Canyon 1 – Canyoneer 0

Breaking your ankle in the middle of a canyon is never a good thing…

Canyon Magazine
America Medical
March 2016

Being bumped and sometimes bruised is all part of canyoning and we take that with pride but sometimes things can go horribly wrong. It can be due to inexperience or playing around but sometimes it a culmination of several factors.

At the RIC 2015 in Ouray, America, a group of us (Sonny & Calius Lawrence, Marc Boureau, Jean Louis and his wife, Dan Halim and my wife Amaru) were all descending Bear Creek. After a nice steep hike up we finally made it to the canyon and proceeded to descend. Bear Creek was high on my list to descend and looked like it have enough abseils and water in what I like.

We had 3 x 60m ropes in our group distributed between myself and the the members ready for sequencing our way down. Everything started off quite smoothly with the first abseil rigged which committed our way into the canyon. Our second abseil of 18m was all successful as well. The next abseil of 20m was a little bit ahead so I abseiled down and headed off to set up at the next anchor.


Time 13:00

Roughly 100m away from the 2nd abseil, there was a down climb of 2.5 meters and I spent a few minutes looking at different paths and decided a path I thought was safe to do so. The pool was not so deep so jumping was not possible and the other down climb was covered in green moss so it looked a bit slippery. Choosing the path of the waterfall I edge myself down and next thing I know I have slid falling into the water. Hidden under this small waterfall I was down climbing which I could not see was a perfectly placed rock at the correct angle to capture my left foot and twist it out of place to the complete left leaving it look like a rag doll.

Surprising the pain wasn’t kicking in as of yet and whilst floating in the shallow pool I managed to traction the ankle back into place within 30 seconds of it happening. Holding onto my ankle while blowing the whistle for emergency I realised I had experienced what everyone dreads, a fully broken ankle in a canyon and the only way out was rescue. The others come down and realised what had happened. Within minutes I was Sam Splinted in the water and then helped out of the water only a part of the dry rock while every came down.

I pulled at my iPhone and got a GPS Bearing of where we were located so that rescue could hopefully find us quickly enough. This was then passed onto to the group and they organised with Marc who stayed with me while the rest of the group continued down the canyon. For the next 6+ hours I was laid out on the edge of the canyon with Marc waiting for rescue to be pulled out. We also had to keep an eye on the weather as the afternoon storm clouds were rolling in. Thankfully they missed but we both kept a pretty close eye on the water level. Marc also prepared a “birds nest” just in case we had to spend the night.

Staying in such a position on cold rock, next to flowing water at altitude hypothermia was slowly starting to kick in. I could start to feel waves of chills and some weird lucidity moments. With my first aid kit with some strong Ibuprofen and emergency rations (tiny Snicker bars) I manage to keep myself at a fairly constant level with little pain..

Finally me all wrapped in a space blanket. This is where I stayed for 7 hours whilst waiting for rescue to come. Mild hypothermia was kicking in after a few hours due to the cold rock, wetsuit and the 2800m eleavation. I’m digging through the backpack for the iPhone to get the GPS location as well as preparing everything for a long stay.

Taken just after I was pulled onto the rocks. Jean Luis managed to get his Samsplint out first and wrap it up. I’m getting my Samsplint out ready for a secondary splint in case it is needed.


Time 18:30

Rescue has arrived! We finally see some people on the edge scouting into the canyon to figure out on how the haul out will go. Obviously the helicopter haul out won’t work in this canyon due to the high walls and blade wash so it looks like a rope rescue. It takes some time but we see movement in some trees on the edge of removing branches to make the haul out easier. After a couple of hours Ouray Mountain Rescue team was down with the Stokes Litter ready for hauling.

Time 21:00

Finally I am managed to be hauled out of the canyon.There is something amusing to be said of being a technical rope rescue trainer being rescued by the same techniques you train people in. At least I can say I’ve had real word experience. The haul out it was quite tricky as the canyon wall is crumbly and sharp and once at the top there is a redirect up the scree slope through the brush. Happening ever so quick, i’m finally back on the trail waiting for

Time 22:30

Wheeled out.

Time 23:30

I’m out. It’s so good to see the wife and friends again. I’m placed back in the back of the ambulance and head off to the hospital. On the way, the new Seland wetsuit I was trialling out was cut off in the ambulanceI Fortunately they manage to save my Bestard Canyon Guide shoes. Upon removal of all gear you could quite easily see that the ankle was broken and was swollen quite large. At the hospital, the Doctor was quite impressed with the retraction back into position which was about 90% correct. They could see on the Xray that the Fibula was broken and the Talus section was pushed right out making it a complex fracture requiring surgery. After a couple of hours and with my foot now in plaster all wrapped up, I’m on the way back to the house to try and sleep.


Hello Foot!

It’s been 2 weeks since I last saw you. It was worse than they expected. On the left side of the ankle I have a nice new scar of about 15cm where the plate was put in to fix the broken lateral malleolus and also they discovered that the ligament was torn so that was sutured back. On the right side only a small scar where they had to sutured the ligament back due to it being ripped as well. All very bruised and very very sore. I have realised that Japanese pain medication is absolutely useless. According to the doctor, the surgery went well and I should be walking in about 2 weeks with a walker. It’s a long road to recovery.

Bionic leg plate installed. The doctor did a wonderful job on the plate and screws. The scar where the plate was installed is healing very nicely and Im looking forward to getting all the stitches removed. Everything is back aligned and according to the doctor after today’s visit, I should be moving from the cast to a walking boot at the end of next week! Much quicker than we expected! It’s going to be so nice to be able to walk again after nearly 4 weeks of laying on a bed. Onwards to rehabilitation!

4 Weeks Later…

Robocop leg installed! After 4 weeks of not moving, laying around on the bed and not being able to put any weight on my left ankle or leg I’m finally allowed to take my first steps with this spacey walker boot. For the next 6 ~ 12 weeks I’ll be wearing this while slowly stretching and building up the ligaments that were torn and working back all the muscle atrophy that I suffered during the past 4 weeks of not moving. I’m surprised on how much I lost! It’s going to be so nice to get outside again and move!


The Pull Apart

So what happened and why did this happen? I have gone over this, many times in my head, looked at the pictures and finally come up with a reasonable conclusion

  • Slightly tired from previous day canyoning.
  • Pushed ahead to quickly without waiting for others.
  • Down climbing with a heavy backpack (which the water pushed on)
  • Over estimating the drop.

Simple things that anyone can mess up. I look back in hindsight and will use this for any training to show what can happened and what can be done to try and minimise the risk associated with it.

Good Things

There were several things that went well but here is a brief summary:

  • GPS Coordinates. They were within 100m accuracy which is not bad for a canyon environment and from an iPhone.
  • Multiple First Aid Kits, having the correct equipment, medicine and emergency rations.
  • One person taking charge of everything to make sure the group moves on.
  • Keeping some rope behind just incase we needed to raise ourselves out of rising water.

No words can express the gratitude, support and teamwork of the Ouray Mountain Rescue who had to haul me out in a litter in the middle of the night and then wheel me down the mountain trail on slippery scree for just on 6 hours due to the complexity of the rescue. Many thanks to the Ouray EMT crew and the Montrose Memorial Hospital ER team. The system was so smooth.

A super huge thank you to all the canyoning team Sonny & Calius Lawrence, Marc Boureau, Jean Louis and his wife, Dan ‘Flash’ Halim and my wife Amaru who I was with, of all seasoned canyoners where everything moved like clockwork. Finally thanks to all of the canyoners at RIC who have offered well wishes, support, help and everything else during the accident. It shows what a great community canyoners are.