2012 Presidents Day Trip Pin at Blossom Bar

Written by: Scott Ogren, Lead Rescuer

Incident Date: Sunday, February 19, 2012

[Editor's Note - This article is one person's perspective on the incident and should be read in concunction with the perspective of the person needing the rescue and the trip report written by someone who was upstream of the incident.]

People Involved:

  • People on the boat: Steve Kasper, Linda Baker
  • Rescue personnel (listed in the order they arrived on scene): Ann Stephenson (first on scene), Scott Ogren (lead rescuer), Braden Nicholson, KC (Braden’s brother in law), Tom Riggs, Joe Vondrak, and Dave Nissen.

The Incident – From the Lead Rescuer Perspective

I had left Rogue River Ranch in a pod of six boats that were to travel throughMuleCreekCanyonand Blossom Bar rapid together.  Entering Mule Creek Canyon, I was the second boat behind Steve Kasper who I had run this river with before and I know has plenty of experience with these two sections of the river.  Other than the typical getting pushed one way or another inMuleCreekCanyon, all six boats seemed to get through without incident.

Steve pulled in one of the eddies just above Blossom Bar on river right and let me and a few other boats pass.  I didn’t ask him why he pulled in, I just assumed he didn’t want to go through Blossom Bar first, and I’m not exactly sure where he got back in line because just after passing him I needed to pay attention to where I was and get set up to make the move to get behind the horn rock and miss the picket fence.

I successfully negotiated the rapid and as anyone who has run Blossom Bar knows, there are a lot of rocks to maneuver around so I never looked back until after I passed Volkswagen Rock, which more or less marks the end of the rapid.  As I passed Volkswagen Rock on the left I turned my boat to face river right to look upstream and saw several boats a various places in the rapid and at that point nothing looked unusual.  I then pulled backwards into the eddy that is on river left just below Volkswagen Rock, but was having trouble staying in that eddy, so I decided to float down to the next one which is much bigger and easier to stay in.

As I was floating past the rock cliff outcropping that is the demarcation between the two eddies I looked back upstream and saw a red boat that seemed to not be moving and wondered out loud, “Is he stuck?”  I then saw what looked like another boat pass the red boat and I knew fore sure he was stuck.  I then pulled into the lower eddy and looked at the cliff I just floated past and thought, now what?

About that time, Sandi Alcantara pulled into the eddy with me and explained that there indeed was a boat stuck on the picket fence and the passengers seemed to be uninjured, but they are standing on a rock in the middle of the river.  She also told me the only way to get to them was to get back in that upper eddy I had just left and hike up to them.

If you have never paid attention, I can tell you there is a swift piece of current that extends out from the rock cliff outcropping that divides the two eddies.  I looked at that and knew that was my first battle – so I rowed like a mad man up stream to get back into the upper eddy and then instructed James, my boat mate, to grab the bow line and jump out anywhere he could find a foothold.  After James was out of the boat, I grabbed my pin kit and headed upstream with Braden and KC.

The hike from the eddies at the bottom of Blossom Bar to the picket fence is brutal.  The hike is filled with rocks, very slippery moss, boulders that need to be climbed over, trees with low hanging branches, blackberry briers and in the summer the entire thing would be covered in poison oak.  Because I knew Steve and Linda weren’t in any imminent danger, I made sure to not go too fast.  There were plenty of things to get hurt by on the hike up and I didn’t want to make the entire scene worse by injuring myself or the others as we were hiking up.  We went reasonably fast, but we also took the required time to assess everything that we needed to and not injure ourselves.  In my estimation, from the time I first knew there was a boat stuck on the picket fence until we got all the way there was 20 minutes, but it could have been longer – some say it was more like 30 minutes and that would fall within a range I would consider to be accurate.  I never looked at my watch – I was more concerned with resolving this situation and getting to camp before dark and I was watching the sun more than anything through the entire incident.

When I first arrived at the scene, Ann had already positioned herself in a very good place to deploy a throw bag and pendulum any potential swimmers into an eddy in case of a swim.  Ann and I know each other well and eye contact with her was all that was needed for her to tell me she was staying there and I thought it was a great idea for her to be exactly where she was.  With Ann taking her position as the person who would catch any swimmers, Braden, KC and I began to strategize as to how to get the boat unpinned.

At this point I had a million things all going through my head – we are about to put ropes in the river and I don’t know if anyone upstream knows about this yet, how are we going to communicate to the people upstream that there is a boat stuck in the picket fence and they either need to wait for us to get the boat out or take the right channel that is not used very often, and how easy is it going to be to communicate with Steve and Linda who are standing on a rock in the middle of the picket fence – are just a few of the things I was thinking.

As it turns out, Brian Albers climbed down on the right bank in a very good location for to see the route through the rarely used right channel.  It was a great position for him to be at as he could watch boaters entering that channel and encourage them to make a hard pull to the left around a rock that if you were to run the right channel is the biggest obstacle you need to maneuver around.  It seems to me that Brian being there and instructing people how to get though the right channel is one of the things that saved the group a lot of time and got basically everyone through Blossom Bar so we could get to camp before dark.  When I saw Brian on the rock, I figured that somehow word had gotten upstream and then I saw people begin to appear on the right side and watch the events unfold.

One of the first things I wanted to try was to pull the boat out the same way it went in, so we went upstream of the boat a little and found an anchor, except that was harder than it should have been.  There was a rock about 12 feet tall and just as wide in the way and the only way around it was to shimmy along a small section of cliff with lots of moss on it.  Before I went there I told Braden to stand on top of the large and tall rock that sticks out a bit on river left and get ready to deploy a throw bag – but don’t throw it until KC and I got over to where we wanted to be.  It was a bit of a dangerous move to get there and if I needed help I wanted Braden to be able to help me and not have to worry about holding onto a rope that had been deployed.

KC and I get to our intended spot, Braden threw the rope and we have a connection between the shore and the boat.  I get the rope passed down to me and I then tie a figure 8 on a bight on the end of my 8.5mm static line and connect it to the throw rope with a locking carabiner and Steve pulls the static line to him.  At this point, everyone has a job – Linda holds the rope out of the water at the boat end and KC does the same on shore, Steve unties the figure 8 on a bight and then gloriously ties a follow through figure 8 to his frame – that is undeniably the best thing he could have done – you need to know your knots because you never know when you are going to be in this situation – and then Braden and I start rigging the Z-drag.

Before we get finished with the Z-drag system, Steve gets the rope tied on his boat and I said, “If we don’t have to rig this Z-drag, let’s not do that.  Let’s just pull on the rope and see what happens.”

We pulled like there was no tomorrow and nothing happened, so back to the Z-drag.  I finished rigging it and then we started pulling and I instantly saw the most unexpected thing.  I am a former rock climber and have experience with prusiks that goes back to the mid 1980’s and have never seen nor heard of one failing, until now.

The prusik knot started to separate and slip and so I called for Braden and KC to stop pulling.  I dressed the knot again and then I told them to start pulling slowly and as they pulled I held the knot together the best I could and that worked a little, but it still slipped – and it slipped a lot.  So I was looking at the system that was supposed to rescue anybody and everybody failing.  Now what?  I tried switching the prusiks – the first setup I had my 5mm prusik on the haul line and the 4mm prusik as the brake and I traded them.  The 4mm prusik held a little better, but it still most definitely was slipping and I knew we weren’t going to be successful doing what we were doing.

At this point, Steve is telling me he wants me to change the angle I am pulling at – but I definitely don’t want him to know the prusiks are failing.  He’s got enough to worry about with his boat pinned on a rock and standing on said rock with his passenger.  So, I agree that changing the direction of pull is a good idea.  We unrig the Z-drag and move the rope over the large rock that Braden had been standing on when he deployed the throw bag to Steve and found a new anchor.

As we were rigging the new anchor, Tom Riggs and Joe Vondrak showed up to offer muscle, and while I figured we needed more muscle, I knew we also needed more gear because the prusiks were not working like I thought they should.

We got all rigged up again and started to pull – slowly – and I was minding the knots to the point where I was wondering how safe it was for me to have my hand and fingers in the middle of the system, but if they weren’t there the whole thing was not going to work.  We saw more prusik slipping so I tried all kinds of things – a two wrap prusik, a three wrap prusik, a four wrap prusik and nothing really seemed to help all that much.  At one point with the four wrap prusik, the prusik slipped so much and so fast that it burned the prusik on the haul line and nearly broke it.

When that happened I was scrambling in my head to come up with the next thing to try.  I had two ideas and the first was I was going to tie the end of the rope were pulling on to the anchor and then use the only spare throw bag we had left to do a vector pull.  About that time, Steve was asking for another rope to be thrown to him and I never figured out why, but I kept saying he doesn’t need that rope, we do and not to throw it.  The second thing was to put a loop in the haul line and pull on that rather than using a prusik.

But before much of anything else could happen, the best thing happened that could have – Dave Nissen (the Madcatr) showed up and asked if I needed any help.  My response was, “Dave, anything you say, we are doing.”

As Dave swung his mesh gear bag around to brace himself to get down to where I was standing I saw an ascender and that the bag was full of hardware.  Knowing what I know from my rock climbing days, I know exactly what an ascender is and that an ascender will solve the very problem I was having.  So I quit caring about the extra throw rope that eventually got deployed to Steve and I knew that in a matter of just a few minutes the situation would be resolved.

It took several minutes to install Dave’s ascenders and he has a mechanical brake that we put in the system and then cut my prusik out.  We tried to pull once with the 3:1 Z-drag that was set up and nothing, so Dave reached back into his mesh bag and pulled out two more pulleys and one more ascender to make the system a 9:1 mechanical advantage.  As the prusik (or ascender) minder, I had to reset the system three or four times, but after minimal effort on the part of the guys pulling and the boat moving about two feet, it was suddenly free and we all looked to make sure Steve and Linda got in the boat.

In the end, it was a successful rescue, but as with any rescue, there are things can be improved.  In total I would guess that from the time I first looked upstream and wondered if there was a boat stuck to the time I was back in my boat headed towards camp was between an hour and a half and two hours.  The sun was just about to go behind the ridge when we left the scene and I got to camp atTacomaat about 5:15 or so – just enough time to get camp set up before dark.

Problems and Issues

Communication: At first, I didn’t see communication being an issue, but looking back I think I could have communicated more to Steve and Linda – or I should have appointed someone to communicate with them.  I have been the one that is being rescued before and I know that it can be a bit unnerving not knowing what is going on.  I should have communicated more with them, but at the time I was trying to not give them more to worry about.  I knew we would get this figured out, but I also knew that what I had been taught would work simply wasn’t working and I needed time to figure it out.  I don’t know if Steve would have wanted to know what I was thinking or not, but at the time I thought it was best to not let him know.

Probably the one thing I should have communicated was that I knew we were about to free the boat and for him to be ready for that, and not worry about deploying the second throw rope.

The thing that ended up happening is because in the initial group of us who were on the scene, I was the only one who knew how to tie the knots and set up a Z-drag so that meant I was wearing two hats and that didn’t leave me any time to think about communication to Steve and Linda.  I was thinking more about how to remove the boat and as long as I saw they were relatively safe, I communicated only when I needed to and looking back there should have been more communication to them to put them at ease that we were going to get this situation resolved.

Gear: After seeing the prusik knots slip and come apart, Bruce Ripley and I did some internet research when we got home and found some very interesting information about prusiks.  It turns out that prusiks need to put a slight bend in the rope in order for them to be effective and when a rope is already tensioned, the prusik knot is not very effective at putting that bend in the rope to grip it.  In one rescue incident, a prusik was being used to secure a man litter to a rope so it could be lifted using a Z-drag system.  The setup is nearly identical to ours except that they were only trying to lift 300 pounds and the prusik kept slipping – because the rope was straight and loaded while they were trying to lift the basket.

A group of firefighters did some testing on prusiks and they discovered that under the best of conditions a prusik knot will begin to slip and spread out at about 1550 pounds of load and a double prusik system failed at around 2800 pounds – so two prusiks don’t even give you double the load.

When I told Dave Nissen what was happening, he looked at me flatly said, “That’s why I don’t use prusiks anymore.  I went to hardware years ago.”

So now what?  Do we all go out and buy ascenders?  In a boating environment, ascenders have their definite drawbacks.  They are expensive compared to a prusik rope and they require maintenance.  If you are going to count on an ascender in a rescue situation, then you need to keep it dry and corrosion free all of the time.  If you do use it on a rope, it is harder on your rope than a prusik is, so you are more likely to damage your rope with an ascender than with a prusik.

The next question I asked is if there is a better knot than the standard prusik knot.  Luckily, there is.  The Klemheist knot (also called the French Prusik) seems to work better.  All of the people we found online that experienced the standard prusik knot slipping had much better results with the Klemheist.

There are two disadvantages with the Klemheist, which don’t seem to be much of an issue for whitewater boaters in a rescue scenario.  The first is the knot is not bidirectional, meaning you have to tie the knot in a specific direction as it will only hold when pulled one way and slip when pulled the other way.  The other disadvantage is this knot holds so well that it has been known to fail the prusik rope under impact loading.  There is one incident of a rock climber who was lead climbing and secured to his main climbing rope with a Klemheist and when he fell the prusik rope broke and he sustained quite a fall.  The Klemheist knot seems to be a better knot than a prusik knot for unpinning a stuck boat as you know the direction of pull and the loading will happen gradually as people pull on the rope.

Another piece of gear that I am considering having in my pin kit is three tibloc ascenders.  They are ascenders without any moving parts, so they don’t have the corrosion on moving parts issue, but they do seem like they would be harder on a rope.  But, for as often as a static line rope gets used to make a rescue, maybe that small amount of occasional damage is worth knowing that I won’t have to worry about a prusik failure again.

Knots Used in this Rescue

List of knots that were used in this rescue:

  • Figure 8 on a bight
  • Follow through figure 8
  • Double Fisherman (these were already pre-tied on the prusik ropes)
  • Water knot
  • Prusik knot

More Information: