This was the first international kayaking trip for both Ryan Windsor and myself. We chose to travel to Costa Rica, in large part, because Costa has a wealth of quality whitewater and a friendly, welcoming tourist infrastructure.
With only a couple days of boating left before heading back to Oregon, Ryan and I decided to make the Upper Pacure our grand finale. Throughout our two-week stay the water levels had been too high for a first trip down this classic stretch, but after about a week of sunshine, the levels seemed to be perfect.
In another stroke of karmic convergence, we met some fellow U.S. boaters who wanted to join us. Cody, Morgan, and Edgar were from California and Washington and worked as kayak instructors on Oregon's Rogue River. This increased our group to five, which provided a welcome margin of safety.
As we finished paddling the beautiful Upper Upper section and continued downstream into the crux gorge of the Upper Pacure, I decided not to boat another day because I was sure this would be the high point of our trip. The weather was warm and sunny and the river was beautiful and fun. I couldn't think of a better way to end my first international kayaking trip. We knew we could scout and portage in the gorge if needed and after the relatively easy Upper Upper section, I was looking forward to some more difficult rapids.
Near the middle of a particularly long rapid, I got out on the right to scout the last section. Cody was waiting for some verbal directions for the line through this section so I told him it looked a little pushy but relatively clean. Cody got tossed around a bit in his small playboat but finished the drop with style and gave the thumbs-up from the pool below.
Edgar had no problems but Morgan flipped in the first drop, had some trouble getting back upright, and then finished the rapid with no problems. Morgans's trouble gave me reason to reconsider the line at the top of the rapid. So after one more quick look, I got into my boat and pulled out to a mid-stream eddy to look at the approach from river level.
The author enters what would be his final rapid on the Pacure.
I entered the rapid on the right side and got wedged between the wall and a boulder. After a brief struggle I flipped upside down and decided to bail out. After a short swim I climbed up on the right wall and realized I was stuck.
The rapid continued below me, so I could either jump in and swim the rest of it or climb up the wall through the jungle. After looking at the rapid for awhile I decided to climb the wall. It wasn't difficult climbing, but once I had traversed downstream I realized there wasn't an easy way to get back down to river level.
I was finally able to get down to a rock shelf and saw that I was just above another drop and a big pool at the base of the rapid where Cody was waiting. Edgar had hiked up the right bank after helping corral my gear just around the corner and was about ten feet below me.
Now I had a choice: Climb down the wall or jump into the pool ( the large pool visible far downstream in the photo above ). My recent experience climbing around in the jungle made the first option unattractive, so I decided to jump. I briefly thought about trying a flat dive to get more distance downstream but thought that was too risky, so I decided to go in feet-first.
At the time I didn't give it a second thought, but the smallest decisions can have such far-reaching consequences. Little did I know that my life was about to change, forever.
After checking my footing I pushed off and tried to get as far downstream as possible. I hit the water and felt a tremendous impact as I slammed into a rock just under the surface. The next thing I remember I was floating in the pool and my left leg wasn't working anymore. I felt a surge of adrenaline and struggled to maintain my composure as the canyon walls closed in around me.
Surprisingly enough, I felt very little pain at first although I knew that I was close to going into shock. I looked at my leg and observed in a very detached way that my kneecap had split into two pieces. There was now a three-inch gap between the two pieces of bone, creating a deep depression where my kneecap used to be ( I would later learn that my leg muscles were contracting and pulling the two halves apart, creating the indentation and later, an astonishing amount of pain ).
The group immediately went into emergency mode. Cody and Edgar boated over to the other side of the river to scout out evac possibilities back upstream on that side of the river. We were in a bit of a precarious position as there was a big rapid just downstream that looked difficult to scout or portage. We had just gotten into the gorge so we knew there was more than one big rapid downstream.
Ryan is an EMT so he stayed close and monitored my condition. We initially tried to see if I could get in my boat so I could at least ferry across the river, but to no avail. My knee was quickly swelling and I'd lost most of my initial range of motion, which made it impossible to get in the boat. I tried standing up next, but my leg immediately exploded with pain and I realized I was in very serious trouble; trapped at the bottom of a thousand-foot deep jungle canyon with no access up or downstream and no way to move under my own power.
Rock 1, Knee 0
I spent the next two hours in the river to keep the swelling down while everyone else devised a plan. The first phase involved getting me across the river because the road was on the left side of the canyon. This promised to be somewhat nerve-wracking, because there was a big horizon line just downstream. Once the rope system was set up, I focused my mind in a positive direction and tried not to think about what would happen if something went wrong and I was swept downstream into the next big drop.
Ryan pulled me as far as he could upstream, and then I was off into the current, with Cody and Edgar pulling hard from the left bank. In spite of my fears, this operation went smoothly and I was soon safely on the left side of the river.
After some discussion, Ryan and Cody went up the wall of the canyon to see how difficult it would be to climb out. Morgan and Edgar started fashioning a splint that would stabilize my knee to make walking easier. After testing several different configurations on one of Edgar's legs, they ended up using a Jackson Kayak Happy Seat, a breakdown paddle shaft, two sponges, two cam straps and duct tape. I immediately felt more comfortable with my knee immobilized. Because of just how well it worked for me, I'm now considering getting a Happy Seat as a multi-purpose addition to my first aid kit.
Ryan and Cody soon returned with bad news. The wall was very steep and the jungle was thick. They hadn't made it to the top and had no idea how far we would have to go to reach the road. We were running out of daylight so we decided try and climb out.
I was determined to crawl, hobble, whatever it took, in order to get out. My leg felt stable in the splint and I was confident that we would be able to get out before dark.
All of my confidence disappeared when I only managed to move about ten feet upriver in five minutes, and that was with a lot of assistance and enduring white-hot agony every time my leg muscles flexed and moved the bone fragments. Now the full gravity of my situation settled in, and I realized I was basically dead weight from this point on.
After some more discussion Ryan and Cody decided to make another attempt to climb out of the canyon; this time with the idea of trying to reach some help or notify search and rescue. They took headlamps and promised to be back one way or the other before it got dark. Edgar and Morgan found a good place for me to lie down with my leg elevated while they started building a shelter to use in case the weather got bad overnight.
Strangely enough, I was having some real difficulty hearing at this point. Although most noise and conversation sounded muffled to me, it was close enough to normal not to bother me that much. Stranger than this was the fact that when I spoke I thought I sounded plenty loud enough for everyone to hear me. In reality, everyone else kept giving me these strange looks and then continuing their own conversation without acknowledging me. This was frustrating and very surreal.
Just after dark I saw lights and heard voices above us. I was relieved to know Ryan and Cody were safe, but when the people arrived in the camp, I had no idea who they were, though they seemed to know me.
All of these unknown people gathered around me, and everyone had a smile for me or a pat on the shoulder or just a reassuring touch. I just lay on the ground, smiled and nodded, and wondered who these folks were and where was Ryan and Cody. Finally Ryan and Cody appeared looking somewhat disheveled, with impressive tales of just how steep and dangerous the climb out had been. They estimated that the road was over a thousand vertical feet above us, extremely steep the whole way with thick jungle and some near-vertical sections ( we would later determine using Google Earth that the road was close to 2,000 vertical feet above the accident site ).
As everyone circled around me, Ryan and Cody explained that after reaching a road just as it was getting dark they had followed it to a pueblo where some folks were just settling down to dinner. After getting over the initial shock of seeing two gringos stumble up to their house, phone calls were made to alert our shuttle driver of our situation and a large group of local men were quickly assembled to lead the way back down to the river. Ryan said that the local men were literally cutting a trail through the jungle with machetes as they went down.
The locals seemed so confident in what they were doing I was ready to go along with anything they wanted to do. I immediately got the sense that they would move heaven and earth to get me out of there; no matter how long it took or how hard it was.
Everyone joined hands and the eldest man of the group put his hand on my shoulder and started an earnest prayer for my safety and well-being. I could only understand the occasional Spanish word but the sense of caring for me, someone they had just met, was overwhelming. It sounded to me like these guys were ready to put themselves at great risk to get me out. Their hope and strength lifted my spirits again and I began to hope again that we wouldn't have to spend the night by the side of the river.
As the trail crew headed back out to cut a trail up the wall through the jungle, the other local men started gathering material to build a soft place for me to lie down. After a few hours the trail crew returned and any hope of getting out before dark evaporated. Ryan explained to me that the locals had cut a new trail but it was too dangerous to try and take me out at night. The new plan was to go back up to the pueblo and wait for first light.
Three of the locals and all of the kayakers opted to spend a cold night in the canyon with me. It bothered me to know how uncomfortable everyone was going to be out in the open all night, but their strength was a big part of what was keeping me going. I had no doubt that they would go through great personal sacrifice to get me home. Even today this sense of devotion is overwhelming to me. I was beginning to realize that I couldn't have picked a better group of people to depend on.
Around midnight I saw headlights descending the canyon wall, which was a little confusing because we weren't expecting anyone until morning. Soon another group of locals arrived, this time in uniforms. One of them was a doctor, and they bandaged my leg and wrapped me in a sheet for warmth.. ahhh heaven. ( The sheet also helped keep the ants and spiders off of me, I couldn't move and the jungle was crawling with them; everyone was getting eaten alive! )
The splint system: A Jackson Sweet Cheeks, breakdown paddle shafts, a couple of sponges, and some short cam straps.
After a cold, sleepless night, we welcomed the first hints of light around four a.m. The rest of the rescue team arrived shortly thereafter with a more experienced doctor. He checked me over and spoke a little english so we were able to communicate without Ryan translating.
The rescue team also brought a backboard down with them. After five years as a ski instructor in Colorado, I knew the backboard was necessary but I wasn't going to be comfortable. I was strapped securely to the backboard and a thin plastic sled ( similar to a kid's snow sled ) was wrapped around the bottom of the backboard and attached to a haul rope. Once strapped down I could only move my head.
Strapped in and ready to go..
Before the evacuation began the leader of the search and rescue team gave a long speech to everyone there. Even though I couldn't understand most of the words, I knew he was giving a pep talk to everyone and also making sure that everyone understood to communicate and work together as a team and to make sure that everyone was careful and stayed safe.
I was thankful for his confidence and competence. He was obviously in control of the situation and that is exactly what I wanted. The last thing I needed was to get dropped on my leg or have someone else in the group get hurt.
After the safety talk the rope team headed out to secure the ropes at the top of the first pitch while everyone busied themselves gathering gear and packing it away for the hike as best they could. And then it was time for the real deal; getting me moving. To get up in the jungle I first had to be carried up and over some large boulders. This was one of the scariest times for me as I was in the air with full view of the river below me and no control. I just kept telling myself to trust the guys carrying me and stay calm. I was amazed that they could keep their footing but was still worried someone would fall and hurt themselves.
Once past the boulders I felt more secure because I was only three feet off the ground at any given time. The first section was steep; basically up a very steep gully with loose rock and lots of jungle debris. The process involved five or six guys around the sled that would lift me up while the rope team uphill pulled me up the hill. It was brutal work but the local search and rescue men and women were tough as nails.
The road was nearly two thousand vertical feet above us..
Once we reached the end of the rope they would tie me off and the rope team would move uphill and the process would start again. At the head of the team there were a couple people with machetes clearing and widening the trail and at the bottom was a group bringing up all the gear. We were one long snake agonizingly moving our way up through the jungle one rope length at a time.
I got brief glimpses of the rest of the team and Ryan, Cody, Edgar, and Morgan but for the most part I was focused on the five or six people handling my backboard. It didn't take me long to realize that these guys were busting their butts to get me up the hill. If one person got too tired or lost their footing, there was always someone to take their place. Their goal was to keep me moving as much as possible until the next secure spot. A couple of the guys around the sled were with me the whole way; never failing to be ready to go as soon as the ropes were ready to go. I loved to hear the guys yell, "Listo" which means "Ready" and then I was moving uphill.
Somewhere around the halfway point the jungle was a little bit less dense which made the going a bit easier. The canyon was still extremely steep; probably in the forty to fifty degree range and steeper in some places. I kept asking Cody and Ryan if they remembered this part of the trail and how far we had to go. They seemed to always say, "We're maybe halfway or so."
Drinking water got passed down the line from somewhere up above us at regular intervals and this was a life-saver for the crew. It was a warm day and everyone was using up a lot of water with the heavy exertion.
About halfway up the wall..
After a couple hours on the backboard my back was finally starting to give in to the agony of being locked in one position for the better part of fourteen hours including the time at our riverside camp. I can't quite explain the agony of just needing to shift positions to relieve stress on my back and legs and not being able to because I was strapped in for the duration of the evacuation.
There were a couple sections where one side dropped off back to the river while the other side was up against a cliff. The guys around me alternated between lifting me and hanging on to the sled to keep from falling back down the hill. There were several times when I was nearly vertical and putting weight on my feet at the bottom of the sled. I was really concerned that I would put weight on my bad leg by mistake or that someone would fall or grab onto my leg. Thankfully, my knee was only bumped a few times during my ride out of the canyon.
Almost to the top.
After four grueling hours it was over. I finally crested the canyon wall and began picking up speed as the rope crew pulled me through the grass on flat ground which I knew had to have a road nearby. I ended up in a small clearing with three ambulances parked and ready to go. I was finally unstrapped but could only sit up with help. God did that feel good! The men from the pueblo had food and drink for everyone. This was the first food the kayakers had eaten since noon the previous day and we were all famished with the huge amount of energy everyone had exerted.
When I saw the ambulances I was finally able to truly believe that I was going home after all. I knew I had a long trip home, surgery and rehab ahead of me but I was so thankful that the evac was over and the next steps were very predictable.
After a brief rest for food and water I was loaded into an ambulance, hooked up to an IV ( I was very dehydrated at this point ) and began the hour journey to the hospital where I got a cast on my leg to stabilize it for the plane trip back to the states. By the time I got to the hospital it had been just over twenty four hours from my jump into the water, but it felt like the longest day of my life.
The author with the rescue crew.
I'm writing this account from the comfort of my couch at my home in Oregon with a fire burning in the wood stove. Surgery was two weeks ago and I now only have the uncertainty of rehabilitation to worry about. It has been quite a journey.
In some ways, I don't think I'll ever be quite the same. I've realized that much of my self-identity has centered on my physical ability. Physically I might achieve a full recovery but I've lost a good deal of confidence in my body. I'm not sure I'll ever feel as confident in my left knee again nor in my ability to prevent some other part of my body from getting damaged. I always thought I could overcome physical pain and adversity with mental toughness. Deep down I've been proud of my mental toughness and thought that it set me apart from many people. Through this experience I've learned that sometimes mental toughness can't overcome or prevent injuries.
For the first five hours after the accident I thought that in the worst case scenario I would stagger, crawl and otherwise drag myself out of the canyon through sheer willpower. In reality, mentally I became more and more afraid of the potential pain. Just the thought of possibly banging my leg would cause me to cringe and tense the rest of my body. I honestly don't know if I would've been able to mentally deal with the kind of pain that getting myself out of the canyon would've caused.
I feel extremely thankful and humbled by the help I received from the other kayakers in my group. I only knew Cody, Edgar, and Morgan for a day before the accident but yet they refused to quit on me. Several times I told them I wanted them to boat out of the canyon in order to get help because I thought it would be better for them. Each time they wouldn't even consider leaving me. Cody hiked up into the jungle four times before reaching the top the last time with everyone else. He even spent some time helping carry me on the backboard even though I could see the fatigue in his eyes. Ryan never wavered in his belief that they would get me out somehow. I had full faith in his medical judgment which allowed me to just worry about keeping my mind clear. His ability to convey my needs and wishes to all the rescuers despite his fatigue was a huge help. I like to think that I would respond in the same way if one of my boating partners was in a similar predicament but these guys have the set the bar of care extremely high.
In addition to the dedication of my kayaking partners, I was truly amazed and humbled by the help and effort of the local men. They were all extremely positive and caring. Throughout the night and the evacuation I was able to see that while they cared for me, they also cared for each other. Whether it was reassuring yells and flashes of light, huddling close to each other for warmth, or joking with each other, I could tell they had an extremely close bond to each other. I am truly inspired from their sense of community and believe it was a driving force behind their willingness to help me so much.
After some less than stellar experiences with some of the Costa Rica residents, I couldn't be more pleased that I got to see the dedication and professionalism of the local search and rescue teams from La Suiza and Cartago. They never faltered in their confidence despite the daunting task of dragging me out of the canyon. Throughout the whole process they were upbeat with me and each other which helped make my situation seem less desperate. I was amazed to hear that most of the search and rescue team were volunteers.
I'm also much more aware of the risks of boating inaccessible rivers. I've done a lot of remote rivers in Oregon but never something as remote as the Upper Pacure. I've always been aware of being cautious about running rapids and hiking around the river but this experience made me aware of the extreme consequences of basic choices when you are so far away from help.
I also realized just how debilitating a leg injury can be. Once someone in the group loses their mobility, options get extremely limited. With something other than a leg injury I have no doubt I could've hiked upriver or out of the canyon or gotten myself downstream and out. With a leg injury any evacuation is going to need either a lot of people or professional search and rescue or both. It took over twenty people to get me out of the canyon. We might've been able to get ourselves out of the canyon but it would've taken five times longer and would've put all of us in more danger.
Over the last three weeks I've had lots of time to think about the risks associated with kayaking and other sports. As much as I love kayaking and skiing and other high risk sports, I can't help but wonder whether some of the risks are worth the potential price of injuries. I don't know the answer but I know I'll be less willing to push my limits when there is a significant risk of injury and that the knowledge of the true price of injury will take away some of the pure joy I find in kayaking.
More than anything this experience has taught me the strength of the human community; the power of a reassuring touch, the willingness of strangers to make sacrifices for the well-being of others, and the beauty and depth of friendship. In many ways this was an extremely positive experience as I got to see the best qualities of my friends and people I'd never met before the accident. I'm determined that this experience will make me a better person so that I can live up to the high standards that so many people set when they worked to get me home.
Special thanks to Jason Rackley for help with the editing.
Thanks to the folks of the Mollejones de Pacayitas pueblo and the search and rescue teams of La Suiza and Cartago. Couldn't have done it without you guys!