Accident Database

Report ID# 696

  • Swim into Rock or Sieve
  • Hypothermia
  • Cold Water
  • Failed Rescue

Accident Description

From Erik Nies

To my friends. It is my sad task to tell you all that Brennan Guth, of Missoula, Montana, died on the Rio Palguin near Pucon, Chile, on March 15, 2001. He and I were paddling together at the time. My heart goes out to all of you who loved Brennan as much as I did. He is gone, and I miss him terribly.

Brennan's death occurred in an undercut cave on the lower Palguin, in the last set of big drops near the take-out. The weather was warm, and the river level was low. This cave is a fairly well-known hazard that catches a large part of the river's current. The current flows so smoothly under the wall at the back of the cave that the spot has all the appearance of an underwater tunnel, although subsequent exploration has shown that this is not the case. Brennan knew of the cave, and felt it was reasonable to run the 8-foot drop about 100 feet upstream of this spot. He had run this drop before without incident, as have others. On this trip, Brennan got caught in the pourover at the base of the drop, was forced to swim, and was carried into the cave.

He was initially stable in the cave, holding onto the walls and talking calmly about his situation. Throughout the rescue he remained visible at the back of the cave. However, he undoubtedly became hypothermic during the protracted rescue efforts, which for reasons discussed below--went on for over an hour. When the rope eventually reached him, he was apparently unable even to push an arm through the loop at the end. He was also without his life jacket, as he had removed it during earlier efforts to swim out of the cave. Finally, I entered the cave on a tether. When I reached the back of the cave Brennan had disappeared below the water's surface.

Although it is hard to remember precisely and I cannot be sure of this, I believe Brennan went under while we were setting up the tethered-swimmer rescue. His body was recovered the next day by a SCUBA diver from Temuco, who found it lodged against the wall approximately 5 meters underwater. I must thank and commend the river and canyoneering guides at Trelin Outdoor Center who lined a raft into the cave the next day and did the initial underwater exploration; and also the regional police and rescue services of Chile, who also did an outstanding job both recovering Brennan's body and dealing with the situation as a whole.

Brennan Guth and I were travelling independently in Chile this season, me for a few weeks only, Brennan for the better part of the Chilean summer. We happened to meet up at the Rio Futaleufu south of Puerto Montt, and kayaked there for several days until bad weather and flooding spurred us to drive through Argentina to Pucon. Brennan was keen to show me some of the classic rivers in the Pucon district. After spending several days kayaking and drying out in Esquel and Bariloche, we arrived in Pucon the afternoon of the 13th, and ran the upper Palguin, a short, popular creek run near town. The next day, we met up with Barbara Winter, an Austrian kayaker that Brennan had met in Pucon several months earlier, and ran the upper Rio Fuy, another popular run about two hours from town.

On the 15th, I had a plane ticket for 7pm, from Temuco to Stgo to Miami to Pittsburgh. Brennan was planning to stay for another week or so, then return his rental pick-up and head home as well. Our plan that day was to do a repeat run on the upper Palguin in the morning (2 km), and to push through the less-frequently run middle section (1 km) and lower section (2 km) if time allowed. Barbara again joined us, but just for the upper Palguin run. We all knew this run, and the trip went smoothly. The highlight was Brennan's spectacular run through the double-drop on this stretch, which is normally portaged. With most of the day still ahead of us, Brennan and I opted to push on to the more difficult and less well-known middle section. Things went well. Barbara drove the truck down and met us at the most difficult section of the middle part, a set of three impressive drops. The first of these, a 20-foot drop with a shallow Gorilla-type landing, may not have been run before. Brennan helped me portage, then ran the drop and cleaned it. The second drop Brennan had run several years earlier, but not in the style he wanted. This time he almost stuck his entry boof, rolled up in the halfway pool and eddied out. He was almost laughing when he called out, �Dammit I almost HAD it,� then he paddled off the lip of the 40-footer that finished the run.

I was planning to seal-launch into the halfway pool and run the 40-footer, and Brennan must have waited 15 minutes while I fretted with my gear and did my Zen breathing. I remember the mist, the moss on the rocks, the hit at the bottom, and Brennan's smile when I rolled up. We sat for a bit on the hot flat rocks above the last drop, a straight-shot 50-footer. Brennan told me that nobody who had run it thought it was a good idea afterward. I groveled through the jungle to the pool below, picked up the boats after Brennan chucked them to me, then watched Brennan's only portage that day, a 50-foot leap through clear space into the waiting water.

We continued onto the lower Palguin, which was new to me but old ground to Brennan. We quickly arrived at the last set of falls, running the appoach rapid and eddying out at the scout on the right without incident. Brennan had already had his look by the time I joined him on the rocks. The first drop consisted of a narrow, ugly-looking falls, maybe 16 feet high, between sheer walls. The river stayed gorged up for 100 feet or so, then opened up again in a broad, sunny pool below the exit drop, a clean-looking 8-footer. He planned to run both drops (the first drop is usually portaged) and told me to bank-start in between the two falls and run the exit drop with him. He mentioned the cave, but thought it didn't look bad today. By this I think he meant that the drop above it looked straightforward. He may also have meant that the cave itself didn't look bad, as the current into the cave is slow, flat, and altogether undramatic. At this time I wasn't actually sure where the cave was, and from my bank start the exit drop looked like another harmless Palguin drop into a sunny pool.

I got in my boat and waited for Brennan. He went deep and got bumped around in the first drop, but nothing bad. Looking as solid as he always did, he approached the exit drop and did his run as planned, a partial boof off the left edge. I was surprised to see him getting worked in the hole: a splash, a boat end, and then a paddle floating away across the pool. I couldn't see much else, and decided to carry around on the right to the pool. This took a minute or so, and when I arrived I saw his paddle and front wall in my eddy, the water hitting the cliff on the far side, and not much else. Then Brennan called, and I saw him in the back of the cave with his boat. I paddled over and ferried above the mouth of the cave. From here I was maybe 30 feet from Brennan. He was floating chest deep in water in the back of the cave, holding onto the side and roof with his hands. The stern of his boat was sticking straight up next to him. He was uninjured, and we could easily talk.

We discussed what to do. We both knew than neither of us had ropes. I had lost mine on a first-descent mini-epic with Brennan the previous week. As I watched him try to climb out both sides of the cave, I got the idea to try to reach him with bamboo, first from my boat and then from a ledge above and slightly downstream of the cave. I spent 20 minutes or so lashing together three 20-foot pieces and trying to maneuver it into the cave, with little luck at all. I got back in my boat and Brennan agreed that I needed to get help. Right then we also discussed whether he needed to take off his lifejacket, swim down, and follow the current out of the cave. He also told me not to take too long, because he was starting to get cold.

I ran the next drop, and after 5 minutes of easy water I was at the bridge talking to Barbara and a campesino who lived nearby. Twenty minutes later I was back at the drop talking to Brennan, who was still alert but sounded very tired. I saw also that he was now out of his life jacket and helmet. Five minutes later Barbara and several locals arrived with several hundred feet of 1/2 inch rope, most of which was polypropylene. We tied this together, I got in my boat, and I think at first one of the locals tried to throw the rope from a perch over the exit drop into the cave. This didn't seem to be working, and I think that next I tried throwing from my boat. On one of the attempts the rope snagged on the bamboo I had been using before, and I took this as an opportunity to get the rope across the river and try from the ledge near the cave. Again, this didn't work, although it was unclear to me if the rope wasn't reaching Brennan, or if it was and he couldn�t grab it.

Next I tied the middle of the rope to the security bar on the front deck of my Z. The rope had a loop at it's end, through which we had clipped a small yellow dry bag filled with air. With this set-up I could hover above the cave, and I clearly saw the rope get to Brennan. We pulled me and the rope out, but no Brennan. We repeated this, again the rope got to Brennan, and again when we pulled, no Brennan. At this point I had a profound sense that Brennan was incredibly cold, weak, and unable to help himself. I believe I called to him then and got a weak �yeah� in reply.

At this point, I put the rope on my rescue harness and paddled back to the cave, but when I looked in, I couldn't see Brennan anymore. I punched out of my boat, and was lowered in to the back of the cave on my harness. I remember sitting there and looking all around, and thinking that there's nowhere he could have gone to except down. I felt around a little bit, then had them pull me out. I considered going back in, being more aggressive about going underwater for him, weighing this against the risk, my fear, and my sense that once he went under he would go deep. I came out, and I told Barbara and the others that it was over. Brennan went under a little before 5 pm. Barbara and I waited by the river for an hour, while the locals got the police.

We talked to them, and they called the Fire Dept., who came with perhaps an hour of sunlight left. I believe they did not get in the river that night. Brennan's body was recovered the next day. The diver reported that the roof and back of the cave formed a smooth wall that curved downward for 40 or 50 feet. Brennan's body was found to the right (downstream) of this smooth wall, in an undercut pocket below a more vertical part of the cliff just downstream of the cave.

That's what happened, as best as I can remember. I've been second-guessing everything in the chain of events that ended with Brennan's death. I know that if I had done things differently, Brennan would likely be alive now. That is a hard truth, and that is the way of this world, and I will make my peace with it. Thanks to all in Chile and back home who have been so helpful throughout this event. Too many to name, but you know who you are.


The next three accidents show what the results of small losses in boat control on Class V whitewater. Brennan Guth, an internationally known kayaker, video star, and instructor, died on the Palguin River near Pucon, Chile on March 15th. Guth, 32, who had run this river several times before, was accompanied by Eric Neiss, a veteran NOC instructor who he had met on the Futalefu River the week before. That day he ran several drops that are normally portaged with great skill and confidence. Then the pair arrived at a series of falls above the takeout. There is a deep cave in the runout of the last eight-foot drop. Guth was trashed in a hole and forced to swim. Neiss said in his account that he saw what happened, carried the drop, and approached the cave. Guth was OK, floating about 30 feet back of the cave entrance with his partially submerged boat bobbing to one side. He was holding the roof and sides with his hands.

Both paddlers had lost their throw ropes on a "first descent mini-epic" the previous week. After Guth tried and failed to climb out of the cave, Neiss attempted to reach him by lashing together several 20� lengths of bamboo. When this fell short, the pair discussed their options, including the possibility that Guth could remove his PFD and swim down to a possible cave exit. They agreed that Neiss should leave to find help. Twenty minutes later Neiss returned, followed five minutes later by two local men carrying several hundred feet of 1/2" polypropylene. By now Guth was getting quite cold, and he had removed his PFD and helmet. After the locals attempted to throw the rope into the cave from a point 100' upstream, Neiss clipped the middle of the rope to his kayak security bar and maneuvered the free end of rope, with a hand-loop tied in, right to Guth. He did this several times, but Guth was probably too weak and cold to hold on. Neiss called to him and got a weak response. He then tied the rope to his PFD rescue harness, paddled into position, and bailed out. By the time he reached the back of the cave, Guth had disappeared.

His body was recovered the next day roughly 40 feet below the surface by a SCUBA diver from Temuco, assisted by regional police and guides from the Trellin Outdoor Center. It turns out there was no underwater exit. Neiss concluded his report by saying, "I know that if I had done things differently, Brennan would likely be alive now. This is a hard truth, and I will make my peace with it." I would change his harsh "would likely" to a more realistic "might possibly".

For the benefit of future paddlers, I'll discuss a few of the "might have beens". Much discussion has focused on the missing throw rope, but everyone familiar with the area has emphasized that a single throw rope would not have been long enough. Neiss was smart to attach a dry bag to the loop at the end of the rope to provide extra flotation and visibility. Given the unknown nature of the cave, Guth's decision to remove his PFD was not a good one. If worn, the PFD would have kept him on the surface until help arrived. If a rescue vest lower had been done when the rope first arrived, they might have reached him. But it's also clear from the description that getting a tethered swimmer into position was not easy. It also made sense to attempt less dangerous options before lowering a tethered swimmer into the cave. Aggressive underwater swimming in the cave, though limited by the PFD, might or might not have found anything. A third paddler could certainly have helped out by pooling gear, muscle, and brainpower. But none of these options guarantee anything.


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