NEAR MISS IN WESTWATER CANYON
By Slim Ray
A rescue class got a taste of the real thing On May 23 1991. I was teaching a class for Canyonlands Field Institute out of Moab, Utah. The CFI course, developed by Barry Miller, emphasizes dynamic, in-water rescue techniques for oar boats on big, continuous water. The clinic arrived Friday at Westwater Canyon. My co-instructor was Ron Griffith, who has had extensive big water experience in Utah and Westwater canyon. The students were all from S'Plore, a Salt Lake City group specializing in trips for special population (disabled, mentally retarded, etc.). There were four student boats, a student safety boat, and a safety boat from CFI. All were oar boats, and both instructors were in student oar boats. The Colorado river was about 8,000 efs when we put on, and rising.
Saturday night the trip had camped at Little Dolores, just above the rapids section of the Canyon. After a morning classroom session on the beach, the class did rapid swimming just below Little Dolores. By now the river had come up to nearly 12,000 cfs, which meant that most of the canyon was virtually one continuous big-water rapid. The class proceeded downstream, doing safety and rescue exercise in the rapids. After a boat towing exercise, all boats from the class had eddied out below Funnel Falls Rapid. Most of the boats were just below the rapid; however, my boatman had trouble catching the eddies (the water was a lot pushier and the eddies smaller than most of them were used to) and ended up in an eddy a hundred yards or so below the main group. Ron was with the upstream group.
As everyone bailed, two oar rafts approached Funnel Falls. The second boat, flipped at the top of Funnel Falls and began washing downstream down. At the high water level (11,500 cfs), Westwater Gorge is virtually continuous boiling, swirling water, making rescue difficult. The upstream CFI group saw the flip and moved into position for a rescue. The boat accompanying the stricken boat, however, continued through the rapid and was unable to render assistance. The CFI student boats came alongside the upside-down raft and began a rescue attempt. At the time they had no idea how many victims were involved. Only two heads were visible. One of the crew of the overturned raft, Steve, attempted to get on top of the boat, failed, and was picked up by one of the CFI boasts. The other person's head, (this was Mike Franklin), was barely visible alongside the overturned raft. The rescuers reached him quickly but were unable to pull him out of the water. After several long moments it became obvious that Franklin was hung on something. One of the CFI students got on top of the raft and another into the water to try to rescue Franklin. They were unsuccessful.
Meanwhile the entire group was moving rapidly downstream toward Skull Rapid, the largest rapid in the canyon (the distance between Funnel Falls and Skull is about three-quarters of a mile). Because of the power of the water, the group was unable to tow the overturned raft into an eddy. Rescue attempts continued until the group reached a point about 200 yards above Skull. The group had passed me and I was trying to overhaul them downstream: a slow process.
As Ron passed he yelled to me that he thought we had someone entangled in a throw rope. As I approached I could see Franklin's head surface from time to time. Ron's raft was now next to Franklin's and he had him by the shoulders of his lifejacket. Angela was at the oars. I still had my swim fins on from the swimming exercise. After hearing Ron's shouted comments about the rope, I took off the heavy rubber gloves I was wearing and took out my knife (it was a folding Gerber; I did not open it). As our raft approached, I saw that 1) because of the number of rafts already around Franklin's raft, I wouldn't be able to get to it quickly, and 2) somebody needed to get in the water with the victim, so I went in and swam about fifty feet to the raft. Ron and I began frantically to try to free Franklin. When it became obvious that we were all going into Skull Rapid, Ron waved off the other boats to run Skull. We tried to keep contact with the victim as we did so. Ron kept hold of his life jacket, I tried to hold the boats together and keep hold of Franklin, and Angela somehow managed to row the two boats through Skull without hitting the (very large) hole. During the ride though Skull I got the victim's lifejacket free of the spare oar. As it turned out, the blade of the spare oar was pushed through the right arm hole and between the top and second snaps of the victim's Type V lifejacket. I was able to free him by unsnapping the top buckle. Ron had also had the foresight to brief everyone on how to run Skull before we left the beach for the day, and all the student boats made it through upright.
After Franklin was freed, Ron was able to get him into his raft in the tailwaves of Skull Rapid, while Angela rowed into the eddy on river left. A quick survey showed that Franklin was breathing but unconscious. He became responsive within a few minutes and fully regained consciousness after 5-7 minutes. A check with other members of the party revealed that two other raft passengers were missing. The overturned raft had continued downstream after Franklin's party, had eddied out at Skull. Ron quickly organized a search/rescue party of two rafts, a CFI student boat and the CFI safety boat, and headed off downstream in search of the missing rafters. I stayed in the eddy in Angela's raft to look after Franklin, who was in fairly serious condition.
Ron proceeded about 3/4 mile downstream to find the upside-down boat hung on a loop from a throw bag in swift current below Last Chance rapid (the last one in the canyon). He and Mike Smith (who was rowing the CFI safety boat) began rescue attempts and a search for survivors. They first tried unsuccessfully to bump and push the boat off with their rafts as they passed. Finally Ron succeeded in swimming out to the raft, just in time to see a person floating away from under it. Mike picked the man up. This was Lester, one of the missing passengers. While Ron retrieved the raft and checked underneath for the second missing passenger, Mike continued on around the bend. He proceeded half a mile more (the water was flat here) with the intention of stopping on a beach to warm up Lester. There he found Sarah, the other missing passenger, sitting on the beach, incoherent. Smith quickly set up a camp, changed the victims into dry clothes and sleeping bags, and gave them hot drinks.
Upstream, I decided to evacuate Franklin by raft to the Cisco takeout. We removed his wet clothes and changed him into dry ones. Three members of Franklin's party, Gary, Rick (Sarah's husband) and Steve, elected to remain at Skull in order to attempt a search upstream for the missing passengers. They agreed to come out by dark if the search was unsuccessful (which they later did). Franklin was evacuated by raft to the Cisco takeout, then by car to the town of Cisco, then by helicopter to a hospital in Grand Junction. The two other members of Franklin's party (Sarah and Lester) were rewarmed and did not require medical treatment. Franklin was diagnosed as having aspirated water in his right lung, but was released from the hospital the next day.
Boat crews: Second boat: Mike (boatman), Steve, Sarah & Lester First boat: Gary (boatman), Dane, Rick
Time of Accident: About 2:30 PM, May 12, 1991
Weather: Fair, warm, (air temperature in 70s), some upstream wind, weather clear. Water temperature in 50s? Water level, approximately 11,500 cfs, water on the rise for the past few days, up from 8,000 the day before.
ANALYSIS: A good, but in many respects lucky, rescue. The students did rescuing one person without endangering themselves. It took awhile to find the right combination to rescue Franklin. We were very lucky that all student rafts made it through Skull Rapid okay, because we weren't in much of a position to help. Ron deserves credit here for briefing the Skull run beforehand. A safety kayaker, because of his mobility, would have been a great help, and the student safety boat (raft) was marginal at the high water level. I was fortunate to have my fins on and to be able to get my gloves off prior to the rescue. I doubt whether I could have gotten to the victim as fast (or at all) without the fins. I know that I couldn't have gotten the snap undone with the gloves on. The buckle was one of the older Type V buckles that has to be pressed on in the center to release. Granted the circumstances were less than ideal, but I feel the design of the buckles makes them too hard to unsnap in an emergency. This wouldn't have happened with a zippered jacket or one with cam-lock buckles. This is not the first time we've had trouble with Type V buckles.
Evacuation time was about two and a half hours; including air evacuation. The helicopter was nice but unnecessary, however, it would have been a godsend if we'd had to do CPR. We could also have cut evacuation time if we'd had a kayak to send out.
It was also a lesson to me to check underneath an upside-down raft for other victims. As it was, they were lucky; one went all the way though the Canyon under the raft (with no wetsuit) and the other (who was underneath the rafts during the initial rescue attempt) swam most of the way. Fortunately, she got out on her own. I have no explanation as to why they both stayed under the raft: both would have been rescued instantly if they had come up. We were unable to ascertain whether they were briefed on this before starting.
As for the others, it appears that Franklin was in over his head that day. It has been several years since Westwater has run this high, and many people aren't used to it. The other raft was competently piloted, but was too far downstream to help. The boatman on this raft, Gary Skiles, told me that he'd tried to talk Franklin out of going down at this level but that he was unable to dissuade him. Ron felt that the raft was not well rigged for big water and the possibility of a flip; the life and flip lines weren't properly rigged and there were too many things hanging loose. An example of this was the throw line that came loose and eventually snagged the raft. Ron's comment was that "it was spooky going underneath the raft" because of all the stuff hanging off it. He also felt that there was a possibility that the spare oar was tied in incorrectly (certainly it had no quick release).