Should We Tear the Top Off a Mountain Because Someone Fell Off?

Post by blogger | September 8, 2010      

Kimberly Appelson’s body is still missing and presumed caught in an underwater sieve in Frog Rock Rapid on the Arkansas River here in Colorado. The Arkansas is a popular rafting destination that supports a healthy whitewater industry. Part of the appeal of whitewater is of course the risk, but how much risk is acceptable?

At least six deaths have occurred on the Arkansas in the last decade, with several high profile accidents caused by the sieve.

To find Appelson, it appears authorities may bring in heavy equipment to divert the river and complete the ongoing search. Apparently it wouldn’t take but a few touches with a large track-hoe bucket to eliminate the sieve, and sentiment seems to be building to do so.

But the dangerous Frog Rock sieve is a natural feature. In that sense, altering the river bed because of accidents would be like tearing the top off a mountain because people fell of. Or is a river different? Is rafting a business and activity of “perceived risk” that gets the adrenaline flowing but is really intended to be no more dangerous than sitting in your yard?

Interesting ethical question. Sort of along the lines of many other backcountry use dilemmas, as in “just because we can do it, should we?” Your thoughts, dear readers?

Newspaper article here.


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19 Responses to “Should We Tear the Top Off a Mountain Because Someone Fell Off?”

  1. Smokey September 8th, 2010 10:57 am

    What about features that are created on river beds to make play waves? Lot of equipment and money go into these wave parks…and I still don’t understand the point. Altering natural, physical features for fun or safety is against my enviro ethics. My two cents…

  2. Curt Moore September 8th, 2010 11:07 am

    Lou, As a back country skier and kayaker-river-rat of 30 years I accept the risks of avalanches, injuries & self-rescues on the mtn and log jams, sieves, keeper hydraulics on Class 4- 5 rivers. After reading 100+ posts about the Arkansas Rio sieve, I’d say simple comparisons within skiing, climbing, & mountaineering will not likely do justice to the unique set of factors at Frog Rock. If moving a couple rocks is the key complaint, then consider how chairlifts and trail grooming, forest clearing, cat tracks, and wildfire mitigation already impacts the environment. Sport climbing areas have trails, top anchors and in-route protection- if climbers and skiers take the hardline approach about moving rocks at Frog Rock, then are they have to acknowledge their double-standard using drilled protection, chairlifts,boundary fencing, pads around lift towers, via ferreta, fixed ropes, ect. Clearing and grubbing for snowmobile tracks & parking also has an impact. All those things make bring otherwise dangerous activities become reasonable risks and possible at all. Frog Rock is like a beginner climbing wall that has some rotten rock on it that needs to be cleaned off to make it reasonable to beginners and family-types. Not all rivers or mountain routes need to be sanitized for protection, but a couple spots where non-obvious death traps exist in the midst of the most popular learning terrain- that does not make sense. At least put up visible signage like a ski area (skull and cross bones?) that this is a non-obvious danger on a popular run. .

  3. Mark W September 8th, 2010 11:07 am

    Tough call, but altering one dangerous feature of the river certainly won’t make it any arguably safer, will it?

  4. Lou September 8th, 2010 1:50 pm

    Curt, excellent points!

  5. Ed September 8th, 2010 3:44 pm

    Can’t resist . . regarding altering watercourses. This has been done many times in maritime environments where natural features pose a hazard to navigation. One of the largest that comes to mind is Ripple Rock – see:
    Others that come to mind are dredging operations for harbours or in our own City of Calgary, re-constructing a man-made weir on the Bow River which has claimed many rafter’s lives over the years due to undertow – see:
    So I believe there’d be ample precedent for removal of Frog Rock or other underwater features which may continue to pose a similar “hazard to navigation”, especially one that’s non-obvious from the water as pointed out above, and on a river commercially in use by rafting companies. Just my 2 highly devalued Canadian cents worth . . .

  6. Erik September 8th, 2010 4:57 pm

    Interesting story… I would pose a question SAT style:

    If “resort skiing : boating rivers with manmade features”, then “backcountry skiing : boating natural rivers” Right?

    Resort skiing involves all the things Curt wrote about (all great points), while backcountry skiing usually involves only the skier’s knowledge, skill, & gear. All inherent risk remains. I think the comparison to manmade vs. natural river features is logical.

    Although highly unfortunate as accidents are (I’ve had a few close calls, and lost one acquaintance to the Colorado River), must we sanitize the last remnants of actual risk that remain in modern society? I vote no, for what it’s worth. Got me thinking! Thanks Lou

  7. Mark September 8th, 2010 5:41 pm

    I’m real leery of modifications for the sake of safety, but, first, there is certainly a precedent for it, and second, I’m not so sure there is really a slippery slope. Natural features are modified all the time, such as rock scaling for motorists for example. Another relevant case is Yosemite Valley, where woody strainers are annually hauled from the calm river sections where family boating occurs (but not from areas where boating is restricted), with some attendant controversy. But mainly I see that the cost alone of most “modifications” will keep them from being commonplace to protect small numbers of recreation users (unlike, for example, the millions of motorists on scenic highways). Sometimes in our workaday lives it seems that there is an obsession with with safety, but really, isn’t there still a vast wilderness out there to thrill you and kill you well beyond the marked, groomed trails?

  8. Njord September 8th, 2010 7:31 pm

    Interestingly enough, the Euros put up warning signs on their rivers and man-made wiers…


  9. Jon Lowe September 8th, 2010 9:32 pm

    I think that one must respect the circle of family and friends of Kimberly. If the river is altered somewhat in the Frog Rock area then perhaps it could be thought of as a memorial of sorts. Whatever the intervention, it should certainly be executed in a manner that minimizes negative environmental impacts. However, I don’t think that the intrinsic value of that piece of river on the Arkansas trumps the spirit of the proposed earth movin’.

  10. Charlie September 8th, 2010 11:10 pm

    Interesting that there’s no apparent objection to the construction of the cofferdam, which may be quite destructive to the riverbed. It’s a pretty extreme measure for a body recovery. Looking at the gauge, it looks like the river is approaching its lowest level for the year; may the body be retrievable without excavation.

    As a former avid paddler, I’m opposed to the idea of fundamentally altering the character of a rapid, but it’s hard to pinpoint why a single alteration would be inherently bad. It’s dangerous primarily in precedent-setting. I can think of tens of places where a riverbed alteration could mitigate known lethal hazard. Initiation Rapid on the Upper Gauley springs immediately to mind. Quartzite Falls does too, but someone blew it up….

    Rivers have strainers and sieves, and no amount of alteration will make them all go away. It’s easy to avoid dying in them, just as it’s easy to avoid avalanche hazard; don’t get caught, even if it means walking the drop or staying home. The most dangerous single incident of my paddling life was a near pin in a known low-water sieve in Brown’s Canyon lower on the Arkansas. I do not wish for it to be ripped out of the river.

    The Arkansas will still be the Arkansas if someone moves a rock, but we should be very careful that we don’t move too many.

  11. Lou September 9th, 2010 7:38 am

    Charlie, good points. Like many folks commenting here I take the middle ground. My main view is that each alteration needs to be carefully considered.

    It’s also interesting that this brings up the issue of us really being stewards of the planet. People can yammer all day long about letting nature be nature, but reality on the ground is quite different. We alter rivers for recreation, drill bolts for climbing, put signs and bridges in legal Wilderness… it’s all a matter of degree.

  12. wilbur September 9th, 2010 8:03 am

    A similar incident occurred 10-15 years ago on section 5 of the Chattooga…where a hiker/backpacker slipped and fell into the river while crossing Raven’s Chute. The body remained lodged in an undercut for some time while the family tried to convince the government to temporarily divert the river with a cofferdam and then permanently alter the obstruction. This is a listed National Wild and Scenic river and much of the same controversy ensued. The plan to alter the river was shot down.
    I remember my anger and outrage at the thought of this family wanting to destroy a beloved sanctuary and “holy ground” for me where I worked and first learned to paddle.
    I do have kids now and I can empathize with a mom or dad who may be placed in this situation, and Curt’s logic for me hits the nail right on the head.
    Should we tear off the top of a mountain because someone fell off? No. But it might be ok to trundle a small boulder off the side if the relative benefits outweigh the consequences.

  13. Greg September 9th, 2010 8:08 am

    At least in the Northeast, nearly every river paddlers frequent has been dammed, bridged, and rerouted several times over. Many of the worst hazards are old dams, undercut bridge abutments, leftover rebar, log cribs, and other man-made features. The case for mitigating or eliminating these hazards is pretty clear, in my opinion.

    Natural hazards require a little more thought. Strainers are probably the most frequent hazard and also the easiest to deal with, but they provide important wildlife habitat. Sieves and undercuts are a less critical part of the river ecosystem but often require heavy equipment to mitigate the hazard.

    These hazards require a more involved decision making process. Does the hazard make the river entirely unrunnable (river-wide strainer in a gorge with no portage option), or just dangerous (undercut along river left bank, stay right at all cost)? Is the hazard isolated (one deadly sieve on an otherwise beginner-friendly section of river) or typical of the section of the river (steep creek with lots of places to get pinned)? Does the river run along a road for its entire length, or it is largely in a wilderness (or Wilderness) setting?

  14. Mark September 9th, 2010 7:34 pm

    As a guy who works in the land management business, it is heartening to read comments from folks with nuanced, compromise perspectives – I wish more of the issues we deal with were framed by folks who saw more than just their side.

  15. Mason September 10th, 2010 9:42 pm

    Consider that almost every single class 3 or higher rapid on the Ark (40 of them?) is there because of riverbed alteration due to railroad construction, roads, and dams. Move the sieve, it’s a pointless rapid.

  16. Jacob September 11th, 2010 10:57 pm

    From what I’ve read, it doesn’t seem that Frog Rock is a strictly natural feature, meaning that mankind has added/detracted from the natural river flow here and in many other places along the Ark already.

    I am a boater, wild & scenic as well as the man made play parks, I’m also a backcountry and resort skier, I think the argument of altering Frog Rock would be more like shifting one boulder rather than an entire mountain top, makes sense to me, especially since this section of the Ark is largely considered as an easy/learner stretch with one tremendously dangerous rock that doesn’t look at all dangerous at the most dangerous & rather common flows. I won’t be standing on the side of the river with a picket sign either way, but I won’t cry either way if it’s altered or left in place since while the river is beautiful it could hardly be considered wilderness.

    If anyone wants more along the line of boater perspectives there are a couple of fairly extensive threads on related to Miss Appelson’s accident, recovery efforts, and internet speculation and arguments on altering the riverbed. Lou, if you do not want the links here please remove them, ask me to delete them, whatever. I’m hopefully just contributing something worthwhile to this discussion.

    Accident on the Ark.

    Frog Rock Thread

  17. Breckenridge September 14th, 2010 11:04 am

    I feel sorry for Kimberly, but altering the Frog Rock sieve doesn’t make sense. What should be done is making sure people are absolutely aware of the inherent danger.

  18. XXX_er September 14th, 2010 1:58 pm

    Every year we get people floating the local river when it gets hot enough , last year we had a drunk 200lb teenager go under a 50ft logjam on a pool toy ,fortunatley she did not have a PFD , got a few scraped and bruises but flushed

    she told the police and SAR they should move that thing on monday cuz its very dangerous

    my point is that there are many things you need to move in the great outdoors to make it safer , rocks,trees,logjams …. where do you stop ?

    I think they should wait for the river to give up its dead

  19. pioletski September 14th, 2010 3:21 pm

    I just returned from a 1 week trip running the Main Salmon in Idaho. At least 2 rapids that I know of on the section we ran have been altered by explosives, both in response to deaths on the river. In spite of the alterations, several more people have lost their lives on the same section (not necessarily the same spot), including a couple this past spring. Altering the riverbed will not make the river completely safe, and may not even make Frog Rock safer – so where do you draw the line? I would favor improved signage and education, and possibly restrictions on commercial trips based on river flows, but I would suggest that the river itself should be left alone.

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