West Virginia’s Lower Gauley from Bucklick to Swiss is one of the best Class IV, big-water runs in the East. Thousands travel to the area on Gauley Festival weekend, which was on September 25, 1999, the same date as the accident. Koontz’s Flume Rapid is a beautiful, straightforward Class IV with one exception. At the top of the rapid there is a medium sized eddy on river right that many people use as a staging area. At the bottom of the eddy there is a bad rock sieve which has been the site of several narrow escapes over the past 30 years. This report was prepared by Barry Adams, a member of the Pittsburgh group accompanying the victim:
“While we were preparing our shuttle to do the Lower Gauley in the parking lot above the Dam, Chris Malamisura approached us and asked if he could also get a ride. Chris was from Bluefield, WV and was attending Davidson College. Our group was mainly from Western Pennsylvania. Chris had intended to join a group and run the river. Someone had given Chris directions to the put-in. This was Gauley Festival weekend and there were literally hundreds of paddlers on the river that day. He then asked if he could tag along with our group because he had not run the Lower Gauley. Others and myself asked him several questions about his ability and other rivers he had run. He indicated he had done several other Class IV rivers and had no problem. He told other members of the group he had done the New River, the Upper Green and a number of other rivers in North Carolina. Given what he told us, I believe he had the ability to run the Lower Gauley.
“We put on at the access point above Koontz's Flume. We spent a little time at the put in and in the riffles above Koontz’s Flume. Most of the group gathered above Koontz’s Flume, as did Chris. Our intention was to catch a large eddy on the right above the main part of the rapid. This is not a difficult eddy to catch. Most of the group went to the right of the rock that forms the eddy.
“Chris, paddling a Piranha Blade, headed left of the rock, where most people who catch this eddy make their approach. He flipped above the rock that forms this eddy, coming down near or on the eddy line. He attempted at least four or five rolls. He almost made each one, and I believe he was raising his head too quickly. I was there for a bow rescue at the bottom of the eddy but he either was unaware that I was there or chose to exit.
“His boat at that time was just beside a good size rock in front of the first boulder. This boulder along with another larger boulder (Koontz) forms the right side of the lower part of this rapid. The rock and the smaller boulder create a slot that flows to the right. Part of the flow goes into a strainer. Logs are trapped by the undercut boulder. As indicated above, Chris left his boat just above the slot, swam into the strainer, and was trapped head first and face down underwater. I, along with other members of our group, got out on a rock up stream and in front of the strainer. His left arm was free and above the water. I threw my rope to him. It got stuck on the strainer and he could not find it. Another rope was thrown and he grabbed hold after a couple of attempts. His face was down and he could not see the rope. He had to reach behind his back to grab it. We pulled, but eventually he let go. He never did get his head above the water. We attempted several more throws, but he did not have his arm out of the water.
“At that point I felt his only chance was for me to jump in and grab him. I indicated I was going in and jumped. I tried grabbing him but the current was too powerful and swift. I got swept around the corner and into a log that was an extension of the same strainer. As I went under the log I was fortunate to grab hold and waited for someone to throw me a rope, which they did. The other members of the group continued in their attempts to get a rope on Chris without success. I can only speculate as to how he was entrapped. There were a number of people who arrived at the scene. An outfitter’s raft was put in the eddy below the rock and forced against the strainer. They got a rope on his body, but could not pull it free. He was not recovered until the next morning.”
National Park Service rangers were called to the scene. Their response was delayed by gridlock on the access road, caused by some illegal parking by private boaters. After making several attempts, they decided that the body recovery would have to wait for the water to drop. NPS rangers returned the following morning, before the Sunday release arrived, and were able to retrieve Chris’s body.
SOURCE: by Barry Adams, Three River Paddling Club; comments from Lee Belknap, AW Safety Chair
1. AW Safety Chair Lee Belknap spoke with a ranger involved with the recovery of Chris’s body. He stated that his knee was caught between two rocks, with is head downstream. The ranger also speculated that Chris may have attempted to keep his head above water by pushing off of downstream rocks with his paddle.
2. The rescue was a difficult and dangerous one to attempt, as Barry Adam’s swimming rescue clearly demonstrated. While courageous, this effort could easily have lead to a second death. A rescue life vest, in skilled hands, might have made a difference. It certainly would have made a swimming rescue more controllable.
3. Most of us have either asked to paddle with a group of strangers or been approached by unknown boaters seeking to paddle with them. This is a great way to meet people, but the nightmare on the Gauley points out its downside. For myself, I only run whitewater near the limits of my skill with people I know. In easier whitewater, I can be less selective. My reasoning is that when you join an unfamiliar group, you must boat to their tempo and style. They can’t be expected to know your ability or make allowances for your weaknesses unless you ask them to do so.
4. In hindsight, someone who knew Chris better might have chosen to avoid the tricky staging eddy where the accident occurred. I often do that with first timers, but have been criticized because I take them down the left side, which is considerably harder than the right! You never get to really “know” someone after a few minutes of pre-trip conversation. Those who join groups the way Chris did clearly do so at their own risk.
Gauley Festival weekend is a joyful gathering of white water paddlers in Southern West Virginia, and thousands turned out this year to enjoy the bright sun and sparkling water. Chris Malamisura, 20, borrowed his father’s car and drove to the Bucklick Access to the Lower Gauley from Bluefield, Virginia,. He approached some paddlers from Pittsburgh and asked if he could run the river with them. After asking him a few questions about his experience, which included the New River Gorge and several comparable runs in the Southeast, the group agreed that he could join their group.
Koontz Flume lies about a half mile below the put-in. It’s a big, but relatively straightforward, Class IV. The group rallied above the drop, then made for a large staging eddy near the top of the rapid on river right. The eddy is not particularly difficult to catch, but it deserves your full attention. A report submitted to AW by Barry Adams stated that Chris flipped just upstream of the rock that formed the eddy, then washed down along the eddyline. He attempted four or five rolls, coming close but not quite righting himself, before bailing out. At this point he was just upstream of Koontz Rock. There’s a bad sieve in between this rocks and some smaller boulders just upstream. Chris exited right above this hazard and pinned in the sieve head-first. Adams and other members of his group landed upstream and attempted to reach Chris using throw bags. He was able to grab one, but when the group tried to pull him out he could not hold on. After he let go of the rope, a member of the Pittsburgh group attempted a very dangerous swimming rescue. He went under the same strainer and was rescued using a throw rope.
By this time a very large crowd had gathered at the scene. Many more attempts at recovery were made. National Park Service rangers reached the scene some time later. Traffic jams caused by careless private boater parking blocked the access road and caused total gridlock for a time. They tried, then decided that they could not make the recovery until the water level dropped significantly. NPS personnel returned the following morning, before the release arrived, and were able to retrieve Chris’s body.
Most of us have either asked to paddle with a group of strangers or been approached by unknown boaters seeking to paddle with them. This is a great way to meet new people, and I’ve spent many enjoyable days doing this. What happened on the Gauley is everyone’s worst nightmare, and while the Pittsburgh group reacted with skill and courage, it was a terrible experience for everyone involved. For myself, I only paddle whitewater near the limits of my skill with people I already know. In easier whitewater, I’m less selective. The reason is simple: when you join an unfamiliar group, you will boat to their tempo and style. They can’t be expected to make allowances for your weaknesses unless you ask them to do so. In hindsight, someone who knew Chris better might have chosen to avoid the tricky staging eddy where the accident occurred. But you can’t expect to really "know" someone after a few minutes of pre-trip conversation.