John Foss, 45, had been boating for decades. He had a passion for multi-day trips, and first descents. He paddled extensively throughout South America, exploring its rivers and canyons. On July 5, 1998 he disappeared while running a big rapid on a first descent of the Rio Huallabamba in Peru.
The following is an account of what happened by Kurt Casey, one of his two companions.
“It took three days to get to Chachapoyas from Lima. We arrived late in the evening on June 29th and stashed our boats in a hotel. The next day we headed for the ruins of Kuelap. We spent the evening at the ruins and the following day returned to Chachapoyas to collect our gear and look for a ride to Mendoza. Early on the morning of July 2nd we hired a driver to take us 18 km. to a point where we could access one of the tributaries of the Huallabamba. By
we were on the water, paddling a steep 1000 cfs river called the Huamanpata. During the second and third days a number of other rivers added their flow, pumping the volume up to about 6000 cfs. On the fourth day the river changed from continuous to pool drop with an estimated gradient of 100 fpm. The rapids were huge, but there were pools between them. The river was nestled in a tight limestone canyon, with walls rising up to 2000 feet.
“On the morning of the fourth day we launched at
after getting chased out of camp by a swarm of bees. Around
we came to a horizon line with a one-boat eddy above the drop. John shouted his description of the rapid. “It is real big water with some monster holes. They all point downstream and may rodeo you, but they will eventually let you go. Start left center and jam right.” As Franz entered the rapid I glanced over at John. He had a big smile on his face. This was the last time I ever saw him.
“I came over the horizon and braced into an exploding wave and then crashed through some more big white stuff. At the bottom of the drop Franz was in the eddy. The boats weighed over 90 pounds and mine was even heavier with the water I had just taken on. “I need to dump my boat,” I yelled to Franz. He nodded and said he would wait for John. From the eddy below, Franz saw John enter the rapid and then disappear from sight. The walls of the canyon rose over 1000 feet and were nearly vertical. It took a long time to climb on the cliff walls above to get a good view of the rapid. There was no sign of John, or his boat, or even his paddle. Tired and distraught, Franz and I pushed on downstream looking for a place to camp. We held the distant hope that John had somehow passed us and was waiting downstream. Those thoughts diminished after arriving at more Class V-VI drops.
It took three more days to paddle the 100 km to the nearest village with road access. The local police, the embassy in Lima and the Peruvian military were all cooperative. The Peruvian Air Force did several helicopter scouts of the area over a week without success. The body was found washed up on a rock by fishermen, 60 KM below the accident site.
SOURCE: Bob Gedekoh, American Whitewater Journal; Patti Todd, John’s sister
ANALYSIS: (Walbridge) This accident suggests a bizarre and unexpected pinning which occurred during Foss’s run. Clearly the hazard was difficult to spot. Foss must have been pinned quite deeply, or his boat or body would have been seen from above.
Foss, 45, was on the fourth day of an exploratory trip down Peru's Hullabamba River. The river, flowing at 6,000 cfs in a very remote canyon, contained a mix of class IV, V, and VI rapids. Foss, a veteran expedition paddler and a long-time supporter of American Whitewater, scouted a short, steep drop. He told the group that the rapid contained some big holes, but none looked like keepers. He ran the drop, hit the wave, and disappeared. The others in the group followed, expecting to meet him at the bottom. When he did not appear, they searched the area before moving a short distance downstream to make camp. Although they hoped Foss had gotten ahead of the group somehow, they never saw him again. His boat, paddle, and other gear were never found, suggesting some sort of underwater entrapment. Foss's body was discovered by fishermen some weeks later.