Accident Report from Andy McMurray
A month ago, one member of our paddling group drown on the Green Truss Section of the White Salmon. He was body and boat pinned between multiple logs in the run-out of lower zig-zag rapid.
The Truss has been different in years past. In February, the Columbia Gorge witnessed what locals labeled a “hundred year” ice storm, ultimately downing hundreds of large old growth trees onto trails, rivers, roads, etc. The Truss unfortunately felt the brunt of the storm in which the entire section was literally un-runnable until late this summer. Pockets of local boaters, myself included, illegally picked away via chainsaws throughout the months to clean up rapid by rapid yet still, and even now, the run is very dangerous and with wood hazard, rates as a class V+. Every rapid still maintains some sort of wood hazard and while lines exist, they are tight to say the least. As the water level drops, new hazards appear.
I meant Chris at my friends wedding a week previous, he had already been on the Truss a few times during his brief stay in Hood River and was keen for more runs. From what I gather he was a solid boater from West Virginia who was nothing but ecstatic to be paddling out in the Pacific Northwest. We meant a few days later with three other local friends and put on the Truss in the evening around 5pm.
We had all had great lines through all the major rapids, enjoying the run for what it is but also running the lines as safe and tight as we could. Getting to lower zig-zag, literally the last rapid before our predetermined take-out, we all knew the severity of the rapid as the lower canyon has 3-4 logs through the various lines, complete with a multitude of twisted logs that spanned river wide in the run-out. In past runs, we had all been able to boof over the aforementioned log jam without incident and exit the gorge. With a lower water level, I was wary of my line and had planned to eddy out before the log jam on river right or left and then determine where to go from there.
Abe, myself, and Chris ran first while Lance and John wanted to scout. Running the rapid, Chris and Abe eddied out in the pool above the log jam on river right an I eddied on river left. Smiling and waiting for the others, Chris agreed to move downstream, exit the gorge, and wait at in the pools below. Abe and I watched him attempt to bunny hop the logs and instantly become pinned.
Screaming and scrambling Abe and I both immediately exited our boats grabbing our gear on opposite sides of the river. Chris’s boat was pinned completely under the log jam and his chest was against the logs. Abe had a rope on him within 20 seconds while I, on the opposite bank attempted to scramble out to Chris with my throw bag and hopefully clip him or what’s known as a “cinch,” in hopes to keep his body erect and his head above water by linking the two throw bags with a carabiner, pulling agains the force of the current. Crawling out on the log towards Chris, I remember screaming at him to clip himself into Abe’s rope and to exit his boat/swim. He looked calm, knowing that we were coming for him. As I got closer to where he was pinned, I was swept under the logjam by the upstream current and flushed downstream in the gorge below.
I was able to swim to an eddy in the walled in gorge below but couldn’t climb back out on the left side after numerous attempts to get back upstream and help. Ultimately, I was forced to swim downstream into an eddy on the river right side, get out and attempt to get back upstream via the gorge.
When I arrived back on the river right side with Abe, Chris had been in the water for almost ten minutes. John and Lance, the other two kayakers upstream scouting, had saw the pin take place and raced downstream portaging the rapid on river left. While I was climbing back down to get back on river right with Abe, Lance had erected an anchor on river left and were “live baiting” John on a rope with hopes of clipping into Chris. Chris was under water at this point yet John was able to get a rope into Chris’s hand, in which he clasped and hung onto for only 10 seconds or so. Soon after John was flushed off the log in similar fashion.
At this time Abe and I were erecting a 3:1 anchor system on the river right shore with hopes to “live bait” from our side. John was able to get back to the river left bank via the rope he was attached to, got into his boat, and ferried above the log jam to our side with more throw bags and assistance. We erected the system and live baited Abe out into the log jam with hopes to attach the system to Chris’ body and extract him. He was completely submerged at this point and had been in the water for almost 20 minutes.
Abe was able to get to Chris’ and cinch a piece of webbing around the shoulder strap of his PFD. Due to the strength of the current and dangerous position Abe was in, he wasn’t able to get a piece of webbing around Chris’s waist. Chris also wasn’t wearing a rescue vest as Abe would have been able to clip into the ring on his rescue harness. With Abe back out of the water, we established a 3:1 system with Lance’s river left anchor as a vector. Our plan was to extract Chris and I would begin immediate CPR. After pulling for over a minute, we the force of the water combined with our anchor ripped the shoulder strap off his PFD.
At this point Chris had been in the water for 25 minutes and been completely submerged for at least 15 mintues. I volunteered to ferry across the river right to the eddy on river left, portage the log jam, and go find help on the road which was roughly a quarter mile from the river.
I found Dan, the inhabitant of the local property and also a kayaker wondering what was going on. We managed to flag down a state patrolman soon after and initiated Search and Rescue to come assist at the scene.
Given the time of day, it being almost dark, and the difficulty of accessing the accident site, search and rescue voted to conduct body recovery operations the following day.
The body recovery took well over 8 hours and involved the majority of local kayakers and the local Search and Rescue. With a combined effort and after many different attempts, we were able to extract Chris that evening using a raft and multitude of anchor systems. It was very hard and dangerous extraction for all involved. For those of us involved that were there for both there for the initial rescue and body recovery, I feel it’s unanimous to say that we are thankful we were able to get him out of the water.
After much reflection, I have personally concluded that there was nothing more we could have done to save Chris’ life. All of us on the river that day are highly trained and certified whitewater professionals, trained both in swiftwater rescue and wilderness medicine. I believe that his boat and his body were pinned in such a way that any sort of rescue effort was almost futile at best. The location of the accident is a vertical walled in gorge that only allows limited access to where Chris was pinned via river left. River right access involves climbing up the rock face and scrambling out onto the log jam. Both are extremely dangerous endeavors.
All of us that day put ourselves in great danger to save him ultimately breaking the number one rule of rescue. As I approached him on the logs, it was clear he was unable to remove himself from the boat, which led me to believe that both his kayak and body were severely pinned in the logs/current.
One question remains in my mind that involves the Chris not wearing a rescue vest. Had we been able to clip our 3:1 system into his rescue harness we might have had a better chance of extracting him. Again, upon reflection, the force of the current and severity of his pin leads me to believe that this would have been difficult at best, even with the use the aforementioned rescue vest.
While I continue to struggle with this terrible experience emotionally, I find solace in his smile that day after a fine line off Big Brother, one of tougher rapids of the run. His emotions spoke firm that there was no other place he yearned to be. I also find solace in the last time I saw his face, trusting us to save him, and yet I’m so sorry we couldn’t.
Swift H20 Message Board:
Subject was pinned and held underwater between two logs forming a downstream V near the base of Lower Zig Zag. He was body pinned, with his torso against the top log, and his head in an upward position. His boat was visible from below the V and he was still in it. It was not easily accessible. There is no shore at that location, so those with him attempted rescue for quite a while from upstream throwing rope, sending live bait swimmers, and even attempting to shimmy down one of the logs. Despite their best and valiant efforts, the subject was not rescued. His body was recovered the next day after a very grueling mission involving the local county Search and Rescue as well as a local outfitter with a high level of rescue qualification. Some of the subject's fellow boaters from Wed assisted in recovering his body on Thursday.
As per Chris Schwer's death. I was not a part of it in any way but I was out there in the following days and caught first hand word from the rescuers and paddlers in his group. One of whom was the main man in the body retrieval.
It happened at the bottom of Lower Zig Zag. There was an abnormally high amount of downed trees in the "Green Truss" this season due to a bad ice storm the winter prior. Paddlers had just started running the section because most of the wood in play had been cleared a week or so before the incident.
The site of the incident had two trees downed like you described and paddlers were able to pass over it, sketchily. As the water dropped the move got more sketchy. Chris was on his third run of the day and was unable to make the move, flipped, pinned.
Valiant rescue attempts were made. Search and rescue attempts the following day were nearly unsuccessful until one of the paddlers in Chris’s group from the day before was able to get him out. The trees have been cut but the strainer is still dangerous but easier to pass now on river left.
To my knowledge this was the 2nd death ever on the green truss. The other death in the colombia river gorge drainage was on the Little White Salmon. The only other death on the green truss was rich weiss. Hope this helps and all is well with you!
It is my understanding that chris in his boat upright and initially stable. They had a line to him but then either his boat or one of the logs shifted and he was forced underwater and drowned.
Did you get additional info on Chris Schwer's accident? I've contacted Andy McMurray -a paddler from his party that day- to let him know you were looking for details. I don't know Andy, but he posted a firsthand account of the accident to a private Midwest-oriented paddling message board.
In brief, my understanding from the post is that Chris was trying to paddle over a logjam and failed to clear it. He was pinned with his chest on a log with, bow facing downstream, and boat submerged. Chris was stable in this position with his head above water for some time. The other three paddlers present mounted heroic efforts in trying to save him. They got a cinch line around him and a rope in his hand after he slipped below surface and lost consciousness. They were unable to free him and couple of the rescuers were swept under the logjam in the process. After 10 minutes, a 3-to-1 z-drag was fixed to the shoulder strap of his non-rescue-style PFD. The z-drag broke his shoulder strap.
Morgantown Man Killed in Kayaking Accident
Written by Your 5News Team
Created on August 03, 2012 @ 4:27PM
On Friday authorities in Klickitat County in Washington state informed us that a 27-year old Morgantown man died in a kayaking accident.
Christopher Alan Schwer was kayaking with a few of his friends on the White Salmon River on Wednesday night and got caught in a stretch of heavy rapids within a deep gorge according to investigators. They say he was wedged underwater in a log jam.
Crews finally found his body on Thursday night.
Kayaker dies on White Salmon River
THE YAKIMA HERALD-REPUBLIC
POSTED ON Friday, August 03, 2012
GOLDENDALE, Wash. - A kayaker from West Virginia died Wednesday after becoming wedged under water in a log jam on the White Salmon River in Klickitat County, according to a Klickitat County Sheriff’s Office news release. The incident was reported about two miles north of BZ Corner at about 8 p.m. in a stretch of heavy rapids in a deep gorge, according to the news release. Recovery efforts had to wait until Thursday. Christopher Alan Schwer, 27, of Morgantown, W.Va., had been kayaking with local friends when the incident occurred, according to the release. His body was recovered at about 7 p.m. Thursday.
Walk the line
by Adam Johnson
I remember waking up from phone call. As I gained consciousness, I realized I missed the call. I rest my head back down on the pillow. Roughly thirty seconds later a message popped up. It was from Tyler Houck. Tyler was in White Salmon, Washington—the other side of the continent from West Virginia. I just returned from White Salmon a few days ago. He knew where I was. I knew where he was. I thought, “Why is he calling me?” As I pressed play on the voicemail, it all came together. Chris was in White Salmon. I didn’t have to listen to the message—I already knew what this message was going to say.
Shortly after the message completed, I got up and went to the bathroom. All Tyler said was, “Adam, call me as soon as you get this. It’s important.” It was like my mind was trying to avoid the inevitable. Like I could outrun it or something. I went to the bathroom, came back downstairs and grabbed my phone. I remember sitting on the living room couches—furniture that Chris owned and insisted on buying for the apartment—staring at my phone. Thinking, “No, it can’t be. This is bullshit. I don’t want to make this call.”
When I got up the courage to call, Tyler didn’t answer but someone else did. That person handed the phone off to Lance Reif, a friend who I had known for several years and a former raft guide in Fayetteville. Lance told me what I already knew but didn’t want to believe: Chris was dead.
Chris Schwer was a 27 year old kayaker living in Morgantown, WV. One year ago today, Chris drowned on the Green Truss section of the White Salmon river.
I remember the first time I met Chris. It was 2009 in front of an old, shady apartment I had in Morgantown. At that moment I was talking with Don Smith about getting his website up and running. Chris pulled up in his Honda Element and started chatting us up in true Schwing fashion. At that point, I had no idea who he was and got a little weirded out because he was essentially cat-calling us in front of my apartment. He explained he was new in town, and was looking for people to paddle with. Even Don, a person who was eternally skeptical, was taken aback with his friendly and inviting demeanor.
Little did I know Chris would later become my coworker, climbing partner, traveling companion, kayaker, fellow designer, roommate, and best friend. For the next three and a half years, I saw Chris five days a week. We became close. We shared experiences in and out of the office, on the rock, river, and road. We felt comfortable sharing each others trials and tribulations about work, women, and any other subject that came up. We planned (and took) paddling trips together. We let each other down and picked each other up. Chris was just breaking into the class V scene in WV. I took him under my wing, showed him the good lines and levels. I introduced him to the key players he didn’t already know. I could tell when he felt shaky. I could tell when he was crushing it. It was spectacular to see his confidence develop. Energy radiated from him—instantly infecting everyone around him. That energy is what I miss the most.
Jaques Cartier Northwest:
I remember being in the middle of the Jaques Cartier national park, hiking into one of the most committing and remote runs on the east coast. We were tired, taking a short break while David Laroche scouted a line to descend into the 200’ high cliffed out canyon. I wiped the sweat pouring off my forehead. Looking up, Chris grabbed some moss off of a tree and stared at us, putting the moss on his chin like a long, green beard. He looked goofy as hell. I couldn’t have hoped to be as fired up or funny in that moment. Chris literally plucked the joy out of the air and began to wear it. That is what he did. He was good at it.
I remember sitting in an eddy at the bottom of 100 yard dash on the Upper Blackwater, waiting for people to paddle through. Chris had only been down the Blackwater a handful of times and was visibly nervous. The river was swollen from rain. I could see he was shaky. It was something I knew—something only I would have noticed simply due to the relationship we had and our shared time on the water. We were with a legendary crew, putting on late after work on a hot June day. Immediately after he passed me, I peeled out of the eddy, charging right after him. He stopped to rest in the eddy below, and I yelled at him, “Hey Chris, follow me.” He peeled out immediately and became my doppelganger. Within a half mile, he was no longer nervous, hooting and hollering with the rest of us. He moved from being shaken to being fully in his element. One with the water. Exactly where he wanted to be.
French Mickey D’s
Chris had an uncanny ability to connect with people. On our May 2012 Canada trip, we stayed in Montreal where we ate late-night at a McDonalds. Quebec is a french speaking portion of Canada and neither of us spoke a lick of french. When we walked inside to fumble our way through the french menu, Chris began talking with a pleasant, middle-aged, bilingual woman at the register. Before we were done eating, this kind stranger walked from behind the register, chatted us up—twice—and gave us free coffee and muffins. In about half an hour, we went from complete strangers to getting free food at McDonalds.
A fatality doesn’t affect just you, no matter who you are (a husband with kids or a traveling, dirt-squirrel kayaker). I think about Chris every hour of every day since his accident. I’m surrounded by his memories, and yet plagued by mine.
I’ve been kayaking for 18 years. I always thought I understood danger and risk. I even studied risk in college. Ever since Chris died, it has changed the way I look at the river and evaluate risk—forever. Where I once was able to evaluate a hazard—a tree, hydraulic, or siphon—in one pass, I now find myself second guessing myself. Asking “Is this really worth it?” and, perhaps more importantly, “Can I navigate this rapid flawlessly?” These questions amplify when I’m around strainers since both Don and Chris died by getting entangled by wood.
Choose your paddling partners wisely. If you fall into the shit, can they get you out? Do they have the skills, knowledge, and experience to do it? Are they responsive and reliable? Do they trust you with their life? And perhaps more importantly, do you trust them with your life?
There are three articles written this year on risk, kayaking, and death which you should read. They contain wisdom and insight from people who have thoroughly explored this subject. Take the time to read them (seriously, I’ll wait):
The Risks We Take by Tree
Seeking Dispersers by Mike Miller
Life and Death Beyond the Edge by Adam Herzog
The importance of good gear cannot be overstated. Buying quality gear can literally be the difference between life and death. A broken paddle, a blown skirt, or a sinking PFD have been the cause of several near-misses and fatalities. Heck, a broken paddle even caused me to swim for the first time since I was 12 last year. If you break your paddle or your skirt blows in the middle of some heavy whitewater, you’re certainly in for far worse than you could have imagined—the worst part is knowing it could have been prevented.
What to do now
Keep smiling. That’s what Chris would have wanted.
Try to emulate the raw passion and joy that he brought to the world. It was unparalleled. Only the people that knew him could understand this.
Try to be even a quarter the person he was. I’m convinced the powers-that-be deemed him too good for this world and would not let him go another round. Right now he’s probably a river god in training. I’m sure he watches over us every day.
Be careful. Make smart decisions. Only step up if you think you can grease that river or line on your worst day. Scout for the ideal line, the marginal line, and catastrophic failure. Set safety in the bad spots. Put people you trust there. If you can’t adequately set safety, back down. That rapid and river will be there tomorrow and for all eternity.
As kayakers, we risk life and limb in the pursuit of happiness. Through these risks we forge immeasurable bonds between friends and the river. We craft experiences that we’ll remember forever. We travel. We succeed. We fail. We learn.
But at what price? When something goes horribly wrong, do the ends still justify the means?
The answer to these questions will only come from deep within you. As for me, I’m going to keep adventuring because that is what I do. It’s where I find solace, where I find answers to the complex questions that oftentimes have no concrete answer. As Mike Miller said about adventure sports in the Seeking Dispersers article:
We don’t do them in order to face fear. We do them because it is what fuels our spirit and recharges our soul. We can’t help ourselves. It’s in our genes.
All I can say is remember Chris. Hang onto his energy. Emulate his passion and never forget.
We miss you, bud.