"So who's gonna carry the spare paddle?" somebody asked, eyeing the breakdown paddle lying off to one side. "Yeah; the Paddle of Despair.." somebody else joked.
"I'll put it in my boat." said Jason.
It was Jason's first trip down the world-famous Little White Salmon, and he offered to carry the extra gear. That's the kind of guy he is.
There were four of us that day: Shawn, Jason Lien, Steve Stuckmeyer, and myself. We put on and flowed through the Getting Busy section with ease. Everyone was getting limbered up and into the groove. Most of us portaged Boulder Sluice and Island rapid. We all cleaned Sacriledge, and S-Turn falls was no problem. We set safety at Double Drop and took a short break and snack at Lunch Spot. We were all having a good day, enjoying the near perfect level of 3.1 feet; at this flow the river was not real pushy yet had plenty of water. We talked about the ledges and drops ahead and Jason listened attentively. I don't know how he felt but he didn't seem nervous or anxious.
All of us eddied out above the lead-in rapid above a ledge drop called Bowey Hotel, which is well-known for it's powerful hydraulic. One hundred feet downstream of the Bowey Hotel is twenty-two foot Wishbone falls with few eddies in between, so a swim in the Bowey Hotel is always pretty serious.
I waved Jason over and said: "There is a boulder garden run out with a ledge at the bottom. Boof hard right! Give me eight seconds and follow my line." The others had already left the eddy. I was not particularly worried about this drop it is a relatively easy move to the right. When I went over the ledge I eddied out on the right I could see Jason coming down. He wasn't padding that hard and seemed to hesitate above the ledge. I pointed to the river-right with my paddle. I think he saw me at the last moment because he took two or three strokes but it was not enough. The strong, surging eddy-line on the river-right side grabbed the bow of his boat and spun him, and he dropped backwards over the ledge.
He flipped over and rolled up a few times, but the hole wasn't letting him go. In situations like this you have two choices: Fight or Swim. Jason was a big, strong guy, full of talent and determination, so not surprisingly he chose to fight. After a minute and a half of battling the hole the balance seemed to shift and I knew he was going to swim. The river had endless power to use, but Jason's energy was limited and he was fading fast. I was out of my boat with a rope, and Shawn and Steve had paddled over to river left. After a powerful, final attempt to exit the hole Jason's paddle snapped in his hands, and he came out of his boat.
Once he swam I saw Jason's broken paddle shoot up out of the hole, which was not particularly violent, it was more of the quiet low head dam type of hydraulic with a powerful reversal.
Jason was flushed into the cave under the river left wall, where he grabbed onto a rock. I could see him under there in the darkness, and he looked exhausted. The hole was pulling him greedily back upstream, and as I
watched his grip failed and he slipped passively back into the hole.
He disappeared for about ten seconds and flushed out, now unconscious. Steve paddled toward him and I
reflexively threw my rope.
Nobody grabbed it.
The Bowey Hotel, taken at a much lower flow (The level was 2.5 feet in the photo vs. 3.1 feet when Jason swam). The main pourover where Jason swam is visible against the river-left side, and there is a large cave under the river-left wall, which is known as the Bowey Hotel. The hole recirculates strongly into the cave, hence the name.
A hundred feet Below the Bowey Hotel is Wishbone Falls, a twenty-two foot split falls that is run on the left because the right side is unrunnable. Perhaps this is why Jason stayed in his boat.
There is a log extending off of the river-left wall just above the falls and Steve was just above it, in his boat. Steve grabbed Jason's hand as he floated by and immediately started to scream "HELP!! HELP!!" as he was being pulled downstream into the log by Jason's two hundred pound body. Steve was trying to grab the river-left wall with his free hand, but there was nothing to hold on to. As we watched in horror, Jason slipped from Steve's hands and spun away out of sight. Five minutes had elapsed since Jason went in the hole, but it seemed to pass in an instant.
For a second there was chaos. No one knew if Jason had gone under the log or over the falls, so Steve waited while Shawn and I looked under the log. The precious seconds slipped away as we searched, the passage of each one lessening the chances that Jason would live.
Jason had gone over the falls but none of us saw it. After looking under the log Shawn and I worked our way downstream along river left as fast as we could go, but the path is narrow and precarious so we had to move slowly. Suddenly I saw his body floating face down in the huge, bottomless, cobalt-blue pool below Wishbone Falls. I yelled to Shawn to go back and get his boat and run the falls. Meanwhile, Jason's body, still face down, had inexplicably, impossibly, stopped and wrapped around a submerged rock immediately above the vertical-walled gorge containing Stovepipe, a lethal class V+ rapid.
Adrenaline flooded my veins and I charged off the cliff and leapt out into space, dropping thirty feet into the boiling pool below Wishbone Falls. I plunged deep into the icy water and clawed my way to the surface, gasping for air. Once I surfaced I quickly swam to shore and then I worked my way down the bank to where Jason was. I could wade out to within seven feet of Jason but the current was swift and getting deeper. The rapids in the gorge were immediately downstream, and I knew if I didn't make it to the rock where Jason was I'd end up swimming the gorge, which ends at the deadly rapid known as Stovepipe.
All of this flashed through my head in a second, but I didn't hesitate. I swam for Jason.
When I got to Jason I almost dislodged him from the rock, and my nerves stretched to the breaking point as I struggled to keep him from the terrible fate that waited just downstream. I grabbed his jacket and lifted his head out of the water. He was not breathing, his skin was blue and purple, his eyelids were swollen, his eyes were open and there were hemorrhages on the whites of his eyes.
As I gripped Jason's body the roar of the river faded away, and my entire existence shrank down to a slippery rock and this friend of mine whose life was trickling away; I was fiercely, furiously determined to save him.
"F----K!!" I yelled as tore his helmet off, trying to get him a breath, but the facemask of my helmet got in the way so I ripped it off and threw it into the water. The first breath caused his chest to rise and his lips made a billowing sound as the air escaped.
Frantic now, I yelled "F----K!!" and kept forcing air into his lungs. After several breaths he made a coughing sound but there was no breathing or response. I tried to squeeze his chest a couple of times between breaths, and vomit came out of his mouth. At this point Shawn and Steve had run the falls and were in the eddy across from me. They threw me a rope I clipped it to his shoulder strap and pushed him off the rock and he swung into the eddy on the river-right side. I jumped from the rock and swam for the eddy. Someone quickly took his jacket off. I said:
"Let's go: Two breaths, five compressions."
Shawn did the breaths Steve did compressions. At least ten minutes had passed since Jason went into the hole. After two or three minutes of CPR we got a pulse. We stopped compressions and Shawn continued to breathe for Jason. After awhile, he began to breathe on his own, but his breathing was labored quite noisy due to the water in his lungs.
We carefully moved him to a flat rock on river-right, covering him with our life jackets and spray skirts. Jason was still non-responsive but was breathing and had a good regular pulse. Within minutes we decided that Steve would boat out alone, he is a solid class five boater and has done this run over a dozen times. Shawn decided to hike out, stating that rescue would need to know how to get in from the road, which was located five hundred vertical feet above us. I stayed with Jason.
All alone now, I huddled over Jason and thought about what I could do. I inspected his arms and legs for deformities, lacerations, swelling. I cut his neck, wrist and ankle gaskets, letting the cold water run out of his suit. He seemed to have no obvious traumatic injuries but I was worried his brain had suffered anoxic injury since he was still unconscious. I was also aware that people who are resuscitated after drowning sometimes have dangerous Hypoxic Convulsions, also known as Secondary Asphyxiation due to lack of oxygen to the brain. (Hypoxic means partial, substantial decrease of oxygen to the brain; Anoxic means total lack of oxygen to the brain.)
Soon, he seemed to have more trouble breathing, and the convulsions began. He got stiff throughout his legs and arms, and his teeth were tightly clenched. He was only breathing through his nose and I decided that he needed more air. I found a sturdy stick and put it between his teeth and pressed his tongue down. He was biting down hard, and I ended up forcing two of his front teeth out to keep his airway open. I then pulled the floatbags out of a boat and cut the clear inflation tubes out of them and stuck them down Jason's throat. This seemed to work and he was getting more air.
Twenty minutes passed and a group of four kayakers appeared in the eddy near me, looking perplexed and a nervous. I briefly explained what happened and they offered to help. I asked that two stay and two go down to the take out. Rich and Jeff stayed they helped me keep Jason warm. I did not think there was much else I could do.
Thirty minutes after they arrived Jason started to move, opening and closing his hands moaning more and turning his head side from side to side in slow motion. I got real close to Jason's ear and said calmly "Jason can you hear me, Squeeze my hand" He did. Relief flooded through me, and I felt a terrible weight lifting off my shoulders. He was going to be ok.. Soon he could move his feet too, and he slowly became more responsive. We reassured him he was going to be all right and he kept saying "really" and "this Sucks" and "this is getting hard" and "am I going to be OK?" this was repeated over the next two hours.
really happy to see him responding the way he was, but his breathing worried me
though as it was very noisy and labored and it seemed to be getting worse.
As the minutes ticked by his condition seemed to deteriorate; we needed to
get him OUT!
Rich, Jeff and I took turns sitting near Jason's head so he could hear us, this helped keep him calm.
Unknown to me, there were a couple of mini-epics playing out around us...
When Shawn and Steve left Jason and I they were visibly shaken.
Steve was so focused on getting help that he tore off down through the gorge by himself, not realizing he wasn't wearing his PFD till he portaged stovepipe. Shawn was so pumped with adrenaline that he free climbed right out of the canyon the first two hundred feet were near vertical moss covered loose crap that the rest of us had great difficulty getting up even with a rope! I could not have done it without the ascender I had with me. It was a miracle he did not fall. He later told me that he almost fell three different times. His will to help Jason and adrenaline was the only thing that held him on. I have seen a lot of solo free climbing but that was the most sketchy loose stuff I have ever seen.
After paddling a mile of class five solo with no PFD, Steve got out of Shawn's car at the put in, left it in neutral and It rolled twenty feet and smashed into another parked car (An accident within an accident, so to speak..).
Steve was the first to notify 911. When Shawn got to the top of the canyon he called too and they said they already knew about it. Shawn however got lucky and flagged a Sprint truck down and the serviceman tapped into a land line. Shawn was very persuasive and instrumental in getting the Helicopter crew motivated and on the way. I took an hour and a half for the chopper to get to the scene from the time the initial call was placed to the crew. Steve was the first back down the hill to where we were; he set some fixed lines where Shawn climbed out to assist with the rescue.
We were very happy to see Shawn's head poke over the cliff two hundred feet above us. Some EMS guys were there also, giving us some unintelligible signals. Steve rappelled down and filled me in on the plan: all I heard was that the chopper would be here in 20 minutes; everything else was lost in the black storm of stress raging in my head. Steve went back up the rope, and Rich, Jeff and I thought we heard rotor blades at least a dozen times finally the real deal arrived. The warm blast from the blades felt soooo goood. A U.S. Army medic was lowered down to us and we put Oxygen on Jason. I listened to his lungs with a stethoscope and heard very disturbing, riotous breathing sounds. We strapped him into the basket and they took off, knocking down several trees in their wake from the rotor wash.
We all decided to climb out but should have boated out; we had all done the run before but the trauma and stress of the accident had utterly drained us. Getting out was a real bitch. It took five of us three hours of heavy effort to get four boats and gear out of the six to eight hundred foot canyon. We finally reached the staging area at ten pm. The grade was about sixty-five degrees most of the way except for the first three hundred feet more like seventy-five degrees to vertical.
At one point I remember Jeff (who was visiting from the Southeast) sitting on the
"You guys sure don't have much Poison Ivy around here.."
to which Shawn replied: "Yes, but there is a lot of Poison Oak."
Jeff, starting to look alarmed, said: "What does Poison Oak look like?!?"
Shawn: "Well, you're sitting in it..."
Needless to say I was totally exhausted when I got out of the canyon. Everyone sorted gear and left. Shawn and I decided to stay overnight in Hood river after a meal. It was eleven thirty that night before we got to bed, but we couldn't sleep. I finally fell sleep at two in the morning and awoke at six in the morning. We headed to the hospital to meet Jason's parents.
When the accident happened EMS had called my home and told my wife "Your husband Jason was involved in a accident." She quickly figured out that it was not me and began trying to find Jason's parents. She called all the Lien's in the phone book and eliminated them one by one. The last Lien she called said she had the wrong number but thought he knew who she was trying to call, he gave her a number. She called it and spoke with Jason's mother. His parents made it to the hospital about the time the Helicopter arrived with him, probably breaking several land-speed records in the process. When Shawn and I met his parents they were handling things quite well. Jason's condition was still very guarded and his outcome was uncertain. I was very careful about the details of the incident but I gave some sketchy details of the incident to his parents as I looked at Shawn who was wearing a t-shirt that said "Safety First".
Jason was on a ventilator for four days. He had no neurological damage but can't remember any thing after the second time he portaged on the run. He had no injuries other than to his teeth and lungs; they dubbed him 'The Miracle Boy' at the hospital. After a week passed he could walk short distances and speak clearly; he was still on Oxygen but his full recovery was assured. His doctor was amazed that he didn't develop a lung infection, but I guess they've never seen the Little White; the water in that creek is as pure as it gets.
In retrospect I realize that the odds were against Jason when he came out of the Bowey Hotel unconscious. We ended up winning the desperate struggle for his life, but I think things could have been different for him if the following things had not happened:
1) Steve kept him over to the left side of the creek which prevented him from going over Wishbone Falls on the right side. This probably saved his life as the right side of Wishbone would have severely injured or killed him outright.
2) He miraculously happened to broach on that rock below the falls. If this hadn't happened he would have ended up in Stovepipe.
3) Shawn survived the climb out and got the chopper on it's way with the help of the Sprint technician.
4) CPR works.
Everyone who paddles Class Five should consider carrying the following items with them:
- Space blanket (immersion hypothermia became a real danger to Jason after we revived him.)
- Four carabiners
- Ascenders (like the Ti-Bloc by petzl)
- A throw rope
- Competent buddies
- A class in CPR.
Don't take any drop for granted, slow down, set safety, the life you save just might be your own.
Galen Griffin M.D. 6/5/2003
Jason and Jon paddled down from the top, while Steve threw all of his gear in a backpack and hiked in to Wishbone, where he planned on paddling Jason's boat the rest of the way out. The following photos of the accident scene were taken on that recovery trip.