Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentary: Swimming For Shore

Jun 18, 2019

It's been 150 years since John Wesley Powell made his voyage down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Along the way, he experienced countless hardships, including the loss of crew members, boats and supplies. The river continues to take names of river runners, including commentator Scott Thybony. In his latest Canyon Commentary, Scott recounts a couple of close calls when he was a young guide in training on the Colorado. They left a lasting impression. 

Credit Scott Thybony

My only swim through a rapid happened when I was training as a river guide on the Colorado.  While running 24 ½  Mile Rapid, the trip leader managed to get our motor rig stuck on a rock in the middle of the breaking waves.  Even after we shifted the weight to one side, the 37-foot long boat didn’t budge.  He then turned to me and said, “Grab the bowline and swim for shore.  See if you can pull it off.”

Not knowing any better, I took the rope and jumped into the fast current.  Once on shore I tried pulling from different angles without having any effect.  Suddenly a surge of whitewater lifted the boat enough to free it, and the boatman managed to pull into an eddy and pick me up.  It was all part of getting downriver. 

Later that season I was running the second boat on a two-boat trip, having qualified as a full boatman.  The trip leader was the same guy who had told me to take a swim at 24 ½ Mile.  He entered 209 Mile Rapid, dropping out of sight, and I followed a few minutes later.  Unknown to us the first boat had lost its motor in the middle of the rapid, and the trip leader worked frantically to restart it.  His boat bumped along the left shore until snagging on a partially submerged rock where the strong current spun it around.  The boatman told Cyd Martin, who was working as a swamper, to take the bowline and pull from shore, the same order I’d received earlier in the season.  Climbing out of the boat, Cyd stood on a flat rock with a tangle of rope at her feet.  “It was still fast water,” she remembered.

The Colorado River in Grand Canyon
Credit Scott Thybony

The crew rigged a stern line for the other swamper to work.  By alternating pulls, they tried rocking the boat back and forth.  Suddenly it broke free and shot downstream.  The bowline whipped out.  A coil wrapped around Cyd’s leg, yanking her off her feet and slamming her face-first into the rocks.  It happened in a flash.  She was dragged over a large boulder and fell four-feet down the other side, hitting the rocks with enough force to fracture her jaw in three places and break several teeth.  The rope dragged her into the river, and the boatman drew his Buck knife at that instant and cut it, likely saving her life.  

Rounding a bend in the rapid, I saw someone lying on the rocks and pulled behind the first boat.  I jumped off, telling a young ER doctor onboard he was needed.  Cyd was alert and speaking in a surprisingly calm voice despite the blood and broken bones.  The doctor inspected her facial injuries, and moving lower found where the rope had completely severed a calf muscle.  After he bandaged the wounds and stabilized the broken jaw, we strapped her to the lid of a long box.  Without a satellite phone or radio, we had no outside help to call on.  In those days we had to handle our own emergencies.  Luckily, a Chevy Suburban was scheduled to meet us with extra food at Diamond Creek, seventeen miles below.  We ran a couple of rapids as carefully as possible and found the vehicle waiting.

At the hospital Cyd had her jaw wired and leg sutured before being sent home to recover.  She had healed enough by the end of the season to make another river trip.  The trip leader had taught to me to always carry a sharp knife when working around rope.  After the incident at 209 Mile I followed his advice.  But I never did swim another rapid.