Incident on the Nisqually
Incident in La Grande Canyon

By Darren Albright



December 2, 2000- Nisqually River, Washington.

This is a thorough description of what happened on December 2. I have added to my first description what the other rescuers saw and did. We have talked about the accident amongst ourselves and concluded this:

Brett Kerin, Rob McKibbin, Tim Holmberg, Don Martin, Darren Albright (myself) and the victim Chris Ringsven set out to run the Nisqually River. During the shuttle, Chris and I talked about our boating experience and other runs we have done. The put-in was steep as we expected. Four members of our group had participated in a release two weeks prior (Brett Kerin, Rob McKibbon, Tim Holmberg, and Darren Albright). We ran approximately half to three-quarters of a mile of whitewater before we came to the first major rapid dubbed 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 hole for a while on the previous trip, so I was being a little 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, 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 carabineer 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 Chrisí 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 my rescue PFD. Don had rigged another throw rope with a carabineer 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. The entire time I was concerned that if I got in front of the boat I would also become pinned and I would become another victim. I knew that it would be difficult at best for the three of them to pull me free if I pinned to the boat or went underneath it.

By now, just over 1Ĺ to 1ĺ 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 Chrisí 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 Ďbiner to the boat. The entire time I hugged the boat incase 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, I went for the cockpit where 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). The spray skirt was still connected (I saw it right then) 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 knew I had to follow Chris (I assumed he went downstream as the boat came dislodged). 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 my quick release and followed (I did not have a visual) Chris 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 there (also ripped his life jacket right off). It took us approximately two minutes to free Chris from the time of the pin. I think we did that very fast and worked together smoothly.

At this time, I had swallowed some water and thought is was possible for Chrisí 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 previously said they ran it: I was wrong). 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 for someone to go for help so 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 the 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 immediately flagged someone down and got a ride to Alder Lake store. I used their phone to call 911 and ten minutes later a fire chief picked me up.

We got a hold of dam officials and they shut the water off. We also tried to gain access to that 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 staging. The sheriff department came and started to set up high angle rescue. They were very uncooperative with Jason Rackley and I. When we tried to communicate with the people in the canyon and when we tried to get our boats out they would not let us. At one point, I was almost arrested when I tried to go and communicate with the people in the canyon and a friend of Jasonís who was half way up the canyon wall. Fire department also helped with other operations. A military helicopter eventually air lifted Chrisí body out of the canyon. He was pronounced dead by Dave McNeil, a paramedic from Oregon, who was also on the river that day, sometime from when I left to when I got back with the fire chief.

All the other boaters above the incident went back upstream and exited the canyon. Everyone else headed downstream to Civil Structure to exit canyon.

I also want to add a few more things:

First, I forgot to explain how his boat was really 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 Chrisí 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.

Second, when I walked up the canyon after the water was shut off (I had to get to my boat: thankfully, Britt, Caroline and Colleen 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 (isosceles) and about three to four feet long. The narrow part was on the ground towards river right and the wider part was elevated (which would allow water to flow underneath). The 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. Nonetheless, the rock was slightly under cut or tilted upriver which caused the boat to pin easily. Chrisí stern dropped into the pocket on the right with all the flow in the area direct right at it.

Third, after we were out of the canyon I examined Chrisís 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). Which would explain why he wasnít ripped from the boat at first and why he was immediately gone when the pressure was released from the boat. These are my assumptions of what happened. You can make of it what you would like. 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.

Also like to say that Tacoma PUB did a great job helping at the put-in and even more so with their rescue efforts. The Sheriff, Fire and rescue departments all did the best (not very good) they could and even some fire fighters stayed around to help pull our boats over 600í out of the canyon. There is more to the story regarding PUD and EMS but I would like to keep that and some of this information on a level of privacy.

Finally, I do not want this description to sound as if I am talking myself, or any one of us, up to be a hero. I did what I would do for my brother, dad, friend or anyone in that situation. The description is I, I, I because it is what I saw and what I did plus what Don, Rob, Tim and Brett have told me.

-Darren,   December 14th, 2000.