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Old 12-03-2013   #1
Tom Martin's Avatar
Flagstaff, Arizona
Join Date: Dec 2004
Posts: 818
Grand Canyon River Fatality Review

The following is a write up of the trip in which well-known and well-liked Flagstaff river runner and Grand Canyon hiker Mary Simpson died on September 26, 2013. In the presentation of this write up, in consultation with a number of individuals including Mary’s husband Robert, it is hoped the river community can learn what not to do and what to be aware of on future river trips. Again, I am indebted to Robert Simpson for his most gracious assistance in the review of this tragic incident. Yours, tom


The following is a rough recounting of a river trip in which Mary Simpson, a very well-known and well-liked Grand Canyon river runner and hiker, died. A large number of events all occurred on this trip, each adding to the other. This write up is intended to educate river runners about what can happen on river trips, and how to manage the rigors of a Grand Canyon river trip.

Twelve people originally planned to go on the trip, and in the end, only seven people went. Two boatmen were in their 60's with a third boatman, Mary's son Kenny, in his 40's. Kenny rowed an 18 ft. raft with Mary and Robert, Mary's husband. Robert had been the expected boatman but a damaged shoulder prevented him from rowing. Rich rowed a large heavy twenty foot Cat by himself and Paul rowed a 14ft raft with his daughter and another passenger, the permit holder. Rich had offered to bring his motor for his Cat, but the permit holder had said they did not want to deal with the noise of the motor on the trip. The older boatman had run the river before. Kenny had little rowing experience.

It was Monsoon season with rain and the river was very muddy. Getting onto-off the beaches at camp was hard due to the mud. On the morning of the second day, the boats were beached in Marble Canyon and were hauled back to the water by a passing commercial trip. Mary had a long history of emphysema, worsening in the last year. She was often cold when on the water, and very tired on reaching camp at the end of the day.

Paul hit the pour-over at the top of Hance. He and the permit holder were ejected from the raft. He swam most all of the rapid finally getting to the right bank. The permit holder was retrieved mid rapid by Kenny. One of the 14 ft. boat's oars was lost. Paul flipped his boat on the right near the foot of Deubendorff Rapid. A commercial motor trip aided in the recovery and righting of the raft. Mary and the permit holder walked around Crystal and Lava.

The day before running 209 Mile Rapid, Kenny had an allergic reaction, resulting in a rapid and complete closure of his airway, possibly due to eating some mixed nuts. Quick thinking Robert retrieved an injectable epinephrine allergic reaction pack from the first aid kit and administered an injection. Kenny recovered. Meanwhile, Rich was having difficulty rowing his boat due to arthritis, with one hand swelling considerably from the rowing. A decision was made to cut the trip short and Satellite calls were made to arrange to have the vehicles at Diamond Creek in two days.

There was a strong up-canyon wind above 209 Mile Rapid, and the group was spread out, led by Paul, then Kenny and finally, Rich. A mile above 209, the wind stopped and Robert took over the oars so Kenny could rest. Robert rowed the boat into 209 Mile, and a gust of wind blew him off course and into the 209 Mile Rapid hole. The boat flipped.

Robert and Kenny were unable to get Mary out of the water onto the overturned boat. There were no flip lines or rescue ladders. Paul saw that the boat was overturned and tried to slow his boat. There were no eddies so he had to rub his boat on the shore to slow it down. The overturned raft passed him before he could get into the river flow, and he chased the boat against the wind for more minutes. Mary had been it the water for less than 10 minutes when she was pulled out and Paul's daughter began CPR, which continued for 30 minutes.

Lessons learned:

The rapids are not over below Lava. Stay close for safety.

Have a capable rower at the oars in all rapids.

Boats should have a flip line or some sort of rescue ladder to help swimmers get back on an overturned raft in the event of a flip.

Immersion in cold water can be deadly to those with cardiac or respiratory issues. Dress to avoid cardiac or respiratory shock including either dry suits, wet suits or enough layers to limit heat loss.

If you take a person who is very ill on the Colorado in Grand Canyon, even if they are willing to accept a high level of risk, if they die on the trip, the living will have to carry on as best as they can. This is not an easy task.

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Old 12-03-2013   #2
Join Date: Apr 2005
Posts: 111
Sounds like people also need to assess their physical limits and abilities more carefully before taking on such a challenge in their older years and decide if it is worth the risk to themselves and others.

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Old 12-03-2013   #3
mrkyak's Avatar
Join Date: Jul 2005
Posts: 311
So sad...
Every trip leader should require every participant to practice, at least once early in the trip, a reentry on to a raft from the water. Even with ladder, flip line, hanging strap loop or what ever
Your system is, it's harder than you think in moving water that's 52* F.
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Old 12-03-2013   #4
tj@cu's Avatar
Boulder, Colorado
Join Date: Apr 2006
Posts: 983
If she was having trouble climbing on the raft, it is also a possiblity to try and help her to shore.
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Old 12-03-2013   #5
Join Date: Feb 2005
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I was a participant in that trip.

Tom and I have already duked this out on his listserv. As usual, he had a snappy answer to every reason I advanced, for him to have restrained himself for now on this topic. So I'll keep it succinct here.

Prudence would advise against prematurely assembling a version of events that relies on interpolation/extrapolation from a limited range of information. It would be far better to wait for the complete Park investigation, which will rely on official on-river interviews conducted immediately after the incident with all participants, as well as a review of the autopsy and all evidence gathered on the river.


Rich Phillips
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Old 12-03-2013   #6
Tom Martin's Avatar
Flagstaff, Arizona
Join Date: Dec 2004
Posts: 818
Hi Rich, thanks for your post. I certainly apologize for not attempting to interview all the trip participants. As I posted elsewhere, if you would be so kind, when you get that NPS report, please post it here. In the meantime, folks who launch before then will have a lot more data to go on to be safe out there, which was the original intent of the post. All the best, tom
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Old 12-04-2013   #7
Join Date: Feb 2005
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Hi Tom,

My responses to the posts about this incident have been (and will continue to be) restrained, out of respect for the others on the trip, particularly Robert and Kenny. And I've deflected numerous requests by phone and email for details, largely for the same reason.

But my factual restraint also is keyed on the very principle I've been urging -- waiting for a full report. I was there, and I know what I saw -- both the tragic and the heroic. And I know the information we all exchanged during that very grim time on the river after it happened. But I don't have the full picture, and I continue to believe that drawing conclusions at this stage is premature. And as you well know, the highly generalized trip planning article I have on the GCPBA web site gives no reconstructed trip narrative, names no names, and doesn't even mention the fact there was a fatality on the trip.

But now to your most recent post.

No apology required. You know I wasn't going to get involved in any "interview", since I had already essentially conveyed that by my restrained emails shortly after the accident (when I cancelled our planned dinner stimulated by a prior exchange here on the Buzz).

You know I declined your request for me to endorse a theory you advanced barely a week after it happened -- a theory you already had formed on a key aspect of the incident.

You know I told you it would be best to wait for the official report.

Your "Lessons Learned" section points folks back to fundamentals -- that's good. And I have no problem with you or anyone else articulating things that are self-evident, for what that's worth. But from where I sit as someone who was actually there, a nuanced chain of many factors can't be readily reduced to a few bullet points.

We all know that any incident with several participants/observers will result in multiple points of view. Assembling a complete picture is best done by trained investigators with all the facts -- not a third party. If the official report elaborates in useful detail on the broad stroke picture you painted in your story, then that's fine. And no doubt you will claim once again to have scooped the river community with your entrepid reporting.That's your style.

But no, I won't be the one to post the Park report. I have requested a copy for personal closure -- nothing more. I now understand why some people find these internet "inquests" on river deaths to be ghoulish.


Rich Phillips
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Old 12-04-2013   #8
Jenks, Oklahoma
Join Date: Oct 2004
Posts: 1,408
Don't know anything about the referenced accident and this post is not intended to do any thing but discuss the effects of cold water on the Grand Canyon this thread brings to the message board.

I do not think most people who have not done a extended swim in the canyon understand just how fast that water takes away your strength and you pass out.

This is especially true for folks in rafts in the warm months wearing nothing but shorts, tee shirt and PFD.

I was rowing my catboat down Hance. Had a good run and celebrated at the bottom by taking off my dry top, insulation down to tee shirt, shorts and PFD. Hot day and I was rowing. My fault, but I think I drifted in to the Son of Hance hole. Catboat pitch poled me into the water but stayed up right. I hit the water, felt good and after a while caught up to the catboat and grabbed the front crossbar planning to crawl up over the rocket boxes stored there. Some time later I woke up on a friend's catboat, several of my buds working on me and somehow I was clothed in fleece top to bottom. It took a while for my buds to catch up to my raft and get me off the cross bar and into the fleece. Had they not worked fast, things would have been much worse.

First point of this story is I never felt anything, just thought it was a normal swim but totally passed out. Second one is stuff happens and no matter how experienced you and your bud's are, that GC cold water takes you down in minutes.

I am not commenting on the accident. But do want to tell my story and hope it encourages others in the GC to dress for a swim till in totally flat water and stay close to other boats especially in the rapids.
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Old 12-04-2013   #9
Salida, Colorado
Paddling Since: 2008
Join Date: Nov 2013
Posts: 135
I have a grand trip this coming April and it is definitely and older group. The recent threads on this fatality have me thinking a bit different than other Grand trips I have done. We all are young at heart but even with very experienced boaters I think for some getting back in a raft might not be as easy as they remember. What sort of ladders, lines etc. do people suggest to help get someone on top of a flipped raft. My concern is from reading up on this, is that the cold zaps the energy of an older person much faster than a younger one. So if an older experienced boater finds himself in the water a bit to long and is losing energy, what is easiest to get back on top.
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Old 12-04-2013   #10
Join Date: Feb 2005
Posts: 883
Hi Salidaboater,

I own two Netties Bags, but have never bothered to rig them again after I got first one, then a second Rescue Rung.

I've been out of the boat three times in combat situations (most recently Lava several years ago). As big as I am, as old as I am, and as bulky as my Extrasport PFD is, I was back in in less than a minute -- once to the top of an upside down cat. Rigged properly, they will allow you to equally easily get in an upright boat or on the bottom of an upside down boat.

Check this out:

Best price will be found here, noting discount for GCPBA members:!/~/produc...98&id=10392790

Past Buzz discussion here:

Rescue Rung

Hope this helps.

Rich Phillips

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