Accident Database

Report ID# 589

  • Impact/Trauma
  • Spinal Injury

Accident Description

Sunshine Falls: July 1991; Classification V+

Noted paddlesport writer and rescue instructor Slim Ray suffered a disabling back injury following a bad run of Sunshine Falls, one of the most serious drops on North Carolina's Upper Green River. The T-12 vertebrae, the lowest of the chest vertebrae a little above the small of the back, was badly damaged. It is likely that he will not regain the use of his legs.

Ray was part of a group of expert paddlers. Many members of the group whom were making their first run on this section led by boaters who were familiar with it. The group was proceeding cautiously, allowing plenty of time for scouting and carrying, and arrived at Sunshine Falls without incident.

Sunshine is a technically difficult rapid generally regarded as one of the more serious drops on a section noted for its seriousness. To run it, one must dive diagonally across the lip of a fifteen foot drop into a small eddy, turning immediately to run a rocky five-foot drop. Failure to make the move results in the boat falling vertically onto a rock shelf.

The group arrived at the rapid around 3:00. Four of the boaters made the run without incident; four carried around the drop. Slim indicated that he'd like to make the run. He caught the eddy on river left and began his drive to the right from there. As he went over the drop the boat lost its angle and went straight down, hitting the rock with terrific force. After pinning momentarily, the boat pitched forward and disappeared into the spray of the falls.

Slim was sucked into the hole upside-down, and he intended to wait until he floated free before rolling up. Instead, he was sucked under the curtain of water until he became pinned between the full force of the river and the shallow rocks below. There was no specific impact responsible; rather the tremendous pressure of the water forced his body forward until his back snapped. After a few seconds later his paddle floated out, followed by his boat. Slim surfaced by the side of the boat as it swept over the second drop. As soon as he surfaced he shouted. Two ropes were thrown. Slim caught the second; as he was being pulled to shore he called out that he had hurt his back. The group did not bring him out of the water, but kept him in the shallows while they did a primary survey. Slim reported great pain in his back, but no sensation in his lower body below the waist. The time is 3:30.

The group elected to treat for spinal injury by keeping Slim immobilized in the water while sending runners for help up a steep trail nearby. They knew that the cars of friends who had hiked in would be available to them, and were instructed to contact rescue squads and bring them in on the same trail with a stokes litter and backboard. The runners left at 3:50.

In order to keep Slim motionless, the boaters who remained with him elected to build a supporting structure under him using foam walls removed from kayaks. As the water release ended, the water level dropped. By adding shims made of foam triangles under the walls, they were able to keep Slim's body as level as possible. By 4:50 Slim's body was clear of the water; it was covered with insulating layers and trash bags to prevent further heat loss.

At 5:15 the first of the rescue squad volunteers arrived. The group insisted on identification of the first aid leader before turning Slim over to them. They administered an I.V. and packaged Slim on a backboard and Stokes litter. They radioed for a helicopter, which miraculously landed at 5:50 a short distance downstream in the steep gorge. The group cleared a trail to a large pool, then lashed several kayaks together to float Slim out to where the helicopter was waiting on a large rock. He boarded the helicopter at around 7:00 and was transported to the hospital where he underwent surgery and was placed in intensive care.

SOURCES. Gordon Grant; Slim Ray


1) Mistakes in class V and VI rapids carry a serious risk of injury or death. The free-fall element found in steep rapids must be respected; this is not the first instance of severe back injury from running high waterfalls. Those who make these runs must be ready to accept the risks.

2) The group is to be commended for their careful and conservative approach in treating Slim's back injury. There have been numerous cases of sloppy rescue and evacuation over the past few years which could have had serious consequences. Keeping Slim in the water was a good idea, given the warm water temperatures. It would not have worked in more extreme conditions.

Slim faces a year of rehabilitation. Friends and associates are encouraged to write him in care of The Nantahala Outdoor Center. (CW)

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