What Can Happen When The First Boat into Hance Rapid Flips
The following is a recounting of a Grand Canyon river trip in which Mary Kelley drowned in Hance Rapid. Mary, a very well-known and well-liked Grand Canyon river runner, wife, mother, and friend to many living in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, died at Hance on March 24, 2022. This write up is intended to educate river runners about what can happen on a river trip when the lead boat flips at the very top of Hance Rapid. I am grateful to Mary’s husband Randy for his willingness to recount these events, review/edit this document, and allow its distribution as a teachable tool for future river runners.
Mary and her husband Randy spent over 40 years whitewater rafting. Randy worked as a commercial river guide for six seasons on the Upper Colorado, Westwater, Desolation Gray, and the Arkansas. In the late 1980s they started doing do-it-yourself river trips with friends and their two boys, Ryan and David. They ran the Grand Canyon, Selway, the Middle Fork/Main Salmon, and other rivers. Mary had four prior rafting trips through the Grand Canyon, two less than Randy. In all their decades of river running, Randy had yet to flip a raft. Mary, 63, and Randy, 68, were in age-appropriate good health.
Their March, 2022 river trip was going well. The group of 16 people with seven boats camped two nights at Rattlesnake Camp and hiked to The Tabernacle on March 23. Mary stayed in camp with a headache. On the 24th she felt good. With no planned Phantom Ranch Exchange, the group intended to run to a camp below Horn Creek Rapid.
They arrived at the right-side Hance Rapid scout pull-in about 11:00 am and scouted on the right. Randy, as trip leader, was running lead boat, and pulled-in to shore close to the top of the rapid. During the scout, the plan was to pull hard right to left in a downstream ferry, passing above Emilio’s Hole and entering left of the hole to start the classic “Duck Pond” run. Emilio’s Hole is named for Emilio Solares who drowned there November 15, 1994.
As Randy pulled away from shore, he delayed his intended run by a few seconds prior to the start of his downstream ferry left. When the hole came into view, he saw too late that he would not achieve his intended entrance. The boat dropped sideways into Emilio’s Hole and flipped, throwing him and his passenger, Mary, into the river.
While their 18-foot rental raft stayed upside down in the hole, Mary and Randy were flushed out from under the raft and began to swim Hance Rapid. Both were wearing helmets, fully buckled/zipped PFD’s, splash jackets and pants with polypropylene underlayers and river shoes. Mary was wearing a PFD purchased new for the trip.
The next boat was not far behind Randy’s and saw no swimmers so attempted to eddy out in the Duck Pond. The third boat, not far behind the second, was rowed by Mary and Randy’s son David. He spotted a helmet downstream and gave pursuit.
Randy recounted that by the time he cleared the large holes at the bottom of the rapid, he was panting hard. He made eye contact with Mary and shouted to her to get ready for Son of Hance. Mary was being taken by the river slowly to river right, Randy to river left. In Son of Hance, Randy recalled he was at least 5 seconds underwater in an eddy fence whirlpool. At the bottom of Son-of-Hance and still gasping for breath, Randy saw Mary floating face down in the water about 40 feet away as David closed in on Randy. David’s passenger reached out, grabbed Randy’s jacket and pulled him in the boat as David changed course and now headed for Mary. David quickly pulled Mary out of the river and up on the raft’s front deck. She was unresponsive. They opened her PFD and his passenger initiated CPR while David worked the boat to a small sandy beach on river right. He then swapped out with the passenger to continue CPR.
Randy’s boat didn’t stay long in Emilio’s Hole and the rest of his group were able to get it to shore on river right. Seeing David pull the two swimmers into his boat, they focused their attention on righting the raft without knowing CPR was in progress. At this point a second non-commercial group ran Hance Rapid. When their lead boat finished their run in Son-of-Hance, they immediately assisted by initiating Satellite Phone contact with Grand Canyon National Park Dispatch. Members of the second group also assisted with CPR. A runner was sent upriver to notify the rest of the Kelley party about a medical situation below with enough people to cover it and the upper Kelley group continued working to right Randy’s raft.
When the National Park Service Search and Rescue paramedic arrived by helicopter ninety minutes after the flip, diagnostics showed Mary’s heart registered no electrical signal and she was pronounced deceased. She was covered with a paco pad on the front deck of David’s boat and rowed to Grapevine Camp where the NPS helicopter could land. After saying their goodbyes, Mary was moved to a body bag and transported to the Park helicopter. She and Randy were both flown from the Canyon and Randy was diagnosed with stress (takotsubo) cardiomyopathy.
What are the teachable moments from this tragic incident?
If you scout Hance on river right, park well upriver of the rapid.
If you pull to shore very close to the top of Hance Rapid to scout from river right, consider these options. Either consider going right of Emilio’s Hole OR pull a cross-river ferry against the strong and unexpected right tending flow until you are above the visible rock called the Lighthouse (see photo).
If you find yourself swimming in the river above Son of Hance Rapid with no immediate way to exit the river by watercraft, consider staying in the main flow of the river until you are below the rapid. The whirlpools at the edges of the current are significant.
If your group is divided into two during an emergency situation and it is possible to send an individual to relay information between the two groups, do it.
The Kelley family and trip participants would like to thank the second river trip and the National Park Service for their generous and professional assistance.