Brennan Guth

March 15th, 2001 The Rio Palguin, Chile.

By Eric 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.

Brennanīs 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 riverīs 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 waterīs 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 Brennanīs 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 Brennanīs 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 Brennanīs 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 Brennanīs 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 aslso that he was now out of his life jacket and helmet. Five minutes later Barbara and several locals arrived with several hundred feet of ― 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 didnīt work, although it was unclear to me if the rope wasnīt reaching Brennan, or if it was and he couldnīt 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 couldnīt 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 thereīs 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. Brennanīs 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. Brennanīs 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.

Thatīs what happened, as best as I can remember. Iīve been second-guessing everything in the chain of events that ended with Brennanīs 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.