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Accident Description


CATARAFTER DIES ON THE SNAKE

Milner Gorge near Murtaugh, Idaho: June 8, 1995

Gradient-100 fpm; Volume-8,000 cfs; Class-V+

SUMMARY: On June 8, 1995 Bob Clayton of Boise, Idaho died while attempting the first raft descent of the Class V+ Milner Gorge on the Snake River in Eastern Idaho.

DESCRIPTION: With an unusual combination of high gradient and big volume, the Milner Gorge of the Snake is considered the most difficult big water run in Idaho. The rapids, comparable to those found in Tumwater Canyon of the Wenachee at high water, are huge, powerful, and continuous for the entire 1.3 mile length. This stretch, dry most of the year because of diversions, has been run occasionally by expert kayakers for many years. At high flows of between 11,000 and 15,000 cfs the entire river can be run. At lower flows the speed and size is reduced, but a river-wide hole that forms at the accident site must be portaged. The 8,000 cfs is probably the most dangerous level.

Clayton and his partner were experienced class IV catarafters. Having just finished a ten day paddling trip on the Lochsa and Selway Rivers, they planned to make the first raft descent of this section on June 8th, and invited local media and rescue personnel to observe. They intended to run the bad hole at "lets make a deal" and a camera was set up here to record the action. The accident was filmed from the rim of the gorge by KMVT-TV News in Twin Falls.

The two men put in at

noon

after scouting the run that morning. Clayton's partner rounded the corner 100 yards above the big hole, way off-line and struggling with his runaway cat. He fell into the hole sideways, let go of the oars, and grabbed the frame as the boat was upended. The boat stood on its rear tubes and squirted clear of the hole backwash. As he worked his boat through the remaining waves, Clayton appeared. He tried to sneak along some cliffs upstream, but got banged around and lost his grip on his downstream oar. As he reached down to grab it, he fell into the water and held onto the downstream tube as the cat washes into the hole. The cat flipped, and Clayton was ripped away. He flushed cleanly out of the hole, well past the backwash. He started swimming for an eddy on river left, then cut right to catch a throw rope. He grabbed hold, but could not hold on. He was now buried in a series of big waves; towards the end of this 200 yard swim he rans out of air and lost consciousness.

The TV cameraman, seeing the struggle below, signaled a volunteer to launch his cat at a small beach just downstream. He and Clayton's partner struggled to rescue their friend. By the time they got him on board they washed past their small beach and had to travel some distance before outside help arrived. They began CPR as they floated, but were unsuccessful.

SOURCE: Brock Loveland, Idaho Whitewater Association Safety Chair; Rusty Bowman; KMVT-TV newscast, Rec.Boats.Paddle, and The Idaho State Journal.

ANALYSIS:

1) This was a classic big-water flush drowning. The video shows that the victim was under water for most of the swim despite his use of high-buoyancy Type V rafter's PFD. This swim could only be survived by someone in excellent physical shape, and paddlers attempting rapids of this magnitude must be physically prepared. Even so, they can still drown wearing a life vest.

2)  At 8,000 cfs, most boaters consider the hole at "Just Say No" to be unrunnable. But cameras and spectators will create an atmosphere and momentum that overrides good judgement. The river was rising and probably would have been safer in a day or two, but the presence of news media and assembled rescue personnel made it tough for the pair to call off the attempt.

3) The decision of these boaters to publicize their attempt was unwise and reckless. The Sheriff, who came to help provide backup, was later asked why he didn't stop the pair from putting on! High profile attempts of extreme rapids will be closely watched by a public not familiar with our sport. If they fail, unwarranted restrictive measures against all paddlers may be taken. The more we pre-involve government agencies in extreme runs, the greater the chance that our right to be on the river will be challenged by well-meaning crusaders who feel compelled to save us from ourselves.

4) The safety boater at the first takeout was clearly not ready to make a fast recovery of an unconscious victim. If the rescue cat had been in the water and secured by a tether line, it might have been able to bring Clayton ashore before it drifted downstream. When providing safety, ask what the worst possible outcome is, then prepare for it as best you can. 

5) The two rafters, though competent in class IV, were probably not really ready for this run. The gap between their experience and the demands of this rapid were simply too large. Mistakes in class V+ are often fatal; video footage shows that the river was clearly in control and the two rafters were simply holding on for dear life.