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Accident Description

This is a very well written self reflection written by Matthew Smith on a recent close call at Fist in the Russell Fork Gorge:

Hey folks, so I’m gonna clear up what happened at Fist on Saturday (10/5/19).  It wasn’t beatering or something fluky.  I made a poor decision and nearly paid for it with my life.  Most of the locals know me because I’ve been paddling the RF on the reg for about 10 years.  There was a time when I was getting up there 20-30 times a year.  I might be assuming, but over that time I believe I’ve built up a reputation for being a pretty good paddler who isn’t prone to getting in over my head or paddling above my skill set. 

My preferred line at Fist has always been the main line (which I’ve never known why it’s called the main line since only a handful of people run it) which is the line where you start from right ferrying center left before turning right to punch the hole right below the fan rock and then paddling through the current past Fist.  I’ve probably run this line around 100 times and never had any issues.  With that said I’ve never paddled Fist a single time that I wasn’t scared.  It’s an easy line that if you mess up there’s a better than not chance you’re going to die which I can attest to on a very personal level now.  Below I’ll describe what happened then discuss my lapses in judgment that led to that.

I was nervous about running Fist to begin with that day because, through circumstances, the only boat I had to paddle with me was my Nano which wasn’t designed for the RF, and I had never paddled Fist at release levels in anything other than a creeker.  I knew I was gonna get thrown around a little on the RF that day but other than Fist I wasn’t that worried.  I had been leaning toward walking Fist but then I had great lines leading into Towers then had a sweet line there and was feeling strong, so I decided to run it.  I had the same anxieties the first couple of times running gorilla in the Nano and falsely analogized the two.  My line was good and I hit the hole aggressively and immediately knew I’d fucked up.  I hit and didn’t push up and over, Instead the hole pushed my bow left and subbed me and I squirted out.  As I came out of my brace and reconnected it was too late to do anything.  I was headed straight into the Fist.  I leaned forward as much as I could and hit the rock with my bow.  It immediately sucked my stern down.  I reflexively set up for a roll as I went over.  The downward pressure was very strong and sucked my boat and myself down.  At that point it was already pretty dark, and I wasn’t sure how much of my boat was down there with me.  I pulled myself forward and reached to pull my skirt but it was obstructed. 

When we pulled my boat out the stern was below the water line pointed into the cave.  Only the bow was above the water at about the middle of the cockpit which was pinned against the right wall.  I assume this was how I was pinned and the rock was keeping me from pulling the skirt.  I immediately went to plan B and started trying wriggle my way out either threw my skirts tunnel or forcing it to blow.  I fought for what had to be between 15-20 seconds trying to force my way out of the boat before it finally popped.  I believe the pressure from the sieve actually helped me here.  The second I came out I went down and it went pitch black and was very disorienting.  I was already desperate for air and started reaching out to find the floor, ceiling or walls to orient myself and start fighting out.  I want to emphasize how fast and strong the current is in there.  I swirled around for a second then immediately was being sucked through.  My head banged into the roof and I started clawing with the flow while pushing my face hard into the roof searching for an air pocket.  I assume I was coming up on 30 seconds down because I was having to force myself to keep from reflexively breathing in and I felt I was losing consciousness when I finally felt an air pocket and I was able to take a shallow breath as I raced passed it.  A few more seconds and I started to see light.  Can’t describe the feeling of seeing daylight.  It finally spit me out.  It’s hard to tell but I guesstimate from the time I flipped to coming out through the cave took around 40 seconds.  I had no control inside the cave.  I was going where the water took me.  Any obstruction inside the cave and I wouldn’t have had the air or energy to fight through it.  My decision to abandon the skirt immediately and go to plan B was about 10% of my survival that day while the other 90 was dumb luck.  Had everything not gone exactly how it did I don’t think I’d be here today.

I’ll quickly summarize the mistakes I made that day.  1. In the end I was complacent.  Just because I’ve ran a rapid 100 times doesn’t mean that 101 is going to go well.  2. I didn’t take into account how much Fist has changed in the last couple of years.  It’s more dangerous now than 3-4 years ago cause it’s shifted and more flow goes into the Fist now.  That means the vast majority of my runs at Fist are irrelevant to the rapid today.  If I had those 80-90 runs at Fist as it is today, some of those could have been close calls.  3. Equating my anxiety about running Fist with my fears of running Gorilla.  While Gorilla is the harder, more technical rapid, gorilla has room for error which Fist does not.  Fuck up the notch you still have a few seconds to roll or correct angles.  Fuck up Fist and things are gonna go dark.  4. It’s just a shitty thing to do putting your friends in a position to possibly have to do a body recovery.  5. Its all about risk assessment which I failed that day.  The reward for running that rapid, especially with the limitations I knew I was working under, was not even in the same ballpark as the risk I was taking and the horrible position I was putting EVERYONE else on the river that day in.

To close out, I do want to apologize to everyone out there that day.  I love the RF river, but I love the scene even more than that awesome river.  It’s one of the best river scenes out there and I damned near ruined a great weekend and a party for everybody.  I really mean that.  With that said I also want to thank everyone for the love and support and well wishes I received that weekend.  Let’s go Forkin very soon.  See everybody in a couple of weeks, and make sure to give me hell when you see me portaging Fist.