My Drowning (And Other Inconveniences)
Now, on the matter of my death in the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River, specifically after an alarming swim in Lava Falls—universally considered the canyon’s nastiest and most difficult rapid—I confess that I miscalculated badly. I miscalculated previous to the run and then again in the aftermath of the excitement to come.
I had been thrown out of the raft at the top of the rapid, ambushed by some bit of rogue hydraulics, and recall attempting to swim against forces entirely beyond human control. I was using reserves of energy that, as it turned out, could have been better used later. Best really to just go with the flow. But the river seemed to yank me directly down as if by the feet, and I was looking up through about 15 feet of water at what appeared to be a perfectly still round pool, colored robin’s egg blue by the cloudless Arizona sky.
For a single moment everything seemed calm. I checked: my life preserver was securely strapped, good, and I was rising toward the surface, good, and there’d be a breath soon, thank God. I was low on air.
But as I rose, the calm water in the pool above began to stretch out in an elongated oval that I could see falling apart on the downriver side. And then I was tumbling unpleasantly in a lot of broken water downstream. A breath on the surface was out of the question. This seemed unfair.
Ahead and to the sides, the water looked like slowly moving shards of clear glass (I had a moment to think: This is like slow-motion movie violence, scary but sometimes oddly beautiful) and that was when I felt myself seem to fall, as off a cliff. And—yes, finally—I caught a sudden breath of air before the river grabbed me again and slapped me sideways and pushed me deep under a second time. Things were happening faster now. The shard-like glass was erupting in real time, like an explosion in a mirror factory. Unwisely, I continued to fight it.
Our group had scouted Lava from a hill on the north side of the rapid. We were a private party, five 18-foot inflatable rafts, half a dozen kayaks, and 16 people. Harry Butler had organized the trip with a bunch of his kayaking pals. Harry is the younger brother of a guy I hung around with a bit in high school. I didn’t know any of the others, but I did know that they were all experienced river folk and that all of them had some connection to the state of Wisconsin, where I grew up.
It was a winter trip, launching in late November 2014. There were no commercial trips at that time of year, and damn few private parties wanted to brave the cold. We had the river pretty much to ourselves. Wisconsinites will go for isolation and cold every time. These are people who are said to enjoy fishing in holes cut through the ice of a frozen lake.
That said, the team was prepared. We ran the rapid with disaster in mind. The kayaks went first and found rescue positions on the side of the river, halfway down Lava Falls. The rafts, rigged to flip, were to position themselves at the tail of the rapid, where they could pick up any swimmers the kayakers missed.
It’s fair to say that my companions and I were a little anxious about this run. We scouted for some time, so I had a pretty good three-dimensional map of the rapid in my mind. At the very top, the river pours over a ledge and drops into a trough that forms a wave, 12 feet high, curling back upriver. This is the Ledge Hole, and you really don’t want to get caught there, where you can be trapped underwater and swirled from the pourover to the back wave, from the back wave to the pourover, and so on. It’s called being Maytagged.
Now, bouncing my way through the exploding glass, I at least knew we’d missed the Ledge Hole. Oh, but there were other problems below. The rapid had waves that could toss a raft five feet in the air. And that’s where I was, somewhere close to the surface in all that boat-tossing water. And still—I can laugh about it now—I was trying to swim.
The worst was yet to come. Toward the tail end of the rapid, about mid-river, there was another big boat-eating hole. To the right of that was a large black rock with water erupting against its flat upriver face. I’ve never found a name for that formation other than the Big Black Rock. (The first two men known to run the rapid, in 1896, called it “our Tomb Stone.”) The damn thing was roughly rectangular and, I guessed, about 40 feet high. Adjusting for adrenaline magnification, it probably rose 20 feet.
Still, it was a big damn rock, and you didn’t want to get caught up against the thing with the entire force of the Colorado River crushing you into it with tons of onrushing force. This unfortunate circumstance is called being postage-stamped, and you seriously want to avoid that.
So if you happened to be swimming the last third of Lava Falls, it was a matter of threading the needle in the bouncy water between the rock and the hole.
Apparently, the River Gods had mercy on me, and the next time I came up for air—holy shit—I was already beyond the hole and just to the left of the rock. A good line. One of the kayakers, Brian Aho, a 38-year-old power paddler, was racing across the rapid, fighting hard against the current and coming in for the rescue.
I grabbed the loop on the back of his boat and kicked hard—a dead weight on the tail of a kayak would swamp it in this water. We ended up in an eddy on the south side of the river, and one of the big inflatables was already in position. I grabbed onto the perimeter line of the raft, then hung there for a moment, breathing hard.
But then another raft was coming in to assist. The eddy—rapidly flowing upstream water—was pushing the new boat fast. I was going to be crushed between the boats, each of which weighed about 2,000 pounds.
No matter. I took a last breath, ducked under, and let the two rafts collide over my head. Then I swam, but was confused, and probably hypothermic. I simply couldn’t figure out which way to swim. Not so long ago, I had been driven downstream by the rapid. But when I tried to go that way, downstream, the powerful eddy, driving upstream, wasn’t having it. By the time I figured that out, I’d just about beat the eddy anyway and would soon come out from under the second boat on the downstream side. But I ran out of breath and felt myself breathe water into my lungs.
It wasn’t pleasant, and my strength faded.
I was being pushed back under the rafts. In some part of my mind, I thought I could just let the eddy do the work. Let it push me under both boats and come out on the upstream side. And now again—there was no helping it—I felt myself take another big breath of river water. I didn’t think I’d survive another and turned left, to fight for the near bank. I came up between shore and the bow of the second boat.
Justin Kleberg, a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) river-programs instructor, and Harry’s 27-year-old daughter, Rachel Rye Butler, were in the second raft. They yanked me out of the water, and I lay exhausted on the bow. Justin rowed across the river to the large expanse of sandy shoreline known as Tequila Beach, where boaters typically stop to celebrate a successful run of Lava.
We tied up, and I walked along the sand for a bit, reviewing things in my mind. I’d just swum through some big waves; I’d taken a 37-foot drop, but I had missed the rock, missed the hole, and swam maybe 250 yards all told. Not bad.
On the beach, there was a bench of sand created by high water, and I sat down. One of my friends, “River” Roy Crimmins, the only canoeist on the trip, sat next to me and handed me a can of beer. I took it, tried to say something, and my voice disappeared into my throat. I felt the sand crumble beneath me, and I fell over. That’s all I remember.
My face turned blue, I’m told, then gray, and then my heart stopped beating altogether. Flatlined. I died that December day on Tequila Beach. This created a great deal of consternation—and it has tended to complicate my relationships with others ever since.
I was, at the time, 71 years old, and most of my team was half my age or less. These fine and foolish folk had every reason to imagine that I had all the skills necessary to handle a winter trip down the Grand Canyon.
I had a history of that sort of thing.
It all started back in 1976, in San Francisco, where Rolling Stone magazine tasked three employees to create an “outdoors” magazine. Michael Rogers outlined the structure, and Harriet Fier was there, I think to make sure it stayed classy. I was around for reasons that have never been adequately explained.
Picture three young editors in a cubicle in a former coffee warehouse with every outdoor-type magazine published in America piled against the walls. There was a lot of talk, but the concept we came up with for Outside can essentially be boiled down to this: “literate writing about the out of doors.”
I argued for an outdoor-adventure story now and again, but at the time the genre was considered subliterate. What passed for adventure, in those days, was found in the postwar pulps, magazines with names like Adventure for Men, Man’s Adventure, Man’s Testicle. In their pages, men were attacked by savage bloodthirsty penguins at the North Pole (yeah, I know) and rhinos in Africa. And it wasn’t just men; often they were accompanied by “nymphos” they’d encountered along the way. The writer Bruce Jay Friedman, who had edited a number of these magazines in his youth, once said that “even the rhinos were nymphos.”
But in various editorial meetings, I argued that there was a whole strain of American literature that concerns itself with outdoor adventure: from James Fenimore Cooper to Herman Melville to Mark Twain to Jack London to William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway: it’s all there. The stories in Man’s Adventure did not serve that tradition well.
I wrote a lot of stories and columns trying to live up to our concept.
You have to know that I wasn’t an outdoorsy kind of guy. In high school and college, all my free time went to traditional athletics, and I earned a swimming scholarship at the University of Wisconsin. So, as a novice Outside outdoorsman, a lot of my stories involved profiling someone who was good at, say, rock climbing or caving or mountaineering and then following that person around, begging for pointers, help, instruction. “Get me up this mountain” was my unspoken message, “because if I die, you look bad.”
I probably spent about ten years doing my rookie-in-the-wilderness tales, until it became obvious that I wasn’t quite a rookie anymore. Similarly, some of these assignments concerned themselves with risk, which was a concept that fascinated me. Was, for instance, the tangible fear one feels before rappelling off a cliff the same as those butterflies felt before a public speaking engagement? (Yep, same thing. I called it “an intimation of mortality alternately perceived.”)
Soon enough, critics began calling some of the stories I was writing Outdoor Adventure. I might crawl deep into toxic-air caves dragging a small oxygen canister tied to my foot, or search for forbidden salt mines in the Sahara, a trip that involved kidnappings and sandstorms. I rode a horse through Mongolia, with Mongolian horsemen, which is considerably more intimidating than it sounds.
But in all these expeditions or journeys, I had begun to realize adventure was about story, not brute survival. Which is how—having exhausted my curiosity about risk—story became my obsession. Story focused on meaning, and a story well told, I thought, provided a brief glance at the meaning of life, a flashbulb moment of human context.
What I found, in writing my stories, is that it was always best if something goes wrong. I was never Superman. As my expeditionary friends will tell you, I’m sort of a doofus. I screw up now and again and I laugh at myself a lot, because, well, when everyone else is laughing at you, the best thing is abject surrender. It was all part of the story.
I hoped, as I crafted my stories, that there was a subtext to all this; I hoped that the reader could look at my adventures, my mistakes, and savor them. I wanted the reader to envision themselves in that place, doing the same sort of thing. I hoped they thought: “Hey, if this clown Cahill can do it, so can I.”
I liked to imagine that I was in the outdoor-adventure permission-giving business.
And so time trundled by: I was 45, 50, 60. By 65, risk was off the table as subject matter. It’s a losing game trying to do something risky at 65 that you could barely do at 28.
Adventure? Realistically, it’s a weekend camping trip with a few buddies.
I still had my outdoor ambitions, scaled back as they may have been. I’d always wanted to trek to Everest Base Camp. Just Base Camp. Not Everest. Even in my absolute prime, I didn’t have the skills for that mountain. But hiking to Base Camp—after I’d cowritten the 1998 Imax film Everest—I had to do it. I didn’t think anybody would want to read a story I wrote about trudging up a dusty trail with hordes of tourists. Or maybe I just didn’t want to write it. And when I finally got there, standing nearly 1,000 feet above Base Camp, on 18,500-foot Kala Pattar, I wondered what I could say about the experience that might be meaningful to someone else. Nothing. No false epiphany: “I felt now, standing in the clouds and glancing at the white world far below, that I could finally forgive my brother.…” Naw. I was just going to let it lie: for once, it was going to be mine alone. I was 68.
Then, three years ago, when Harry Butler called to invite me down the Grand Canyon, it didn’t take much arm twisting. I committed to the trip, but I never considered writing about it. Too many good stories about that journey have appeared in these pages over the years. And frankly, I didn’t want to work that hard. It would be my 71st birthday on November 28, and I wanted to be somewhere nice.
Nice turned out to be dead.
What comes next are things I’ve been told. Some of these things contradict one another. I was there, sure, but I don’t recall being dead. I’d like to say that I saw a heavenly light and felt myself floating toward it. But that didn’t happen. I didn’t see any beckoning figures or beloved pets bounding across the Rainbow Bridge. There weren’t any pearly gates and I didn’t even see a guy with a pitchfork.
It wasn’t black inside. It wasn’t gray. It just wasn’t there. It was nothing.
Roy Crimmins saw me crumble and called out for Steve Smits, a registered nurse who had a cache of emergency medical gear. Justin Kleberg, the NOLS instructor and a wilderness EMT, came running with his kit.
They cut off my life vest and wet gear so that I was naked to the waist, and Justin immediately began CPR. Steve said Justin was as good as any doctor he’d ever seen.
But now they had lost my pulse completely. I wasn’t breathing, and my heart wasn’t beating. I know these were rough field conditions, but Steve is a professional, and if he couldn’t find a heartbeat, there wasn’t one.
No one noted the time that my heart stopped.
Steve called for Jennifer Gordon, an aspiring young brewer who was riding on one of the rafts, to take notes. Justin continued the CPR. Mark Hattendorf, a former collegiate wrestler, watched from a distance. He said, “I didn’t know you could push a guy’s sternum three quarters of the way to his backbone.”
Brian Aho, another former collegiate wrestler, said, “Well, there’s no resistance.”
Justin would do 30 compressions, at a rate of 100 per minute, and then Steve would give me two rescue breaths.
I didn’t know any of this. Indeed, before I died, I didn’t know that in cases of cardiac arrest, the chances of CPR alone effecting a revival are in the single digits. You do CPR waiting for the defibrillation paddles, of which we had none.
Dan LaHam was at my wrist. Still no pulse. People said Dan’s face was desolate.
Justin and Steve had gone through two rounds of compressions when Dan said he thought he could feel a pulse. Very weak. Meanwhile, I had a sense of being dragged out of some deep and dreamless sleep. Where was I? There was a little pain.… It felt like, like something pinching me. Yes, deep in my chest, and it kind of hurt.
Apparently, my eyelids began to flutter, and my boatmate, Bill Hobbins, shouted, “C’mon.” Nothing for a moment. “C’mon, c’mon.”
Justin leaned into a compression, and I believe I opened my eyes and said, “Stop pinching me.” I didn’t know where I was or what was happening, but Justin was leaning on my chest, doing the “pinching,” and it hurt. So I hit him. Actually, I tried to hit him, but I didn’t have much leverage from flat on my back, so I humped up into a wrestler’s bridge, howling in a kind of rage.
“It was loud,” Rachel Butler said, “You roared. It was like a rage to live.”
Whereas I thought I was just pissed off at Justin for pinching me.
I continued to fight, but now there were people holding my arms and legs, and in the fullness of time (about a minute) I calmed a bit and started to become aware of where I was and who all these people were. My new river friends. On the Colorado. OK. I thought I’d just taken that little swim and passed out. From exhaustion or something.
So I’m looking up into a circle of faces staring down at me. Everyone is crying. This seemed like an overreaction. I hadn’t hit Justin that hard.
Ralph Lee, who’d broken his neck kayaking and knew the value of timely communication, got our satellite phone working and contacted the National Park Service, which scrambled a helicopter. My team carried buckets of water to wet the landing site, so the bird wouldn’t brew up a sandstorm when it landed.
And then I heard it coming in, and a paramedic walked over and examined me while Steve Smits read off Jennifer’s notes. The paramedic nodded at them: “You guys saved a life today,” he said. Which was news to me.
I ended up in the intensive care unit at the Heart and Vascular Center of Northern Arizona, where it became obvious to me that Justin hadn’t been pinching. He’d deeply bruised every rib in my chest, and now all that began to hurt, especially considering the fact that I’d breathed in a lot of river water, which made me cough. Like every ten minutes. The doctors said that was good. I needed to cough up a bunch of phlegm. Problem was: it’s extremely painful, coughing uncontrollably with a creaky set of bruised ribs.
And—after having it explained to me over and over—I was becoming aware that I’d suffered a cardiac arrest. My heart had stopped. Really?
It wasn’t, the doctors said, a heart attack. That’s a circulatory event, which floods the blood with hormones and enzymes that were not in evidence. Someone said it was electrical. A drowning. Maybe a dry or secondary drowning.
But what every single doctor said was, “I can’t tell you what happened. I wasn’t there.”
And it may have had something to do with hypothermia. This was my serious miscalculation before the event. Yes, it was December, and yes, the water was, according to rangers I’ve talked to, somewhere between 42 and 44 degrees. But what I chose to wear during the Lava Falls run was a single light rain jacket and a similar pair of rain pants. My warm drysuit was folded up in the bottom of my drybag.
This was how I wanted to take Lava Falls. If I had to swim, I had the idiot idea that with my arms and legs free, I’d somehow be able to power through it. I mean, anyone scouting that rapid could see that you couldn’t swim it. But I thought maybe I could ride the flow and adjust my direction. I thought I could swim the son of a bitch. And hey, I’m a good swimmer. In fact, I was the fastest high school sprinter in the state of Wisconsin. In 1962.
In time, I came to the realization that I’d died. That’s a hard one to mentally digest, especially because I had no idea why. One of the nurses, whose husband was a Colorado River guide, said, “You’re here because it was a miracle, and you’re just going to have to live with that.”
I checked myself out after five days in the hospital. My friend Nancy flew down from Montana, where we both live, to drive me back home in my truck. I was still coughing every ten minutes, and the pain in my chest would drop me to my knees. That’s not something you want to happen driving at the legal limit of 80 on Utah interstates.
We stopped for several days in Death Valley, which caused some comment on social media: “Who recuperates in Death Valley?” I worked on walking and then took some short hikes.
My thoughts were with my boat team, which I began thinking of as the Colorado River Miracle Team. Amazing how they’d sprung into action and saved my life and then had a couple of beers and got back on the river. Every time a cough racked my ribs, I hoped that someday I’d have a chance to save Justin Kleberg’s life. I’d break every single one of his ribs and maybe a few of his fingers for good measure.
Nancy said she was watching me for signs of brain damage.
“How long were you dead,” she asked.
Well, I don’t know. They had to run to the boats, dig their emergency bags out of the rigging, cut off my clothes, and no one timed that. Some people said I was gone for four or five minutes. Some said ten. Me? I like to go for the big numbers. But I really don’t know. I was dead at the time.
I’ve lived with my death for over two years. I realize now that my second miscalculation had been to wake up swinging. A smart writer would have been all serene and spiritual but a bit vague about what he’d seen. “Sublime” would have been a good word to use. Fifteen people saw me die: I should have been able to make up some good mystical shit about what was on the other side. That’s a bestseller right there.
Unfortunately, I’ve been in the habit of writing nonfiction for too long. And the event seemed a bit, oh—commonplace.
It wasn’t something extraordinary in my life. Rather, it was like being knocked out on the football field. I mostly get blank looks when I try to explain things that way. As it turns out, very few people I know have ever been knocked unconscious. I have to tell them how it goes.
You drag yourself up out of nothing, find yourself flat on the ground, and there is that ring of faces looking down at you. The coach says, “You just got your bell rung. Walk it off.” So you walk it off and they put you back in the game and you go to the dance that night and talk to that one special girl but she wants to talk to the guy who caught the pass in the end zone. Not the guy who got knocked cold. Life goes on. You don’t philosophize about it.
Still, I have thoughts on the matter. I believed this before I died, and I still believe it now. I don’t think it matters if you have faith in heaven or hell or reincarnation or some manner of afterlife. Or if you don’t believe any of that. You ought to be able to coexist with this formulation.
Because I tell stories for a living, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the concept of story. I see it as a lens through which we apprehend our world. We Homo sapiens told tales from our earliest days on earth. We told stories around campfires, Homer spoke his epic poems, Gutenberg allowed us to widely disseminate stories, and these days we read them online.
Stories are baked into our DNA.
In my mind, I have always envisioned a blinding curve of energy, a great story arc in the sky.
Sometimes I wake up at my desk and realize that I’ve been working for three hours. But it feels like it was 30 minutes. I think I went somewhere for a while and consulted the Great Story Arc. It was there that the stories of our history on earth lit me up and informed the best of my writing.
I think the act of losing yourself in the work, any work, is much akin to Eastern meditative states.
I am not alone in this thought. In his 1990 book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was the first to put a name to the states that painters, craftsmen, athletes, and physicians, among others, all experience while working. He described flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
Which brings me back to my thoughts on the soul.
When I’m writing and in the flow, I often have no idea where that element of the story just came from and why the piece wants to finish the way it demands to finish. I just pulled that stuff down out of that blinding curve of energy, the Great Story Arc.
And what that has to do with the soul is this: You are part of it. I am part of it. Every human being is part of it. As soon as you are born, your parents start telling your story. As a child, you will skin your knee or walk naked into your parents’ dinner party; later you’ll suffer a broken heart, maybe hit the zone in your chosen sport, have children of your own. And that all becomes part of the human story. It folds into the Great Story Arc and alters it, if only very slightly. And there, in that blinding curve of energy that lasts forever—that is where your soul resides.
Last year I got a call from Harry, who asked if I wanted to do another December trip down the Grand. Pretty much the same group of people would be coming along. How about it?
Why certainly, Harry.
“Wear your drysuit this time.”
It was cold, 25 degrees, at Lee’s Ferry, where we put in. A couple of weeks went by and the weather relented—we didn’t have to chip ice out of our wash buckets anymore. Now we were approaching Lava Falls. Everyone could hear it roaring in the distance. For the first time that trip, I had uncomfortable flashbacks of being trapped underwater. And I recalled how powerless I was against that water.
We scouted from a trail on the north side of the canyon—me muttering bitterly about my clammy drysuit. Still, there was a cold sensation in the pit of my stomach. Some of what I was feeling must have shown on my face. Brian Aho pointed to a continuation of the trail that would allow me to skirt the rapid. “There’s no reason not to walk it,” he said.
“Bah,” I said, or something to that effect.
I was committed to the run. Steve Smits was at the oars, and we shot Lava Falls on a clean line that busted through the big water in about 25 seconds.
The Colorado River Miracle Team assembled on Tequila Beach in a big huddle. Steve had tears running down his face. This run, this one run, meant so much to him. We were all pretty emotional, but this is not to say that we all didn’t have a beer in hand. I toasted Lava Falls: “You got me the first time,” I said, “but you let me through this time. It’s one to one. I figure we’re even.”
And then there were more beers, more toasts, and an uncomfortable amount of toasting directed to me. I began to feel some irritation in my eyes, like I was going to cry or something. These people, my friends, had taken the emotional brunt of my death two years ago. They saw a friend die. (For four minutes, or as I prefer, ten.) Then, as if by the sheer force of their will, that guy started breathing again. Life and death, right there on Tequila Beach. It was something they’d never forget. More than one of them said the experience had made them a better person. In that moment, I loved them all. Still do.
Later that trip, a lightning storm rolled down the canyon. The thunder rumbled and you could hear it coming and going for miles. Bolts of lightning lit the snow-covered high rims of the canyon, and it was an experience beyond worth.
Most nights we’d sit out under the stars and talk. I didn’t say anything about the Great Story Arc in the Sky, just in case anyone was still worried about brain damage. We passed around a logbook and those who had something to say wrote it there. On the last night before the takeout, I wrote a thank you to my friends and to the thunder and to the canyon and to the river. I said this was likely my last Grand Canyon trip and thanked everyone, not only for saving my life but for enhancing it as they had. I was honored by their company.
The next day, driving out at Diamond Creek, Roy Crimmins said he’d read my farewell. “You’ve got another couple of these in you,” he argued.
“Ah, Roy, I’m getting old. Seventy-three. There were people a third my age on this trip. Just unloading the boats, you guys jumped from tube to tube. I had to belly crawl.”
“But you got all your work done.”
“I did, but I’m worried about the time that I become a liability on an expedition like this.”
“Hey, that’s quite a few years away. You’re pretty spry.”
Which, in my 40 years at Outside, is the first time someone ever used that word to describe me. Spry?
I knew I’d think about that word for a while. Maybe, in a couple of years, it might even be funny. In any case, I’m pretty sure there’s something there that will eventually find its way into the Great Story Arc in the Sky.
Editor at large Tim Cahill’s column, Out There, ran from 1981 to 2000. He is the author of Jaguars Ripped My Flesh and eight other books. David Hughes is an Outside contributing artist.
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September 15, 2017 at 11:30AM