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Rafting companies defend their safety record after river death

Bobby MagillGlenwood Springs Independent

When a rafter dies, it affects the entire river-running community. But local rafting companies say commercial rafting on the Colorado River is safe, and their rafting guides undergo rigorous training that exceeds state requirements before a guide can take out paying guests. Jason Hansen, 30, of Fort Collins, died April 15 while training in a raft near Shoshone in Glenwood Canyon. It was the first fatality of the rafting season in the canyon. The cause of death is still under investigation.”Our river is one of the safest rivers in the state, if not the U.S.,” said Ken Murphy, operations manager for Rock Gardens Rafting in Glenwood Springs. He said the Colorado River through Glenwood Canyon is unusually safe because of easy emergency access from the bike path that parallels the river. What’s more, he said, the river isn’t isolated, like other stretches of whitewater in Colorado that flow through some remote country. But most of all, he said, Colorado’s training requirements for rafting guides are first-rate, and many rafting companies exceed the minimum required training. State regulations require that all rafting guides complete a minimum of 50 hours of on-river training with a guide instructor, 20 of which must be on the same river on which the guide will be leading trips. “Our requirement is 75 [hours],” Murphy said. Rock Gardens makes its guides pay the full $400 for their three-week training course, and not everyone who takes the course will get a job. “The best of the crop get through and become river guides,” he said. Rock Gardens has never had a fatality in its 32-year history.Susi Larson, a manager for Whitewater Rafting in Glenwood, said her company gives its guides nearly 100 hours of training before taking out clients. Since it started running rapids 33 years ago, Whitewater Rafting has had no fatalities, she said. “We don’t have a set amount [of training hours], just a real stringent test they have to take,” Larson said. To lessen the risk to customers in the springtime, Larson said her company only allows its most experienced guides to lead trips during periods of high runoff. Companies’ approach to rafting safety changes with multi-day rafting expeditions, like those that Grand Junction-based Adventure Bound offers. Company president Thomas James Kleinschnitz said Adventure Bound, which runs rafting trips in both Colorado and Utah, has to take its trips’ remoteness into account during staff training. “We may be hours away from any kind of advanced medical care,” which means advanced wilderness first aid training is necessary for his staff, who spend days on the river to earn their guide certifications. “The consequences of having an accident in the places we go are immense,” he said.Because Adventure Bound operates in Utah, the company follows that state’s standards for certification, which he said are much more stringent than Colorado standards. “We do miles,” he said. “We’re out there for days at a time. For us to attain the minimum hours is extremely easy.”Kleinschnitz said Adventure Bound’s attention to safety pays off. In 43 years of operation, the company has never had a fatality. “Any time there’s a death on the river, period, it’s a huge negative impact on us,” he said. “There’s a level of apprehension that’s come out of the parents that are involved with sending their kids off to be river guides.”But, he said, commercial rafting fatalities are rare in Colorado, especially on staff training expeditions. That’s also true in local sections of the Colorado River, Murphy said. “Terrible accidents happen, but it’s not common to this section of river, or this class of river,” he said. “I wouldn’t worry about going down the river with any company in the state because of the training programs.”When a rafting company suffers a fatality on the river, Larson said customers become more wary and cautious about rafting. After that kind of tragedy, rafting guides are always more aware, too, she said, adding that guides have to be aware that the river changes constantly as the water level fluctuates. About potential fatalities, Larson said: “It’s always something that’s in the back of your mind, and you have to watch your P’s and Q’s.”


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