I took the hardest head shot of my paddling career a week ago at Second Drop, Lost Paddle, Upper Gauley. Perhaps sharing the story will save others the experience. The flow was 2800, with negligible input from the Meadow. I started from the eddy on the right bank, and ran the common route slightly left of center over the Hawaii 5-0 wave. I drove squarely into the hole at the bottom, hoping to punch it, but it buried me and pushed me over. My helmet instantly hit a rock very hard, wrenching my neck to the right and leaving me slightly stunned. I finally rolled and caught an eddy on the left back. My Kevlar helmet shell was broken, but it did its job. I expect that my neck will be normal in another week, and I’ll be ready to go. There are several things this experience has led me to think about.

I doubt I’ll ever run that line again. I have looked at video of duckies there at very low flows, and there are knife-like shards of rock sticking up. They don’t slow the water the way blunt shapes do. The hole is enormous at 2800. The question is, what else can you do? I watched another group run a far right line, straight down the river. I couldn’t see the middle part of their runs, but they made it look good. Anybody familiar with that line?

My helmet shell absorbed a lot of energy as it broke, tearing the fibers apart. That’s good. The liner was just 3/8-inch minicell. More would have been better. The gouge on the shell shows that if the helmet had slipped across the rock, the lateral force would have been much smaller. There’s a motorcycle helmet coming to market soon that has a rubber outer membrane, separated from the shell by a gel layer. If the helmet skids across the pavement, the membrane slips, so the helmet doesn’t twist. My new helmet (purchased before this incident) is a CNA full-face. It’s got a Kevlar-vinyester resin shell, and a lot of space inside for custom outfitting with minicell strips. So it will have thicker, softer cushioning. Overall, it should give better protection, although it does not address the twisting issue. To my knowledge, no whitewater helmet does.

Some advice if you, or someone you are with, gets hit really hard: The critical danger is intracranial bleeding. Do not take aspirin, which is an anticoagulant. Don’t leave the victim alone. If he/she starts to get worse, it’s time for the emergency room. Immediately. The best advice, of course, is not to get hit in the first place.

David Asbell
October 3, 2010