2008 Contest Shortlist

Anatomy of a River Rescue

Disaster on a kyaking trip.

At this moment I hate just about everything and everyone. I hate that I learned how to kayak, film, and develop a love for travel. I hate Trip Jennings, Kyle Dickman, Scott Fiendel and Andy Maser for not being able to help. I hate myself for not being strong, smart, or resourceful enough. I hate that it’s dark. I hate Matt Fields-Johnson, who is dangling on the end of my rope in a cave alongside a river, half submerged and exhausted, for almost drowning. And I most definitely hate Papua New Guinea and the Pandi River. At this point I’m not even happy with my mom.

A long series of events culminated into this particular moment of agony, though I wasn’t able to know what was in store at the time of each event. I met expedition leader Trip Jennings while in Costa Rica many years before. We paddled together, laughed, and had a good time. Years went by and in 2007 I ran into him at several film festivals. He was promoting his latest kayaking movie and I was showing my documentary about the Mekong River. It turns out that with the help of the National Geographic Society, Trip had put together a kayaking trip to Papua New Guinea and asked me along for the paddling and filming. I excitedly accepted and a few months later found myself flying to “the land of the unexpected.”

Papua New Guinea gives up nothing with ease and the day that ended with Matt swimming for his life in a cave on the Pandi River started no less auspiciously. Within 200 yards of the put in and having only one rapid under our belts, I found myself kayaking second behind Canadian Scott Feindel, one of the world’s preeminent white water kayakers. Being 30 feet behind Scott allowed me to watch as he slipped out the back of an eddy, turned downstream, and paddled over what appeared to be a substantial waterfall. I signalled to the others that I was going to get out of my boat, walk downstream, and see what had become of our lead kayaker.

As I approached the edge, several of the local people who had followed us thus far were flailing their arms, yelling and pointing excitedly downriver. I quickened my pace and soon found myself on the edge of a 80-foot waterfall with deadly sieves and rocks blocking nearly 90 percent of the rivers path. It took me a moment to fathom that Scott had paddled into this maelstrom blind and was most likely under a rock or smashed upon them. I blew three hard sustained blasts with my whistle, which in kayaking is the sign for “nothing good has just happened and most likely the expedition is over.”

As I looked back upstream at the rest of our expedition, I raised my arm and started to draw a finger across my neck. Realizing I had not actually seen Scott’s body, I was suddenly aware of the extreme nature of that gesture in these circumstances and instead raised both of my arms overhead and crossed them into an “X,” signalling “don’t come any closer, get out of your boats and walk to me, we have a problem.” As each member of the team worked their way to the edge of the waterfall, questioning faces directed to me were replaced with fear, confusion, and anger directed at the river, the locals, and themselves.

Trip immediately started climbing around the cataract to search for our missing paddler. Thirty minutes later, a shaken and battered, albeit alive, Scott Feindel came walking up the river bank. When asked how he was, Scott replied with a grateful laugh:

‘Pretty good, for a ghost.’ We considered ourselves very lucky and continued down river.

Several hours and many waterfalls, rapids, and gorges later, we were all exhausted and needing to bivy for the evening. We were at a crux point at the end of a long, steep-walled gorge. The river cascaded over a 20-foot waterfall, banking high on the left wall, half of its volume disappearing into a cave while the remainder continued unimpeded into an 18-foot slot and the last of the white water. Andy seal-launched off the ledge, paddled downstream and through a strong hydraulic to a calm pool and a marginal campsite. Scott was quick on his stern leaving Trip, Kyle, Matt, and me on the ledge and ready to follow. I watched as Kyle went next. Damn, unlike Andy and Scott, Kyle gets swept into the cave.

Immediately, pandemonium breaks out. We can’t see him and we don’t know how strong the currents are in the cave. Trip jumps in his boat, screams for a rope, pushes off the ledge, and paddles into the cave under our feet after Kyle. Trip explodes back into view as he struggles to paddle out from under the cave through the waterfall, but Matt and I are ecstatic as he and Kyle emerge, taking a terrible punishing from the falls, but both still in their kayaks. This leaves Matt and me on the ledge.

Up to now it’s been just another epic day of near death experiences in a far off country. There’s no question, Matt’s going next. I tell him I really can’t do anything from this vantage point, but we laugh to break the tension and I give him a mighty push to help him land and paddle to safety. He lands, but doesn’t paddle to safety. Eerily similar to Kyle, Matt ends up getting washed under my feet and into the cave. Kyle, Trip, Andy, and Scott are all downstream, unable to fight the current or walk along the sheer gorge walls to offer help. I hold my throw bag at the ready, praying I don’t have to use it.

Matt digs hard and tries to exit the cave following in the wake of Trip and Kyle. He doesn’t make it and gets sucked back in. Again, I see him try to paddle with all his might, but he’s swept back in again, upside down this time. At this point I get on my stomach, inch to the edge of the cliff, and hang my head to get a better vantage point. From here I can see Matt struggling to roll his kayak in the aerated, swirling cave water. I lay there, watching, and repeat over and over ‘please don’t swim, please don’t swim, please don’t swim.’

Unfortunately, it’s too much for Matt and I see his kayak give a shudder as he pulls the rip cord and kicks out of his boat gasping for much needed air. For the second time today, I let three long emergency blasts rip from my whistle and watch closely the water cascading down the gorge, keeping an eye out for Matt to re-emerge. In 10 years of expeditionary class 5 kayaking, I have never blown a 3-whistle emergency beacon two times in one day. It doesn’t feel very good and I really hope it never happens again.

If I felt like I was in a good position to help, I would have thrown the rope now and started initiating a rescue from my perch. However, I’m in a terrible place to help and, while it sounds unkind, I really hope Matt is sucked into the waterfall and pushed downstream to the other team members. So that’s what I let happen. He swirls around arms extended.

The only thing I’m happy about is the fact that we can’t make eye contact at this point because what I am doing is making a life and death decision for someone else. You can call me a wuss, but it’s hard enough to make this type of split second decision without staring into the eyes of the person you’re making this decision for. A bit of anger starts to boil in the pit of my stomach. I watch, feeling impotent and scared as Matt is sucked into the waterfall and disappears out of sight…

1, 2, 3, 4, 5 seconds pass and Matt’s arms appear reaching for the sky. He stops mid-current as the river decides what to do with this particular passenger. For a split second it looks like my gamble will pay off and he’ll be released downstream. However, this is Papua New Guinea and nothing is that easy. Matt is swirled under my feet again and I notice the water is so aerated, even with his PFD, he is unable to get to the surface for air.

His arms are raised to the heavens, his lips are extended in a vain attempt to reach air, his neck and back are arched, and he is drowning. I was going to let him go for another ride into the waterfall, but I know he won’t survive, so I bitterly throw the rope, feeling that Matt has gone from frying pan, to fire, to fire while on a rope. At least I’ve alleviated the current predicament of his immediate drowning. Matt uses the tension I provide and half pulls, half swims deeper into the cave where he is able to get on his feet, tie a harness out of the rope, and take stock of the situation without the panic of not having any air.

Meanwhile, I’ve set myself up with a hip belay. I can’t see Matt, but we can yell over the rushing water, which is good. It’s gotten dark and is starting to rain, which is not so good. Communication with the downstream members is nonexistent, radios aren’t working, and it’s too dark for hand gestures. It’s me up top, Matt in the cave, and a thin rope connecting us. I’ve got a 2×2 flat surface to stand on and no anchors for the rope or myself. I’m in a pocket of undulating rock with vertical walls on two sides and about 50 square feet of total area. Matt’s a great climber, but he’s exhausted and climbing up to me would require some impressive overhang climbing, in full river gear, river shoes and it’s dark, very dark.

Did I mention it was raining?

His first attempt is to traverse alongside the interior of the cave and try to exit downstream, past the current, and swim to the rest of our group. Two attempts end with him slipping into the water and having the current plaster him to the wall. Slowly, the river starts to spin him towards the waterfall and a potentially final rinse. His quick harness holds and he is able to swim back to his safety ledge. Unhappy with my current inability to get Matt downstream, we decide he’ll try to climb to me. I find I’m able to pull Matt up the cliff if he has at least a foot, or hand or something to help. I squat down quickly, pull in an inch of rope, stand back up, and repeat. We reach a point where Matt slips from the wall and is free hanging like a pendulum, too far to reach the rock face, too far from me, and ten feet off the water. He yells to let him down as his harness is cutting off his circulation, and I reluctantly do so, giving up all the progress we had made.

This is when I think back to when I thought Scott had died earlier in the day.

Though, this time I’m going to be talking to the person, he’ll be on the end of the rope, he’ll get cold, even in the tropics, hypothermic, slip into the water and most likely drown. By morning, I’ll have a dead friend on the end of my rope. I’m not sure if I’m crying at this point or if the rain beating down is actually salt water.

Matt yells from below, breaking my unhappy stupor.

‘Brian! I’m really, really tired.’

His last words trail off into the darkness, both of us thinking but not wanting to say the obvious. Knowing Matt doesn’t need to hear my misgivings, I yell back in a voice much stronger and more confident then I’m really feeling.

‘Matt! You’re fine! You almost made it! CLIMB TO ME!! NOW!’

And so he does. One step. One pull. One power squat at a time. I can only see the taught rope disappearing over the rock face. I feel Matt inching closer. I feel him lose his grip again and swing into the darkness. He swings himself back to the rock face and continues. I pull with all my strength and Matt falls again, swinging into the darkness of a gorge deep in the Papua New Guinea rainforest. We’ve been here before, moments ago. I can’t lift 180 lbs of dead wait without a little help. The anger bubbles up and the rope goes suddenly slack.

I nearly fall and pull in the rope as fast as I can. The rope broke, the harness slipped, a mouse chewed through the damn thing. It’s Papua New Guinea, so anything could have happened, none of it good. But I hear Matt’s voice and it’s closer then at any time since this ordeal began, what seems like several years ago. I see his head appear and I lunge backwards, straining the rope, and physically dragging him the last few feet, bouncing him across the rock face in my excitement to drag him to safety.

I’m glad it’s dark as I’m exhausted and crying. We hug. Which sucks. I hate hugging on expeditions. So far on this trip I’ve been attacked by a crocodile, and got a hug. Scott was swept over a waterfall and we thought died, and he got a hug. I pulled Matt from a cave, so he got a hug. I don’t like expedition hugs. They’re better then some potential alternatives, but they still suck. I’m thinking all those folks who go to Club Med might be on to something.

In the darkness, Matt says thank you. I say I’m sorry. Sorry for not being more prepared. Sorry for not being stronger. Sorry for it being so close to a catastrophe. I dig out a flashlight, blow my whistle, and try to signal to the boys downriver that we’re okay. We set up a rain fly, eat some food, talk about home, laugh a bit, and get cold. I try not to worry about having to wake up and continue downstream, seal launching into the same situation that almost took my friend’s life. Matt will have to bushwhack up, out and around a massive gorge, his kayak long gone. For now, though, it doesn’t matter. At this point in the trip, I’m cold, wet, and very, very happy.

Brian Eustis