Woman remains missing in Roaring Fork River near Punchbowl; search resumes Thursday morning
Crews focus on one-mile stretch of river along shore, use drone in search
A young woman who was in the water near the Devil’s Punchbowl on Independence Pass east of Aspen and was swept downstream Wednesday afternoon remains missing after a search that went into Wednesday evening, a law enforcement official said.
Officials called off search efforts about 8 p.m. after darkness made finding the woman too dangerous for search crews, said Jesse Steindler, patrol captain for the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office.
Search-and-rescue personnel planned to meet late Wednesday night in Aspen to regroup. They returned Thursday morning to continue efforts to find the woman, who was visiting the Aspen area for the day with her family, he said.
“There’s still a lot of water coming down that river,” Steindler said Wednesday evening. “There are a lot of strainers (piles of logs and debris) in the river. At this time the Punchbowl is a dangerous place to be.”
Emergency dispatchers received a call about the incident at 4:34 p.m. from a man who drove down the Pass to a call box at the winter closure gate to report it, Steindler said. He said the woman was near the popular spot near the Grottos and was swept downstream, Steindler said.
He updated late Wednesday night that she was trying to get across the river below the bowl. Initial reports were that she jumped in the Punchbowl.
Resources including a swift-water rescue team from the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department were deployed along the banks of the Roaring Fork River, while a drone was used to scan the river in search of the woman, Steindler said. The Aspen Fire drone crew stayed in the area until nearly 8 p.m. to continue to look from the air.
“No sign of the young woman was found by nightfall, when search efforts were suspended. Limited searching was conducted after nightfall with night-vision equipment,” according to Thursday morning’s news release.
The Punchbowl, which is about 9 miles east of Aspen on Highway 82 on the way up Independence Pass, is a natural swimming hole where there are spots to jump off cliffs. The command center was set up at the Weller Lake trailhead, which is about a mile downstream from the Punchbowl.
The last death at the Punchbowl occurred during high water runoff in early June 2015, when a 31-year-old Aspen man jumped in and was swept away. His body was recovered more than a month later about a mile downstream near the bridge at Weller Lake.
On Wednesday, the first thing members of the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department’s rescue team did was post a person at that bridge, said Parker Lathrop, the department’s deputy chief. After that, the teams focused the search on the approximately one-mile section of river between the Punchbowl and the bridge, he said.
“It’s such a rough section of river, especially right now,” Lathrop said.
Below the bridge, the river drops about 1,000 feet in a quarter mile, he said.
Deputies were trying to get in touch with officials from the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co., which operates Grizzly Reservoir on Independence Pass, to try to stem the river flow as soon as possible, he said. Runoff that in drier years might flow through diversion tunnels from Grizzly to the Front Range instead has been streaming down the Roaring Fork River for weeks, significantly increasing the amount of water in the river.
The flow at the gage down river about four miles near the Difficult Campground was about 215 cfs at 4:30 p.m, according to the USGS. That is above the 30-year average for this time of year.
The drone used Wednesday is new to the Aspen Fire Department, Lathrop said. Department officials have spent the past two years developing the program and training drone pilots and were able to use it for the first time Wednesday. He said it will be utilized Thursday in the continued search efforts.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with developments and updates from Thursday morning.
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The U.S. Forest Service announced Tuesday it is starting review of Pitkin County’s proposal for a trail between Redstone and McClure Pass. The process will include two chances at public comment.