Thursday, January 5, 2012

Jumping The Gun

  I tried writing this earlier, but I couldn't, I'm not really sure how to even still.  As long as I have been kayaking I have been pretty cautious.  This probably came from my first mentor, my dad.  He always made sure I was way more prepared skill-wise than the rivers I was running.  He would tell me I had to be able to catch every eddy in every rapid on a river before I could run the next one.  It was frustrating because even then I wanted to see as many different rivers in the area as I could.  I kept practicing and after 3 years on class 3 he finally let us run Copper Creek, WA.  Needless to say, after all the practice on class 3, this run felt pretty easy.  The slow start into consequential whitewater meant that once I was there I could concentrate more on the stream as a whole and less on whether I could make it through a rapid.  Anticipating where things would go wrong was something I felt I picked up on quickly.  This paid dividends later on when we explored new runs where time was of the essence.  On those new runs, there is not always enough time to set safety and scout every rapid.  Having years of experience analyzing where problem spots are has lead to a style of river running that has served the crew I paddle with well.  I always try to be as prepared and knowledgeable as possible for the streams I set out to kayak.  I have always been proud of my choices.  There have only been two choices I have made kayaking that I have truly wished I could take back.  Both times my thought process consisted of, "this doesn't seem right, but things always seem to work out for me, so I am sure it will turn out fine."  Both times this foolish rationale almost killed a friend.  Both times I also looked back thankful to be alive, because I had allowed this choice to leave my hands.

Last weekend I attempted to run a creek in the Columbia Gorge (word is already getting out where it is).  This run was above my head.  I had spent four days this last summer finding access.  That does not include mapwork, only driving and hiking to find out if my mapwork was correct.  What I discovered was that this was the least accessible place I had ever attempted to go.  However, on my fourth try, I found the way in with the help of Andrew Bradley.  After missing the run the first time it rained this year, I was determined to get in there whatever the cost.  This run is the pinnacle of exploratory kayaking in the Columbia gorge, in my opinion.  The deepest gorge on the maps (600 feet per mile) and pictures of glorious waterfalls filled my thoughts.

When the opportunity came, Emile (pronounced Eh-meal) Elliot and Anna Herring were willing to put in the work to scout this run with boats.  I was hoping for low water, but nature had other plans.  I was so entrenched with getting onto the river that the flooding going on around us didn't deter me.   

I knew we wanted an early start.  Leaving Monmouth at 4 AM seemed like the ticket to me.  We pulled this off and, with a shuttle driver, gave ourselves the best opportunity for getting through the run in the daylight.  We started hiking just as the first light turned the sky from black to grey.  We made it to the put-in very quickly and were pleased with the water level; it looked ideal.  The only problem was that I wanted low water, but we decided to go for it anyway, knowing we had a mile to make the decision to hike out.  The put-in drop was a sweet 12-foot waterfall that Emile and I ran.  The next half mile was class II-III with some wood, but the portaging was as easy as it gets and there were some fun slides in there.  Eventually, we eddied out above an ominous corner.  We found a magical looking 40' drop consisting of a slide into a 25-foot boof.  Small pockets on either side would necessitate safety.  Both Emile and I very much wanted to run it, but in the name of saving time, decided to walk around.  This turned out to be a good choice in the long run.

Shortly below here we came to a really nice looking Class V that had a couple of branches hanging down just above a macking hole.  Once again we walked, this time deciding to scout downstream in anticipation of the known gorge.  We saw...the most intimidating gorge I have ever witnessed.  This gorge picks up where the Salmon River Canyon leaves off.  It has an entrance drop reminisent of Final Falls, with a stout 25-foot lead-in drop.  This locks the stream into an inescapable gorge 200-feet deep with near vertical walls.  We started hiking, aiming for the road 1000 feet above us, hoping to make it around this section and put-in below.  After an hour, the GPS showed we had make very little progress.  We ditched the boats, now trying desperately to make it out before dark.  It was 1:30.

We were about halfway up when we decided to send a text to my dad letting him know we would be late.  Half an hour later we sent another text saying we needed help and we began to worry that we would not make it to the road before dark.  The road was still over 10 miles to the nearest outpost of civilization, and over 20 to the nearest city with a gas station.  We finally made it to the top and the road we were aiming for was not there.  This is when I realized I had left the GPS and maps behind during a gear exchange.  My heart sank:  our only navigation tools were now somewhere on the hillside we had just come from.  We were disoriented on the top of the divide and I decided I needed to go back for the GPS.  I followed our tracks for some time, but it was snowing now and our tracks were quickly covered.  I eventually turned back knowing I would not find the GPS and we needed all the daylight available for this now unfathomable task. I was awestruck that we were now stuck in the least accessible place I had ever attempted to be in without anything to navigate on other than my recollection of the map and our instincts.

When I returned with the bad new about the GPS, the gravity of our situation became visible in every person's eyes.  The decision was made to abandon the search for the road and start going downstream.  Emile was not wearing a drysuit, and thus would not survive a night in the snow.  We began our march downstream, knowing we would eventually hit a road 3-5 miles downstream.  We set off into a cliffed-out hillside in the waning light.   

From this point to the time we stumbled across a clearcut I will not tell in detail, because what happened cannot be expressed in words.  I can sum it up as not only were we in terrain steeper than the 32 degree landslide threshold, cliffs above and below, in the snow, with multiple creek crossings (gradients over 1,000 fpm), and a team member fighting off hypothermia, but also, halfway through our 8 hour treck,the sun set and the light followed.   My most vivid memories are of losing my footing, then clawing at brush while sliding trying to get a grip before flying off the cliffs and 400' of remaining gradient to the stream below (5.10 booties are amazing for rock, but like skies on snow.  I eventually took them off and walked in my drysuit booties for most of the trip).  Or the view when I looked at Emile's bloody shins and he had swollen feet after hours of hiking in shorts and booties.  The most rewarding memories are of when we would take a break and eat or drink something, discussing our next move, everyone perfectly aware of the situation at hand, everyone refusing to break down.

At the end of it all, we reached a clear cut.  We knew we had to be close to a road.  We tried Anna's dying phone one last time, reception!!  She dialed 911 and we figured out that people were already searching.  We informed them of were we thought we were.  We listened for the police sirens and I scrambled to the top of one last hill looking for the cars.  I saw a car only a few hundred yards away and hollered down to Emile and Anna.  We whistled and hollered and shined lights.  I slid most of the way back down to my friends all the while with the sickening vision of the car turning and leaving.  Hoping they had seen us, I joined the rest of the team and we headed off towards the light and finally made contact.  Knowing it was over was a huge relief.  We got in the car and headed back towards Stevenson.    

My sister and her boyfriend showed up at the station and informed us of the multitude of people who were out looking for us.  My dad sums it up here.

 I just wanted to publicly acknowledge everyone who stepped up on
Friday when the calls for help went out. Jacob had been looking at access for
a creek in the Columbia Gorge for many months, and he, Anna and Emile gave it a
shot on Friday, December 30th. I didn't know about it until I got a call from
Aqua (their shuttle driver) around noon. Shortly after that, I got a text from
a different number saying, "hiking out, will be late." At 2:30, another text
saying, "need help. sunset hemlock rd 2 miles south of fs 43 intersection." 
And that was all the contact we had with them until we heard from the sheriff at
8:30 pm that they had been found. I immediately left work downtown and started
dialing the phone. Thanks to Val Shaull for dropping everything and meeting me
at Lewis and Clark with lots of gear, to Rod Kilner (paddling friend from
Stevenson) for going to the Skamania County Sheriff and getting them rolling. 
Our friends the Heesackers, whose whole family came out with paddling, climbing,
boating and GPS equipment. The two paddlers who I met at Lewis and Clark
(please write to me with your names, I'm so sorry I forgot in the chaos) who
loaded up on Val's rig and came up to Carson with us. Sam Drevo, Dan McCain and
his friend John, Dwight and Jordan Englert, Masaki Hisamoto, Ed Hall and unknown
others who were going to be there at first light the next day. Thanks to the
Portland Fire Bureau who offered their technical rescue team if needed. Fellow
Portland firefighters Randy Brusse and Gerard Pahissa who both live in Carson. 
They were both great at rallying the community and we had many volunteers coming
out of the woodwork to help search the next day if needed. Gerard deserves a
special thanks for letting us use his "Old School Bar and Grill" in Carson as a
staging area, and he fed a bunch of us and refused payment. You should eat
there not only for the great food, beer and vintage video games, but because
Gerard is a good man who went way out of his way to help. Finally, thanks to
Officers Hastings and Clifford of Skamania County Sheriffs, whose persistence
and knowledge of the area saved at least one life that night. And one last word
of thanks to Jacob, who took another few years off his dad's life last week. 
Probably would have just spent it vegging out in a nursing home anyway.

We drove to Rod Kilner's house (who lives in Stevenson) and got to see and thank all the people who had put their lives on hold for the day to help in the search for us.  It was amazing to see the efforts people had put in.  I have been overwhelmed with gratitude for the last few days knowing what these people did for us.  All of them coming together really showed the health that is still present in humanity.  This day will forever be a building block for how I view the world and the people in it.  

So I will say...

Thank you to all the people who came to help us yesterday, it meant a lot to get out of there and see and hear about all the people who cared. I will not forget. 

A special thanks to the Heesacker's, Rod Kilner,Val Shaull, my parents, Skamania county Sheriff, Aqua, my sister and her boyfriend John Church for putting in a huge effort to find us.
A special thanks to Carson residents Gerard Pahissa and Randy Brusse for their support of my family and friends while they were in Carson.

Also Dan Mccain, John Watkins, and Sam Drevo for planning to come in the next day to float the stream and find us.

Dwight and Jordan, Masaki and Ed Hall for also planning to be there the next day to help.

And everyone who voiced their thoughts through writing and phone calls, it meant a lot to hear from all of you.
I hope to never put any of you through that again.


Worthy of note

-Losing the GPS and map turned this from a horrible hike out into a life threatening situation.  

-Anna's phone and the collaborative will (lead by Emile) to get out of the canyon may have saved a life.

-I should have waited until Spring when we had more light even if it meant risking snow on the access road.

-I should have scouted this run in the summer at low flows first with a canyoneering team.

-Anna went to the doctor and it was confirmed that she had frostbite from the trip (she was wearing a drysuit, wool socks, and booties the entire time).  It is likely Emile got frostbite as well, it doesn't only happen on Everest as my dad said.



Unknown said...

so glad your ok hust goes to show River people are some of the best people on the planet

72squared said...

Like many others on the PDX Kayaker [ML] I caught bits of your story from the emails that went out. Thanks for posting the details in this blog. Glad to hear everyone is okay. All the best in future trips.

Cedar said...

I met you and Anna on Butte Creek and took the photos of you which ended up in publication. I check your blog from time-to-time to see what escapades you two have been on since.

OMG you guys. I am so glad that the story ended well. I also did SAR for 15 years and worked with Skamania Co/Silver Star and know they are good peeps. Is it possible to take 10 Essentials with you from now on so this doesn't happen again?

Glad you are all well.