Accident Database

Report ID# 55341

  • Impact/Trauma
  • Head Injury / Concussion
  • Inexperience
  • Solo Paddling
  • One Boat Trip

Accident Description

Recovery planned for kayaker’s body found in Rio Grande Gorge

By John Miller | Taos News Oct 31, 2019

TAOS — Paddling downriver Sunday, a Taos rafter came across a kayak, two halves of a paddle and the body of an unidentified man on the eastern bank of the Rio Grande near the Taos Box, a notorious set of Class 4 rapids that threads a remote section of the Rio Grande Gorge.

On Thursday evening, a team of first responders was expected to convene for a briefing to determine how to retrieve the man’s body from the deep canyon, whose several-hundred-foot slopes have become slick amid below-freezing temperatures and recent snowfall.

“This is when my head starts hurting,” said Taos County Undersheriff Steve Miera, who is overseeing the body recovery, his third — and, he expects, the most challenging this year. “Talking to the rafting companies, the water’s at about 300 [cubic feet per second].”

That’s one problem: The river is extremely low compared to spring, when a recovery crew from Miera’s office, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Taos Search and Rescue navigated downriver on a raft large enough to accommodate four crew members and the body of a man who had jumped from the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge.

The remains found Sunday are about a mile south from where that mission took place. A large set of power lines hangs about 800 feet above that section of river near a rapid called Dead Texan.

Miera said he was considering two options to get there: a high-angle recovery — using ropes and a pulley system to lift the body to the top of the canyon — or an air retrieval, where a helicopter would dip down just above the river and lift off with the body in a litter. But after driving to the gorge earlier this week to survey the body’s location, Miera determined the high-angle equipment wouldn’t reach the body and a helicopter likely wouldn’t be able to clear the power lines.

Instead, Miera is firming up a plan to send in two teams, including members of the sheriff’s office and Taos Search and Rescue, which is officially treating the recovery as a “training mission” because it is under the command of New Mexico State Police. One team will travel downriver on a kayak from John Dunn Bridge, just north of the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. The other will hike down the western slope of the canyon and cross the river on an inflatable raft to reach the body.

Following the hours already spent planning, the recovery itself likely will be an all-day affair that will cost thousands of dollars to complete. Miera said the risk to the recovery teams is also substantial, given the terrain one will have to traverse and the dangerous waters the other will have to paddle down. 

But it’s also routine; at least a few body recoveries take place in the gorge west of Taos each year. For John Nettles, the kayaker who found the man’s remains on a trip with a friend Sunday, coming across bodies in the Rio Grande has also become an oddly familiar experience. In July 2018, Nettles found the body of an Albuquerque man who had jumped from the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, which has long been a suicide destination because of its low railings and lack of any form of suicide deterrent. Crisis phone lines set up at the bridge are often dialed. First responders regularly make runs out to the bridge to respond to suicide threats reported by family members, partners or co-workers who know someone headed to the bridge with thoughts of jumping to their deaths.

Law enforcement and Nettles said it’s clear that the man found this past weekend didn’t die by suicide, however. Instead, they say it’s more likely he kayaked into one of the Rio Grande’s toughest rapids without knowing it. A social media post Saturday evening reported missing a man who had gone camping with his dog at the Orilla Verde State Park camping area and might have gone down the river. The person who posted the message noted they didn’t know the man’s name. It was unclear if the man whose body was found Sunday was the man reported  missing. Nettles said the man appeared to have fallen from or abandoned his raft wearing nothing blue jeans, a flannel shirt and leather boots.

“We have top-notch gear, and we get cold,” Nettles said. “We have dry suits, we have insulated layers. He had none of that. Assuming he was a boater, it looked like he had an incident, lost his boat — maybe fell out of it — swam a little bit, got out, hiked down maybe, looked for a place to get out.” Nettles said the man’s body was positioned in a way that made him believe the man might have fallen after trying to scale the steep eastern wall of the canyon.“He was probably very hungry, very hypothermic and maybe lost his footing and went down the hill,” Nettles speculated.

Nettles said the number of people who die in the gorge in boating accidents could be reduced if there were signage to warn of the dangers of the Taos Box, which can sneak up on people who float the calm waters around Taos Junction Bridge and John Dunn. “I know of a handful of close calls from the last few years,” he said. “A couple of years ago, one of my fellow raft guides was at the John Dunn Bridge and, like, three father-and-son groups with three canoes were all ready to go. Somebody had told them, ‘Go to this bridge and take it down. It’s really mellow.’ And they went to the wrong bridge.”Nettles said the guide was able to convince the boaters to change their plans that day, but there are inexperienced boaters who slip into potentially deadly parts of the river every year.

This story first appeared in The Taos News,                                                                          a sister publication of the Santa Fe New Mexican

Taos County crew completes risky recovery in Río Grande Gorge

Body identified as Columbus, Mississippi man 


Posted Tuesday, November 5, 2019 7:43 pm

By John Miller,

A recovery crew hazarded a mission into one of the most rugged sections of the Río Grande Gorge near Taos early Sunday morning (Nov. 3) to retrieve the body of Chris Oswalt, a 62-year-old Columbus, Mississipi man who died after attempting to kayak the Taos Box late last month.

"He lived his life to have fun in the outdoors," said Oswalt's friend and hunting partner, Alan Hall, who added that Oswalt was raised on the Tom Bigsbee River in Columbus. "He came out to New Mexico every year. He would make it his annual trip. Sometimes he would stay a month, and sometimes he would stay up to three months."

Though he knew his friend to be adventurous, Hall said he was shocked to learn that Oswalt's body had been found in the gorge west of Taos late last month near the Taos Box, a set of Class IV rapids respected by even the most experienced river guides in New Mexico.

“Him being by himself? That didn’t surprise me,” Hall said. “He loved to kayak, but he’d done it alone a lot. I think the deal of it is that he just didn’t know what he was getting into."

That's also what John Nettles, a member of Taos Search and Rescue, suspected when he came across Oswalt's frozen remains while kayaking Oct. 27 several-hundred feet below the steep – and in many places sheer – slopes of the canyon. While the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator has yet to determine Oswalt’s official cause of death, Nettles said it appeared the man had fallen from a cheap kayak and later died of a fall while attempting to climb out of the canyon. Nettles said Oswalt was wearing only a flannel shirt, blue jeans and leather cowboy boots when he died. Photos on Oswalt’s Facebook page, however, show the 62-year-old standing next to a kayak wearing a wetsuit.

Following a week of planning, Nettles and two other members of Taos Search and Rescue set out downriver in two boats around 8 a.m. Sunday morning from John Dunn Bridge, the same location where they suspect Oswalt began his ill-fated trip.

Water levels flowed at just 300 cubic feet per second when Oswalt’s body was found, but that rate had dropped even lower by the time the water team started out on Sunday, leaving exposed rocks in the team’s path and lengthening the time to complete the trip.

As the boats started downstream, Taos County Undersheriff Steve Miera, Taos Search and Rescue President Delinda VanneBrightyn and 10 other crew members hiked around a spiral-shaped rock shelf at the west rim several miles to the south. From there, they descended a precipitous 400-foot field of scree that leads to the river. On the way down, VanneBrightyn slipped on the loose ground and slid into a boulder, injuring her knee. While a radio crew at the rim briefly discussed lifting her out with a helicopter or sending her downstream on one of the boats, VanneBrightyn opted to continue on in spite of an injury that worsened throughout the day.

Once at the river, the ground crew hiked about a half-mile downstream to where Oswalt’s body lay on the opposite bank near a steep cliff. Part of the team scaled the rocks to take photos of the body while VanneBrightyn and other responders forded the river in an inflatable raft to begin packaging the remains into a body bag. The ground team helped load the body into one of the rafts, which then navigated the remainder of whitewater in the Taos Box and reached the Taos Junction Bridge by around 4:30 p.m., Vanne Brightyn estimated.

She and Miera both agreed that the recovery was one of the most dangerous they have done yet in a region filled with wilderness areas where people get lost, injured or killed every year. “It was a very intense rescue,” VanneBrightyn said. “I think that we’re all grateful that everyone made it back safely because of the dangers both on the steep slopes and the river.” She said her team will likely only make the same descent again in the case of a rescue mission, where a life is at risk and time is a more significant factor.

“Anything could happen easily on that descent, where a person could get in real trouble,” she said. “Quite frankly, that’s why we had a subject there to bring out, because people don’t realize the severity and the dangers of the gorge,” she added. “And I think that they take it much too lightly and therefore people perish, sadly.”

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