Accident Database

Report ID# 538

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  • Caught in a Natural Hydraulic
  • Does not Apply
  • Failed Rescue

Accident Description

Dinkey Creek is a steep Class IV-V tributary of the North Fork of the Kings River, located in the Sierra National Forest east of Fresno, California. The Cherry Bomb Falls section is in a deep granite gorge. A series of difficult ledges leads into a sloping Class V maelstrom that in turn culminates in Class V Cherry Bomb Falls. The steep granite surrounding the river makes this section very committing. The flow that day was 600 cfs, a somewhat pushy level in the “ledges” section. Walt Shipley, 43, was a skilled kayaker. A fit and experienced outdoor athlete, he was better known as a rock climber and mountaineer. An obituary in Climbing magazine listed many notable ascents in Yosemite and elsewhere. 

The accident occurred in the ledge drops just upstream of Cherry Bomb Falls. He was paddling fourth behind Chuck Estes, Bill Russell and Paul Martzen. Bill and Chuck paddled 2nd and 3rd over the first in a series of 4 ledges. Walt entered the drop just as Paul, then Bill peeled out to run the lower ledges so they could catch a small eddy and scout Cherry Bomb Falls .   Chuck remained in the small eddy to watch Walt.  Tom Hagburg waited at the top of the rapid.   Walt hit the hole and became caught. He cartwheeled, side-surfed and back-endered for a long time before ejecting. He then recirculated, out of his boat, for several minutes.

Chuck attempted a boat rescue, offering his stern, but Walt was already to weak to swim to reach out and grab hold.  Chuck then got out of his boat on river left, a difficult proposition, and got his throw rope. Tom, still at the top of the rapid did not have a throw rope and was unable to help.  At that time Walt appeared to be losing consciousness. Chuck's throw rope landed over Walt and snagged his body, allowing Chuck to pull him out of the first hole. Walt then floated through the other drops and into the lowest hole, where he recirculated three more times.  Bill Russell was already on shore getting ready to scout and rushed to the edge of the creek, hoping to reach Walt.   Paul was also out of his boat by this time but near the bottom of the pool.  After several recirculations, Walt washed free of the hole and floated across the pool towards the Cherry Bomb lead in slide. 

"Bill was holding his throw rope at the top of the pool, so I screamed at him to throw it.  He threw it perfectly along the line of Walt's path.  I dove, caught the rope with one hand and with a couple swim strokes caught hold of Walt's waist with the other arm.  The rope came taught and twisted my arm holding the rope, around behind me in a sort of weird hammerlock.  I could hold on, but I could not get Walt's head up out of the water.  I only had him around the waist.  The rope then swung us close to shore but not out of the current.   The small eddy was only a few feet away.   I knew that Bill would try to get us into shore, but I was not sure if he could.   I could not feel any movement for several moments, while I looked at Walt's head under water.  So I let go of the rope and swam with him towards the eddy line.  We did not make it, but slipped past, just inches from the eddy line.  A large rock jutted out, forming the downstream wall of the eddy.  I could almost reach it and kept swimming while mentally preparing to let go of Walt and swim for my own life.  Of the group, I alone knew what was below and which way to swim to have a chance if I went over the next lip.  I assumed that Cherry Bomb itself, would not let me go at this flow.    Miraculously there was a final small eddy behind the rock at the lip of next drop.   I made that eddy and managed to pull Walt slightly out of the water.   Bill arrived moments later and cut the lifejacket off of Walt so we could start CPR.   We did not do the Heimlich manuever as I later heard some people recommend."  

"We started CPR and continued for about 20 minutes without success. We notified authorities, and Walt's body was recovered from the gorge on Saturday morning by Fresno County Sherriffs volunteer SAR team and ourselves.  Local authorities recognized Walt because of his affiliation with Yosemite’s Mountain Rescue Team.  We all worked together on getting down to Walt and in carrying him back out of the gorge."

Source: by Paul Martzen, (comments on the river’s character by Richard Penny)

ANALYSIS: (Martzen)

Accidents are often a culmination of several factors, this one especially.  

It is not uncommon for expert paddlers to be caught in ledge holes.   Usually they are able to escape in their boats or the hole eventually flushes them if they swim.   If the hole continues to hold them, only fast, skilled and sufficient  outside help can save them.   With a team of five skilled boaters the ability to save one boater in trouble is increased.

This particular ledge had never been considered a danger compared to the 3rd drop below.  However, the group had been about to scout this drop and section when I, (Paul) arrived and paddled over.  This caused the others to not scout and to follow my lead.   This is a common and reasonable method of paddling but it certainly increases risk.   Had the group scouted, the safest line would have been more appearant.    The eddy below this drop is small, so it was typical paddling procedure for Paul to exit this eddy as Walt started the drop.  It was reasonable for Bill to also exit and free up room in the eddy.  This put Paul and Bill just out of sight once they eddied out again.   Only loud enough whistling could bring them back into the rescue.  

It could be that the creek was too loud and overwhelmed any whistling, but they did not hear any and were unaware of the problem until a paddle floated down.  If they had realized there was trouble immediately, they might have had time to get back to the top and help while Walt was still conscious.    We had been leap frogging and swapping leads all day, so there was no thought to who was in lead or sweep.   When Walt got trapped, Tom was still at the top of the rapid and in position to most easily get out of his boat to lend assistance.   However, he was the least experienced of the group and he also had no throw rope.  Tom was unsure how to help, so this left Chuck alone in the pool trying to effect a rescue.  A team of four potential rescuers became a team of only one.  Of course if Tom had paddled 4th as might have been more appropriate, that would have put Walt 5th with no one upstream to help anyway.    By the time Bill and I became aware of a problem, Walt was already out of his boat.   Bill's rope throw was perfect and I think my decision to dive after Walt was good.  Walt had absolutely no chance if he had gotten past us.     I question my decision to let go of the rope.  That was extremely dangerous, but I do not know if Bill could have gotten us into shore.   If I could have somehow wrapped the rope around Walt or otherwise attached it to him, then we could have gotten him to shore for certain and with less danger to me.  I would have had one arm at least free to swim.   With my decision to let go, getting Walt to shore became in doubt again and my life was in increased danger.   I do not know if Bill could move with the amount of tension on the rope and I do not know how long I could have continued to hold on in such an awkward position.    

At the beginning of any trip, all paddlers should confer and see who has what kind of gear.  All paddlers in a team should have a throw rope and all should have whistles.   Paddlers are wise to bring extra gear in case on team member lacks something.    But the bottom line is that there is a lot of randomness in a river.   Usually we get away with a good story, but sometimes the river does not forgive our errors.   Often times we don't realize the most dangerous spots in a river until we have a close call or tragedy.

ANALYSIS: (Walbridge)

1. Paul's effort to save Walt by jumping into the current above Cherry Bomb falls was courageous and smart. In attempting the rescue the entire group demonstrated impressive teamwork. A less skilled party would have found themselves portaging the falls and chasing the body downstream!

2. Class V whitewater is, by definition, a dangerous place to swim and a tough place to recover a swimmer. That it could kill a man of Walt Shipley’s skill and experience should serve as a warning to everyone who paddles this type of water.

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