12 July 1997
Big Brother, Green Truss Section of the White Salmon
By John 'Tree' Trujillo, Elliot Weintrob and Bill Endicott
The whitewater canoeing family was shocked to hear of the death of Rich Weiss, one of its most talented members. A two-time Olympian, World Silver Medalist and a Ph.D. known for his calm judgment, Rich seemed a most unlikely candidate for a boating mishap. We all want to understand what happened because we fear, "if it could happen to him, it could happen to any of us."
Several people contributed to this document. First, is John Trujillo, who is the only witness to what happened. Second, is Elliot Weintrob who interviewed John, hiked in to examine the accident site and talked to pertinent persons. Lastly, is Bill Endicott who, working with Elliot, wove all the available information into a narrative. After this was done, it was sent to John to make sure it comported with what he knew.
On Wednesday, June 25, 1997, John and Rich were running the Green Truss section of the White Salmon River in Washington State, which is about 6 miles long. The accident itself occurred on the rapid known as "Big Brother." John and Rich were preparing for a wildwater type of race there, to be held approximately 2 weeks later.
Rosi, Rich's wife, was running shuttle for Rich and John. After she dropped them off at the put-in she went to the bottom of the run and waited. John and Rich were both in plastic boats and were wearing lifejackets and helmets. The air temperature was about 80 degrees and the water temperature 50-55 degrees.
Description of the River
The river is creek-like, about 30 feet wide and contains about 2,000 cfs. It is technical and pushy, a pool,drop, pool,drop situation. It is rated class 5 in the local guide book. The water level on the day of the accident was 4 feet. Average flow on this run is 3 - 3.5 feet. The river was high on the day of the accident but Rich and John had run it at 5 feet two weeks earlier and 4.5 feet two days earlier. They knew the river and the lines.
Big Brother is a 30-foot waterfall with a small lead-in drop of no more than 2 feet which is not vertical, followed by an approximately 27-foot vertical falls. The falls is fairly shallow on the river left two-thirds of the drop, with a majority of the water going over the right one-third, and then into a big hydraulic at the base of the falls.
Although Big Brother is the largest vertical drop on the run, it is not known as the most difficult section, nor does it have the most difficult approach. It is about three-quarters of a mile into the run. John and Rich had done well on the run up to this point and they felt fine as they approached Big Brother.
Big Brother is set within a lush, heavily-treed gorge. Right at the rapid there are 2 approximately 30-foot high vertical walls. The mist off the right hand side of the river creates a moss-covered environment encompassing the entire right hand wall. There is a great deal of mist. From the top of the drop it is difficult to see what is going on below.
On river right about 6 to 9 feet out from the base of the falls but still in the backwash of the hydraulic there is an undercut cave that is visible at about 3.5 feet, but not visible on the day of the accident. In a previous trip on the river, John had had a mishap at this place and had been pushed into the cave, while still in his boat. He remained there for about 30 seconds before finally being released.
Below the hydraulic is a slow moving pool for about 40 feet. Below this flat pool, however, there is a 15-foot waterfall. It is run on river right but it is not an easy run. Below it is a large hydraulic in the center of the river. After this drop the water pushes to river right. It was 100 feet downstream of this falls where Rich's body was found on the river right, washed up against a log about 10 inches in diameter, stripped of all bark and branches. The police report stated that Rich died after going over a 15-foot waterfall and while it is true that he washed over this falls, it was not where the original accident occurred.
Standard practice for running Big Brother is to eddy out on river left, get out of the boat, scout the falls, review what is known as the appropriate line and proceed. This is what John and Rich did.
The correct line is a wide peel-out from river left, going two-thirds of the way across the narrow river, enabling one to make a move starting from river right back to river left. This enables one to follow a seam of water over the more shallow part of the falls and away from the hydraulic on river right.
In the peel-out in setting up the maneuver, one travels over a slight (18-24 inch, but not vertical) drop before hooking back left, banking off a boil-line to do so.
In the past, the drop has been run numerous times successfully and upright. Other boaters have flipped at the bottom of the drop but then made easy rolls.
On this day, John was the first over the drop. He was on line, flipped at the bottom, rolled and was pushed to river left where he eddied out. Rich came next. He was too far right; he did not get over to the left soon enough. This resulted in him dropping into the hydraulic on the river right. He was immediately back-endered in the hydraulic. He was still in the boat at the time.
When John saw that Rich was not immediately spit out of the hydraulic, he noted the time on his wristwatch, 5:16 PM and about 30 seconds. He did this because he was well-versed in river safety procedures and knew that it was important to be aware of time passing in a dangerous situation. For instance, it is known that at 2 minutes underwater, the subject is likely to be unconscious but able to be resuscitated. At 10 minutes it gets marginal. And after 15 minutes it is probably too late to do anything. John was prepared for Rich to wash out either alone or in his boat, and to perform a boat rescue.
But the kayak continued to cartwheel. The mist was so severe John had difficulty seeing whether Rich was still in the boat or not. But at 2 minutes, John saw that Rich was definitely not in the boat any more. At this point, John quickly exited his boat on river right and proceeded upstream along the narrow, slippery bank jutting 4-5 feet out from the vertical wall, getting as close to the hydraulic as possible. During this period Rich's boat washed out of the hydraulic but there was still no sign of Rich.
John then started throwing his throw-rope into the falls, hoping that Rich might grab it, or that it might ensnare Rich. He did this for about 40 minutes. He threw the rope everywhere, including into the underwater cave that he knew was there.
When he could see that this was not working, he got back into his boat, ran the next drop, retrieved Rich's boat and got out below the drop on river right. He then hiked out to the road, hitch-hiked to town and called the Sheriff. He estimates that he made this call about 90 minutes after the accident, or about 6:46 PM.
The Sheriff came to where John was. John led him and 2 rescue team members into the river. They immediately found Rich on the log. He still had his life jacket and helmet on. But it took about 5 hours (or until about 11:45 PM) to get him from the river and the gorge back to the road where Rosi waited.
Rich had a slight cut over his left eye, too low down to be protected by any helmet. There was a second small cut on the right temple. There was a third cut, this one on his forehead, from an accident one week previously and not caused by this incident. No other marks were noticed by any one of several people who saw the body.
The Klickitat County District Attorney, Knute Rife, who investiated the matter, says that the cause of death was drowning but there is no way of telling whether a blow to the head caused Rich to go unconscious first and then drown, or whether he drowned without being knocked out.
This accident shows that even the best paddlers in the world can be killed if they miss their line in a Class V drop. We need to understand what happened because, “if it could happen to him, it could happen to any of us.”
There are things we can do to improve the odds. I’d like to quote from a letter written by Rich’s wife, Rosi, and published in the July/August 1998 issue of American Whitewater.
“Rich said things that today haunt me. He looked at his racing life jacket and said, “Well, if I’m going to do so much river running now, maybe I should get some different paddling gear. I then asked him if he had his other helmet with him and he said, laughing, “the only helmet that would do any real good would be those funny football helmets that the Germans wear at Augsburg.” Even writing this makes me feel sick. How I wish we had his other helmet or ever the funny German helmet that afternoon. Rich has worn an Ace helmet since I met him in 1986, and as a racing helmet, it’s still perfect for the job. But as Rich himself said, maybe not what should be worn for river running.....
“What I really want for other paddlers to know, especially racers, is that running rivers is different from racing and different clothing should be worn. I truly feel that if Rich was wearing his other helmet he would not have suffered the hit to his head on the temple. I think the cut on his temple is what caused him to be unconscious. Maybe if he had not been wearing that racing life jacket, which racers try to keep as thin as possible, things would have been different, too. Yes, maybe a more buoyant life jacket might not have helped him get to the surface quicker. But if nothing else, please wear a good lifejacket and a low fitting helmet to run rivers. Believe me, I would change everything if I could. But you still can, and I ask you, if not for Rich and I, then for the ones who love you.....
“It made me realize that his boat played a major part of the accident. Again it is a question of equipment. I know that Rich had been trying out a lot of plastic boats and he said he needed to get a boat with more volume for the race. Now I understand why. Tree (John Trujillo) was paddling a boat with a lot more volume, and it definitely helped....Even though he liked the boat because it turned and felt like his race boat, it was not the boat for the falls.”
QUESTIONS REMAIN OVER DEATH OF EXPERT PADDLER
By Angus Phillips, Washington Post
July 15, 1997
Nearly three weeks after Olympic kayaker Rich Weiss's death at the base of a waterfall on the turbulent White Salmon River in Washington state, some paddlers remain puzzled and uneasy. "It's got us confused," said Pope Barrow, a Capitol Hill lawyer who regularly runs Great Falls in a kayak. "A guy like that, of all people. How could it happen? He would never get off line. It's a baffling case."
"If something like this can happen to Dr. Richard Weiss, with his intelligence and experience and skill, it can happen to anyone, anytime," said two-time world whitewater canoeing champion Davey Hearn. "That's why we're all talking about it."
Some of the mystery of what happened to Weiss, 33, an expectant father who held a doctorate in hydrogeology and competed in two Olympics, has lifted. Former U.S. slalom team coach Bill Endicott of Bethesda, along with Weiss's former teammate and friend, Elliot Weintrob, and John Trujillo, the paddler with whom he made the run June 25, wrote a formal account of the accident last weekend for the paddling community.
It says Weiss was following Trujillo over a 30-foot falls called Big Brother. At that location, the White Salmon is only about 30 feet wide and was running high at a level of four feet, close to a foot above normal, with a water volume of 2,000 cubic feet per second. Both men had made the run before.
Trujillo and Weiss scouted Big Brother before running it, according to the report. They planned to run it on the left side to avoid a dangerous recirculating pool and undercut rock ledge at the foot of the falls on river right, where most of the water flowed.
That meant following a seam of fast current over a shallow stretch, then bouncing left off a midstream boil to stay on line. The report describes Big Brother as the largest drop on the six-mile stretch the two were running, but not the hardest to enter safely or to run.
Trujillo went first, held his line, made it over the falls but flipped at the bottom. He rolled upright, paddled to an eddy and waited for Weiss, who for reasons unknown appeared on river right and plunged directly into the recirculating pool and the undercut rock ledge below. His kayak began "cartwheeling," with only the tips showing above the surface as it spun in the chaotic currents.
Mist clouded the area. It was two minutes before Trujillo determined that Weiss had come out of his boat, according to the report. Trujillo jumped from his boat and searched for his companion, then threw a safety rope into the turbulent pool in hopes Weiss would grab it.
While his boat soon washed out, Weiss did not. The body wasn't located until police searched hours later, finding it below a second, 15-foot waterfall downstream of Big Brother. His helmet and life jacket were on.
Weiss had some head cuts but cause of death was listed as drowning. Authorities said there was no way of knowing whether he was unconscious when he drowned.
Left unanswered was the puzzling question of how a paddler of his skill and experience could get so far off line to plunge into such an obviously threatening situation.
"The Upper White Salmon is a difficult, experts-only run, but not on the margins of what people are running these days," said Rich Hoffman, river access director of the American Whitewater Affiliation and an expert kayaker. "Rich obviously had the talent and mental and physical aptitude to do it. But like anything, there's risks."
Big Brother officially is designated Class V, characterized by the American Canoe Association as "extremely long, obstructed or very violent rapids which expose paddlers to added risk; drop may contain large . . . waves and steep, congested chutes with complex, demanding routes."
Charlie Walbridge, who for years has compiled accident reports for ACA, said Big Brother is an "upper-level 5 where a mistake can kill you." He said accidents such as Weiss's are difficult to categorize because "you don't have anything to point to" as a cause. "Usually there's a mistake somewhere. Here, he had his life jacket and helmet on, he'd scouted the rapids, he was paddling with an expert buddy at a level he was competent to do.
"In some cases," said Walbridge, "people are lost in extreme whitewater where there is no clear error." The fact that Weiss apparently ran the wrong side of the falls may not have been so much error as twist of fate, the result of some unknown peculiarity that cropped up at the wrong moment. "A lot of times in whitewater you don't end up where you expect to and you have to go to Plan B," said Walbridge. "In this drop, it's clear there was no Plan B."
However puzzling and sad, the fatal accident seems unlikely to slow the growth of extreme river running. The World Kayak Federation, headed by Eric Jackson of Bethesda, plans a race this weekend over Big Brother, said Bill Edmonds, a 20-year-old kayaker who answered the phone at Jackson's home. In September, he said, the WKF World Championships are scheduled at Great Falls, the Washington area's popular Class V run.
Some conservative paddlers worry that the growth of extreme whitewater boating could lead to more mishaps like that of Weiss. But whitewater river-running always has been a sport in which individuals make their own choices, and no one seems keen to change that.
"On the rivers we run," said Hearn, "a lot is still unknown. It's not totally safe. It's not safe at all for most people. It's intrinsically dangerous. But the question isn't, Should we have races on extreme whitewater?' It's, Are we doing everything we can to educate people about the dangers of whitewater so they can make the decision for themselves?' "
Edmonds, who said he's been boating since he was 15, runs Great Falls almost every day in the summer. "We run the Maryland side, the Fingers, the Spout, the Fish Ladder -- whatever's best that day."You learn these lines and run them with other people that can," he said. "It's fun to go off waterfalls."