"It was just white water everywhere—white water and sharp rocks and I thought, ‘There is no way we are going down this.’”
Thrusting out his paddle, Dan Marshall raced through the raging rapids of the Yampa River in Utah. As he steered between the jagged rocks, the current pushed him downstream through the Cross Mountain Canyon.
Dan, then 24, was working as a whitewater rafting guide for Southwest Outward Bound, which is a nonprofit that provides outdoor educational experiences. He would lead expeditions through the Gates
of Lodore into Dinosaur National Monument, rafting down the Green River between the towering red sandstone cliffs of the Lodore, Whirlpool and Split Mountain canyons. In another course, he would paddle the Yampa River, passing deep sandstone gorges and the ancestral lands of the Núu-agha-tʉvʉ-pʉ̱ (Ute) Native Americans.
Dan said that he really enjoyed the experience and “found that the passengers really responded to the situation in which they were working as a group to overcome the challenges of the river.”
In August of 1975 during a break between two of the expedition courses, one of his co-workers suggested that the whitewater guides raft down an unexplored portion of the Cross Mountain Canyon. Dan and 4 of his other coworkers agreed.
The initial portion of the 2 mile route began with smooth water, which Dan and his friends paddled down with ease.
Then suddenly, the current intensified and the water became churning masses of white waves tumbling over jagged rocks.
“There's about a mile of hell,” Dan said. “I've never seen a river like it before or after.”
In his kayak, Dan pushed ahead of the five other whitewater rafting guides, some of whom followed in kayaks and others, in sportyaks—small inflatable rowboats. As he went around a fairly sharp bend, he tucked behind a minivan sized boulder on the right hand shore to wait for the others to catch up. As his kayak floated in the eddy—a circular movement of water opposing the main current—he peaked downstream and saw the river fall over a rocky ledge into a trashing pool 12 ft below.
“Below the waterfall everything was white,” he said. “There was no blue water; it was just white water everywhere—white water and sharp rocks and I thought, ‘There is no way we are going down this.’”
But before he could shout a warning, one of the sportyaks shot past him and off the waterfall.
“I immediately knew two things,” Dan said. “On the one hand, I was looking at the most dangerous section of river I'd ever seen. If I somehow made it through the waterfall immediately before me, I had a very low chance of surviving the furious white water and jagged rocks below. On the other hand, it was clear that my friend had already gone over the precipice into the maelstrom. If he was going to have any chance of survival he was going to need assistance.”
Dan knew that his co-worker could die if he tipped into the water and got thrashed into the rocks. It was a choice between saving his co-worker or ensuring his own safety.
Since he was in a kayak, which is much sturdier and easier to maneuver than a sportyak, Dan said that he had a much higher chance of staying in it. He hoped to shoot off the waterfall with enough force to clear the most turbulent portion of the whirlpool below.
“I really didn't spend more than 5 seconds thinking about it, but it was an intense 5 seconds,” Dan said. “I just paddled off the top of the waterfall.”
After a moment of free fall, Dan splashed into the pool below. His kayak flipped over and he was upside down. Dan remembers having one thought in his mind: “I gotta breath!”
The current carried him further from the base of the waterfall as he thrust his paddle into the water, trying to push himself upright. His lungs felt like bursting. Thrashing rapids surrounded him. They pushed him downward. He imagined his body pulverized by the rocks.
Frantically, he pushed his arms up, twisted his paddle to do an Eskimo roll and popped up. He took a gulp of air and saw his friend in the river directly ahead of him, holding onto a rock near the shore.
“His body was streaming in the current and his hand was all that was holding him and I knew if he let go, he would probably keep going down the river,” Dan said. “He didn't have the strength to pull himself up against the current.”
Dan paddled to the edge of the river and clamored over the sharp boulders. He grabbed onto his friend’s wrists and pulled his friend, who was barely conscious, onto a big flat rock.
Gradually, Dan’s friend began regaining strength as the sun warmed his body. Within an hour, he was able to walk.
“I was really proud that I had saved him despite the risks,” Dan said. “I think that’s part of humanity to reach out and help somebody.”