Last year I watched a very good friend almost drown while running the ever popular Cherry Bomb gorge on California's Upper Cherry Creek. With the Northern summer in full swing it seemed fitting. Know your limitations. I wrote this shortly after the dust settled...
I quickly packed the essentials into my watershed dry bag. Canon 7d and lens, spare battery and SD cards, sunscreen, first aid kit, filter drink bottle…. What else? Snacks? It should be a quick lap for the team… it can’t hurt. I turned to leave and saw the new SPOT device I had bought two days previous. “I won’t need it, camp is only 10mins away and the boys are doing a quick lap” I was in a hurry because the team had left 45mins earlier to hike back to the boats at the entrance to Cherry Bomb gorge. “Nah, I’ve got it, take it”. Sidelined through injury I had taken on the role as team sherper and photo guy.
I took my position on the photographer’s ledge, river left at the bottom of Cherry Bomb gorge. Lars Lämmler joined me as we waited for the team to scout Cherry Bomb Falls and the remaining gorge.
Sam Roil disappeared from the scouting party. I knew he was fired up to run Cherry Bomb and would probably go first. Lars and I watched the reactions of the team to gauge Sam’s progress through the lead in. Out of the mist Sam appeared, online, stomped his line off the falls, squared up for the weir and punched through. Sweet, the probe was through and the line was good. The job is only half done after Cherry Bomb [falls] as the weir can prove the real crux.
|Sam Roil stomping the line|
Jake Greenbaum caught Lars and I by surprise as he routed a second sweet line off the fall and through weir. We had talked to the team about giving us signal when folk were coming but it was clear they had forgotten with the excitement of it all.
We watched and waited for what seemed like an eternity for the next paddler to go. There was the flash of a red boat and a dark helmet off the drop and then into a huge rock splat against the wall at the bottom, and then nothing.
“Who was the that?” Lars asked, “fuck, I think it was Farkas and he went into the pothole” He looked too far left. We both knew he was stuck in the pothole and wasn’t coming out.
After what seemed like an age, his capsized boat washed slowly around the corner and over the weir. “Fuck”, this is going to be a nightmare to sort out. “There he is” said Lars, I was relieved because I knew that he was out of the pocket and he probably sub out through the weir and then swim to river right.
It looked like Dave tried to jump off the bottom and clear the recirculation from the weir. He disappeared into the weir and then nothing... nothing. “Where is he?” asked Lars, “I don’t know”.
|Dave dropping the weir minus a kayak|
“He’s up, river left in the pocket…fuck, he’s not coming out. Dave was held solid in the holes backwash and wasn’t able to escape. He was immediately clear he was stuck.
Unknown to me, Sam had somehow managed to get out of his boat, which was no small feat (thankfully he had borrowed Dave’s spare 5.10’s at the trailhead).
Sam ran back up stream on river right bank. I could see in his hand a throw bag. “Sweet, Sam’s got a bag”.
It was frustrating to watch all this unfold and not be able to do anything about it.
Sam fired off a good throw and then… nothing. Dave was too far away. Sam recoiled and tried again but the result was the same.
|Sam (Roil) trying in vein to get a rope to Dave|
I had a rising sense of panic. Dave had been getting recirculated for over a minute on top of the time he had spent trapped in the pocket. Exhaustion was becoming a real risk. A strange thought crossed my mind. Of almost everyone I knew he was strong, fit and best suited to handle the beating that was being handed down.
It was now very clear he wasn’t coming out of there on his own.
Someone needed to run the drop and try and paddle him out. A stressful, yet necessary option as the same outcome was a very real possibility.
By now Lars and I were in a state of semi-controlled panic. We both knew that we could watch our friend drown in that weir.
Someone needed to run the drop and help Dave. It needed to happen now.
The body language from the scouting team signalled that someone was dropping in.
“Who’s that? Is that Hunt” We watched as the paddler stomped the line off Cherry Bomb. “It’s Hunt!” He then dropped into the weir and surfed it across to Dave’s position on river left. A very bold and skilful manoeuvre. Somehow he managed to get to Dave and he could hold onto the front of his boat, turn and paddle out of the hole. It is one of the best rescues I’ve seen in over a decade of paddling hard water.
|Hunt Jennings dropping in and saving the day|
Sam was ready on the river right bank with a throw bag to assist. It was obvious that Dave was completely spent. Hunt caught the eddy on the right next to Sam but Dave was unable to hold on. He was now on river left in the main flow and in danger of being swept over the next drop. Below lay another pothole that would have surely finished him off.
Sam got the throw bag to Dave and pendulumed him to the right. His legs were hanging over the drop right above the pothole.
I climbed up from ledge to get a better view of the proceedings upstream. I was relieved that Dave was now safe. Sam had pulled Dave onto the bank.
At that distance (perhaps 300m) it was hard to see what was happening. They seemed to hunched over Dave and… “Fuck, Lars, they’re doing CPR”.
This doesn’t make sense, I just saw Sam bag Dave to the side. He had to be conscious, breathing, alive to hold the rope.
Running up the granite bank I stopped dead. I was watching one of my best mates die. I was watching Dave Farkas die.
What do I need to do? What can I do? Focus. Fuck, they’re doing CPR. I knew straight away that his chance or survival was slim. All those days stuck in first aid classes told me this. We needed an AED.
What can I do? SPOT, fire the spot. Get a helicopter. I knew it would take too long to help Dave right now but irrespective of the outcome, we were going to need outside help.
Watching CPR performed on a close friend is a horrible experience. It all seemed a little surreal. It was Dave, he was solid, it was Cherry Bomb. It gets run all the time. How could this be happening?
I ran down and retrieved the SPOT from my dry bag, turned it on and hit the SOS button. I also activated the personalised message button that informed my assigned contacts that “we are in the shit and need a hand sorting it out”.
In the midst of all this I paused before hitting the ‘help’ button. I had a moment of indecision. Why? We obviously needed help. Egotism? We should be able to handle this (which we clearly couldn’t). Fear of getting in trouble? We had done nothing wrong. Cost? Not really an issue at that point. The overwhelming nature of it all?
I turned and looked back up stream to see Sam and Hunt still doing CPR. Sam stood up and signalled me with a ‘lasso’ motion above his head. Get a helicopter. This was happening.
I looked at Lars, “this can’t be happening” and he replied, “I don’t want to watch someone die”.
Lars and I continued watch as Sam and Hunt worked on Dave. I kept telling myself, “it’s Dave, he’ll be fine”.
To my surprise I saw Sam stand up and put his hand top of his head. “OK”, he just signalled OK,”Lars he’s OK, Sam just said OK. A sense of immense relief rushed over me.
I took stock of our situation. Dave, Sam and Hunt were in the heart of the gorge. Dave’s boat and paddle were down stream.
Cancelling the Helicopter crossed my mind now that Dave was conscious. However, having just received CPR meant that he probably wasn’t in a good state. He probably had broken or bruised ribs. He may also be at risk of secondary drowning. More practically, he was in an inescapable gorge with out any gear.
I walked up stream in attempt to close the distance between Sam and myself. Still, at my closest point only the most basic signalled worked. Yes, Dave was ok. Yes, I had called for a helicopter. Anything more than that was too complex. I walked to the top of the dome on river left and down climbed as much as I dared and still couldn’t get close enough to communicate effectively.
As I walked back down I quickly did the math. I had to assume that a helicopter wouldn’t turn up. It’s a very powerless feeling after hitting the ‘help’ button. Was it heard? Will help come? Will it be a helicopter? How long will it take?
Plan for the worst, hope for the best.
I sized up the vertical granite wall on river right. I estimated it would take at least 8-10 throw bags to lower a boat and paddle into where they were. Assuming everyone in the scout group had a bag, we still only had six. This wasn’t an option.
I thought about putting a skirt on a boat and sending it down Cherry Bomb Falls. It would probably just end up in the pocket. Seal launch a boat from river left. No, it was about 100m+ drop into river and there was still no guarantee. Swimming out was not an option for him.
There was no other option; we had to wait for outside help.
Some of the team from the scout had now run Cherry bomb and joined Dave, Sam and Hunt in the gorge. From here a messenger(s) paddled down to Lars and I. “Dave’s ok, but he has broken ribs and isn’t doing too good”.
We now had four people at the bottom of the gorge not including me. It was tempting to get caught up and involved with proceedings, but as Mick Hopkinson had once told me, “leave the brains on the bank”. I had the best over all picture and was most central to communication and information.
A few things needed to happen. Jake had retrieved Dave’s paddle but his boat was still in a sieve. More importantly, if Dave was going to remain in the gorge, he would need over night gear.
Lars and Jake managed to retrieve Dave’s boat with a little brute strength and Swiss cunning.
Talking with Lars, Ryan Lucas and Jake, we decided they should paddle out and raise the alarm. We needed a contingency plan in case the SAR team didn’t show up.
We took a minute to acknowledged that the rescue wasn’t time critical now. Racing the clock could lead to someone else getting injured or worse. No point in making the situation worse.
With that, the boys paddled to camp, packed their boats and headed down stream.
I took time to identify what I thought would be the best landing site and marked out a large X with rocks. I scraped out a large SOS in a sand deposit near by. I was pretty certain the helicopter would have the GPS coordinates from my SPOT message but having a plan B wouldn’t hurt.
Chris Madden and his team arrived. They had seen to commotion from up-stream and he walked over the dome to find out what was happening. We talked about getting Dave what he needed for a night in the gorge. Chris ran down to our camp at Flintstone’s and packed a therma-rest, sleeping bag, food etc. From there he headed back over the dome to the gorge entrance. His plan was to find someone to run Cherry Bomb gorge with him and take Dave the over night gear..
Four hours in the Californian sun was starting to take its toll. Sunburn and dehydration were starting to become more than just an inconvenience for me. I made the call to run down to camp and restock on water, food and warm gear in case things dragged out. In my haste I had a run with a young rattlesnake and almost became the second casualty of the day.
I had just returned from camp as I heard the very welcome thwack of an approaching helicopter.
As soon the helicopter circled and made its final approach, I sent an ‘OK’ message out on my SPOT. The idea being that they my SPOT contacts would figure out help had arrived and that they could relax a little.
Resisting the adrenaline of the situation I waited for the SAR team to shut down and approach us. I briefed the team leader with what I knew and the timeline of events. Victim recirced, pulled to side, CPR, recovered, potential broken ribs and patient was stable.
The SAR team took about 10 minutes to set their gear up and then flew up stream to Dave.
|Tuolumne County SAR about to swing into action|
While the SAR team landed and prepped, Chris Madden had run Cherry Bomb with a team and dropped the gear off. They were unaware that the helicopter had arrived. Some miscommunication ensued. Sam was informed that he was needed down stream. The outcome of this was that Dave was left on his own, not that this was an issue by now.
The skill of the pilot was quite amazing. There was a steady wind blowing upstream through the gorge. Couple that with very limited space and it made for what should have been much harder flying.
|A seemingly impossible situation|
|Made possible by some incredible flying|
After some careful manoeuvring the helicopter dropped off the paramedic with the basket and left. The idea being that the paramedic had time to do an assessment on Dave and then secure him in the basket for the ride out.
Picking the paramedic and Dave up proved more difficult. Best of the steepness of the gorge, the pilot was unable to fly directly above them. He was restricted to the middle of the gorge. As a result to rescue strop (rope) hung out of reach above the river. The pilot flew as close as he dared to the wall but the down draft from the rotors prevented the paramedic from reaching the rope.
Realising that this strategy wasn’t going to work, the pilot started moving the machine subtly from side to side. Eventually he was able to swing the strop to the paramedic. From there it was simple. The basket was connected and Dave was flown out of Cherry Bomb gorge as one happy and relieved man.
When all parties were back on the ground Dave, Sam and I gave the Sherriff a full run down on the sequence of events. They wanted to fly Dave out but Dave wasn’t interested. They did one more medical assessment and then some mandatory paperwork.
Hands were shaken, thanks were given and the team reunited. With that, the SAR team packed their gear and headed for home.
Thoughts and learnings from the Farkas debacle
Get a SPOT and buy the additional GEOS Search and Rescue upgrade. US$100 000 cover for US$12.95 a year. You’re a fool not to.
I made the mistake of putting my next of kin as the contact on SPOT. This meant that my Mum (in New Zealand) and my girlfriend (in Denmark) were contacted by SAR asking for details on our trip/ rescue. Neither could offer any usable information and were un-necessarily stressed.
A better option would have been to have a local (same time zone) contact that actually had knowledge of what we were doing and where we were going. If it had been anyone of my kayaking friends they could have looked at the GPS co-ordinates, worked out we were at Cherry Bomb gorge and given the SAR team far more accurate information and insight.
Get old school, leave an intentions form with the contact. Where are we going, with who, etc.
I strongly believe that of most of my kayaking crew (myself included) would have drowned in that situation. Dave is one of the fittest and strongest people I know. Match your fitness (not just skills) to the environment. He swum for his life and only just escaped with it.
Run in teams/ pairs. It’s a no brainer. Dave ran solo and only lived because Hunter dropped in and rescued him. In saying this, I do acknowledge that class 5 is class 5 for a reason. A lot of the time you are essentially out there on your own even when you are paddling with a team.
Even if you’re doing ‘hot laps’ on a rapid/ section, take some additional gear. We were caught short. The kayak team didn’t have extra warm gear or food.
Shit happens. Having a solid team with the skills to match can make all the difference.
A big mention has to go out to Sam, Jake, Hunt and all the team that helped sort things out. Legends!
|Sam Roil winding down post drama|