropes in waterfalls into pools and have developed techniques to quickly release the rope. There are also a number of well known canyons that exit onto rivers where the canyoneers rig ropes to help their team members cross those rivers. Luca and the other team members had these experiences. They likely had not tested these techniques on a river that was 100 feet wide and which had nearly 3000 cfs. What seems also likely is that they had not practiced swimming rapids or swimming rapids while trailing a rope. If they had been more familiar with swimming rapids it seems likely that they would have assessed the danger of swimming the next rapid as being much safer than tying into a rope.
In this case the rope was intended as a safety feature, to pull the swimmer back if necessary and to pull the others across. This is a common mistake where we think that more gear makes us more safe. In this case, the current pulling on the rope behind the swimmer prevented them from getting all the way across the current.
Anchoring the rope was equally dangerous, but probably seemed equally sensible to the team. If the rope had not been anchored, the belayer could have run inland away from the edge of the river and had a much greater chance of penduluming the swimmer into shore. Also, when the forces on a body belay become extreme, you know that the forces on the swimmer are equally extreme and unsustainable. Anchoring the rope allowed very high forces to build on the swimmer.
A third problem was that Luca tied the rope to the standard front tie in point on his harness. When the rope came taught the current pushed straight into his face. Rescue lifejackets always have a tie in at the back so that the swimmers face is downstream when the rope is tight. There can be an air pocket formed by the swimmers head and the swimmer has a greater chance of breathing.
They could have all launched into the river individually and swam as hard as they could for the other shore. Given that they were all wearing wetsuits with a fair bit of floatation and the rapid just below is moderate, they probably could have made it across with only a few bumps. If they had brought lifejackets, boogy boards or river boards and flippers they could have made it across more confidently.
River runners or river crossers do at times have good reasons for trying to set up a rope across a river. The amount of drag that the river current can put on any normal size rope makes it very dangerous, whether using a raft, kayak or swimming. The first rope across needs to float and to have minimal resistance to the water. Very thin line like fly fishing line might work well. The thin line can then be used to bring across heavier line. People who engage in roped river crossings should experiment by crossing with and without different types of ropes to see what the differences are.