TheBigOutside Blog

Michael Lanza, creator of and Northwest Editor of Backpacker Magazine, writes about hiking, backpacking, climbing, backcountry skiing, paddling and other self-powered outdoor adventures

Dumbing down adventure, or saving lives?

Staircase Rapid on Idaho’s South Fork Payette River may soon undergo a facelift, and the proposed surgery has spurred a vigorous debate about whether we should alter whitewater to make it safer. It has also instigated the predicable bleats of righteous indignation from the shirtless chest-beater set, who don’t yet know the difference between living fully and dying stupidly.

Controversies like this tend to represent larger ethical principles for many people who are passionate about their outdoor sport. For those of us who’ve lost a friend in an outdoor activity, these stories can also carry extra weight: a reminder of a loss that, maybe, was avoidable.

As reported recently in a story in High Country News, an outfitter proposed removing a large and dangerous boulder from the class III-IV Staircase Rapid, where a 45-year-old rafting guide named Dean Fairburn drowned in 2007. Although fatalities there are rare, close calls aren’t: 15 to 20 boats wrap on that boulder every season.

This situation isn’t unique. The HCN story also notes that last July, “23-year-old river guide Kimberly Appelson became the fourth person since 2000 to drown in a more notorious, natural sieve in Frog Rock Rapids on Colorado’s Arkansas River. This fall, officials there also considered tweaking the rapid to make it safer—rousing yet more debate.”

As the story points out, the boulder in Staircase Rapid isn’t natural: The Army Corps of Engineers reconstructed the rapid after a mudslide blocked the river in 2001. This fall, with the river level low, Tom Long, whose family operates Cascade Raft and Kayak, obtained a permit from the state to alter the rapid. This released a waterfall of comments from whitewater boaters, some of whom feel that humans shouldn’t engineer a rapid to suit their desires. Cascade Outfitters hosted a meeting Oct. 11, attended by more than 80 people. According to this blog post, Tom Long proposed an alternative to removing the rock: repositioning it to eliminate the dangerous sieve that creates the hazard. A show of hands reportedly found six people opposed to moving the rock, six undecided, and the great majority in favor of that plan.

Cynics might say that Tom Long was worried about his company’s liability in taking clients down that river, but I wouldn’t give that idea much play. I think he’s probably been around whitewater and Staircase Rapid for enough years to have seen too many accidents, and a few tragedies, that might have been avoided. He deserves credit for his sensible solution and the way he invited others to participate in the decision.

Many people will disagree. Comments on the HCN story included the usual platitudes expressing principled outrage at any suggestion of “dumbing down” a wild river. Here are just a few shining examples:

“Let’s keep the wild alive in our rivers and allow the rapids to remain dangerous.”

“Meet the wilderness on its own terms and accept the consequences.”

“Hell, life is transient. People assume that risk when they engage in dangerous activities… My cousin drowned in a strainer. While it was sad, at least he died doing something he loved. Better than most of us get.”

Uh, yea. I don’t quite grasp how someone dying prematurely in any accident is “better than most of us get.” When I hear or read this sort of bloviating, I get the same visceral reaction as when I walk into a bathroom after someone who should have turned on the fan but didn’t.

These objections can seem at first to make sense—until you look closely at a specific situation.

In Staircase Rapid, one boulder creates a serious hazard. People know about it, and sure, you can choose not to run it. But this is a fairly popular and accessible river, and this boulder regularly gets boaters in trouble—even, occasionally, guides. Removing that hazard does not fundamentally change the river or the experience of running it.

I’m reminded of a popular bolted route at my favorite climbing area. A few years ago, a climber died in a leader fall off it. The climbing ranger there subsequently added a bolt to shorten a potential leader fall in that spot. Some climbers object to adding a bolt, resuscitating the thumb-sucker argument that the “visionary” dirtbag who originally bolted the route—using as little hardware as possible to save himself a few bucks for Pabst Blue Ribbon cans—ought to have the final word on how safe it is for scores of climbers who follow.

I’ve climbed that route many times, both before and after the bolt was added. No single move was made easier, of course—it’s still a thrilling, steep friction climb that inspires the sort of hyper-focus that, to me, is the essence of climbing. The only real difference made by the additional bolt is that, just maybe, lives will be saved.

Tom Long may be saving lives, too.

We all bring personal bias to this conversation. Mine is partly shaped by seeing a friend die on an alpine rock climb, and on another occasion being the first to discover the body of a climber, a stranger, who had just fallen to his death in the mountains. (I’m writing about risk outdoors and my friend’s death for a future issue of Backpacker Magazine.) Climbing, whitewater paddling, even hiking—these activities all carry inherent risks, true. We acknowledge and accept those risks, of course. But we also strive to minimize them.

When I’m climbing, I don’t pass a bolt without clipping it or ignore an opportunity to place a needed piece of gear for protection. I love skiing the backcountry, but I certainly don’t need to seek out high avalanche hazard to make it exciting. Park managers build bridges across creeks that would be dangerous for hikers to ford. That constitutes engineering some risk out of nature, but what sensible person would bypass the bridge to ford that creek?

I’ve grown a little weary of the attitude that unnecessary hazard is synonymous with thrill and challenge. It’s not. Blurring that distinction might not only bring more trouble than you want, it may keep you from fully realizing the basic joy in moving fluidly up a cliff or steering a kayak through big waves. It’s not about taunting death. It’s actually the very opposite of that.

Please spare me the hand-wringing over this “slippery slope” we’re careening down toward converting all whitewater runs or climbing routes into “amusement parks.” Right. And I’m going to see a wooly mammoth in Yosemite next summer. This is a pretty easy call: When we recognize one specific, severe hazard, and it has already resulted in at least one tragedy, it makes sense to at least consider a slight change that could save lives.

I hope questions like this always engender opinionated conversations; they lead to better decisions. But it should tell us something that most of the climbers, whitewater kayakers, and others who take extreme risks are young men, while people who engage in these activities for many years often eventually decide that some rivers or climbs they used to do are just too dangerous. This suggests a truth the insurance industry has known for a long time: Maturity is a good way to live longer.

When someone dies in an avoidable accident, there’s only hollow consolation in saying that person would not accede to “dumbing down” his activity. A tragedy only exposes comments like that as the empty clichés they are.

(See stories,  photos, and multi-media about muscle-powered outdoor adventures in the U.S. and around the world at



  Matt Solar wrote @

Good post – I always love this debate as the outdoors are becoming a larger part of so many people’s lives.

To continue our Twitter conversation, for me, it’s not about maintaining a perceived risk (although that does ad to the allure for many) but it’s about maintaining the wilderness in as close to a natural state as possible.

As far as the definition of “wilderness”, I’ve seen some amazing vista from a couple strides off a well-paved road (the Grand Canyon being the epitome of this). I should hope that doesn’t qualify them for being altered.


  thebigoutside wrote @

Hi Matt, thanks for the comment. I think we agree on many details. These situations deserve to be looked at individually, as I say above. The South Rim, as an example, has an amazing view OF wilderness, but it’s not IN wilderness. Certainly, it’s been heavily altered–there are roads, parking lot, buildings. But we’d be crazy to even consider altering anything about the actual wilderness of the Grand Canyon.

  Ryan wrote @

I would like to know how many of the deaths you mentioned were on commercial versus private trips. Beginning whitewater boaters usually have well developed instincts for scouting and possibly carrying their boat around intimidating rapids rather than running them. Its good to have the occasional rapid of consequence because it trains those new to whitewater navigation to consider consequences, something that becomes drastically more important as they travel to different rivers and unfamiliar runs.
I’m all for safety, like you I never pass a bolt, but you start to set a dangerous precedent that I’d sooner not see happen where a rapid can be altered rather than respected. Class III -IV is not a beginners rapid, so this is not like placing bolts so much as its like chipping holds on a classic 5.11a to make it climbable by 5.9 climbers. What would your ethics say about that?

  thebigoutside wrote @

Hi Ryan,
I’m entirely opposed to chipping holds under any circumstances. But I don’t see a parallel between chipping, the purpose of which is to make a climb easier, and removing a boulder that poses a hazard arguably greater than anything else there, and proven so. The better parallel in climbing is my example above of adding a bolt to a route where someone fell and died–it doesn’t make the route easier, just safer. Staircase won’t be easier if the boulder is shifted; it’ll still be a challenging run. It could be safer. That’s an important distinction.
Here’s another question to consider: Does it make sense to be move concerned about the ethics of altering a “wild” river (which has already been reconstructed) than the ethics of leaving in place a manufactured hazard that’s a known danger to people?

  Ryan wrote @

I reject your parallel because whitewater grades are more like the British E grades than the yosemite decimal grades for climbing. The difficulty of the move, the chances of falling off line, and the consequences of missing the line all contribute to the grade. A class IV rapid without consequence might very well not be a class IV rapid.
I’d still rather have a rapid that boaters would approach, scout, consider and make their own call on rather than a rapid people will just bounce their way through. Sometimes portaging is part of the experience.

As for the river’s wilderness status, when does previous intervention stop justifying intervention? When is too much; too invasive; too little? Admittedly, I don’t really know. So I just say don’t.

I don’t want to sound callous towards losses on the river because anyone involved with the scene will be able to tell you about the friends they’ve lost. I just think there’s more to be gained from education and training on the part of commercial outfitters and schools than from altering rivers. This would be exactly the wrong way to go about addressing the problem.

  Jim wrote @

Well said….I have been watching this debate from afar since it has started. As long time paddler I could not agree more. I have tried to see this through the eyes of an outfitter as well as a private boater. After working as a guide for more than 20 years in the rafting industry I wonder if the chest beaters as you say look at from the perspective of a client who may have never been in a raft before. That client trusts the outfitter and the guides to get them safely down the river. Of course they assume the risk, sign the release form, etc… But Tom Long has a responsibility to his clients and to remove a rock that was placed by man (remember that chest beaters) is a wise move. Long has approached it correctly and fairly too, by brining it to the table for discussion. It’s a good move.

  Jo Ann wrote @

This is a hard one for me. Not the boulder issue – for gosh sakes, move the darn thing! The river’s ecology won’t be harmed, and river guides will breath easier. If the thrill set want a dangerous course, there are still plenty of rivers to choose from.
My concern is the growing public demand to regulate activities that are perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be dangerous. For the most part, outdoor recreation has escaped mind-numbing restrictions, but the line between an individual’s right to risk his or her neck and the public’s right to interfere for the general good is by no means clear. Rescues cost money and put rescuers at risk, while injury and death affect health care, insurance rates and productivity.
I claim the right to face risk with skill and knowledge because my life of adventure has been incredibly rich. Do I also have the right to be stupid? And who is going to judge the actual risk or my ability to face it? Every time I announce that I’m going solo backpacking in the mountains, some city dweller asks me if I’m not afraid of bears. I don’t want that mentality deciding my right to go into an environment where bears are one of the lesser risks that I face.
Like you, Mike, I have lost friends in climbing accidents. Most knew what they were doing and accepted the risk – and that is the only comment I will make about their deaths. Now that I have reached my seventies, I would far rather my obituary said that I died doing what I loved than that I died after a courageous battle with cancer.

  thebigoutside wrote @

The thoughtfulness going into comments like those above, and others I’ve received via email, illustrate the passion people feel for their outdoor activities. I, too, am wholeheartedly opposed to regulation of risk sports. That would be a nightmare. But I also fear the opposite extreme. We shouldn’t be so dogmatic in our beliefs about natural environments that we can’t see the good sense in moving a boulder–in a rapid that was constructed by people in the first place–that’s a proven, deadly hazard. People shouldn’t die in order to preserve some misguided ethic.

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