There are enough horror stories told about white water kayaking, many of them enhanced by being told in the pub – that’s out for the moment so hopefully I can tell a story that we can all learn from.
We were going out to test the new Zet Cross so that I could start working on a review. After my first lap of joy and amazement we quickly cycled through as both Joshua and Sam wanted to share the experience; we each switched between the Cross, Zet Five and a Pyranha Machno.
The day started early as most of our kayaking trips do. Sam, Joshua and I live around 2.5 hours from any white water so we got up, piled into vans and drove to the river. At the get off we met Ciaran looking for some friends to paddle with so we left his car and Josh's van at the get off around 9:30 and drove to the get on.
We then enjoyed two glorious laps, the first just as the river finished topping off and the second at its peak, at a level that is a personal favourite of mine. All of us were paddling reasonably well and getting some fine lines,
One of the final rapids of the river is a move that, at this level, requires a final burst of power towards the right and a boof off a lip. On our first lap we had a few questionable lines through this move but all got through in one way or another (possibly Joshua or Ciaran backwards?)
On the second lap we had seen that there weren’t any major obstructions. All of us had paddled the river plenty of times and knew the lines, so, other than a quick check for any new hazards before committing, we were all flowing far more through the river.
At about 2ish we got off the river buzzing after our second lap, quickly swallowed some food and shuttled for our third; the last we could fit in before dark fell around 3:30/4ish. With roughly an hour/lap we had plenty of time.
Whereas, when we are coaching or leading, Joshua and I always carry our own set of kit, which by osmosis happens to be very similar (though my first aid kit contains far more duct tape). Because we were all competent, I left my watershed containing big pin kit, first aid kit, repair kit and head torch in the van after checking Joshua was carrying his.
At 2:30 we were getting back on the water for the final lap and made our way down commenting on how the water was definitely dropping.
At roughly 3ish we reached the feature I mentioned earlier, Joshua at the head of the train followed by Sam, myself and Ciaran at the rear. As Sam got the boof line he dried up, there was no longer enough water running over the rock and he just stopped. Stopped suddenly enough for me to ride straight up onto his back deck, pivot 180 degrees and fall off the drop backwards while tucking as hard as I could to avoid rocks. As I fell I saw Sam start to fall of the rock sideways. It took me a few seconds to roll up and was greeted by Joshua charging past me from the eddy back upstream to Sam.
Sam was head up, holding onto his kayak silently looking about and then very much not silent any more.
Joshua got him to the side and Ciaran and I collected his boat and paddle and helped pull Joshua’s boat up. Sam was curled up holding his face half in the water with Joshua holding his BA shoulder strap, the three of us got him out of the water a bit more and he became slightly more responsive, still not really talking but would sit upright on a rock.
Ciaran and I moved away to give some space and started making plans for extraction as clearly we weren’t paddling out. We hid the boats in a bush, checked the route out on a map and did what we can. Ciaran described watching me fall off the drop backwards and Sam falling off the rock and visibly hitting his face on another on the way into the water. He was surprised with the lack of gore having watched it happen.
Josh says: “Once we got Sam out of the water, I got him to sit down and focus on his breathing. The way we sat him down meant Sam had already positioned himself in the W position which helps someone when they are shock as it keeps the main blood flow to vital organs and slows it down going to the legs which don’t need it as much”.
Sam now describes this time as confusing because he could hear and fully understand us but couldn’t work out how to talk so he would concentrate on trying to talk but would be then confused as he was concentrating on talking and not thinking.
Josh says: “While he was focusing on his breathing, I got my sharpie and started writing down the times the things happened on the side of my Watershed dry bag. I then followed on from this by asking him questions and did a secondary survey mainly focusing on this head. After completing this survey, I had discovered he had hit his cheek/jaw. There was bit of blood, but we managed to clean this up. Having assessed his situation and monitored him for a while I felt that there was no need for the emergency services and that as a team we could evac him out”.
As dark was falling Ciaran and I re-assessed our original plan and pulled the boats back out of the bush realising that he and Joshua would have to walk back in the morning to pick them up. We moved them as far down the track as we could. We conferred with Josh who was already prepping Sam to leave.
Josh says: “I knew it was a bit of a long walk out and decided he could do with a boost of energy but, because his jaw hurt, I knew chewing wasn’t an option. Luckily I tend to carry a sports energy gel in my BA, (which I accidently squirted all over his face while opening it (the nurses found it hilarious at the hospital) and gave him that to give him an energy boost followed by sips of water. The second thing I did was gave Sam a spare woolly hat to put on his head and a synthetic jacket that I carry in the back of my boat (XL jacket so it can fit anyone. £12 from Go Outdoors) as it was late in the day, the sun was going down and when someone is in shock they get cold quickly. Once Sam felt he was ready to move that’s when we started walking out, taking it slowly and stopping when he needed to. All the way along we chatted rubbish. I made notes on my Watershed of how he was doing and he used his paddle as a walking stick”.
Joshua shouldered his Five and walked slowly with Sam. Ciaran and I shouldered our boats and picked up the Machno between us. From there onwards Ciaran and I would charge ahead making sure to stay quiet so we could hear in case Joshua started blowing a whistle. We would keep pushing until we needed a break and then I would jog back to Josh and Sam to help with Joshua’s boat and for an update. The plan was to keep this pattern until it got too dark to carry that much kit on uneven ground, then hide some boats and hopefully allow Sam and Josh to maintain a steady pace throughout.
Sam was becoming more coherent and was drinking sips of the remains of all of our water. When he was onto the last quarter of a bottle, Joshua mentioned his concern about this. Ciaran produced from the back of his Kayak a Lifestraw bottle.
This is a fantastic piece of kit and one that both myself, and Sam have now bought and have carried around the world with us. It is basically a water bottle with a built in filter, fill up the bottle from any water source and when you drink its draws the water through the filter giving unlimited* clean water…
We filled this up from the river and Sam carried on trudging on sipping water.
Around 3:45 it was dark in the trees. We hid two boats in a bush, wrote a sharpie note on the bottom of one of them explaining we were fine and were coming back to them with a mobile number and walked the last 20 minutes to the car park.
During the shuttle I called a local friend and asked which hospital to head to for head injuries as I was aware the closest had a minor injuries unit but possibly not out of hours. She called me back telling us to head to the large city hospital about 40 minutes towards home.
When I made it back, Sam was now coherent and talking, had taken off his BA, deck and helmet himself and was complaining of pain in a very specific place on his left cheekbone.
We took him to the hospital and, as always, the NHS provided an excellent service to us idiots injuring ourselves for the fun involved. We also managed to give them something to giggle about as Sam now had drying energy gel on his face.
We were all surprised that the Uni student in front of Sam in the triage queue, who rocked up to A&E with a headache he had woken up with after “drinking heavily through the night until lunchtime”, wasn’t taken outside and cross bowed…
After a doctor very romantically cradled Sam’s face in his hands and looked into his eyes no faults were found with his thick skull and Sam was back to a world of bad jokes and sarcasm; not quite himself, but close. So we headed home. He does report that he feels like it took nearly a full week to actually feel back to normal cognitively and the bruising far longer to dissipate.
I’m sure in the next few weeks one of us will do a detailed get up of what we carry when coaching and guiding but as you’ll see from above it wasn’t anything particularly fancy or extensive, just small things that made the difference.
*Life straw filters have a number of litres they’ll clean so not quite unlimited water, but close.
Words by Tom Botterill