On July 25/2020, Richard Maggs, Pierce Huser, Jared Day and myself had planned a total Pingston descent. The Pingston is a three-part river in the interior of British Columbia consisting of an upper and lower class 5 section with a fun class 3/4 middle section over about 14 kilometers. During the upper, we had an incident and the full decent turned into an emergency evacuation. After extensive debriefing with the crew, we are all 100% confident with our decisions during the extraction, however, we all agree that there are a few things that could have helped prepare us better and make for a smoother extraction. We were extremely lucky at several times during this extraction. We are sharing this trip report in part to heal from the trauma, and in part to learn ourselves and pass what we have learned on to the paddling community. We all still love paddling and intend to get back out there as soon as our respective injuries allow.
When the group assembled at the put-in around 11ish the gauge on the dam was reading 2.72. I had checked the level early in the morning prior to the other 3 showing up and it was reading 2.75 (Prime level being 2.8 – 2.85). Before putting on I let them know I was still a little sore from a prior injury on St. Leon (bruised ribs and kidney). I had decided that I would be getting out at the middle take out because of the size of the drops on the lower including one 75ish drop. We had a vehicle set at the bottom take out, so after I walked 1.5 km or so of the lower, I could just meet them at the car after they crushed the lower. Everyone in the group was comfortable with me putting on despite my injury. We agreed to take it slow and safe and take care of each other if necessary. After putting on we were all hitting mint lines and keeping our heads dry with Maggs telling us the lines and boat scouting the drops all the way to the first big slide above Highway to Hell. We all took a quick look at the slide. Maggs and Huser ran first, followed shortly by me and Day. Despite having a good line, I took a small hit to my already bruised rib and felt a crack. I let the crew know my injury had worsened and that I needed to avoid any impacts to my right side. We took more time on future scouts to minimize risk of hurting my rib any further. Knowing my rib was busted I opted out of running Highway to Hell after a quick scout. Maggs carried my boat to the bottom where I set safety and took some photos. The other 3 cruised down Highway to Hell before regrouping at the bottom. We then proceeded to run down to the portage that by boat scouting with the occasional verbal beta from Maggs.
Pierce Huser seconds before the first boat Sighting
We moved to the portage with a slow but consistent pace due to my injury while Maggs made it as easy as he could with good explanations of the read and run 4+. Arriving at the portage rapids as a coordinated group we all jumped out of our boats stoked with what was just run and excited about what was to come. After getting out of my kayak I walked up to Maggs. He was perched up on a rock looking at the first portage rapid. Looking at the rapid as I walked up to him, I saw what he was looking at. I said to him “Not going lie bro there is a line. A clear and present line but it's not for me today" We looked at it for a min and chatted between the crew. We all concluded that it looked safer with more water. I then asked him if he could give me a hand with my boat. He went ahead of the group and carried the full portage for me before turning back to get his own boat and scout the two lower drops. While he was carrying and scouting, I walked carefully and perched on a rock slab about 2/3 down the full portage to get some photos and a waypoint on SPOT. Jared went to drop his boat; Pierce was at 1/3 of the portage when Maggs was walking back past him scouting. I figured he wanted one last look before grabbing his boat, then he walked around the corner and Pierce continued towards me. In hindsight they could have stayed closer together. Approximately 8 minutes later I saw Maggs' boat in the water right after I took the last picture. I immediately started to hammer on my whistle. By the third or fourth blast of the whistle, I had made I contact with Pierce. I gave him the command to get the boat and flip it over to check see if Maggs was in it, he immediately understood and sprung into action. Pierce got to the boat in very little time and flipped it over showing that Maggs was not in the boat. He then quickly got it to shore, left it full, and ran upstream to look for Maggs.
From Maggs Perspective: While scouting the drops I had decided that the bottom two were good to go and I would probably paddle them that day. I had a quick chat with Pierce when we passed each other below the first drop. Both of us agreeing that the water pushed into a log on the right too much at this level and that we could nab this falls another day. I followed up the shoreline looking closely at the drop for anything I might have missed, saving that information in my head for another day. It took me awhile to get to my boat and I knew in the back of my head that they were pretty far away from me by the time I started my portage. I wasn't too worried since I'd already carried the portage once and I was far from tired. I started walking up the scree beside the waterfall, trying to follow the same line I had done earlier with Benny's boat. I took one last look at the falls from the first spot (about 30 ft above the middle of the waterfall) I had scouted it from that day. I knew then that I was making the right decision and I would be able to nab it another day with a little more water. Excited for the next few drops I turned and started traversing across some scree towards the group. While stepping left around a small shrub I felt a rock under me start to roll. I adjusted my weight and kept my weight under me expecting the rocks to stop in a foot or two. Some bigger rocks joined the small rocks and quickly swept me down off a 20-foot cliff and into a little corner between some large boulders directly above the main drop of the first waterfall. I had dropped my boat and paddle during my fall to keep my balance. The first thing that landed on me was my kayak. As I fell to my hands and knees on the rocks on the side of the river my boat bounced off my head smashing my nose into a rock. Around the three rocks settled on my legs while a couple others fell into the water around me. My left foot was in a lot of pain, It was fully dorsiflexed under a ~1.5'^3 boulder with the other smaller boulders on top of my right foot. I first tried to pry the big boulder off my left foot with no luck. Switching sides, I managed to pull the two boulders off my right foot and get in a better position to roll the boulder off my left leg. I got myself into a standing position and looked up to see my paddle sitting on a shelf above me. I stepped towards it with my right foot and noticed a numbness in my right toe as I put my foot down. Looking down I saw blood coming out of my shoe and a sizeable cut just above the extensor tendon of my big toe (Extensor Hallucius for you anatomy nerds). I decided that was probably my biggest injury and I needed to be careful of that. With both feet sore and bloody (there was a puncture would on the top of my left foot. I stumbled and climbed back up the bank to make contact with the group and make a plan to get out.
Upon hearing the first whistle blasts, Jared made the hard choice to stay at the end of the portage to work down river containment. I believe this was one of the hardest choices that any of us had to make. Jared could not see any of us and did not know what was happening. He held his ground after the last drop with a rope until I gave a couple of steady whistles. He then started to work his way up to the 3 of us to regroup.
As Pierce scaled the hill to make contact with Maggs I moved up to Maggs` boat. I made sure it was sturdy in place before starting up the hill to make contact with Pierce and help find Maggs. As I was coming up the hill Pierce came back and let me know Maggs was out of the water. Here we had a small miscommunication. During a quick exchange Pierce thought Maggs gave an ok signal so he doubled back to check on the boat and make sure it didn’t fall back into the river. Pierce and I then heard another whistle and between the 2 of us could not decipher if it was Jared or Maggs. I then saw Maggs give me a signal that was not clear. I put my hands at each side and he immediately made an X with his arms and yelled “HELP ME”. Me and Pierce both scaled the hill with him given me a boost at one point and got to Maggs.
My first thought as I rushed up to Him was “HOLY F***” I started to quickly run through scenarios in my head to get Maggs out of the canyon. At that point I already knew we had no spot signal as I was trying to mark a waypoint while taking pictures. Furthermore, with the gear we had I was convinced Maggs would not make it through the night in the canyon. I started to check over Maggs for other injuries even though I was pretty sure Maggs knew what was damaged. It helped us all take stock of the situation and catch our breaths. At this point Jared walked up from the bottom of the portage and joined while Maggs was explaining how the rock and slope let loose on him and buried his feet and ankles at water level. He then told me he had no feeling in his right big toe. His next words still echo in my head while I write this. “I do not want to see what is under the shoe and I am pretty sure it’s off”. “What do you mean Maggs?” I asked. He then motioned with his hands a kind of chop motion, as if his toe was chopped in half. I then was convinced the shoes were to stay on as I needed him to remain active in his own extraction. We agreed it wasn't worth the risk of him going into shock to stop the bleeding and clean the wound. While we had a first aid kit and were capable of splinting it we all agreed that getting out of the canyon should be our #1 priority. From what I could see he did 30ish feet with a 15ish vertical at the end, ending at the edge of the water a part way down the first waterfall of the portage.
The 4 of us then started to breakdown the situation, everyone coming up with really good ideas to start the extraction. We talked about sending the 2 ahead to get to the vehicle and me and Maggs slowly working down river but ultimately decided we should keep the 4 together at least until we had finished the last of the class 5. Maggs inquired about using spot to call for help. Knowing already we did not have signal on the spot and not wanting to waste precious time and energy looking for signal (a mistake I have made on prior extractions), I replied “sorry bro I left it in the truck.” We all then understood that our first step was getting to the end of the portage. We were in a bad spot with the hill crumbling on Maggs once we did not want it to happen again. we decided to all work and move together to get there quickly and safely.
What happened next brought me to a tale that I heard long ago about Becky Bristo breaking both her ankles on Red Earth Creek in Alberta. What I heard was that after the injury she paddled out. The same we were about to do with Maggs, with an hour or so of 4+/5 left. When Maggs stood up, looking at his blood-soaked feet and knowing how far we still had to go, he stood up a legend in my eyes. I will always be impressed with the strength that he showed.
(a breakdown of what was happening with my view of the incident)
We started to push through the portage with me and Pierce helping Maggs, with Jared taking care of boats, paddles and gear. Pierce was occasionally jumping back and forth to help Jared; I was strictly working with Maggs cracking a few dark jokes here and there so I could see that he was still capable of smiling and in the game with us. On one of the last rest stops before we finished the 200ish meter portage we all chatted about what to do next while I got my boat and checked my SPOT without the others seeing. Still having no signal on SPOT we it remained that Maggs was going to get in his boat and we were going to paddle as a group to the upper take out bridge. Pierce and Jared would then paddle on to get the vehicle, pick us up at the bridge, then drive to the hospital. I was also hoping to have signal at the bridge. We got Maggs in the boat with the intentions of of Pierce leading the charge, Maggs with me and Jared wherever we needed him as the rapids went.
After we got in our boats Pierce seemed little unsure of the line on the first drop. Maggs asked if I was comfortable with him leading since he remembered the lines well and felt a lot better now that he was in his boat. I agreed and Maggs took off ahead of us, giving beta wherever needed. We paddled the last hour or so with me and Pierce on scout for Stairway to Heaven. We had one wood portage that we lifted Maggs over the wood to keep hm in his boat. Other than that Maggs smashed out line after line, leading us out of the canyon and finishing at the upper takeout bridge. When I pulled into the takeout eddie with Maggs we repeated our plan as a group. Saying that Maggs and I would wait for Pierce and Jared at the middle bridge, reminding them that it was up Limekin road, and finally telling them to be safe above all elso on their middle lap. By this time my Ribs were trashed, and I had nothing left in me to keep going. I could only imagine what Maggs was feeling.
While the kids were getting through the middle, Me and Maggs worked our way up to the top of the bridge. This took about 30 mins to do around 20 feet. Maggs was so sore but we needed to get him up into the sun where the warmth was. After we sat on the bridge for a while Maggs was getting cold, I remember him saying “sorry Benny but I am getting really cold time to snuggle up.” I remembered giggling at him as I sat down behind him. Putting my shoulder into him as a little tease I said “sorry bro but I am going to start a fire for ya instead”. As I got up to gather wood I cracked off at him and said “Do me a favor: If you get cold just get up and do some jumping jacks to warm up!” As I was walking away he was awfully serious before a little laugh came out with words of “I thought you were serious for a second there Benny.” I prepped a fire and dried clothes for the both us. At around 2 hours I loaded some wood close to Maggs. But not to close as I needed him to move a little while I jogged up to grab the boys at the turn out. I ran about 5 km and found the kids on their way making good time. Pulling up to the bridge we let Maggs know with a lot of beeps on the horn. Pierce and Jared used a four handed seat carry to get Maggs into the vehicle. After loading him we drove me and pierce to the upper vehicles and Jared and Maggs took off to the hospital in Maggs' car. I was frustrated with myself for making the group spend an hour getting me to my meds which I almost always carry with me but on this day did not. Thanks to Maggs' toughness I got to my meds and Pierce and I could start picking up our gear and get back to Revelstoke much sooner. His choice to tough it out to the put in saved my ass that evening. Me and Pierce stayed behind to collect all the gear and Jared had Maggs was in the hospital by 10:30pm. The incident happened about 2-2:30pm in the afternoon.
After we have all chatted and debriefed, we are all really proud of how everyone worked as a team. Everyone is convinced the right choices were made given the circumstances and knowledge we were presented with. However there are a few things that we could have done that might have made our decision making more streamlined and better prepared us in case of a worse injury. These are the things we have come up as a group during debriefings:
- We all believe we were too far apart during the portage. This is the major one that came up from all 4 of us. Being too far apart made it so that none of us knew exactly what was going on until we found Maggs. If Maggs had been in the water or unable to rescue himself from the rocks this could have been catastrophic to the outcome of the rescue. This also put Jared in an uncomfortable position (not unlike the backseat of a Volkswagen) as he did not get to know what was happening and had to listen to whistles and guess what was needed of him. Thankfully, Jared made an amazing decision to stay put and work down river containment.
- We did not have enough gear for 2 of us to safely stay in the canyon overnight if that were to be required. In the past I have found that it is unfortunately likely on rivers with a long hike out. When running isolated creeks like the upper Pingston, we should have a small overnight kit in the boat.
- The communication was spot on for 98% of the rescue. In the beginning there was a couple of misunderstandings. We need to be certain and clear when giving and receiving signals and slow to believe potential victims even if they give an OK.
- One spot no signal. This is one of the hardest things of today. Knowing how to get out when your devices do not work. Yes, we could say if we had 2 devices then maybe a signal or blah, blah. No matter how good devices are and no matter how many we have We need to know how to get out without those devices. These devices are not Plan A,B,C,or D they are Plan E. If they are working use them. However, if they are not working I hope you are prepped cause it going to be a long haul. Ours was 10 hours until everyone was safely back to civilization. Credit for that goes to everyone in the crew including Maggs for working as a Team that believed and trusted in each other.
Pierce and Maggs after Highway to Hell
This is by far the best crew I have worked with to get someone to safety. Every signal person involved was in it to do the best they could for Maggs. Every choice made was done as a group except one. I lied to the group saying I had no spot because there was no signal. I will stand by that decision no matter what anyone wants to throw at me. I was not willing to waste time and energy looking for signal while risking that Maggs would have to spend the night in the canyon. I acknowledge that I could have made his injuries worse by making this choice, however, after running through our options before and after the extraction we all agree that getting him out was always our best option.
Jared Day proving that last is not least with his line on Highway to Hell
Maggs is in recovery with the hopes of keeping his toe. He has a broken navicular bone in his left foot and two split distal phalanges as well as multiple lacerations in his right big toe.
Much love to the crew and good f****** job!
See ya on the river,