Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Broken Back at Home in the Gorge

I believe that for every big waterfall hucker out there the fear of a broken back always lingers in the back of their mind. For me, a couple weeks ago this fear became a reality. I had just gotten back from spending two months in Chile, and back in the Columbia River Gorge for a week I was ambitious to paddle as much whitewater as possible in the short time I had home. Within an hour of being home I was back in my boat with my brother paddling the Green Truss section of the White Salmon. Over the next few days, joined by one of my fellow WCKA students Erik Parker, we split our time between paddling the Green Truss and the Little White. Parker enjoyed paddling both these runs for his first time, and even after paddling Chile’s world class rivers I was happy to come home to all that the Gorge has to offer.

Home sweet home - Mt. Adams from our house

Brendan on Big Brother

Finishing another perfect day on the Truss with BZ Falls

Parker on Boulder Sluice

A downriver pan-am?

Brendan greasin S-Turn

The bottom ledge on S-Turn

Spiritual Boofs

One of the Humboldt State paddlers we met up with

About halfway through my week-long vacation Parker, my brother and I headed out for another Little White run. We all enjoyed a longer day on the river stopping for a couple photo-ops along the way. After the run we decided to check out Money Drop. Money Drop is (currently) a 50ft. waterfall that has changed 3 times in the last decade due to unstable ground and landslides. The fast lead-in, abrupt lip, and small landing zone make for a drop that very rarely allows for clean lines.

My first lap

Parker cleaning it

We arrived at Money Drop to find that the flows were a little less than ideal, but still decided she was good to go. I was first to fire off the drop and was ejected from my boat after landing slightly over vert. My brother and Martin from Nor Cal followed with similar over vert landings that both resulted in swims. Parker, who hadn’t run anything higher than 30ft, also decided to fire up Money Drop and styled it with the plugger. Intent on a having a cleaner line, and a little jealous of Parker’s, I hiked back up to the top for my second lap of the day. Speeding towards the horizon line I knew I needed to get my bow up a little more than I did last time, and as I came to the lip I took a stroke then leaned forward. As soon as I felt myself freefalling I knew I was too flat. I have a very vivid memory of falling through the air completely disconnected from the waterfall with the front deck of my Nomad 8.5 blocking my view of the landing zone below. At this terrifying point in time I almost instinctively stomped my bow down in an attempt to land with a better entry angle. I was successful in getting my bow down a little more, but in turn hit the water with my back almost completely vertical (instead of tucked forward). This, in addition to my airing out past the landing zone and towards the green water, made for one hell of a heinous hit. I paddled away from the drop in incredible pain, then focused my efforts to safely getting downstream and out of my boat. Once I was out of my boat everyone helped in the timely process of getting me onto a stretcher made from paddles and straps, up a few small embankments, and finally into the back of an ambulance. Two hospitals and a couple ambulance rides later I found that I had a compression fracture in my L2 vertebrae. Luckily I walked away from this one with only a “light break” and 2-3 months of recovery.

The back breaking sequence

The Result - Fractured L2 Vertebrae

Humbled by the experience, I’d recommend to everyone who runs big drops to always consider the risk of landing flat. I think that stomping down my bow on Money Drop wasn’t the best idea and I’d encourage everyone on a drop upwards of 40ft. to only kick down your bow if you’re sure that you have enough time to re-tuck to the front of your boat. Earlier this year Lance Reif landed pretty flat off of Money Drop but was committed to staying tucked. He came away from the drop sore enough to stay out of his kayak for a while, but without any breaks. Erik Boomer, also earlier this year on Money Drop, was set up for a flat landing but was able to kick his bow down and re-connect to his tucked position before impact. He came away healthy enough to run the drop a couple more times in the same day. You have a few options; staying tucked forward is the most conservative but may still dish out a rough hit, and stomping down your bow could make things a lot better or a lot worse. So I encourage everyone to, before you huck, discuss with your friends all possible options and outcomes of running a drop, but remember that in the end you be the judge.

A short video update Parker put together

There's a lot of people to thank for all the help that was given to me during this experience. A big shout out goes to my brother Brendan, Parker, and all the Humboldt paddlers who kept me safe and warm at Money Drop with a makeshift stretcher and lots of warm layers. In addition a lot of thanks goes out to the Search and Rescue boys that showed up and all the EMTs and doctors along the way.

Photos by Erik Parker and Ben York