I spent most of two months this summer creeking out in Colorado. It was my first season out there and had really got into the whole creeking thing. After paddling almost everyday for two months I was feeling pretty good, and started running some harder stuff. After some real good days on Vallecito and Big South, the water levels started to drop leaving only a couple of runs open; one of them being the Crystal Gorge. When I got a few days off from work, me and buddy decided to go for it and headed out. We got to the take out waited for the third member of our party.
While we were waiting a group paddled up to the take out. We asked how their run went, and they said it was good minus one person’s piton off of zute chute (his boat certainly didn't look good). Finally our last and third member of our group got there and we headed to the put-in. When we arrived Tommy Hilleke made sure to give me the jitters by continuously talking about how nervous he was, while Nick Wigston was simultaneously puking in the back round (in usual Nick Wigston fashion). As a side note, if you’re ever running a river with these two boaters and this happens, don’t bother putting on. Nervously we finally put on.
The top section of the crystal was really awesome with bluish green water, perfectly crisp boofs and very clean, quality rapids. When we got down to the inner crystal gorge, I was feeling really good and paddling well as was Nick and Tommy (go figure). We hopped out to have a look from the rim, before we were committed. After checking out the rest of the gorge, we came back to our boats and scouted “zute chute” the 40 foot entrance falls.
Zute chute is sort of a tricky waterfall that starts off with the first 15 feet being at 75* and then the last 25 feet are freefalling. You have to start 2 feet from the left bank and have to work to the center of the drop before it goes into a complete freefall. If the landing was deep it probably would be considerably safer, but unfortunately it’s only about 5 feet deep and that's if you hit the right spot. This last detail was on my mind when we were scouting. After analyzing the drop we all decided to drop into the inner crystal, and headed back to our boats to give it a go.
Nick and Tommy went first on minute intervals and both had good lines. It was my turn to go. I got prepared, took some deep breaths, and focused on my line. I was scared, but ready to step up. I peeled out and dropped the five foot entrance. I was now completely committed to the gorge. As I floated to the lip of the big one, the 200 foot vertical granite walls loomed in the background, completely removed my focus. Horizon lines always look bigger from the lip. As I hit the slide part I was leaning far forward and moved to just where I wanted to be, giving a slight boof stroke when I started to freefall. As I was falling I felt like I was coming in a little flat, and pushed my feet down to try to change my angle.
SLAM. My whole body went numb and my paddle was gone. Then I looked down and saw my paddle gripped firmly in my hands. This is when I realized I couldn’t feel my entire body. I was staring down at one of the hardest sections of whitewater in Colorado, and could barely move my arms or breathe as I desperately tried to paddle into the nearest eddy. I missed the first eddy and was able to catch the next one at the lip of the first rapid on river left. I knew something was wrong as feeling crept slowly back into my body, but breathing remained difficult.
Tommy paddled over to the eddy where Nick and I was to check if I was alright, and as he had figured by my face, I was not. There was no way I was going to be able to paddle out of the gorge. This is where I got lucky. The eddy that I had caught was at a cliff wall that was only 50 feet tall (by far the smallest of the entire gorge). If I had missed that eddy I probably would have had to run the gorge. Tommy free-climbed up the cliff and dropped down a rope for me to climb up with ascenders. When I made it to the top, the only thing left to do was hike out about a mile, and then paddle a half mile of class II and finish off crossing the lake at the end. That mile long hike was the most painful thing I’ve ever been through. Breathing was a chore, and I found out why later. When I got the hospital, the doctors told me I had a 50% burst fracture. It was the vertebrae directly behind my diagram, and with every breath I took on that hike, I pressured the fragments of my vertebrae. I got really lucky. I owe Tommy and Nick a big one for their help. Things I learned. Rather then leaning forward on the first part of that drop, I should have had a neutral position so that when I was free falling I could have leaned forward and pushed my bow down. When I tried to push my bow down the way I did it, it only moved my body position back.
Oh yeah, And if you can’t run with the big dogs, just stay on the porch.
the proper way to run zute chute