Slaughterhouse Falls on the Roaring Fork River could be running harder and higher next year |

Slaughterhouse Falls on the Roaring Fork River could be running harder and higher next year

Karl Herchenroeder
The Aspen Times
Rafters duck under Stein Bridge on the Slaughterhouse section of the Upper Roaring Fork River on Tuesday. Flows were around 1,400 cubic feet per second.
Aubree Dallas/The Aspen Times |

One morning last week, the Slaughterhouse section of the Upper Roaring Fork River was flowing too high for Blazing Adventures’ commercial boats to run, so the company took alternative routes.

A key obstacle on Slaughterhouse is the low-clearance Stein Bridge, where boaters are forced to portage around if the river runs too high. This fall, Pitkin County’s Open Space and Trails Department is expected to perform extensive maintenance on the bridge, which could result in greater clearance and more commercial runs at higher flows. Typically, the cutoff for company boats is between 2,000 and 2,100 cubic feet per second.

Blazing Adventures operations manager and river guide Rich Zelter said boaters will be in uncharted water next season, depending how high the bridge is raised.

“I can probably tell you we’re more conservative than others in general just because that’s the way we run,” Zelter said. “We just try to keep it a little closer to the vest, and we’ll see. Maybe 2,400, 2,500 (cfs) is no issue, I don’t know. I know the guides are doing a great job out there right at the brink of that 2,000, 2,100 level.”

On the Arkansas River, limits are set by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, so boaters won’t get themselves into trouble, Zelter said. On the Shoshone River, there’s a tacit agreement among all companies not to run above 6,000 cfs.

But there is no agreement on Slaughterhouse, so some could be pushing the envelope next season.

“By no means do I have all the answers,” Zelter said, even though this is his 28th season on the river. “Especially with water, it’s all guesswork.”

He added that pushing limits on the water is fine until somebody flips and tragedy occurs. If there is death caused by negligence or overdoing it, it hurts the individual as well as the entire rafting industry.

On Saturday in Idaho Springs, a 41-year-old rafter died after falling out of his raft on Clear Creek. He had rented a vessel, and according to CBS 4 in Denver, he may have suffered a medical issue before falling out.

“I don’t know what happened up there exactly, but people see all that, and it hurts the whole industry,” Zelter said, adding, “We don’t want a private to go out without a life jacket and get hurt. And we’ve had that happen before.”

The estimated $261,000 project at Stein Bridge will be in conjunction with the Roaring Fork Gorge Management Plan, a roughly $2 million project that was approved by county commissioners in December.

“The biggest thing is understanding at high flows the clearance that would be desirable, so how much should we raise the bridge?” said Lindsey Utter, a county recreation specialist who is overseeing the project.

She added that Open Space and Trails continues to work on engineering aspects of the project, feasibility and possible alternatives. She has received feedback from both private and commercial boaters.

Work also will include improvements to the Stein Trail, which connects the Rio Grande Trail to a steep hill leading to the Aspen Business Center. The trail from the center to the bridge will be realigned, and the trail leading from the bridge to the Rio Grande Trail will be reduced in grade. Large boulders that make the trail difficult to navigate also will be dealt with.

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