Roped In, Roped Out
Updated: Dec 4, 2020
Pouring rain slicked the rock I was standing on, the sole safety line held firm in my hand. From the base of the waterfall, I watched Sam land in the pool of freezing water. The satisfying feeling of lacing a perfect line through the double cascade ended prematurely when the bow of his kayak pivoted to the left, toward the cave. The water threw him in the blink of an eye directly into a death trap. If I didn’t act, he could drown.
It started as a weekend plan to explore whitewater opportunities in Glacier National Park. I was twenty years old and hot off a year of some of the most epic white water kayaking I’d done yet. I’d ran the classic runs of the west coast in Washington and Oregon, I’d spent a month kayaking gnarly creeks in California, and I’d bagged a first descent down a sixty-five-foot waterfall. I was the most confident in my skills as a kayaker than ever.
Working my summer job in Saint Mary, Montana, at a campground just outside Glacier National Park’s southeast boundary, I roped a few friends into coming out for a weekend of high-risk adventure. Sam and Scott agreed. Sam was an acquaintance I met at World Class Kayak Academy and later became best friends with during our time attending the University of Montana. Scott was a fellow U of M lacrosse teammate of ours. He is a photographer and offered to capture Sam and I throwing ourselves off waterfalls in our kayaks. Scott was also up for longboarding the mountain pass.
First, Sam and I looked into running the waterfall I claimed as a first document decent, Running Eagle Falls. I say first documented decent because, at the time I ran it, I thought it was a first decent and I have the video to prove it. After I successfully kayaked Running Eagle Falls, I heard a rumor someone claimed to have run it several years earlier but didn’t have photos or video to prove it. When Scott and Sam arrived, we drove across the base of the park to Two Medicine Valley. The water was high from spring runoff. Hiking to the top and scouting the drop, we decided not to kayak it. It was too high; the water was pushing hard to one side, splattering across a rock face and down into a pile of rocks. Not kayaking that waterfall might have been the only smart choice we made that weekend.
Since Running Eagle was the prime attraction, and it was continuing to rain with no sign of the level dropping, the next day we scouted new waterfalls. Saint Mary creek, at the north end of Saint Mary Lake, provides a steep series of cascades. To access, it’s off trail, in thick brush. If the waterfalls, freezing glacial meltwater, and dangers that come with extreme kayaking aren’t enough to get our blood pumping, the high probability of running into a grizzly bear or moose while scouting was. After working our way down to the trail, all we had left was to run the last drop, Saint Mary falls. It would be an excellent cap to the morning’s adventure. At the top of the falls, the creek runs across a flat stone slab directly toward a cliff wall. The water disappears, falling through a two foot wide gap just before the wall. This first water fall seems unrunnable, but the lower falls below it is glorious fun. Getting there, though, is tricky. I always launch in, from dry land, off the cliff and into the base of the first drop. From there, it’s a short paddle off the second drop, which has a rock ledge part way down and a cave behind the veil. Caves are not a friendly place to be when extreme kayaking. The fast moving water can pin you against a rock wall. If you don’t get help, you might drown or die of hypothermia if the water’s cold enough. Being pinned in caves has killed many whitewater kayakers. Caves are one reason we carry throw ropes with us.
We were at the top of Saint Mary Falls, Scott had the tripod set up and gave us the go ahead. I led Sam as I had kayaked it several times before. To be safe, Sam stood at the base near the cave with a throw rope at the ready. I launched off the cliff and into the water. After a few paddle strokes to adjust my angle, I was flying off the drop. I cleared the ledge and the boil frothing at the bottom. It was a clean run.
Sam and I switched positions, me at the base with the rope. I couldn’t see him launching from where I was standing. Shortly after Scott’s cue, the blue kayak emerged from the lip of the waterfall. Sam cleared the edge and landed on the boil. For a moment it seemed like it was over. I was about to release a whoop of joy when the boil at the base of the waterfall surged. It shot the bow ninety degrees to the left. He went shooting into the cave behind the curtain.
The first thing you try when your kayak tosses you into a cave is paddle out. Sam paddled furiously to climb out of the sloping water. Twice it forced him back after nearly paddling to safety. He slammed into the side of the cave wall. Luckily, he was facing me. Sam used his forearm to brace on the side of the rock to keep from flipping over. I knew he wasn’t getting out. Using my practiced toss with the throw bag, I clung to the rope end, and lobbed him the bag. The rope tethered out of the bag before hitting him in the chest. Sam caught it with one arm. He dropped the paddle and pulled his spray skirt. I found a good foothold and dragged him through the boiling water, out from the cave. Dragging him out by the shoulder straps of his life jacket, we hugged. It was a moment I’ll never forget, happy it went as good as it could’ve in that kind of situation. The water in Glacier National Park is cold, it’s glacial water blended with snowmelt. If I hadn’t gotten the rope to Sam and he stayed in the cave, the freezing water could’ve caused hypothermia in minutes. If the force of the water pushing him down against the cave wall didn’t drown him, he could’ve died within a half hour. We sat at the side of the river, waiting for my kayak and paddle to flush from the deadly cave. I didn’t care if I lost my gear at that point. I could’ve lost a lot more, my best friend.
After about twenty minutes, my paddle shot out. Scott spotted it and we collected it down river. My kayak continued to bob and flip in the broiling cave for nearly an hour. It emerged undamaged and swamped with eighty gallons of ice cold water.
I don’t know if it was because we were feeling the need to get over the scariness of that morning or if we were asking for more pain, but we dropped off the kayaks, ready to see Scott attempt longboarding divide pass. Driving to the top of the mountainside outside Saint Mary, Scott buckled on Sam’s kayak helmet and went for it. I had Scott’s camera and was leaning out of the window of the Subaru taking pictures. About halfway down, the back end of the board began wobbling. Scott recovered the first time, but on the second series of wobbles, he went down. I think Scott was going about fifty miles an hour when he fell. He leaned back and hit the pavement, hard. The longboard shot off the edge of the road and down the mountainside. He rolled across both lanes and onto the shoulder. Yes, I took pictures the whole time.
Sam slammed on the brakes and we blocked the road in case anyone was coming. By the time we got to Scott he was already back on his feet, cursing all kinds of swears.
“Dude, are you all right?” Sam asked.
“Yes, I’m good,” Scott said.
“Are you sure? You hit your head hard,” I said.
“No, I’m good.”
“We should go to the hospital,” Sam and I insisted.
“I want to keep going,” Scott said.
“What?!” we exclaimed.
“That’s crazy, we’ll drive you down,” Sam said.
“You’re pretty beat up, you don’t want to fall again,” I said.
“No, I’m going to finish,” Scott decided.
Despite Scott’s injuries, a smashed face and road rash all over his body, he ran down the slope for his longboard. Finding it, he returned to the road. Sam and I asked him if this was what he wanted to do. He was set on finishing. We got back in the car. I continued to snap photos and Scott rode down the rest of the pass into Saint Mary. I couldn’t believe it, he had a concussion, cut’s all over, but he finished longboarding that mountain.
After the epic crash we witnessed, we got Scott into the car and drove back to the campground. He cleaned up his wounds. A couple of oversized and unknown pills from a local and Scott was feeling a little less like roadkill. Nobody felt like starting out for more first descents of any kind after that day. Thankful we could walk away with our lives, we did.
Later that year, Sam got me a token of appreciation for roping him out of that cave. It was a picture of a waterfall, not the one he nearly died in, but one we’d ran together earlier that year. I still have it hanging on my wall.