“I’m under water and I’ve been under water way to long”
This is Mark, describing almost losing his life.
I was working at Charles Schwab, I was a stockbroker working in a cubicle and I hated it. So, I took this rafting tip with some friends, because I’d been kayaking for about 8 years, I was really into kayoing and I got invited on this 8 day rafting trip through this place called Cataract Canyon. It was amazing, the time of my life, and the last the day of the trip, we were heading out, I was starting to think “I’m using over half of year’s worth of vacation for this trip and I’m taking this trip with a lot of people that–some of them are little younger than me, some are a little older than me–do this stuff all the time for a living. They are raft guides, then they are ski patrol during the winter or whatever. I was just thinking “What the fuck am doing in a cubicle?” Why am I wasting my life in this job that I hate, I have no attachments, I don’t have a wife or kids, I don’t I don’t even have a car payment. Why am I sitting in this cubicle in this job that I hate just getting yelled at on the phone 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, fifty weeks a year.
On that trip I made a decision to quit my job and become a raft guide. I kind of decided that I want to have adventures while I can, while I don’t have any of these attachments. I want to get out there and have adventures and have fun. I understand that it will probably be uncomfortable, it will probably be a little scary at times. Not having any money, you know, being a raft guide can be pretty shitty sometimes, you are responsible for all these people, it can be pretty scary.
So, I was a raft guide that summer and then I had no idea what I was going to do in the wintertime. This friend of mine, forwarded me this email. It was this opportunity to work in Chile as a safety kayaker. When rafts go down class 5 rapids, they need a kayaker paddling in front of them to nab the swimmers out of the river. If a swimmer gets in the–we are actually more of a swim coach than anything. I wasn’t going to get pain anything I was just going to get paid in free food, a place to stay and Spanish lessons. So it was a pretty sweet gig… so I thought. It turned out the free food was, you know, hot dogs and rice and then a ham sandwich with one slice of ham for lunch. It was horrible! And the place to stay, he packed six of us into this attic of this hostel, just half of this attic, it was horrible. Four out of the six of us quit in the first month.
My first day out in Chile, I had gotten off the plane at about 8am in Santiago and my boss and about four of the people that I was going to be working with, they picked me up and immediately off the airplane, we cooked some breakfast in the parking lot. Literally, by eleven I was on the river in this kayak that I had never been in before and the outfitting was all off. In kayaking you really need good hip pads, you really need to be in there nice and secure. I was just rattling around in it, it was really unstable. My boss told me “This is a real, pretty easy, class 3 warm-up run” and it was 14 kilometers of big water, class 4 or 5, like, “Don’t go over there or you will get stuck in that hole”, “Don’t go over there or you are going to die”, you know, “This is the line, you gotta follow the line otherwise you are pretty much screwed.”
He told us all that he had been down this stretch of river before, we pull over onto this eddy. We’d been going down the river for awhile, we pull over into this eddy, this calm pool of water on the side. He looks at us and says “Alright, who wants to lead, I’ve never actually been down this stretch of river before, so your guess is as good as mine.” Our friend Dave was like “I’ll lead.” He ends up peeling out and making this ferry across the river and catching this other eddy… Kayaking terms… and he gets out his boat and he looks downstream and he starts shaking his head, you know, putting his arms in a cross, which means you can’t go down there. He’s moving his fingers like we are supposed to walk around. Obviously just telling us, do not go down the river, there is something really bad down there, it is unrunnable.
I’m ridiculously sleep-deprived, I’m in this boat that I feel very uncomfortable with and now I have to make this really hard move in order to avoid this deathtrap or whatever it is downstream. I figured I might as well get it over with and make this ferry move so that I don’t have to worry about it and my heart was beating real fast and I didn’t want to get nervous.
And, so, I start making the ferry and there is this huge recirculating hole that I was trying to get above and I ended up getting sucked into it, flipped over, rolled back up and the eddy I was supposed to catch was upstream, so I’m floating downstream and there is no where to get out. I end up flipping over again and I try to roll back up, this rock hits my paddle and knocks it out of my hands. So, I’m upside down in my kayak with no paddle and I feel myself just drop into, what it turns out was a river wide ledge hole. The whole river ended up pouring over this big rock down and went and created this recirculation. What happens when you get into those things is that you get ‘windowshaded’. The water sucks you down under, then spits you back upstream, then sucks you back under again. What you are supposed to do when you get into a nasty one of those is you are just supposed to swim all the way down the bottom of the river, as far as you can go, catch an undercurrent and it spits you out.
I knew, I could just feel the pressure, I knew it was just a ridiculously huge hole that I knew the only way, especially since I didn’t have a paddle, was to get out of my kayak right away and start swimming down. So that is what I did. I get out of my kayak and I started swimming down, down. I just curl up into this ball and it is dark and all I am thinking of if; “I’m gonna swim through a sieve.”
The whole river was covered in boulders, it was a portage. What happened was that there was a whole bunch of boulders that completely covered the river and the entire river ended up going under these boulders and through these rocks. It is a class 6, it is unrunnable, you can’t, the definition of a class 6 is you are probably going to die if you run it… with a kayak and I’m swimming through it. I’m curled up in a ball, it is complete pitch black and at one point I feel myself falling, it was dropping off, and I feel myself falling and I instinctively threw my arm up and there was rock above me.
I know now that I’m underneath the rock, I’m going through a sieve, I know all this stuff, usually when you go through a sieve you don’t make it out the other end. It is big enough for water, it is big enough for a body to go into, but it is not big enough for a body to get out of. So, I’m just thinking “Great, it is my first day in Chile and I’m dead, already.” It was weird because I had resigned myself to the fact that I was going to die and, so, I wasn’t scared. I knew there was nothing I could do at that point, I was gone, I was dead. I wasn’t scared, I was just really bummed out. I was under water, I don’t know how long, I was under water, but it was past the point that your whole body is tingling. You know when you are a kid and you have contests to to see who can hold their breath the longest and you hold your breath to the point where your whole body starts tingling and you feel like you are going to pass out if you hold your breath much longer. That started and I held my breath for a good 30 seconds after that started.
I was to the point where I was really close to just taking in a big gulp of water to just get it over with. I was 100% sure that I was a goner. This is gonna suck for a couple of minutes and then it will all be over. I was so close… mostly because my body, I don’t know if it was involuntary, I don’t know if that is how you drown, your body just makes you suck in some water. I felt like that was coming pretty close to happening.
I’m under water, I’ve been under water for way to long. I start seeing this little bead of light. I’m in the fetal position, just kind of looking whatever direction I though was up, just hoping to see some kind of light. So, I see this little bead of light and I’m thinking “That’s a plus, that is a good sign.” Hopefully, it is not just shining through a crack in a rock that I can’t get out of. The whole time I was waiting to feel the thud of me just going up against the other end of the sieve and not being able to get out and just being forced into this crack in a rock and just not being able to move because of the water pressure. I see this light and I’m thinking “Ok, there is a little bit of hope there.” It starts getting bigger and bigger and I start swimming up towards it.
I finally resurfaced and it the elation that I felt being out of that sieve was so great and it was the the happiest moment of my life, but it was very short-lived because there was another huge sieve just like that. So, I swam into this eddy and got out and I’m looking around and I am completely cannoned in. There is no way that any of my friends could have gotten over there to where I was and there was no way I could get out.
This friend of mine ended up hiking up to where he could barely see me from the other side of the river, up on this big hill and he starts yelling at me, we couldn’t understand each other very well. He ends up pointing to this cactus and I figure what he is saying is “Hike up to that cactus, if you can, and wait for awhile.” He started doing the number 2 with his hand, he had two fingers up and so I was thinking, “Go up there and they will be there in two hours.”
So, I scramble up this cactus and this cactus is like on this scree hill, a steep scree-hill, so I’m sitting there, pretty much with my feet on this cactus, the cactus is pretty much preventing me from tumbling back down into the river. And I’m sitting there on this cactus for like two, two and half, three hours. They ended up going back upstream, ferrying across, hiking along this dirt road and then they throw this rope down at me and it barely reaches where I am. So, I grab it hook it in to my life jacket and I start climbing out and I’m horribly afraid of heights. I mean, I’m ridiculously afraid of heights and this took about four hours for them to get me out of there.
Intermittently throughout when I was climbing, every now and then, I’d hear them screaming at me “Stop, stop what you are doing! Stop!” and so I’d be sitting there and I knew that they were passing their know through the system. They had to untie, use this little prussic to hold there, to where if I fell at that point I’d probably be screwed. So, I’m sitting there just thinking “I hope they hurry up, because I’m afraid of heights, I’m not a good climber.” I’m shaking, I’m wet, the rock is crumbly.
I just kept climbing and they kept doing what they were doing and somehow they got me out of there. It was amazing. I got up up to the top and just breathed in and it was great. Everyone I was with was just as surprised as I was that I made it through.
When I was under that rock I kept thinking how stupid of a way to go out this is. I was thinking “This is just ridiculous.” This is stupid, people say “I hope I die doing what I love to do” and I say, “Fuck that, I hope I live to be able to do what I love to do the next day!” I don’t want to die kayaking, because then that means I can’t kayak anymore. I mean, I have just as much fun kayaking on a easy beginner run then I do kayaking on a run where I could die. So, I’ve been doing a lot more easy beginner runs lately. Because, I want to keep kayaking.
I feel incredibly lucky to be alive right now. I think of that day quite a bit, especially if I’m having a bad day or if I’m starting think negatively about everything. Then I’ll just think; I really am pretty much living on borrowed time. There is no way I should have survived that…
Losing Something by Jody Stephens is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.