Description: The Upper Gauley of West Virginia is a run considered close to the limit of what is possible in open canoe. Few paddlers run it in this type of craft, and so when Chicago-area paddler John Mundt went looking for a group to run with he had to settle for a small band of expert kayakers. This created problems, since open boats move more slowly on the river than kayaks do. Mundt had several swims, including long ones at Insignificant and Pillow Rock. The kayakers properly suggested that he retreat, but he continued on. There was another swim at Lost Paddle, but the worst was yet to come. Concerned about Iron Ring, which lay below, Mundt entered the “Orange Juice Squeezer” on the left side of “Shipwreck Rock” rapid. This drop is blocked by a huge rock which blocks the entire left-center side of the river, forcing John to cut from left to right in very heavy water. The rest of the description is in the victim’s own words:
. . . Shipwreck rock . . . is severely undercut. At the top of the rapid, I stated to run right, as that looked like a good chicken route. . .as I began to move right, I saw Pete (another member of the part) move left. Figuring he knew something that I didn’t I played “follow the leader” and moved left too.
I unexpectedly dumped. Finding myself in the water above (Shipwreck) rock, I moved to the stern of my boat and proceeded to casually drift down until I could find an eddy. I was not worried about the rock until someone shouted “get away” At this point I got my first view of the rock close up. . . too late to do anything. . .I was pushed against the rock and the current took me under. From then until I lost consciousness I struggled against the flow of water, only to be pushed deeper and deeper until my feet were kicking against trapped logs on the bottom. My last thought was that I would be there until the water was turned off.
Published in the Chicago Whitewater Association, “Gradient”
The victim stayed under water for about five minutes before his body was flushed under the rock. He appeared thirty feet downstream, where the C-2 team of Stan Chadek and George L’Hota fished him out and began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on the spot. On shore a doctor, Bob Gedekoh, continued the process. When he came to, he was carried by raft downstream and evacuated by Ambulance. He was held overnight at Summersville Hospital , where he was pumped full of antibiotics to prevent aspiration pneumonia, a common problem in near-drowning incidents, and then released. He was able to recover his gear in the canyon the next day.
ANALYSIS: The group running with John was faced with a problem faced by many of us during our paddling careers. What do you do when a member of your group is clearly not up to the river you are running? Whether that person is a friend or a stranger, he may not be able to think clearly. While you are not responsible for his safety, you owe him whatever support you can give, and this includes an honest assessment of the situation and forthright expression of your feelings to the person involved. Here are your options:
You feel that there is no way that the person can complete the run safely. Instead of “I think you should walk out” you should say, “The group feels that you’re a danger to yourself. Please get off the river; it gets much harder and you’re just not up to it.” It may mean (although not in this case) that someone will have to accompany the paddler to civilization.
You are an expert party and like fast, slick trips. The person with you is a stranger and you simply don’t want to expend the energy needed to help thme get down the river. And face it, it is a commitment of time and energy, and the acceptance of extra responsibility. Tell them, “You’re slowing us down. We can’t wait. If you try to keep going, you’re going to get hurt. You said you could handle the water, and you can’t You should get off.” Harsh words. But the alternative is going along on a lick and a prayer hoping that it will turn out O.K. And if it doesn’t, you’ll have trouble sleeping at night.
You can agree to give the “weak link” extra support to get down safely, including scouting, slower pace, additional carries (with assistance from the group when needed), and actually leading that person through the drops. This must be negotiated openly. “We think we can get you down. We’ll scout the big drops even though the rest of the group doesn’t need you. You’ll follow so-and-so the rest of the way. We’ll set ropes for you. But if you swim again you’ll have to walk out. An if we want you to carry, you’ll have to do it. O.K.?
The biggest danger is that the weak link in your party will assume that you are giving him extra help, when you’re not. He or she follows a strong paddler down a hot route thinking it’s an easy one and ends up in the water in a bad place. NEVER follow someone to get the easiest route without first making an agreement with that person. If you are over-extended, you must ask for help or walk out. The group has the responsibility to do all they can to help a paddler in trouble, but never forget: you and no one else are responsible for your safety. And walking out, while a nuisance, sure beats getting in extreme trouble on the river!
The actions of Chadek, L’Hota and Gedekoh saved John Mundt’s life. I hope that when my time comes to help someone in similar circumstances, I will do as well. The use of the C-2 to begin ventilating the victim immediately is worthy of special attention and praise.
CONCLUSION: John Mundt was clearly not up the Gauley River that day, and the part he was with did not realize the extent of his trouble and deal with them. Luck and quick thinking saved his life. If you are in a similar situation, you cannot count on being equally fortunate.