MAN DIES IN CULVERT ON CRYSTAL RIVER
Near Marble, Colorado upstream of the Redstone Bridge
Date: June 10, 1990
River Level: Moderate. Classification: IV
DESCRIPTION: The Crystal River is a fast, technical mountain stream providing plenty of class IV action in a very narrow streambed. The group on the river the day of the accident consisted of five advanced to expert boaters: Steven Schaub (the victim), Roger Belson, M.D., Jim Sindelar, and Jim's two college-aged sons Charles and Joel. They had met at the Arkansas two days earlier, and relocated to other rivers due to high water. Arriving at Bogen Flat Campground in the morning, they spent the rest of the day scouting and sightseeing around Marble. Steve and Roger had boated the river a week before at higher water, but none of the rest had seen it before.
Steve Schaub, the victim, was 50 years old, but looked much younger and was in excellent physical condition. He had been kayaking for 25 years with numerous trips to Idaho, Colorado, Newfoundland, and elsewhere. He was an excellent swimmer, very much at home in the water, and he rarely got into trouble. If he swam, he usually rescued himself and his gear faster than others could get to him. He was wearing good equipment, including a farmer john wetsuit, helmet, life jacket, etc. His boat was an aging epoxy Lettman racing kayak. Essentially indestructible, it suffered little damage during the accident.
Sindelar's account begins:
"The morning dawned grey and rainy so the group got a leisurely start, putting in below Marble in the early afternoon with plans to run down to the Redstone Bridge. We looked very carefully beforehand at the two so-called "culverts". Doug Wheat's "Floater's Guide to Colorado" recommends portaging, but they are often run by kayakers. Indeed, Roger Belson had run them on a previous trip. The "culverts" are actually three 12' wide rectangular concrete tunnels which carry the river underneath County Road 314. To an approaching boater, they look like the letter "E" with legs down and the road across the backbone. The concrete dividers are about 10" wide with sharp, square corners. The headroom obviously depends on water level."
"We scouted these "culverts", looking carefully for logs or other obstructions but found all tunnels clean. The first "culvert" was no problem: the current approached in line and there was about 4' of headroom. We had all planned to run it and did so without difficulty. The second was another matter. Here the river, after running along the left side of the road, makes an abrupt 90 degree bend, immediately entering the culvert tunnels. The current was strong and tricky, and headroom was just barely enough for a kayaker if he ducked a little. The currents boiled and surged, with a lot of water going to the outside of the turn. Roger, who had run it before, suggested that the inside tunnel was the best bet because the currents are less turbulent there. I thought it looked nasty and said so, but made no decision until the day we made the run."
"As our group approached the second culvert, the Sindelars decided to portage. Roger, with Steve close behind dropped around the corner towards the "culverts". I carried my boat across the road to see Roger downstream in his boat - he yelled that Steve was stuck. I ran across to the upstream face to see the shadow of Steve's kayak, completely under water by at least 6", wrapped around the divider between the right and center tunnel. The boat had broached, tipped upstream, wrapped just forward of the cockpit, and collapsed on Steve's legs. The bow of the boat was in the tunnel on river right. The stern and Steve's body trailed downstream into the center tunnel. His head was about two feet under water, with the full force of the current hitting him in the chest and face."
"As I approached, Steve raised his right hand, clearing the water surface by about eight inches. This was about six feet below the narrow, sloping shoulder where I was standing. I removed my rescue-belt-cum-carabiner, flopped on to my belly, and with the help of the others who held my legs managed to put the webbing in his hand. Steve got both hands on the webbing and could apply his full strength to it. He could not work clear of the boat or raise his head to breathe. I saw a flash of helmet break the surface just once and speculate that this was when he cleared the one leg that I later learned he worked free. We fought this way for a total of 5-6 minutes, straight pulls, surges. At times it seemed we were gaining, but in retrospect we probably pulled his body towards the surface only to lose ground again. There was no real chance of pulling the boat free or getting Steve's head above the surface to breathe. Once he lost the webbing, but he stuck his hands up again and we started anew."
"After about six minutes the webbing went slack and it was apparent that Steve had lost consciousness. I tied onto a rescue rope, and belayed by others went down over the edge. Bracing on the concrete and the submerged boat I tried blocking the current, pulling on the life jacket, tugging on the loose leg I eventually found, but accomplished nothing. By this time some cars had stopped and someone suggested tying a rope to the loose leg and pulling with a car. This last desperate effort on our part broke the 1/4" rescue rope. At this point, about 15 minutes after the accident, the Carbondale Rescue Unit pulled up. Completely exhausted, I asked to be pulled up to make way for fresh men, including a swiftwater rescue specialist who directed efforts from then on."
"After approximately 45 minutes the Carbondale Rescue Squad freed the kayak. They worked a heavy rope around the bow of his boat using a 20 foot long pole, then maneuvered their truck upstream of the bridge hard against a cliff and set up a double or triple Z-Drag. Boat and boater were released, washing through the tunnel to be recovered by swimmers below. CPR and the best efforts of Glenwood Springs Hospital were to no avail. There was no water in Steve's lungs; after that incredible effort he simply asphyxiated."
SOURCE: Report from Jim Sindelar, marked by quotation marks.
1) The victim, Roger Schaub, was a responsible and careful boater. He had scouted the culvert, was not afraid to portage, and would not have attempted the drop unless he believed himself capable of running it. No one saw the wrap, but Sindelar's best guess is that Schaub spun out in a small eddy on river right. Unable to regain control quickly enough, he broached right in the cockpit area. Had the boat not collapsed he would have swum, maybe lost his boat, considered it a screwup, but nothing more. (JS)
2) The boat was built with a wall in front of the feet, but not between the feet and the front of the cockpit. It clearly was not enough for this strong a broach, which was actually behind the wall and ahead of the seat. Modern boats are typically made with full walls. Schaub's wetsuit-encased legs made the fit tighter and rescue more difficult. (JS) A larger cockpit might have possibly made a difference, but this cannot be guaranteed. (CW)
3) It is hard to imagine a quicker response to this pinning. Help was on hand instantly, contact was made, and the rescuers kept trying new approaches and did not give up until exhausted. In the light of living room hindsight, it seems that this situation was made to order for a tag line. The river was narrow, the bridge provided quick access to both shores, and they had the ropes and the people to do it. While there are no guarantees, if you are faced with similar circumstances it's probably worth a try. The breaking of the 1/4" rescue line during extrication suggests that lightweight polypropylene marine line of this thickness (found in some compact rescue bags) is a poor compromise between strength and weight. (CW)
"Time and time again we hear the old saw that man-made obstacles are the most dangerous. Indeed, they seem to be responsible for a disproportionate share of our "expert" whitewater paddler deaths. This particular culvert and others like it are slalom gates with very high penalties. Steve paid the full price and I miss him a lot. I had a lot of difficulty coming to grips with the finality of writing this report."