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Old 06-12-2006   #1
Caspian's Avatar
Englewood, Colorado
Paddling Since: 1978
Join Date: Oct 2003
Posts: 882
Death on Westwater yesterday

A woman died in Westwater Canyon yesterday after a flip and long swim. I don't know all the details, but below is what I know from someone who was involved in at the ramp. I've tried to describe the river a little for those who may not know it.

A party of four set out from the ranger station in two rafts. The first was a 16 or 18 foot Achilles with a husband and wife and passenger who had a lot of experience on this river. The husband was at the helm and was returning from many years of not rowing. The second raft was the BLM shorty Sotar from the station, rowed by the summer intern at the ranger station. I don't know if the husband rowing the Achilles had done WW previously as an oarsman or passenger. The intern had several runs down the canyon as a passenger and had worked on his rowing skills in the easier sections. This was his first time down rowing the big rapids himself.

The river started at 13,500 cfs and dropped to 12,000 cfs over the course of the day. Although the river has been run much higher, this is considered high water. In the teens, the middle of WW becomes very continuous big water class IV. The rapids are still fun for hardboaters, but become more serious for rafters, as the flip potential is substantially increased. The eddylines are very forceful at these levels.

The party launched in the afternoon, entered the canyon proper and ran down through Staircase. After Staircase, the river bends left and there are a couple of holes on river right that are just rock piles at normal levels. The Achilles went into one of the holes and was pushed towards a the second, bigger hole. This hole flipped the raft completely. The intern rowing the Sotar took off after the swimmers immediately. The passenger on the Achilles self-rescued and got out of the water just above Funnel Falls. When the intern reached him, he told the intern he was ok and to go after the husband and wife. The intern quickly moved downstream, stopping only at Skull to see if there were swimmers in the Room of Doom, but there were none. He moved downstream and rescued the husband just above Last Chance. The two proceeded downstream looking for the wife and found her floating face-down above the Bald Eagle campsite, roughly five miles from the site of the flip. They immediately began CPR and continued for 45 minutes, attempting to revive her. She never recovered. Shortly after 6pm, a BLM ranger launched to get the passenger who was stranded above Funnel and joined the rest of the party at the ramp.

The cause of death is not determined yet, but it would appear to be a flush drowning. The woman would have swam many large rapids and it is quite possible she went into the hole at Surprise, which is huge at this level, and/or that she was carried into the eddyline turbulence on the left side of the Rock of Shock at Skull, both of which are very dangerous. That is all I know at this time.

The actions of the BLM intern deserve some recognition here, as he safely navigated the canyon for the first time under terrible pressure and at a difficult level, knowing that a life could depend on his repsonse. The passenger wisely waved off the intern from rescuing him, giving precious time to the intern. Although it did not make a difference yesterday, on another day, it may well have done so, and this was a wise decision. The intern and husband worked for 45 minutes to revive the victim, until hope was completely gone.

I offer my condolences to everyone involved, especially to the family and friends of the woman. This is a tragic, sad event. We all know that this kind of thing can happen on any river that we run, but it never makes the loss any less or the pain more bearable. May she rest in peace.

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Old 06-12-2006   #2
no tengo
mania's Avatar
Baytopia, Colorado
Paddling Since: 1876
Join Date: Oct 2003
Posts: 1,768
thats a sad story. thanks for the post. my condolences as well.

most drownings nowadays are flush drownings - much more so than foot entrapments for example. if swimming agressively to shore were emphasised as much or more than keeping your feet up this might make a difference. its time we preach this message far and wide. not trying to cast blame here but i see it way too often. tell your peeps to SWIM!

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Old 06-12-2006   #3
Join Date: Apr 2005
Posts: 58

I don't know what would have made the differece here. Having taken my own little swim last year, I have to second mania -- tell your peeps to swim!

Again, it's tough, and I don't want to judge.
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Old 06-15-2006   #4
Aspen, Colorado
Paddling Since: 1996
Join Date: Apr 2004
Posts: 103
My condolences to her family and friends. Does anyone have any more information on this? I am just concerned as I run this stretch alot. I know the highest I have run is 10,000 and that was enough to scare me. I am guessing at 12,000 it would be pretty hard to get out if you were swimming.
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Old 06-15-2006   #5
Join Date: Jul 2005
Posts: 25
BLM in Moab confirmed a Westwater drowning Sunday, Grand County Sheriff's office released a press release Monday, mainstream media has yet to pick up on it as far as I know (been tracking it all week). Condolences to all involved.
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Old 06-15-2006   #6
Join Date: Oct 2005
Posts: 56
Face Down???

Anybody know the PFD situation? Was it on correctly/size?
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Old 06-15-2006   #7
Paddling Since: 1977
Join Date: Jun 2006
Posts: 5
Hi all!!
I'm Kelvin White and it was my boat that flipped Sunday in WW.

First Thank You to Caspian for sharing the story. He was very accurate and had a good source for his information. I will share my story as I posted in on another bulletin board, below.

In answer to a question here, yes Bob had driven rafts for 5-6 years, but had been around 20 years ago. He had been to WW just once, 26 years back. I've been boating for 29 years.

I can't agree any more with the response I've seen on this forum. In big water, swim for your life to the shore. If there's a rope, great. I fear we experienced people think of too many scenerios for the newbie to absorb when faced with swimming in Class IV big water.

I also agree with Caspian that enough can be said for the work of the BLM intern. I've seen him in a couple of situations now. He's a man ahead of his years and experience!!

Here's the article I'd written up yesterday before finding this forum and Caspian's post. I 've shared more on the Yahoo Groups Utahrafters site.
* * ** *
I invited an old friend and his wife to join me to float Westwater Sunday. Bob & Kathy. Bob is an old friend and rafting buddy from the era 20+ years ago. We were joined by another boat with a solo boatman. I let Bob row from the put-in until the “real” rapids – Funnel down. Well, just 75 yards from where we were to switch drivers, we flipped.

I’ve never been real sure just where Staircase and Big Hummer are, but am told the spot is at the foot of Staircase where the river doglegs left. Then there’s the smooth stretch for 150 yds. into the corner above Funnel. There’s a strong eddy on river right that manifests itself in various forms as it joins back to the main current. At different water levels there might be a surfing wave there, the rock that forms a hole at higher water exposes itself by mid summer. I’ve had a tube sucked down, hard, there before. I remember looking at it thinking it was a real strong tidy bowl. Bob tells me I said “square up” just before we hit it. It caught the front corner of my Hyside 16 SB and we went over quick. My first reaction was to see if we could “swim” the boat to the right, into the eddy. That wasn’t going to work. Then I thought maybe if I spooled out the throw rope, I could swim to calmer water and swing in the boat. We all directed our effort that way. I was fighting my jacket slipping up in my face, putting too much effort into keeping it down, when the initial waves above Funnel started coming in rapid succession. I’m not sure when I let go of the throw rope or where I was from the boat when I knew I had to get to shore. I also had an advantage over my guests as I knew how close I had to be getting to Funnel. The other boat with us, a small cat 13-14’, with just the boatman tried to pick me up, but I wasn’t ready to risk not getting on his boat and knew I would swim Funnel. I told him to go on.

Bob & Kathy stayed with the boat thinking that was the better option. I wonder if they could hold on through Funnel. Bob said they stayed close together for what sounds like near, but above Skull. They floated apart and back together once. The second time they came back together, her speech was garbled. I’m thinking this was just below Skull. Bob evidently got ahead of her somewhere below Skull and got out between Sock and Last Chance. Kathy floated by him there, but she did not respond to his shouts. Our other boat picked him up there, above Last Chance. They found Kathy, probably 20 minutes later at the upper end of the bar that has Bald Eagle at the lower end and tried CPR for 45 minutes with no response.

When word got back up to the put in, BLM personnel came and fetched me. The take out was full of emergency personnel. I’m not sure when I’ve felt as surrounded by patient, compassionate, caring people. From the Grand County sheriff, ambulance, the volunteer grief counselors and definitely the BLM guys. They made the best of a rotten situation.

That’s the story. I’ll start another thread with some other thoughts. Bob nor myself are taking any could’ve, would’ve, should’ves. We’re not taking any finger pointing. I am committed to refreshing the things I’ve learned over all my years on the river, so we don’t forget them. Please look at how you plan and organize your trips, particularly the one’s that might become more routine over the years. It can happen when and where you least expect it.
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Old 06-15-2006   #8
Paddling Since: 1977
Join Date: Jun 2006
Posts: 5
Re: Face Down???

Originally Posted by Remoteproductions
Anybody know the PFD situation? Was it on correctly/size?
From talking to the victim's husband, she was floating pretty much vertically in the water with her head "nodding" forward, but not under water. We had "fitted" a America's Cup Type V, but as we know, once they're wet, they can be more slippery than we hope.
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Old 06-15-2006   #9
Arvada, Colorado
Paddling Since: 1999
Join Date: Oct 2003
Posts: 84
What are the water temps in westwater this time of year? Below 50 degrees?

I've only been there in the late summer...
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Old 06-15-2006   #10
Paddling Since: 1977
Join Date: Jun 2006
Posts: 5
Originally Posted by andy
What are the water temps in westwater this time of year? Below 50 degrees?

I've only been there in the late summer...

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