When Summer Fun Turns Deadly Serious

I was in the Rocky Mountains of central Colorado yesterday, whitewater rafting on the Arkansas River with a highly experienced outfitter called KODI Rafting. We were to start the day with a seven-mile run down the Numbers rapids, a continuous stretch of Class III and Class IV whitewater that takes about two hours to complete. It’s a challenging stretch of water that demands an aggressive approach. People can and do get hurt.

As we rode to the put-in on a former schoolbus, the head guide gave us a run-down of what to do if we fell out of the boat: one, immediately swim for the boat and try to get back in. Two, if you get separated from the boat, lift your feet up and point them downstream so that you can ward off rocks. And so on. It was all very solid and reasonable advice. But having spent the last few years studying the human fear response, I found myself wondering: if any of us novice rafters winds up in the drink, are we going to remember any of this advice amid our rising panic?

Once we disembarked I put the question to the company’s owner, Christian “Campy” Campton, who happened to be along with us on the trip. “In that situation, 90 percent of people are able to do what they’ve been instructed to do,” he told me. “Another 9 percent panic and can’t follow instructions.”

Another nine-tenths of a percent do what he called “counter panic,” going completely rigid with their arms outstretched. And the final 0.1 percent engage in the “IDR,” or instinctive drowning response. This is a deep, instinctive type of panic response to the sensation of drowning in which a person engages in automatic, stereotyped behavior aimed at keeping the mouth and nose clear of the water. Maritime blogger Mario Vittone gives an thoroughly absorbing account of the phenomenon on his web site, but for the purposes of this story, suffice to say that a person engaged in this kind of panic doesn’t necessarily look like they’re in distress.

We got into our rafts at about 10.30am. It was a gorgeous sunny day, the temperatures in the mid-70s. I was in a raft with four other passengers and two guides. Ahead of us was another raft with a group of six nurses from the Midwest and their guide. Finally, Campy was in a smaller raft with one customer.

All went normally until just before the #6 rapid, when a shout went up from the raft ahead of us: the boat had bumped a submerged rock, and two of the nurses fell in. One of them quickly scrambled back in, but another was carried a few feet away. One of her fellow passengers stretched out an oar to her, as we’d been instructed to, but the current carried the swimmer further away. By now, we were all in the rapids, and it was becoming clear that getting the separated nurse back into a boat wasn’t going to be easy.

Perhaps ten seconds had elapsed. My fellow paddlers and I were alert and focused. Our guide, Krista, told us that we were going to try to position ourselves for a rescue, and ordered us to paddle forward two strokes. We complied. Meanwhile, the nurse in the water — I later learned her name was Jeanie — also seemed composed. She oriented herself to face down the river and raise her legs, as we’d been told.

But the seriousness of the situation was starting to sink in. Rapid #6 is long, just one stretch of churning, tumbling hydraulics after another, with no calm eddies to escape into. Apart from keeping her legs up, there was absolutely nothing Jeanie could do for herself, as the water dunked her and spun her. Her boat-mates paddled furiously toward her, then were pulled away as the current divided around a large rock.

The grim truth was becoming clear: Jeanie was out of control in a violently dangerous situation, and the longer she stayed in the water, the worse the outcome was likely to be.

Her legs no longer seemed to be pointed downstream. Her head was lower in the water, and when she hit a plume of whitewater it seemed that she was submerged entirely. I couldn’t tell if she was still conscious or not. We weren’t getting any closer, and neither was the other raft. I realized that I might be watching a person in the process of drowning.

In less than a minute, all of the customers in our boat had become sucked into the life-or-death mentality. We were no longer alert and focused on the problem. We were suffering “cognitive narrowing,” our attention entirely lasered in on Jeanie’s limp form in the water. We weren’t listening or paying attention to anything else at all. From the back of the boat, Krista assayed the swirling torrent of water and determined that we had an opportunity to reach her if we paddled vigorously. “Forward two!” she cried. Belatedly, one or two of us swiped at the water, but the rest did nothing.

It was probably less than a minute after that that Campy, nimbly maneuvering his little boat through the whitewater, reached Jeanie and pulled her from the water, then held his craft steady against a rock. She lay face down an motionless for a long time, then slowly began to move. Snapped out of our fugue, my fellow paddlers and I followed Krista’s instructions and brought our raft alongside Campy’s. We pulled Jeanie aboard and continued down the river.

“Good job,” Krista told her. “You even held onto your paddle!”

“I did?” Jeanie answered.

“Are you hurt?” someone asked her.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t care.” She seemed utterly shell-shocked.

In an instant, what had started as a lovely day of outdoors fun had turned, for her, into a long gaze into the abyss. For me, it was a first-hand experience of what fear can do to the unprepared mind. At first, both Jeanie and my fellow paddlers had fallen into Campy’s 90 percent: we had stayed calm and followed instructions. But once the seriousness of the situation set in, we lost control. It wasn’t our fault; we were untrained novices in an overwhelming setting. As I had hypothesized on the bus, we completely forgot our safety briefing and reverted to automatic behavior. My fellow paddlers and I failed to follow our guide’s instructions; Jeanie, perhaps succumbing to the IDR, failed to keep her feet pointing downstream and became passive. For all of us, the conscious control that we take for granted in normal life went out the window, and automaticity took over.

Fortunately, we had entrusted ourselves into the hands of very experienced guides, who were capable of thinking — and organizing action — when we the untrained were not.

Here’s the lesson for anyone who ventures into potentially deadly environments: either have assiduously trained yourself so that your automaticity kicks in when your brain shuts down, or be in the company of someone who has. If you think that you will be able to reason your way out of trouble, you are wrong. And that is a mistake that can easily kill you.