FATAL ACCIDENT ON THE NISQUALLY RIVER
La Grande Canyon Near La Grande, WA: December 2, 2000
Volume: @800 cfs; Classification V
SUMMARY: On December 2, 2000 a group of kayakers participated in a scheduled water release on the La Grande Canyon of Washington?s Nisqually River. At the first major rapid Chris Ringsven became pinned in his boat against a rock and was held under water. The boat was unpinned quickly by his companions, but despite their extraordinary efforts he washed free. His life jacket was pulled off, allowing his unconscious body to float a quarter mile downstream through several major rapids before being run down and recovered by his group.
DESCRIPTION: The La Grande Canyon of the Nisqually River is a difficult whitewater run, containing Class IV and V rapids in a rugged 300? deep gorge. It includes a mandatory portage and one rapid that must be run and is hard to scout. The ruggedness of the terrain makes the run very committing. Local paddlers feel that the run is comparable to the popular Green Truss Bridge section of the White Salmon River, but with more difficult access and portages. Water is released from the La Grande Dam, owned by the City Of Tacoma Public Utilities, on four days in November and December. These releases were established as a condition for the renewal of their FERC license, The river has been de-watered since 1912, when the La Grande Dam was built. It was first run during recreational flow tests in 1994; there have been five other days when water was released as a part of this program. American Whitewater advocated summer releases but the Washington Dept. of Fish & Game opposed us. During the winter of 1996-97, between the testing and the beginning of scheduled releases, a 40,000 cfs flood rushed down the Nisqually through La Grande Canyon. The force of the water changed the run significantly, making several drops more difficult. Thus when scheduled releases began, paddlers faced a more difficult river. Despite this, there were no injuries during the releases in 1998 and 1999.
The meeting time for paddlers was set at 8:00 AM, on December 2, 2000. The early start is necessary due to the unusually steep, rope assisted descent required to enter the canyon. The dam was opened at 10:00 AM, releasing around 900 cfs according to Tacoma Power?s Garth Jackson. The 22 paddlers who participated in this event quickly split into four groups. These small, compact parties are designed to allow paddlers to better keep track each other while providing close-in safety backup and support . The groups were as follows: Group 1: (6) Christopher Ringsven (deceased), Snoqualamie, WA *Darren Albright, Port Orchard, WA Don Martin, Seattle, WA *Robert McKibben, Gold Bar, WA *Tim Holmburg, Seattle, WA *Brett Kerin, Crystal Mountain Resort, WA (* = participated in a release on the Nisqually two weeks earlier) Group 2 (8) Jason Rackley, Corvallis, OR Mike Turner, Eugene, OR Bradley Cascagnette, Eugene, OR Matthew Hartman, Eugene, OR Gabriel Flock, Eugene, OR Joshua Knapp, Eugene, OR David McNeil, Eugene, OR Steven Stuckmeyer, Eugene, OR Group 3 (2) Ron Blanchette, Vancouver, WA Bill Bowey, Portland, OR Group 4 (6) Joseph Baransky, Portland, OR Bill Simonds, Gig Harbor, WA Caroline Hogan, Portland, OR Coleen Gatley, Portland, OR Britton Gentry, Portland, OR Philip D?Orofrio, Salem, OR
Ringsven, 27, was in the first group. A native of Minnesota, he had had been kayaking whitewater for 5 or 6 years. He had recently moved to Washington State to be closer to the rivers and mountains he loved. A solid Class V boater, he was known to some of the members of his group. It was his first time down this section of the Nisqually. The five boaters who accompanied him were also experienced and well-trained. On average, they had been kayaking whitewater 4.6 years. All but one was trained in swiftwater rescue, and wore rescue life vests. Three of the five had advanced first aid training. Four of the five had participated in the release two weeks prior. The following is an account of the accident written by Darren Albright, who was in the first group and played a primary role in the rescue attempt.
We ran approximately half to three-quarters of a mile of whitewater before we came to the first major rapid, "Hammer Slammer". Chris appeared to be competent and was looking strong. Everyone, including Chris, got out to scout "Hammer Slammer". We looked at the rapid for five to ten minutes, discussing lines taken on the previous trip and what the better line would be today. I had been stuck in the (center) hole for a while on the previous trip, so I was being extra cautious. I carried a throw bag with me the entire time of scouting (I regularly do). Don grabbed his camera to shoot the footage while Chris and Brett headed towards their boats. Don was in position with the camera, myself with a throw bag, Tim with a throw bag on his life jacket next to me and Rob was in between Tim & myself and where Brett was getting ready. Chris was going to run the line, which we decided, was "the most conservative line." The rapid was considered by most, including myself, to be a class 5. There was a river wide (70-100 feet) slide that dropped approximately five feet on river right, ten feet near center left and eight feet on river left (progressively shorter to taller to shorter from river right to left). Rocks were apparent in the center left line as they were at higher flows. The left line required a difficult ferry back right. The center-line was through the hole where I had gotten stuck previously. The right dropped into what appeared to be a soft hole with the current immediately heading left (nearly 90 degrees). The current funneled through a six-foot wide slot at first then progressively got wider (after the left turn).
With everybody in position, Chris peeled out of the eddy and slowly neared the drop. He had a little right to left angle on the boat at the lip. He entered with what appeared to be a good line. Suddenly, the boat stopped and disappeared at the base of the drop in the hole. We could tell that the boat did not float downstream. Due to the water fanning straight up, we could tell the boat was pinned.
Immediately I unclipped a carabiner that was attached to my PFD and clipped it to my throw bag. I gave the throw bag to Tim and told him to clip me in (to my rescue PFD). For some reason, he could not clip me in, but Rob did. Within fifteen seconds from Chris pinning, I jumped into the water towards his boat (I was tethered via throw rope). The boat was approximately four to five feet from where I was standing. Tim, Don, Brett and Rob had a hold of the rope I was connected to. I landed on his boat, which was submerged. My left leg was upstream and me right leg down stream of the boat. I was able to feel Chris' arm and body several times when I was there. When I started slipping off the boat, I tried to grab Chris. His arm slipped my grip. They pulled me back up for a second try. A total of approximately 30-45 seconds had elapsed before the second jump.
This time, I hit the boat and it shifted (stern deeper, bow higher pointed towards river left). I washed off the boat immediately, but was still able to feel Chris before I was gone. When Tim, Don, Brett and Rob pulled me up this time, they struggled; I was underwater with the current pushing down hard. When I made it back onto the shore, I was reluctant to jump again. Thoughts were running through my head very quickly. Rob mentioned that we needed to "stabilize" the boat and Chris somehow. I felt that this would take too long and thought we had a chance at maybe getting the boat free a quicker way. During that time I stripped my tow tether and hooked the throw rope back into the harness on my rescue PFD. Don had rigged another throw rope with a carabiner for the bow grab loop since it was now visible after the boat shifting on the second jump. Brett was setting up an anchor for a Z-Drag. I told Brett to "come help (hold the rope)." My life was on the rope and I did not want to be pinned or pulled away (only Tim was holding the rope at the time). Brett told me that he thought it was a bad idea to jump and not to do it. Don felt that we really needed to get the rope to the bow and said "we need to get this rope on that bow loop" several times. Rob started upstream to get help; he knew that there were several kayakers only a half-mile or so upstream who could help. I was concerned the entire time that if I got in front of the boat I could also become pinned. If I pinned to the boat or went underneath it I knew it would be difficult at best for the three of them to pull me free
By now, just over 10 to 15 minutes had gone by. I said a quick prayer then jumped. This time my goal was to clip the other throw bag to the bow. I felt this was an impossible thing to do (I question my judgment of trying to do this, but at the time I had a gut feeling). The bow was almost two feet out of the water and over six feet away. God gave me the strength to do it and miraculously enough I was able to land and hug the bow. On the way, I felt my knees and feet brush Chris' body. I knew he was still in the boat. The water pushed me against the bow pretty hard. At this time I put my feet down to see what the depth was. Somehow, there was a rock knee deep in the hydraulic. I stepped on it and clipped the throw bag to the bowline only after Don reminded me to. Once I had footing I tried to pull the boat off myself and forgot that I was supposed to clip the carabiner to the boat. The entire time I hugged the boat in case I lost my footing. Then, with every thing I had, I pulled the bow up while Don pulled the rope the boat was attached to (Tim and Brett pulled the rope I was attached to). The boat came free! All of this happened in around 6-8 seconds, probably less (from jumping the third time to freeing the boat).
Immediately after dislodging the boat, I went for the cockpit where I hoped Chris was. Unfortunately, when I dragged my arm across the cockpit nobody was there (I knew Chris had come free from the time I jumped and felt him to when I felt the cockpit area). I saw that the spray skirt was still connected to the rim, but Chris was gone, ripped him clean out of the boat and skirt). After talking to Brett, Don and Tim, they said they saw "lots of things flush through" when the boat came free. I assumed Chris went downstream as the boat came dislodged and I knew I had to follow him. From the time the boat was freed to when I decided to chase him was around 2-4 seconds. I was still tethered to a rope that Brett and Tim were holding. The boat was tied with a different rope that Don was holding, but he let go after the boat came free. Tim also let go of my rope when the boat came free. I pulled the quick release on my rescue PFD and followed what I thought would be Chris' line through the rest of the rapid. When I surfaced at the bottom, I saw a life jacket next to me. I grabbed it but Chris was not inside. It took us approximately two minutes to free Chris from the time of the pin. At this time, I had swallowed some water and thought is was possible for Chris' body still to be pinned up top. With another class 4/5 drop ten yards downstream from where I was, I headed for an eddy on river right.
Everyone else was scrambling to get in their boats. Tim told me that he thought about swimming after us but he immediately went for his boat. As I was coming into the eddy (crawl stroke position pointed upstream) I was struck by something underneath. Chris was face up, underwater and heading downstream fast. I tried to grab him with my right arm while attempting an eddy turn with the left. He was unconscious and he slipped my grip once again. I turned and saw him go over the horizon line, disappear for a second, then reappear before entering into a hole and disappearing again. I did not feel it was a good idea to follow him through the rapid. I jumped onto the canyon wall (vertical rock wall) and started to traverse down stream on river right. About half way through the rapid on the wall, I came to a point I could not go any further. So, I jumped back in the river and followed him crawl stoking (I know this was very stupid of me but I looked upstream and they were still getting their boats around the drop and into the water. I did not want to lose visual with Chris). There was another class 3+ to 4 boulder garden 50 yards downstream. I did my best to get to him but once again he went over the horizon line. By this time, Brett had made it down this far in his boat and I told him where Chris went. He passed me as I jumped out of the river. I started running along the bank as fast and far as I could, but again I had to resort to swimming due to the canyon walls. Tim, in his boat, was passing me about the time I started swimming again and I told him to follow Brett. ?Tim and Brett portaged Triple Falls (class 5). I swam to the right bank and started running around Triple Falls. When I rounded the corner, I saw Tim and Brett approximately 75-100 yards downstream administering CPR on a rock in the middle of the river just above another class 4+ boulder garden. I ripped off my helmet (it had a face mask) and ran down there. Probably took me about two minutes to get there and they had been doing CPR for less than five minutes before I got there. I helped with CPR for another twenty minutes before Don arrived (Chris was unconscious, purple/blue in the face and ears, and water was coming out: not coughing it out but just kind of rolling out). Chris had swam somewhere over a quarter mile of class 4 and 5 before we got his body out. ?We decided it was best to send someone to get help. I said I would go. Don and I started up the canyon through a nearly vertical gully (Jason Rackley later came up the same gully). Due to the difficulty and falling rocks, Don decided to turn back and help with Chris. I made it up to an intermediate road that had been closed for quite sometime and put a rock in it to mark where to go back down. I knew this was the road we put in on over a mile upstream. And, I knew that HWY 7 was another seventy-five vertical feet above me. I heard cars so I decided to head towards the HWY. I made it there probably about ten to fifteen minutes after leaving the bottom. I flagged someone down and got a ride to Alder Lake store. I used their phone to call 911 and ten minutes later the fire chief picked me up. ?We got a hold of dam officials and they shut the water off (At 12:45 PM). We also tried to gain access to an intermediate road I crossed on my way out. The dam official said the road was condemned but we could get up it with quads. So we headed back up that road to set up. The sheriff department came and started to set up high angle rescue. The fire department also helped with other operations. A military helicopter eventually air lifted Chris' body out of the canyon. The boaters above the incident went back upstream and exited the canyon. Everyone else headed downstream to Civil Structure to exit canyon.? Jason Rackley was with the second group, and filed this report: ?The group that had done the run before us fixed a 300 foot line, and they were already on the river by the time we got down to the water. We were all in high spirits and we waved cheerfully at the tiny figures watching from the top of the dam three hundred feet above, thankful to the powers that be that they were giving the river life again so that we could enjoy it in it's natural state. ?I put in first and ran the initial drop while everyone else was warming up or getting into their boats. I eddied out and heard the whistle. I looked downstream and I saw a paddler running up a rock ledge, screaming at the top of his lungs. I couldn't hear him at first, so I paddled over and I heard him screaming faintly over the roar of the river, "........DROWNING .... HELP!" My ultimate nightmare became a reality. I turned, pulled out my whistle and blew it four times in rapid succession, which among our group means the highest level of emergency - get down here, someone is dying. ?It was like lighting had struck our group - they were in their boats in seconds and came charging downstream. We tore past the paddler, who was mutely pointing downstream, his face twisted with anguish. After several big drops we eventually we got to a large horizon line. We saw some gear strewn about, but no paddlers. We jumped out and saw two boats, a video camera, and a tether. "I see someone!" Dave McNiell yelled, pointing downstream. Dave is a paramedic and a whitewater rescue instructor. Dave, Josh, and I rushed downstream while everyone else stayed at the accident scene. Two rapids later the river was blocked by a line of boulders forming a big horizon line. On the left bank we saw a blue kayak broached on a rock, cockpit facing downstream with a paddle sticking out of it. A quick check found no paddler inside. "I'm going!? Dave yelled to me as Josh checked the boat, and he paddled over the horizon line. I followed, unwilling to let him go down alone. We ran that rapid, came to another horizon line below. Downstream of the next rapid I could see several tiny figures bent over something on a rock, and my stomach turned over in horror as I saw the unmistakable up and down motion of someone administering CPR. ?As Dave and I tore through the last drop I flipped end over end in the hole at the bottom but hardly noticed this as I was so focused on getting there. We eddied out and Dave scrambled up onto the rock to assist with the rescue breathing, but to no avail: He removed Ringsven?s drysuit, and examined him. He pronounced him dead at 12:40 PM, basing his decision on his fixed, dilated pupils and apparent lividity.
SOURCES: Reports and comments sent by Darren Albright, Jason Rackley, Tim Holmburg, Dan Martin, Steve Stuckmeyer, Philip D?Orofrio, Brad Cascagnette, Bill Bowey, Don Martin, Carla Miner, Caroline Hogan, Coleen Gatley, Clay Wright, Britt Gentry, Rich Bowers, Bill Simmonds, John Gangemi, and Garth Jackson
ANALYSIS: 1. (Walbridge) The kayakers involved with the rescue should be commended for their fast, effective response to this tragedy. Darren Albright used his rescue life vest to full advantage. He got the victim free in the astonishingly short time of two minutes, thirty seconds. Had Chris? life vest not been torn from his body there is a good chance that he would have been pulled from shore and successfully resuscitated. When he floated free, teams of kayakers from two groups took reasonable risks to catch up with him and bring him ashore. Albright?s pursuit, by foot and swimming in the river, was incredible tenacious. His intelligent, aggressive rescue attempt, when combined with his ongoing effort to accurately assess the dangers to himself, should serve as a model for everyone. . 2. (Rackley) Chris was an outstanding class V boater who did everything he could have possibly done to reduce risk - he paddled with a strong team, he had suitable equipment, and he scouted carefully and set up safety before running the drop. Everyone in Chris's group is a hero in my book - these guys risked their lives trying to extricate him. If he could have been saved, they would have done it. Running class V is a dangerous business, and the risks associated with it can never be totally mitigated.
2. (Albright) When I walked up the canyon after the water was shut off (I had to get to my boat, but thankfully someone carried it out upstream) I looked at where the incident occurred. There were only two rocks in the area where Chris was pinned. It was obvious which one pinned him. The rock was triangular shaped and about three to four feet long. The narrow part was on the ground towards river right and the wider part was elevated, allowing water to flow underneath. Nonetheless, the rock was slightly under cut or tilted upriver which caused the boat to pin easily. Chris? stern dropped into the pocket on the right with all the flow in the area direct right at it. A second rock was the only thing in the area except the bottom of the riverbed, which was another two or three feet down. God definitely placed my feet on that rock for my safety. This is how the kayak was pinned. Chris had entered with that right to left angle and that was the direction of the boat when he was pinned (bow towards river left and stern towards river right). His stern was lower than his bow and after the boat shifted on the second jump, we think the stern hit the bottom, which caused more of an angle. The bottom-side of his boat was against the rock and the water was pouring directly onto his body. On the first jump, I felt Chris? body flailing around probably because of the water. However, when the boat shifted we believe that he was pushed to the stern and was pinned to the stern.
3. (Walbridge) The rock that was hidden in the sneak chute of Hammer Slammer Rapid was not visible to anyone in the group. After the accident, several boaters reported collisions, hang-ups, and boat damage at this spot. Rocks are often hit hard when running Class V without causing problems, and there was no indication that this hidden rock was anything more than a nuisance.
4. (Albright) After we were out of the canyon I examined Chris's boat. There was a soccer ball size dent in circumference that compressed inward about an inch to an inch and a half. It dented his seat where his right butt cheek would be. The seat also had about an inch to an inch and a half dent. I am not an expert with plastics but if that dent is that big now it must have been larger when the force of the river was on it. It probably flexed out somewhat to where it was when I saw it. Anyway, if it had been dented more when he was pinned there is a good chance Chris was not able to do any movements with his lower torso (his right leg would be pinned). This would explain why he wasn't ripped from the boat at first and why he was immediately gone when the pressure was released from the boat.
(Walbridge) Boat designer Clay Wright concurs with this opinion. It should be noted that any boat will deform when severely pinned, and there is always a danger of entrapment.
5. (Albright) The only thing I think we could have done better would to have had someone below the drop in a boat or with a throw bag. If for some reason Chris had come up sooner than I had first felt him, there might have been a chance to get him out and revive him there. However, our resources were all needed on the other side.
6. (Rackley) The fact that Chris?s PFD was torn off hampered rescue efforts, making him harder to find after he came out of his boat. The next time you put on your PFD raise your hands up over your head and have someone lift up on the shoulder straps. If it rides up more than two inches you need to tighten it up.
7. (Walbridge) When an person becomes trapped under water, their chest shrinks in size. At the same time the force of the water tends to pull the vest off. PFD?s can be lost even when correctly fastened. A crotch strap can prevent this, but it is almost impossible to use with a sprayskirt.
7. (Rackley) Chris was wearing a motocross-style helmet with a full facemask, and there was no evidence of injury to the head afterwards.
8. (Rackley) This tragedy clearly demonstrates that you need to be able to get out of your boat without using your hands. I know of a paddler who died when he ran a drop and his bow rode up on a log that was bridging the channel. His stern was pinned to the bottom of the creek and he was forced back over his stern where he lay helpless with the force of the water coming down on his chest. The paddler was still in his boat when they finally freed it hours later. Practicing this kind of escape might save your life.
9. (Walbridge) During the flow study, lower release levels were not checked because of time constraints. Several participants indicated that they would like to see if the canyon was runnable at flows of 500-600 cfs. Lower levels reduce the push of the water, but may also increase hazards from undercut rocks, potholes, and other obstructions. It would be worthwhile to examine this option at a later date. 10. (Albright) The Tacoma PUD did a great job helping at the put-in and even more so with their rescue efforts. The Fire, and Rescue departments all did the best they could and some even stayed around to help the other paddlers pull our boats of the 300? deep canyon. The Sheriff?s Department, however, was very uncooperative with Jason Rackley and I. At one point, I was almost arrested when I tried to go and communicate with the people who remained in the canyon and a friend of Jason's who was half way up the canyon wall. When we tried to get our boats out they would not let us, and we had to work around their position. (Rackley) Once the dam was shut off the river was a series of eerily calm pools separated by big boulder jumbles, all between soaring vertical walls. Josh and I climbed out of the 300 foot deep canyon to fix lines and assist others.
When I reached the top the authorities held me for an hour while the helicopter airlifted the body out. I finally met Darren Albright, and together we evaded the authorities, ran back to the put in, and grabbed a 300 ft rope. We then ran down a quarter mile past where the authorities had taken our spot, then climbed back down into the canyon to get our friends out. Because we were forced to re-enter the canyon a quarter mile downstream, we had to swim back upstream to get everyone and bring the other members of our party to where our rope was. This delay was unnecessary, and the evacuation of the boaters could have been managed better. (Walbridge) In defense of the Sheriff's Department, it should be noted that most rescue teams have very little experience working with paddlers and don?t appreciate the skills they possess. The best way to build bridges to emergency responders is to contact them BEFORE an accident happens, and I urge paddlers everywhere to become involved with local rescue units.
CONCLUSIONS: Class V whitewater is a dangerous undertaking even for teams of highly skilled kayakers. The risks can be minimized, but never eliminated. This group did everything they could to prevent the accident, from having the proper gear and training to taking appropriate precautions on the water. They scouted and set safety. When the accident occurred, they responded quickly and effectively. Although they almost made a successful rescue, their efforts were not enough.
Many paddlers who participated in the release and sent in comments felt that the river was comparable to, if not somewhat easier than, many Class V runs being done in the Northwest. Almost all of them indicated that they wanted to return to this unique place at a later date. The few who were not sure wanted time to think about their participation in the light of this death. Several said that they would portage Hammer Slammer Rapid. Chris Ringsven's death should not be a reason to discontinue this event. We all take risks because we feel that the benefits make the dangers worthwhile. This is true of many things people do, like driving a car in traffic, working a physical job like logging or construction, or playing high school football. In outdoor sports like bicycling, skiing, and rock climbing, fatalities are not uncommon. The kayakers who supplied the information in this report were unanimous in their feeling that they accepted the dangers willingly
Charles C. Walbridge
For the Safety Committee, American Whitewater