Hypothermic man pulled from turbulent Vancouver Island waters by rescue expert

A hypothermic man was pulled out of churning frigid waters between the waterfalls at Little Qualicum Falls Park on Vancouver Island in a high-risk rescue by a local search and rescue team.

Nick Rivers, a swift-water-rescue technician and manager with Arrowsmith Search and Rescue, was lowered by rope into the turbulent waters, where he lunged to grab the man, holding on until they were pulled up a cliff to safety.

Rivers moved quickly to catch the man, who ended up in the river just 4.5 metres above the lower waterfall.

“The forces on us were absolutely incredible,” Rivers said Sunday. “To be honest with you, I don’t know exactly how I was able to hang onto him for as long as I did. It was definitely not easy. I’m very sore today.”

The team was called on Saturday afternoon.

“We found the individual straddling a log in the middle of the river. So a very precarious position.”

That’s when Rivers attached his ropes and was lowered 26 metres from a cliff into the water.

“We know that he is going to be quite cold, so we wanted to move urgently.”

The plan was to put a harness on the man, but Rivers said he couldn’t get onto a nearby log that would have put him in the proper position.

“But I couldn’t pull myself up,” he said. “The current was much too strong.”

Instead, he said, he came from below the man.

“I got up to the log and then he lost his grip and got knocked off the log,” Rivers said.

“At that point, he was headed to the waterfall, so I jumped after him and just grabbed a hold of him. “I just physically held him until they could pull us in with the rope system.”

The two were pounded by the rough water.

“There were a few times I was underwater for longer than I would have liked.”

Rivers held onto the man until the pair were pulled to the side of the river. At that point, the harness went on and the two were hauled up together.

Rivers laughed when he said the rescue felt like it took a couple of hours, but he estimated it probably only took 25 minutes.

In a video posted on social media, the man, who Rivers said appeared to be in his 30s, was slumped over at the end of a partly submerged log.

“He appeared to be so hypothermic that he pretty much had no strength left,” he said. “Pretty much couldn’t talk anymore.”

The man was put on a stretcher and taken away by an ambulance.

Rivers, 28, has been in search and rescue for a decade. He is also a ground-search team leader, is trained in rope rescue and serves on the Arrowsmith SAR executive.

“In terms of water involvement, this is definitely the most challenging and technical for sure, probably one of the more riskier tasks,” he said.

Ropes are not typically attached during water rescues. But because the ropes were vertical, rather than horizontal, “we were able to keep the rope on me so I couldn’t go over the falls.”

The team trains a lot and is prepared for the environment, Rivers said. This year, the volunteer team trained for almost 5,000 hours. That’s down from the usual 6,500 hours because of COVID-19, he said.

“It is scary,” he said of Saturday’s rescue. “It is not exactly a theme park. It’s real life and you are physically holding onto somebody and mustering every amount of energy.

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