Sticks And Stones

Word has just filtered in of another broken ankle in a local canyon – Britannia Creek. While I don’t know the details yet on this incident, and certainly don’t wish to point fingers, shame anyone, or assign blame, it does give us another good opportunity to talk a bit about safety.

In the last three seasons, I am aware of at least three fractured ankles (including distal tibia and/or fibula fractures) and a couple of serious soft tissue injuries (sprains) in some of the local favourites (Cypress, Britannia, Box).

Ankle x-ray - broken fibula from Box Creek

Ankle x-ray – broken fibula from Box Creek

I just want to go over a couple of the causes of these incidents, and discuss some food for thought on staying safe.

In one of the incidents, a short jump just after the third rappel in Cypress, I was the first person in the group, and I jumped into deep water.  I knew not to jump or slide close to the pouroff, as there is a rocky outcrop in the way there. Rather than discuss the jump with the next person following, I just jumped, and planned to turn around and point where she needed to go. Unfortunately, she slid down the groove of the watercourse before I could do so, and hit her foot sharply on the rocks below. She sprained her ankle moderately badly, and needed to escape the canyon at her next opportunity.

Two lessons to take from this incident: if leading a group, and familiar with the hazards, discuss them prior to making the leap. Tell those following what they can and can not do, if they are not familiar, before rushing ahead. And, if you are unfamiliar, never assume that doing something other than what the leader has done will be safe. The person familiar with the hazards may have chosen that path for a very specific reason. In fact, if leading a group that is unfamiliar, make that part of your briefing beforehand – and never assume a jump or a slide is safe unless specifically told so.

Another recent injury resulting in ligament damage occurred in Britannia recently. The canyoneer had been through the canyon a number of times, and was very familiar with its intricacies. He was using a brand new rope that was quite slippery, so on the first rappel, down the old dam, he had added extra friction on his rappel device (a Petzl Pirana).

The pool at the bottom of the rap is quite deep in the middle, a couple of meters out from the base of the dam. Normally, when approaching the pool, from say 3 meters up or so, he would spring back from the wall, and drop into that deep part of the pool, letting the rope slide freely through his Pirana. However, with the extra friction setting, the rope did not run freely. Even as he jumped off, he realized his error… He tried to jam the rope through the device as he fell, but not enough slipped through, and rather than dropping into the middle of the pool, the rope caught him partway down, and he swung back in to the base of the dam, and the shallow rock there. He ended up bashing his foot badly, and had to be evacuated from the canyon. X-rays showed nothing, but there was definite ligament damage, and he spent a few weeks on crutches with an air-cast boot.

A good lesson from this: Be aware of how minor changes in equipment, conditions, or abilities can change your standard procedures. Just because you have “always” done something, doesn’t mean that you “always” can.

One other good lesson from all jumping injuries: If you are not completely sure that you can safely complete a jump, then don’t do it! Much better to rappel or walk around, than to risk serious, even catastrophic, injury or death.

I’m sure that as time goes by, and as this sport becomes more popular, there will be more unfortunate accidents and incidents. Let’s try to minimize them, and when they do occur, to learn from them.

Be safe out there!


One thought on “Sticks And Stones

  1. David Rittberg, Captain, Britannia Beach Fire Department

    The rescue and extrication of an injured person engaged in canyoneering in Britannia Creek on Saturday September 19th involved approximately 35 emergency first responders (including Britannia Fire Department, Squamish SAR, BC Ambulance, & RCMP) and ultimately involved a long line helicopter extraction from the canyon.
    We would encourage you all heed the wise words of caution and safety posted above. We’d rather meet you for a coffee after your adventure than rescue you from the canyon.
    BE SAFE!


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