Accident Database

Report ID# 778

  • Vertical Pin
  • Does not Apply
  • Other

Accident Description

-----Report prepared by Gary Edgeworth

June 8, 2002 was a beautiful CO day. Our group of 5 met for a run down Upper South Boulder Creek (USB), which is west of Boulder, CO.  USB was at a medium flow around 400 cfs.  We put on around noon with blue skies and the sun shining on our faces.  We had all run USB for years as one of our staple class V local creek runs.  The group had close to a hundred years of combined experience.

We had no problems through the first big drop called Trainspotting.  Just below the rapid, we happened on two more paddlers.  They joined us since the other members of their group had decided the run was too much, and chose to walk out. We were now 7 paddlers heading into the next major rapid known as, "The Gash" about a 1/2 mile below.

The Gash is a class V drop, normally portaged because of its serious objective hazards at the bottom of the rapid. It has a relatively easy, straight-down-the-middle entrance. Three quarters of the way down the fifty yard long rapid, is a six foot river-wide falls that pours directly into a sieve created by a huge flat, triangular boulder lying at the base and center of the falls. This "Gash" feature extends from river-right to about halfway across the creek. Above the falls, the majority of the water pushes hard to a threatening sieve/slot on river-left. This requires boaters to make a very tricky and committing move to the right just above the Gash, and a last second river-right boof over the falls into a tight landing channel below. The landing is into an incredibly violent swirling maelstrom that funnels most of the water back up into the drop and into the huge undercut. Only a small amount of water moves downstream through a shallow right side exit.

I was leading the group with Paul directly behind as we approached The Gash Rapid. I caught the portage eddy on river-right just above the rapid, shouldered my boat, and started walking.  After a couple of steps, I watched Paul come around a big rock on the right, in the main flow. He was not planning to eddy-out.  We made eye contact and I yelled, "Zirk!", but he gave me a confident smile and proceeded to line up and run the rapid without a scout or safety.

I quickly walked the portage, which took about a minute, only to see Paul's boat pinned vertically (bow up, cockpit against the undercut) on the right side of the falls in the normal landing spot. I dropped my boat and ran to the falls area near the end of the rapid where Scott Young joined me. I got to the shore nearest Paul's vertically pinned boat and jumped out onto the slippery undercut boulder, which his boat was pinned against. I couldn't see Paul because the entire cockpit was submerged, but thought Paul was still in his boat.  The current was strong, and Scott threw me a rope from shore.  I tried to reach the boat to clip it onto his bow grab loop, but I was having problems staying on the rock as the current was pushing me away from the boat. Chris [one of the two that joined our group below Trainspotting] got behind me on the rock and we went up together fighting the force of the water. Chris simultaneously jumped and clipped Paul's grab-loop to the rope as he fell into the maw where Paul had disappeared (Chris came free and was okay).  Paul's boat was pulled out easily.  About 4 minutes had elapsed since Paul had entered the rapid. We never saw Paul or any of his gear during the boat recovery.

Immediately, I got into my boat and paddled downstream to make sure he wasn't in front of us. Barret scaled the the cliff that pinches the bottom of the drop.  He and two fisherman ran down the river-left bank to help look for Paul. I paddled about a 1/2 mile downstream past Lumberyard Rapid to just above the S-Turn Gorge and eddied-out below a tree strainer that blocked the main flow and 85% of the creek.  I figured this strainer would have stopped a floating body.  No one spotted Paul anywhere below. It was then that I realized Paul was most likely still trapped in the Gash sieve.  I ran back to the Gash area to see the rest of our group probing the rapid.  About 20 minutes had passed with still no sign of Paul.  We were tossing two ropes in the drop in an attempt to snag Paul.  Three people were probing under the curtain of the falls and into the undercut boulder.  Belay ropes were connected to the probers which were being held from the river right bank.

Gordon Banks in a final attempt, clipped into two throw-ropes that were anchored by two probers.  Gordon then probed the undercut side of the big flat boulder that makes the Gash.  The force of the water made this desperate search perilous and almost impossible.  The only way to probe the complete undercut would have been to let Gordon go all the way under the rock. No way were we going to do that.

After about 50 minutes, we faced the reality that our rescue attempt was now a body recovery. We needed to get the water level lowered via the Portal Tunnel Diversion. We huddled around to discuss who was going for help, who was staying, and what task each person was going to do. During our discussion, a female witness who had been watching the whole rescue process and incorrectly thought we were looking for a lost paddle, tried to alert us that she had just seen a blue backpack float out of the river slot area.  She (name unknown) tried to yell to us, but the roar of the whitewater was too loud and we didn't see or hear her signaling us.

I went downstream to retrieve my kayak.   A hiker ran up yelling, "He's down here!". I ran back to tell Gordon and Chris that one of three fisherman had found Paul downstream. One of the fishermen and I pulled Paul to shore, his helmet and life Jacket still on.  His helmet provided full coverage and had a hard visor.  (Gordon Banks mentioned that he did have some hits to the forehead, but it is unknown when he got these.)  He had no pulse and had been in the river for approximately an hour since he entered the Gash drop. I administered CPR for 10 minutes knowing he had been down way too long...I was only doing it for myself at this point. I put his head in my lap and cried until Gordon and Chris showed up. I remember looking into Paul's baby blue eyes and waiting for him to say, "Get the hell off me." I will miss "Zirk's" smile and that unique laugh after he eddied-out at the bottom of the many big drops of his lifetime.  Paul was my hero and a legend to the paddling community. He was one of the premier expedition boaters who had made many incredible first descents both in the U.S and around the world. He was always ready to go for it. He will be missed by all of us. 


Upper South Boulder Creek, a difficult class V creek run in Colorado's Front Range was running 400 cfs, a moderate flow, on June 8.   A group of five experienced kayakers were joined by two more kayakers after the first rapid and before "The Gash", the second Class V rapid of the run.  "The Gash"  ( is often portaged because it contains several nasty sieves and undercuts.  Paul Zirkelbach, second in the group, headed into the rapid as the rest of his group was getting out to portage. Zirkelbach, 50, was a well-known expedition paddler with decades of experience and was very familiar with the run.  He chose, as many paddlers often do, to rely on memory rather than scouting. As the group made the portage, they spotted his kayak vertically pinned on an undercut rock at the bottom. The group making a high risk effort, quickly released the boat, but there was no sign of Paul or any gear. 

The group began an all-out search with one paddler going downstream incase Zirkelbach had washed through.  The remaining  5 boaters probed the rapid with a snag-line.  After about an hour, a hike watching the rescue, spotted what looked like a blue backpack washing out of the left side of the Gash, but was unable to alert the rescue party.  Three fishermen who were helping with the search downstream located Paul's body minutes later.  The evacuation from this steep-walled canyon required three hours of work by several rescue teams working from the railroad bed. 

None of the boaters who accompanied Zirkelbach actually saw what happened to him in "The Gash." His friends theorize that he bailed out after being hammered somewhere in the drop, then he was held up in a sieve or undercut rock for some time before being released. It's unclear exactly where his run went wrong, or whether pre-positioned safety would have made any difference. He was found with his life vest and full-coverage helmet still on.---------

Gary Edgeworth (Summarized grp acct and submitted to T. Kelley, interviewed by T. Kelley) Gordon Banks (interviewed by Tim Kelley) Scott Young

-----Prepared by Tim Kelley AW Safety Chair:

I write the following conclusions not in judgment of Paul or his action, but in the "matter fact" clarity that was Zirk.  Paul took me down my first class V 18 years before his death, we had paddled dozens of times since and most recently just a few weeks before his death.  One of the many things I liked about paddling with Zirk was his candid honesty.  It is that candor which I draw on not in judgment of his actions, but to highlight that a paddler's decision...your decisions and mine, affect the safety of others we paddle with.  This accident is also a great example of how to conduct a rescue and body recovery safely.

Certain rapids demand a "look" especially those with such consequences and marginal landings.  Gages are not the most accurate, +/- 10%.  40cfs in small channels can make all the difference between clean and getting hammered.  Rivers change and debris can make any rapid a hazard.     Take the few extra minutes for a quick look, especially on complex rapids with consequence.  There is no guareentee that even if Paul had at least waited for Gary to take a quick look or get eyes on, that this accident would have turned out any different, but the risks to the group would have been far less.

Paul chose to run a "familiar" drop without scouting or setting safety...sound familiar?  By doing so Paul left little to no room for error given the objective hazards of this rapid.  For all intensive purposes he paddled this drop solo with the exception of the risk to his group as they attempted to rescue him.  As Charlie Ebel, another friend of Paul's said, "no rescue is without risk."   By not allowing at least one group member to have eyes on the drop, the group had no idea of what happened to Paul.  If they saw him bail from his boat or an empty cockpit before the boat pinnded, they would not have taken the risks they did to get his boat.  Watching what happened helps greatly in developing a search plan.  If he had washed free of the rapid and the group didn't know this, they would have been taking serious risks for no reason.  The fact that Paul did wash free after an hour reinforces the need to keep someone below the drop watching for this if you have enough people.  Having someone below can also provide safety for the rescue group if positioned properly.  The group did factor this in first by Gary going down stream to a logical point from which to start working back up stream.  Using the fishermen below was critical to the body recovery.  The female hiker unable to get the rescuers attention underscores the need for whistles to get someone's attention over the noise of a 400cfs creek.

The members of this group did all they safely could to rescue Paul and far more.  They had all the equipment and skill they needed.  They had each others back both physically and mentally keeping the rescue "safe".  The group wanted me to reinforce the importance of the following items.  Whistles were critical for even close communication, rescue life jackets were critical to all members of the rescue party at some point.  All paddlers having throw ropes was critical and waist bags made searching down river from shore much easier.  Only a large Parabiner easily clipped the plastic grab loop.  Good river shoes allowed shore movement to be quick and safe.  Most importantly the group fought through the emotions of admitting Paul was dead and shifting from "rescue" to body recovery reducing the level of acceptable risk.

The cold snowmelt runoff, even on a warm sunny Jun afternoon at 7500 feet zapped the energy of those searching in the water.  These were experienced locals.  Those coming to CO on paddling vacation should factor in affects of elevation.

The evacuation of the body involved two different counties, required railroad assistance and took over three hours to get out of the gorge.  AW and CWWA worked w/ the authorities to improve future rescue/evacuation procedures.  A healthy respect was developed as a result.  This accident had no adverse affects to the final FERC settlement allowing egress off USB across Gross Reservoir.

As I watched Zirk's ashes float down the South Platte with tears behind my sunglasses, a smile crossed my face.  I knew Paul was laughing at us and would have told us, "get over it!"  He would have apologized to Gary, Gordo, Scott and the others for putting them at risk.  I promised myself I would think a little harder about how my own decision-making might put others at risk.  It wasn't that I ignore that, but I decided I wanted to factor it a little higher.

Vios Condios Mi Amigo

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