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RIVER TRAVELS:This blog talks about my travels around the world, as a passionate nomad kayaker and as a river guide.
VIAJES POR RÍOS: Este blog habla de mis viajes por el mundo como kayakista y guía de ríos apasionado y nómada.

2018/02/22

Search and recovery in the Abanico + Upano River (Ecuador)

            Link al artículo en @espanol



In this post I want to share part of what I lived during 5 days of search and recovery tasks in the Abanico and Upano rivers, around the town of Macas in Ecuador.

On January 20, 2018, 5 expert kayakers enter the river with the aim of doing the first descent of the Abanico River:
Jeremy Bisson (USA)
Joaquín Meneses (Ecuador)
Alex McGourty (Ireland)
David Higgins (Ireland / USA)
Adam Vaughan (England)

They planned a day of walking with the kayaks and 2 days to descend some 14km of the Abanico river never before kayaked, to the Abanico dam, some 7-8km before the confluence with the Upano river. They had to walk more than expected, 2 days 8 hours each day. It was raining. On the third day they entered the river and it was very high in flow. The first 10-12 km were maneageable and with the flood they did it in a very short time, one or two hours. But that caught more steep, and probably continued to rise, and that river became an uncontrollable beast. Joaquin Meneses told me about it and showed me the images of his gopro: in a flood and fast, waves that appeared and exploded full of energy, difficult to stand on the shore.

2 km before the finish point at the dam Alex is swimming, fast in the flooded and uncontrolled river, and each one is saving his skin. Jeremy gets to stop on the right bank, sees the others pass by and shouts to stop. He does not see them anymore. He walked 6 hours through the jungle and reached the road.
Apart at the dam they see 2 bodies pass near their kayaks. They close the dam and caught the third body and near his kayak. The alarm is given. The drowned body found is from Alex McGourty. According to the images from the dam camera, the other two bodies that have passed are David and Adam. Nothing is known about Joaquín.

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Next day of the incident I came back to Tena from kayaking the Hollín River in 2 days, and upon returning to Tena Joni informed us about the incident. I spoke on the phone with my friend Lucho Granizo who was in Baños. Just think that Joaquin Meneses could be alive and in need of help ... I can not rest much in the hammock of the Oso Perezoso Hostel in Tena-Ecuador and on the morning of the 22nd I told to the other kayakers that I am going out in search of Joaquín in Macas. Joni asks if she could come with me, of course! and at the moment more people: Arnaud, Cayen, Karen and Lieselot. We are about 5 hours from Macas. Lucho is on his way to Macas from Baños with Llullo, Ismael and Yilver. "Pilas!"

That same day, Joaquín appears, kayaking the Abanico river towards the dam. 2 days before in the incident he managed to stop in the left bank and took out. He looked for the companions but what he found was a hut. He decided to put his hammock and wait for the river to calm. And so he spent two days almost fasting, the level went down a lot, he kayaked down and almost in the dam the searchers helped him out.


A few hours later the kayakers and rafters recovered the body and kayak of David Higgins and disembark on the bridge over the Upano River in the town of Macas.

The country's rescue teams have been launched. There are drowned foreigners, the Meneses family are known in Ecuador and the incident has been in the news.

The representatives of the different groups that participated in the search met in the emergency center ECU911 in Macas.

Police, army, helicopter pilots, firemen (from Quito, Macas-Morona, Tena, ..) and kayakers + rafting guides.


The person that directs and coordinates all the groups through their representatives is the Incident Commander.

Lucho Granizo and I joined the Quito firefighter water brigade, who have all the logistics, equipment and personnel but lack the knowledge and skills to guide a raft or kayak.
In search tasks by land will be several tens of people.

In tasks for the whitewater we will participate almost 40 people divided into 2 groups to search in two sections of the Upano River.
- Group 1: from the confluence of the Abanico down the Upano river. There is no access by vehicle and it will be reached by helicopter. This section is more serious and unknown. This is for us.
- Group 2: The commercial rafting section of the Upano river ending at the Macas bridge.

Our base camp where we will sleep and leave every morning will be at the firefighters of Macas and the pavilion next door.



The two helicopters. The blue of the police and the ¨moskito¨ of the army. One of the pilots gives us the safety talk.


The "moskito" will transport 2 rafts and 4 kayaks in 2 trips. The blue passengers.

Below left Manuel Landi, the local guide who will guide a raft (the other raft will be guided by Lucho Granizo). We follow the 4 kayakers: Eneko Yarza, Yilver Ordoñez, Ismael Alvarez, and "Llullo" Edwin Caza.

The helicopters bring us to the confluence of the Abanico River with the Upano River. The Abanico River is in front, which had never been navigated before the incident 3 days ago. Now we are looking for the most than probable drowned body of Adam Vaugham, a smiling young man of 22 years old whom I met in the whitewater channel of Cardiff (Wales-UK) where he worked and I was on my way to be a Rescue 3 instructor.


The Upano river from the confluence with the Abanico started quiet, and although it was high water level the previous days was quite higher, flood, and the banks were eroded with hanging trees. We went looking and searching in each channel or arm of the river, each beach and shore. A long time after the whitewater was animated, almost too much!

And Manuel's raft with the Quito firefighters flipped, with some hits all went out to the shore.

That was big and continuous, and we had to concentrate on our lines and take care of ourselves.

Without forgetting that our mission was the search. We are about 20km below the incident 3 days later, when the water had to reach these trunks.
We will look between the trunks ..

Rescuing a swimmer firefighter.

We forgot that we were searching and now we are on a whitewater expedition. Lucho is directing the rafters and I the kayakers. This is serious and continuous. We know what we do, we communicate very well, and we are 100% as rafting guides and safety kayakers.

20 days ago I taught a safety kayaker course and Edwin Caza got the IRF 4 Advanced Safety Kayaker certification, and Lucho too. Lucho Granizo brings his personal talents and it has been a pleasure to have him as a student in 3 courses. 6 years ago he was a young aquatic; Now he has obtained the IRF 4 Advanced Raft Guide certification and is a great human.

We are in a section that none of us know. I go first to warn the line to the others, when a big hole appeared and wanted to eat me! luckily I flew it .. puff!

The others managed to stop in their last option and carried the rafts.

Rescuers do not want to be victims.

With all the adrenaline we ate late the "combat lunch". We have paddled and searched for hours and at sunset we reach the Macas bridge. It has been a long day. A mission from early morning to late afternoon.

At night there is a meeting with the commander for new reports and decide plans for tomorrow. Adam's kayak has been sighted from the helicopter on the Abanico river on the right bank; by land they reach the left bank but they can not cross the river to the kayak. Lucho and I volunteer to navigate the last kilometres of the Abanico river in kayaks from below the dam to the confluence with Upano. Assumed class 5 first descent. Search for Adam's body, get to his kayak, give it to those on land and they to the helicopter, and Lucho and I keep looking until the confluence. About 7 km in total. The helicopter will pick us up, take us to Macas so that we can go from kayaking to rafting guiding the firefighters of Quito to continue searching in the Upano river from Macas down. That is the plan for tomorrow.

The firefighters of Quito will sleep organized in their macro-tents, and the kayakers are with hammocks.

In the morning we all meet at the base of the Macas Police.

The group of land that will walk to the river bank and receive the kayak warm up muscles to start the vehicle of the army.

Another truck takes Lucho and me under the Abanico dam. We are on mission. At the Quijos River Festival we both were evaluating if we participate in the first descent of the Abanico River with the other kayakers, and 11 days later here we are in the Abanico mission: "search and recovery in exploration".




We look where to enter after the dam and decided to enter below this first strait.

The day of the incident the water level was much higher.

We go down the rapids and we arrived where Adam´s kayak is. The ground ones are in their positions and the helicopter waits its turn.


The kayak has a large hole in the bow. There are the bags with the expedition material. Also the spare paddle and the normal paddle broken in two. But Adam's body is not here.

We send the kayak to the other shore and put the bags in our kayaks.






It was not easy to cross the current with the chopper of the helicopter.

Good teamwork ground group. Now Lucho and I are going downstream alone looking for and discarding the section.

Scouting to choose the line. This is very interesting.




We are choosing the conservative line or "chicken line", and continue searching in exploration.



We have reached the confluence of the Abanico with Upano, part of the mission accomplished.

Now radio for the helicopter to come and pick us up. While we wait we will eat, "combat meal".




The pilot asks us about kayaks and I about how his helicopter is piloted.


In the morning we looked at the Abanico river, yesterday the Upano river from the confluence to Macas about 40 km, and now in the afternoon we will continue looking at the Upano from Macas downstream.



Lucho and I will guide the two rafts for the Quito firefighters.

A few days ago the water was flowing through the stone beaches. We try to make a search more effective standing.


In the kayak goes the young Colombian Yilver Ordoñez. When 12 days ago at the Quijos Fest we talked about coming to the Abanico expedition, Yilver decided to come. He came to Macas with the other kayakers but as the expedition was delayed for a few days Yilver left to Baños and just was not in the incident. Thanks to life..



And we keep searching. A few days have passed and where we see "gallinazo" birds we stop to look. Another day is over and we have not found Adam's body. Tomorrow we will start the search on the Upano river where we have finished today.


Where can a body be dragged by the water in an flooded river? and we continued searching where the trunks and sticks were, in the closed eddys, in caves, where we saw birds, etc.






We have not found what you were looking for. We returned to Macas in the fire truck and told us the decision of the Incident Commander: The organized search operation has come to an end. The different groups and people had been leaving in previous days, and the last ones that were left are picking up on Friday, January 26 at sunset.


The next day, 7 days after the incident, Adam's body was found by Indians a few kilometers below our last section of the Upano River searched, maybe 100 km downstream of the incident. That same day Jeremy Bisson, walking with the help of Lucho, retrieves his kayak he had left on the bank of the Abanico River at the time of the incident a week ago.

Now the search week is over.

Have been recovered the 3 drowned bodies (Alex McGourty, David Higgins, Adam Vaughan), their kayaks and material.  
2 survivors of the expedition: Jeremy Bisson and Joaquín Meneses.
The first days between volunteers and workers were about 80 people in the operation.
I personally descent with Lucho about 100 km in a row from near the HidroAbanico dam down the Abanico and Upano rivers.


Thank all the people that were involved.

Those who accompanied me in the begining from Tena. Arnaud Tremblay and those in the photo: Karen Marley, Lieselot Vanhevel, Cayen Tremblay, Joni Randal.

Abby Dent for her involvement and coordination and other tasks.

The kayakers of Baños: Lucho Granizo, Edwin Caza "Llullo", Ismael Alvarez. With the colombian Yilver Ordoñez.
Manuel Landi, guide from Macas.

Thanks to all the volunteers and the rescue workers: firemen, police and army.

My Congratulations to Jeremy Bisson and Joaquin Meneses because they are still alive. Thanks to life.

The path is not always easy.

A few days later Adam Vaughan's parents came from England to Ecuador on an express route and wanted to meet us. Between tears of sadness and smiles for the good memories they thanked us for the effort offered in the search for their son, and they went forward united in their path of assimilation.

Best wishes for all the people who will feel the absence of their loved ones.


Photo taken exactly one week before the incident. It is the photo of those who made the podium in the kayak race of the Quijos Fest.
From left to right: Joni Randall (rescuer), Jeremy Bisson (survivor), David Higgins (drowned), Santiago, Karen Marley (rescuer), Joaquín Meneses (survivor), Rodrigo, Lucho Granizo (rescuer), Eneko Yarza (rescuer) .



And the big wheel keeps turning.
The water continues to flow through the rivers.
The sun continues to give light.

Maybe the goal of life is simply to live and accumulate experiences ...

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful reading, well done to you all in the recovery operations and telling of this tale. May they each rest peacefully. It is quite a spectacular thing to see recreational kayaking involved legitimately in a search and rescue operation. That would be quite unheard of, say, here in Australia.

    Jared T

    ReplyDelete