Roughly 60 Colorado College students earn their Wilderness First Responder (WFR) certification every year over half block. Although the importance of medical and rescue training cannot be understated in outdoor sports, the majority of injuries encountered are things such as sprained ankles or mild hypothermia. Only a few WRF-certified students will face life-threatening situations.
Kangmin Kim, class of 2015, teaches CPR at CC and is a Wilderness EMT, meaning that he has both his WFR and Emergency Medical Technician certifications. He spent this winter break whitewater kayaking in Mexico with friends from around the country.
Whitewater kayaking is a fast-paced sport with a high potential for injury. The majority of kayakers are not trained in swiftwater rescue or WFR, which can lead to disastrous consequences. On the fourth day of Kim’s paddling trip, another boater disappeared beneath the water.
After most of the six-person group had successfully completed a high-consequence eight-foot waterfall, the last paddler headed back up to give it another go. “Andy” wanted to try a different line after flipping on the first try. Not everyone in the group was aware of this, so only one person was standing ‘safety’—this is the person who has a rope and is on shore, ready to help in case of distress.
Andy’s boat landed in an unruly boil, and although he tried to roll it upright, the airy water circulating below the falls did not give his paddle enough purchase. He pulled his spray skirt off his boat and was freed into the roiling water. The man on safety, who we’ll call Paul, threw a rope to Andy, who caught it. The water was strong though, and it kept pushing and pulling him back and forth between the ‘boil’ and ‘hole,’ two dangerous river features that often occur near large rocks and below waterfalls. Eventually the rope slipped from between Andy’s hands.
At this point, things were looking serious for Andy. Many others had also swam in this section, but they had been flushed out by a strong current that was opposite of where Andy was now trapped. He was bobbing in a strong hole of recirculating water, losing strength quickly. Min, who had the most medical experience, took the next step in river rescue. He directed Paul to hook a rope up to a special loop on his lifejacket, and then he jumped into the water after Andy.
Although Min is a very strong kayaker and is well trained in swiftwater rescue, he’s not the strongest swimmer. He was sucked into a hole as well, and was then flushed out near Andy’s boat. Andy had disappeared from sight.
As Min swam, his hand grazed the telltale neoprene of a kayaking spray skirt. He grabbed it, from nearly three feet below the surface of the water, and yanked an unconscious Andy from the depths. Clinging to Andy, Min gave the signal to Paul to haul them both in.
Andy had no pulse and was not breathing.
Another member of the group ran for help. Exhausted from his dangerous swim, Min sat aside for a moment as the others started CPR. Min noticed that the rest of the group was not doing a good job of keeping Andy’s airway open, or getting good chest compressions. They pulled Andy to higher, flatter ground. Although the rest of the group had little medical training, they were strong and were able to help with this and follow directions.
After roughly six minutes of CPR, Andy’s heartbeat came back and he started gasping.
One member of the group cut Andy’s neck gasket, a latex tube that keeps water out of a kayaker’s top layer, so that rescue breaths could be administered more effectively. After several more minutes of rescue breathing without chest compressions, Andy started breathing again on his own.
Within a half hour, Andy was conscious and able to start evacuating with the rest of the group. In the chaos surrounding Andy’s rescue, the entire group had lost their boats and paddles down the river. The easy paddle-out therefore turned into a combination of walking, wading, and mellow swimming to a place where an SUV was waiting to take Andy to the hospital, where he made a full recovery.