Killer River

A cautionary tale advises riders how to ford rivers, and explains the human body’s response to a cold-water plunge.


Killer RiverEven a river that appears calm can quickly turn deep and dangerous for horses and riders.

A river might be the most lethal obstacle a horseman encounters in the backcountry.

Whether through the danger of drowning or the risk of hypothermia, a frigid mountain stream can truly take your breath away.

Raul Castillo, a gaucho I worked with in Argentina, almost learned that lesson the hard way. We worked together on Estancia del Cielo, a cattle ranch in the Andes Mountains. The headquarters was a three-hour ride into the mountains from the closest road, so one of our jobs was to make weekly supply runs with pack horses. On the return leg of the trip, the last hurdle was to ford the Trocoman River, a sizeable body of water with deep runs, cascading riffles and wide pools that stretched 100 feet across.

It was springtime on the day Raul and his brother Luis were sent on the supply run. While they were gone, unseasonably warm temperatures caused snow to melt in the high country. The brothers returned to find the Trocoman running dangerously high. Though the gauchos couldn’t see the river bottom through the turbid water, they forded along a gravel bar, the contours of which they knew by heart. Or so they thought. Halfway across, Raul was in front when his horse stumbled into a sinkhole where the gravel bar had been blown out by the high water. The current swept them downriver, the horse submerged up to its neck with Raul clinging to its mane.

What happened next is an illustration of how, when fording a river, a sequence of decisions can create a deadly situation. First, Raul and Luis didn’t know how to swim. Second, the brothers had taken the river for granted, thinking of its shape as a fixed entity. And third, a factor that nearly proved fatal for Raul, they both rode with the lead ropes of their pack horses tied fast to their saddles.

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Tags: backcountryRide WestTrail Riding