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I was swept away crossing a river on the Pacific Crest Trail

Have you seen our extensive advice about stream crossing safety for hikers and backpackers?

By Charles Williams

In 2016 I hiked the California section of the PCT. This trip brought me to the Southern Sierra in the month of June. As in many years, there was significant runoff from snowmelt on the high alpine slopes. Traversing this section of trail many times gave me the confidence to tackle river crossings that would have otherwise given pause. I was surprised by conditions I should have been more prepared for. These conditions led to a dangerous incident that had the potential to end my trip, or considerably worse: death by drowning.

Charles Williams in the Sierra Nevada.

By myself in the Sierra Nevada with raging rivers

I had camped for the night with three friends I’d started hiking with in Southern California. All were stronger hikers and most mornings they got up earlier and left camp before I did. I caught up with them each evening and I enjoyed camping with them. That evening we were camped near Dollar Lake.

Dee had told me that night that if I didn’t want to keep up with them in the High Sierra I didn’t have to.  If I didn’t show up one evening, they’d know I chose to go slower. I had no intention of letting my friends hike ahead and leave me behind. I wanted to keep up.

The next day I came to the South Fork of the Kings River. I was alone. After an all-too-quick summary of where the trail crossed the river, I knew it was too fast and deep for me to ford at that location. I moved downstream, hastily finding a place a bit below the trail crossing where the river was broken into three manageable stretches separated by islands. I thought it would be better to do the shorter crossings than crossing the entire stream one at a time. I didn’t check upstream and I didn’t look any further downstream.

I crossed the first section easily, and the second went just as quickly. I walked up and down the second island looking for the best place to cross and started out. I had one Whippet (a self-arrest trekking pole).  After jumping into the water I started across the river. I lost my footing for a moment and I found myself stalled in the middle of the deepest and fastest part of the stream.

Underwater and unable to breathe crossing a river on the Pacific Crest Trail

As I tried to get better footing the river current swept my feet from underneath me and I immediately fell, face down, into the river. I was immediately hit with a wave of cold from the water that had been ice merely hours before. I was swept downstream with my pack on. I was underwater and couldn’t breathe. I tried unsuccessfully to get a toehold on the river bottom so I could get up on my feet.

I realized I was in a very serious situation. No one knew where I was. I had no idea what was downstream. Was there a log or a pile of logs and rocks below me that I could get caught up in?  Was my gear and my sleeping bag wet? Was I even going to be able to get out of this?

I thought about my Mom and I can remember wondering how long it had been since I told her I loved her. I remembered the story of a ranger I’d met years earlier of hiking up and down the river canyons while doing a “sweep” looking for missing people and I wondered if that would be my fate?

I was being held down by the weight of my pack. I was being beat up by the rocks on the bottom of the river as I was being dragged downstream. Then my leg got caught between a couple large rocks. The river flipped me around so my head was now downstream with one of my feet hung up.

Fighting for my life in Kings Canyon National Park

I was a scuba diver for years and so I tried not to panic. I knew I could still function for a bit without a breath. But that same experience that kept me calm told me that fighting the force of a raging current, whether in the ocean or a mountain river, is not easy. After what seemed like an eternity, my foot came free. Then the river turned and the current slowed. I was pushed to the slower, far side of the bank. I fought to turn over on my back and felt the buoyancy of my backpack, now underneath me.  After my first breath, I looked up as I crossed under the branches of a bush on the bank of the river and grabbed one.  I was able to work my way, hand over hand, up the limb to the edge of the river. I climbed up the bank.

I was stranded in a deep-walled canyon in the late afternoon. I was completely wet and the clothes on the outside of my pack were sopped. The sun soon would disappear for the night. Walking upstream on the far side of the river brought me to the original trail crossing and a campsite on the riverbank. There was a hiker there who must have gotten quite a sight. I was bleeding from my hands, arms, and legs, as well as dripping water and more than a little stunned.

After a quick check, I laid my things out to dry. My sleeping bag was dry. So was my down jacket. I tried to lay my wet clothes out in a patch of sun but it went away quickly. So I packed up and headed up the canyon.  I’d lost my sun hat and sunglasses. My stocking cap was gone and my sleeping quilt doesn’t have a hood. One water bottle was gone and my phone (navigation, clock, and camera) was dead. My paper maps were wet.

The mistakes I made.

I thought as I hiked, trying to develop some body heat, about the mistakes that led to this and I realized I hadn’t made very good choices. Leaving the trail to cross a river where no one knew where I was rated high on the list of bad decisions.  So did not thoroughly checking for better crossings in both directions from the trail crossing. I should have scouted downstream for what I would encounter in the river if the crossing went bad. Not packing some clothing articles in my pack or a stuff sack wasn’t the best solution and I should have secured the other equipment. I regretted leaving my sunglasses on my hat for the crossing. I was in the middle of the Southern Sierra in June with quite a bit of snow and no sunglasses.  Snow blindness felt imminent.

As I finish writing this article, I have had a couple years to think about this incident. Last summer, a hiker died in this same river crossing.  As hikers we think a lot about the snow in the Sierra. To those who don’t ski or live in a northern climate, snow seems menacing. But I often wonder if it is not the river crossings that pose the most danger. There are no ice axes or self-arrest poles to “save” us if we fall in a river. The only things that can help us if a crossing goes bad are the decisions and preparation we make before we cross.

Take the time to pack the clothes hanging on the back of your pack.  Secure the loose clothing, maps, phone, glasses, and other incidentals. They can be more important than you think when you are forced to go on without them. Unclip the buckles on your pack at both waist and chest so you can easily dump it if you fall in or are swept away.

Spend a little extra time searching for the best places to cross, both upstream and down. Have a plan for where you can get out if you are swept downstream. When the water is freezing and you are fully submerged, when you are in a panic with no plan for what’s coming next, your preparation should give you confidence.

Now is a great time to build your backcountry know-how. Head on over to our extensive safety advice on how to cross rivers while hiking or backpacking.

Charles and a massive tree.

Stalwart volunteer and repeat thru-hikers Steve Queen and Charles Williams.

Photo by: Henrik Frederiksen