Accident Database

Report ID# 400

  • Flush Drowning
  • Hypothermia
  • Cold Water

Accident Description


Upper Section south of Sliverton, CO : July 22, 1995

Gradient 80 fpm; Volume 3000 cfs est; Classification IV-V

SUMMARY: On July 22, 1995 Ian Bell was killed after a long swim on the Upper Animas River .

DESCRIPTION: The Upper Animas is one of Colorado 's premier expert runs. Rising in the San Juan mountains , it is known for continuous rapids and icy water. At high levels (over 2500 cfs) it is very big and pushy. The victim, Ian Bell, was with an experienced five person, two boat party. They were all employees of Jack's Plastic Welding in Aztec, New Mexico . They had studied videos and guidebooks and tuned equipment and skills all season for this run. Several members of the group had attended excellent river rescue classes taught by the Canyonlands Field Institute, which specializes in problems faced by river rafts at high water. Two of the party had run the river before.

The group had been monitoring water levels in Durango for weeks, looking for the best time to run their big cats down from Silverton. The level at Durango on July 22and looked good, but most of the flow was coming from the headwaters and the level of the upper river was higher than anticipated. One of the members of the third boat suffered an injury to one of its crew while camping out the night before and failed to appear. Despite this, the group decided to make the trip.

The group made the run down to No Name Rapid, the first Class V, without incident. After scouting the drop one man ran his boat through solo while the other walked. Ropes were set up at the mid-point and the bottom of the rapid before Mr. Bell, the second paddler, and the oarsman made the run. The cataraft flipped violently in the huge hole at the bottom, throwing all three men into the river. All were recirculated in the hole. One man, after being hit several times by the boat, tucked into a ball and flushed out. He caught a throw line and was pulled in. The second man actually "walked" his way out of the hole on the bottom of the river, then grabbed hold of a tiny midstream rock. The group had to belay a rope thrower out into an eddy to get the length needed to reach him. By the time they got him into shore he was severely hypothermic and required treatment.

The river below No Name, while not difficult, is very fast and continuous. Bell washed out the far side of the hole, well beyond the reach of a throw line. He waved to the group to let them know he was OK before he disappeared around the corner. No one knows what the rest of his swim was like, but since there were no cuts, bruises, of water in his lungs, the coroner ruled his death as due to "exposure", ie: hypothermia. The body was found by the Needleton Bridge by a fisherman miles downstream. CPR was started, but by then he was dead.

The group treated the hypothermia victim, searched for Ian, then camped overnight. They were notified the next morning that his body had been found, and rode the train out.

SOURCE: Jack Kloepfer; Roger Boutell


1) The fact that a well-prepared party could suffer such a tragedy is a reminder that the Upper Animas at high water is a relentless adversary, and quite intolerant of lapses in technique.

2) Ian Bell was a very thin man, with very little body fat. The Animas, a high altitude snowmelt run, is one of the coldest rivers in the . He knew he was sensitive to cold water, and was wearing a wetsuit under a drysuit. Despite this, hypothermia contributed to the drowning. The county coroner found no water in his lungs, and ruled that death was due to exposure. I suspect it was a dry drowning, with hypothermia as a contributing factor.

3) One of the dangers of rafting is that a flip can throw several people into the water at a time. With a two-boat party it may be advisable to walk some passengers around big drops to reduce this risk.

4) A safety boat, positioned downstream, might have picked up Mr. Bell up and saved his life. The group decided to use throw bags for safety backup, and recovered two of their group with them. The width of the river and the continuous rapids that lay downstream meant that there was the potential for a swimmer to slip by. A third raft would have allowed backup by both a safety boat and throw lines. This was planned, but did not happen.

FINAL NOTE: The group was charged $1000.00 by authorities to remove the body by helicopter. Area hiking permits and fishing licenses, obtainable for a modest charge, include "rescue insurance" and are highly recommended to Animas boaters. The county is thinly populated and cannot afford to absorb the costs of multiple helicopter rescues.  

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