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Accident Description


The Dowd Chutes of Colorado’s Eagle River form a challenging stretch of continuous Class IV whitewater. It was the site of the Third Annual Dowd Chute Shootout, a 1,500-meter kayak race pitting three paddlers against one another through the rapids. The event on May 24, 1998 was sponsored by Jeep and promoted by the Vail Valley Tourism Bureau under the unfortunate slogan: “Winners will be rewarded. Losers will be resuscitated.” The water level that day was 1340 cfs, a moderate flow. The altitude, well over 8,000 feet, made the race unusually tiring.

Nathan Vernon, 27, was said by friends to be an experienced paddler who had run harder rivers before. He was competing in one of the heats when his kayak capsized halfway through the race. This is just above the steepest part of the rapid. After two failed attempts to roll he set up for a third, then bailed out. He briefly tried to grab his kayak, then appeared to lose consciousness and flushed down the rapids face-down. Witnesses said he floated for roughly a half mile. A pair of safety ropes hit him squarely, but Vernon lay motionless in the whitewater until two safety kayakers reached him and with great difficulty wrestled him into an eddy.

Vernon’s face was gray and his lips were blue when he was pulled from the water, and he had no pulse or respiration. Members of the Vail Mountain Rescue Team were on the scene, and CPR began at once. He was transported to Vail Valley Medical Center where he was pronounced dead. Race officials canceled the remaining heats, and a vigil replaced the planned post-race party Sunday night. An autopsy ruled out drowning or head injury, suggesting that the cause might have been a heart arrhythmia brought on by the altitude, cold water, and extertion.

SOURCE: Roger W. Lynn, Safety Chair, Colorado Whitewater Association; Denver Post; Vail Daily; Ric Alesh, AW President, Terry Deliquadri, posting to rec.boats.paddle

 

ANALYSIS: (Walbridge)

1. Recovering from a flip during a race can be very challenging because the racer is out of breath and often rushes the roll. This must be considered by anyone competing in similar events.

2. The Vail Mountain Rescue Team is a well-trained unit. They provided excellent safety coverage and were augmented by chase boats stationed throughout the course. Observers made two comments. First, many safety boaters were paddling very short rodeo boats, great for playing the river, but not ideal for rescue. Second, this is an ideal site to set up a tethered swimmer rescue using a rescue PFD. This is often done European races and makes it easy to recover an unconscious person in whitewater.

 

"Tragic Death of local Kayaker… Vail - The third annual Jeep Whitwater Festival ended early this year. The death of Nathan Vernon, 27, of Boulder in the Class 4 Dowd Chute Shootout, a three man, “boatercross”, race, was the reason. According to witnesses, Nathan flipped at the top of the chutes and never rolled back up. He either pulled his skirt or simply slid out of boat and remained face down in the water until being pulled out a half mile later by race safety boaters. Many boaters on the scene believe he hit an underwater rock that knocked him unconscious.

Nathan had qualified for the race after time trials down the same stretch earlier that day and was a solid Class 5 boater. I met Nathan Vernon last week at an organizational meeting for an up coming Grand Canyon trip. His excitement was contagious as we chatted about what we ’d been running this year, our boats, secret underwater caves, and the size of the waves we’d soon be surfing. The chatter and beer flowed late into the night. While I spent little more then 3 or 4 hours with Nathan that night, I came away knowing we’d have a blast on the Grand. I was excited about Nathan’s ideas about up-coming trips and his promise to help with out with the MountainBuzz web site.

Nathan worked at a multimedia production house in Boulder and was a talented designer and programmer. Details regarding services are not yet known but will be posted. Our thoughts go out to Nathan’s family and friends." by: Jack Ferguson --Whitewater racing is fun and exciting, but there are some real risks. Racing makes any run more strenuous, and it's harder to control your boat at race speeds.

On May 24th Nathan Vernon was killed at a Whitewater Festival on the Eagle River at Dowds Chutes.. This event, which advertised itself extensively with the tag line, "Winners will be rewarded; losers will be resuscitated", was held on the class IV+ Dowd Chutes of the Eagle River near Vail, CO. The race was 1500 meters long, roughly 3/4 of a mile. The river was running at 3.5', or 1340 cfs, at the gauge at Gypsum. This is a medium low level. The altitude, well over 8,000 feet, made the race unusually tiring.

Reports posted to the internet and forwarded by Colorado Whitewater Association Safety Chair Roger Lynn described the incident as follows: Vernon, a third year kayaker, capsized halfway down the course just above the most turbulent section. After two roll attempts he slid out of his kayak. Initially conscious, he appeared to lose consciousness and floated face-down for the rest of the rapid. Two throw ropes hit him without response. Several safety boaters grabbed him, flipped him over, and got him to shore with some difficulty. Rescue squads were on hand and CPR began at once, He was taken to Vail Valley Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead. The official cause of death, based on an autopsy, was heart failure.

The Vail Mountain Rescue Team is a well-trained unit. They provided excellent safety coverage and were augmented by chase boats stationed throughout the course. Two comments were made by observers.

First, many safety boaters were paddling very short rodeo boats, great for playing the river, but not ideal for rescue.

Second, this is an ideal site to set up a tethered swimmer rescue using a rescue PFD. This is often done European races and makes it easy to recover an unconscious person in whitewater. Neither change would have made a difference in this case. Given the heart problem, Vernon probably could not have been resuscitated.