Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Surviving a Waterfall

“At last, fortissimo!”
- composer/conductor Gustav Mahler on visiting Niagara Falls
Here's news you can use if you find yourself going over the edge of a waterfall. Much depends on the height of the falls, landing feet first, tightening body muscles, and dumb luck.

On August 14 a college student posing for a photo was swept from the guardrails at Niagara Falls and plunged over the waterfall. She has not been found. In July three people died at Yosemite Park as one person went too far for a photo and two would-be rescuers were all swept over a waterfall.

The odds of surviving a waterfall are not good.  Niagara is 180 ft tall while the world record for a high dive is 177 ft. For a trained athlete in perfect health, under perfect conditions, 177 ft is about the most a human body can withstand. As diver enters the water, their underwater body parts are at the highest rate of deceleration while the upper body is still dry and at full acceleration. Autopsies of jumpers off the Golden Gate bridge (250 ft) shows that for most, the rib cage was crushed and imploded sending bones into the lungs with the force of impact.

If you fall into the water above the falls, don't try to fight the current. The rapids above Niagara are clocked at 25 mph, and up to 68 mph over the brink. The best you can hope for is swimming towards shore before going over. Or swimming to a rock and hanging on although the force of the water may drag you off.

As you fall take a deep breath. Go feet first to avoid head injury. Tighten your muscles, wrap your arms around your skull to shield it, and cover your nose with the crook of your elbow. Just before you enter the plunge pool, press your legs together, tighten your gluteals (stomach) and close your eyes and mouth to make yourself water tight.

If you manage to fall onto water instead of rocks, and survive the impact, the fight for survival is not over. There's a wall of water falling upon you pushing you back down. There's debris to dodge. There are huge bubbles of air making it tricky to swim and to see. With all the turbulence and bubbles it may not be obvious what direction is up. If you do manage to surface downstream from the falls you must survive one more danger - the water is very likely icy cold. Niagara's waters are in the 30's (Fahrenheit). At that temperature you have only minutes before passing out from hypothermia. With water at 40 F you have 15 - 30 minutes to get dry and warm.

Bottom Line

Waterfalls are beautiful and I especially love Niagara Falls. But they are never safe. NEVER go past guard rails to get a better photo. Do not get close to the water for a better view at the top.

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