Yellowstone National Park will review its permitting process after an Occupational Health and Safety Administration investigation into a guide’s drowning found deficiencies in a kayak outfitter’s operations, a park spokeswoman told WyoFile on Monday.
Yellowstone officials have been aware of the OSHA investigation, which cited outfitter OARS West with eight violations and seeks $38,000 in fines for the June 14, 2017, incident, spokeswoman Morgan Warthin said. Wyoming OSHA found that guides were not trained in water rescue, among other things. Yellowstone currently doesn’t require its boating outfitters and guides to be trained in such procedures, Warthin confirmed.
But that could change.
“Based on OSHA’s [report] the park is now looking at and reviewing our permitting process and considering whether we should change,” she said in a telephone interview. “Conducting business in a safe manner is the most important thing.”
Warthin revealed the park’s new thinking after Yellowstone earlier this month released a 102-page report of its own on the deadly incident. The redacted account paints a harrowing picture of a guided touring-kayak party struggling against winds to rescue two members who capsized on Yellowstone Lake.
The Yellowstone report reveals that OARS guide Timothy Conant may have been in the cold waters of West Thumb for 30 minutes before he was pulled unresponsive onto the empty cockpit of a tandem boat. The 23-year-old from Salt Lake City drowned after becoming hypothermic, the park report said, listing only weather and cold as contributing factors. All members of the party had life vests, also known as personal flotation devices or PFDs.
The park report shows that although the three guides who accompanied nine clients on the half-day trip met all park qualifications, none was required to have any knowledge of flatwater rescue methods. Written accounts by party members and rangers document a cascading series of sad events that began when one kayaker — a 62-year-old grandfather — capsized in winds that reached 21 mph.
Rangers’ and kayakers’ accounts detail how guides struggled to get the grandfather back in the boat. They tell of how Conant capsized during the initial rescue attempt and how the remaining two guides towed the grandfather toward shore while Conant was still in the water. The accounts detail a fellow guide’s misunderstanding of Conant’s capacity to get back in his kayak unassisted as the wind blew him farther away from shore.
Accounts and photographs show members of the party did not have spray skirts to keep water from sloshing into their cockpits and how Conant, a first-year guide and the trip leader, was dressed in street clothes. They tell of a failing cell phone employed for a scratchy rescue call to a boyfriend, and of one guide who “had only been in a kayak five times prior in her life before becoming a guide.” The accounts give stark descriptions of unsuccessful resuscitation efforts aboard a Park Service rescue boat and dock, but only a glimpse of what must have been the ensuing emotional chaos.
The tragedy began innocently enough when the party launched from a beach at Grant Village Marina “like any normal day,” as one ranger wrote. The party was paddling 25 yards from shore, “the distance they normally paddle at,” reports say.
But an idyllic four-mile paddle to and from the West Thumb Geyser Basin turned for the worst with a simple event, as described in a written statement by the grandchild of the man who tipped over first; “My PaPa’s Kayka [sic] fell over.”
Conant loved adventures, clean mountain air
Timothy Hayden Ryan Conant grew up in Salt Lake City and Anchorage, and graduated from the University of Utah last spring with degrees in history and anthropology. “Tim lived and breathed skiing … loved adventures in the outdoors and especially liked clean mountain air,” his obituary said. A ski instructor, “you could always find him talking about a recent trip or planning his next one.”
Conant was “a healthy, twenty three year old male, with no known medical conditions,” the Park Service coroner’s report said. His Utah driver’s license shows a smiling, fresh-faced young man. One could imagine his long hair blowing in the backcountry wind.
Two pictures from the trip published in the park report show him at ease in his boat. An dry bag was strapped to his kayak deck behind him, his life vest appears loosely fitted.
The group launched at approximately 2:30 p.m. under sunny skies. Eight clients were in four tandem kayaks. Three guides and the grandfather were in solo boats. But the bluebird nature of the surroundings belied hidden dangers on the largest natural U.S. fresh-water lake above 7,000 feet.
“In Yellowstone, even most sunny summer days will have afternoon winds, typically out of the southwest,” a Yellowstone brochure of boating regulations and safety tips says. “The biggest safety threat of wind is in swamping or capsizing your boat and encountering a situation which could lead to hypothermia and drowning.”
Park officials say 41 persons have drowned in Yellowstone Lake, starting in 1894. “There are more deaths in this category [drowning] than for any other in Yellowstone National Park,” park historian Lee Whittlesey wrote in “Death in Yellowstone.” (He doesn’t include auto wrecks and illness in his catalog of mortalities.) On Yellowstone Lake, “nearly all of those drownings involved a boat or canoe which overturned in one of the sudden windstorms and/or thunderstorms for which Yellowstone Lake is well known.”
The three guides and nine clients on last June’s trip went through “all the procedures before launching, safety talks and precautions,” one OARS guide wrote in a witness statement. A fourth guide stayed at the dock. But a ranger who quizzed one of the guides after the incident learned that she had never trained for a capsizing event.
“I asked if the clients are shown how to wet exit from their kayak and [she] said no,” his statement read. “I asked if the clients are shown or talked through how to get back into their kayaks if they capsize and [the guide] said no. I asked if she had used a paddle float [a self-rescue device] before and she stated no. I asked if that was one of the things [OARS] had covered with her during her training and she stated no. I asked if she had training on how to get someone back into their boat if someone capsized and she stated no.”
Wyoming OSHA last year cited OARS West for eight safety violations related to Conant’s death and seeks $38,672 in fines in an ongoing case. OSHA found that Conant and others were not trained in rescue, not properly clothed and didn’t know how to call for help, among other things.
Yellowstone found the company permit and guide first-aid and CPR certifications in order, no company history of park regulation violations, and no indication that drugs or alcohol played a role in the incident. They found no violations of regulations in the tragedy and issued no citations.
The guest ‘grabbed Tim’s kayak and water spilled in’
“Everything was fine” until some time after 4:46 p.m. when the group was on its return trip, the grandfather who capsized wrote. He was the only client in a solo boat and until then, maneuvering it had not been difficult.
But wind “kept pushing me farther out,” the grandfather wrote. He was at the back of the flotilla, which had separated into two groups. He noticed “excess water” accumulating in his boat, possibly through the open cockpit although he suspected the vessel may have had a leak. The Park Service did not confirm or negate that suspicion. The client used his rudder to turn toward the shore and the group.
“Turning, with the accumulation of water shifting more to the left side of the kayak (I assume), and a gust of wind from the shore (right) sufficiently changed my center of gravity for the left side of the kayak to dip into the water and capsize,” he wrote
The grandfather spent “a few minutes” in the water before two female guides and Conant arrived. The three righted the kayak but it still held water. They got the grandfather into the boat and deployed a small hand pump. But the system wasn’t working well enough. “…[O]ne of the guides said the water was coming in behind me,” the grandfather wrote. Guides talked about getting him to the shore quickly when the situation suddenly worsened, as one of the female guides wrote.
“The guest … grabbed Tim’s kayak and water spilled in,” OARS “Guide 2” wrote in a statement. (All names but Conant’s and the rangers’ were blacked out in the report) “A few seconds later Tim’s kayak flipped over and he was in the water too.”
The women guides began towing the grandfather in his swamped kayak toward shore. But they made poor progress, abandoned his boat and had him hold on to the sterns of their kayaks. One said she assumed Conant knew how to re-enter his kayak, and guessed that her upright colleague believed the same.
As they paddled shoreward, one of the guides called back to Conant to bring “the hypothermia bag,” the grandfather wrote. This emergency kit contained a blanket and cellphone, the reports say. The women guides paddled “very aggressively against a headwind,” the grandfather wrote, and he helped by kicking.
But Conant was still in the water.
When he tipped over, Conant immediately surfaced, “but for some reason did not attempt to get back into his kayak,” the park reports said. Instead, he “just ‘bear hugged’ the upside down kayak,” He did not seem injured, one witness said, but that’s not firmly established.
“There is some speculation on whether Conant may have hit his head on one of the boats as he fell in between them,” one of the 13 responding rangers wrote, “however none of the guides … could confirm or deny this for sure.”
Now the wind bedeviled the party further. It made conditions “extremely challenging” one guide wrote. “When Tim fell in, he was pulled away from shoreline very quickly.”
Guides had told the remaining clients not to help and to stay away and near shore. One noted escalating trouble. “Things did not seem to be going well,” the client wrote. “They were drifting farther towards the middle of the lake, and it appeared 2 persons were in the water.”
The rescue group itself was becoming separated. “Tim was in the water, drifting far from [others],” another client wrote.
With the grandfather’s swamped kayak in tow, the two female guides were making poor progress. After a few minutes the rescuers decided to jettison the swamped kayak “and they would tow me to shore with both paddling and me i[n] the middle holding on to both of their kayaks,” the client wrote.
In that configuration, the three fought a headwind until a pair of clients paddled out to help. With help on the way, one guide turned back to Conant and was surprised to see how far he had been blown — now perhaps 50 yards from her.
She paddled to him and was with Conant for several minutes as he held on to her boat. She made a scratchy call to her boyfriend, an off-duty park ranger, on a dying cell phone at 5:41 p.m., records show.
“He was very cold and incoherent,” the guide wrote. Two clients now paddled to help her as a guide stayed on shore warming the grandfather. Both client-rescuers were lifeguards, one paddling a tandem kayak and the other a guide’s borrowed single boat.
“When we tried to get Tim in the boat multiple times, he was too weak and cold to get in,” the guide on the lake wrote. “Once three people were there, we were able to all pull him in the boat.” Conant was now on or laid across a client’s double kayak that had only one paddler aboard. “We continued to paddle to shore and Tim lost consciousness” the guide wrote. The rafted-up group broke apart kayak paddles and used single blades to paddle. “But the wind again made things very challenging.”
The ‘Eagle’ to the rescue
Other members of the party had begun to paddle back to the Grant Village boat launch to seek help. Along the way they encountered the motorized Yellowstone boat the “Eagle” coming to the rescue. It was “back on the water,” from another operation, dispatch records show, at 6:08 p.m. Rangers went first to the grandfather and guide on the beach and picked them up at 6:18 p.m.
A ranger reported motoring out, reaching the rafted-up group perhaps a quarter mile out at 6:32 p.m., and loading all aboard.
“He was in the water for approximately 30 minutes,” the dispatch log says of Conant. The ranger reported Conant “unconscious and unresponsive,” and requested a life-flight helicopter. At 6:34 the patrol boat raced home to Grant Village Marina broadcasting “Eagle is coming in hot — CPR in process.”
Reports reveal a grim scene at the boat dock with continuing attempts to revive Conant using various first aid and CPR techniques and equipment. At a minute before 8:00 p.m. rescuers pronounced Conant dead.
Yellowstone will learn
There are many what-ifs that loom over the incident and ample room for second guessing. OSHA citations allege six serious worker-safety violations by OARS West and two less significant ones.
Conant was the most experienced of three guides even though it was his first season on the lake, OSHA said. “The guides were not trained in self or buddy rescue techniques for kayaks. The guides were using everyday clothing for extremity protection.
“The guides were not familiar with the company’s emergency response procedures,” the agency said in citing OARS. “The employer should evaluate the rescue training provided to its guides, as well as the training used to familiarize new guides with their duties within the company’s emergency response plan.”
Conant paddled a 14-foot Perception Carolina-model kayak that is sold without a spray skirt, the stretch fabric covering for the cockpit designed to keep sloshing water out. “For longer trips or rougher conditions,” an online owner’s manual says, “a spray skirt is worn by the paddler to create a watertight seal, preventing the cockpit from filling up with water.” There’s no indication any of the kayaks were equipped with spray skirts.
Estimates vary widely regarding how long Conant was out of his boat. One in the party wrote that “it must have been at least 1 ½ – 2 hours.” But rangers generally settled on about 30 minutes as the length of time he was floating before he was pulled out.
Reports put the temperature of the lake between 38 and 40 degrees and the air temperature at 53 degrees. “As a general rule, if air plus water temperatures are less than 120 degrees F then you should wear cold weather exposure gear (wetsuit, foul weather gear, etc),” Yellowstone’s boating regulations and safety guide says. The sum of the two temperatures that day reached no more than 93 degrees — well below the recommended threshold for protective clothing.
“After 5 to 10 minutes in cold water your core body temperature drops, the brain becomes confused and disoriented, and your arms and legs become numb,” the park boating brochure says. “Eventually, if you are unable to get out of the water you will lose consciousness and could die.”
Rangers listed Conant’s experience on the water as “beginner/novice” with “limited skills.” He was guiding under an annually renewed commercial use authorization issued to OARS. Those require only that guides be certified in CPR and First Aid and be trained in “basic safety.”
OARS did not comment for this story, but in a statement soon after the incident called Conant a hero and expressed “deepest sympathies” to his family and friends.
At the National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander, risk management director Drew Leemon said there’s no specific requirement for flatwater guide certification.
“There’s no regulatory body that says to be a sea kayak guide in Wyoming you need to be able to do this, that,” he said. His organization has studied risk extensively and teaches individuals and institutions how to be aware of factors contributing to it and how to reduce threats and react to emergency situations.
In critical incidents “there’s usually a cascade of events, a ripple effect,” that lead to close calls or tragedy, he said. “I think the human side is always a huge part of it.” Yellowstone Lake itself, “is not a hazard until you decide as a person to interact with it.”
The report should help others prevent similar situations, Leemon said. Understanding how incidents happen can help you manage similar incidents toward better outcomes in the future, he said. Now Yellowstone is reviewing its permit requirements.
There may not be many templates for a better system, however. The Superior National Forest, home of the famous Boundary Waters Canoe Area, has no specific rescue-training requirements for flatwater guides, spokeswoman Chris Reichenbach said.
In Canada, sea kayak guides have an alliance that will document and certify training, enabling companies to qualify themselves to lead trips along the coastline of national parks in British Columbia.
The OARS guides on Yellowstone Lake on June 17 last year “had met all of Yellowstone National Park’s requirements,” Warthin said.
Never miss a story — subscribe to WyoFile’s free weekly newsletter
“We are certainly aware of the work that OSHA did,” she said. “That isn’t to say we can’t improve our requirements.”
By press time Yellowstone did not provide WyoFile with OARS’s 2017 application for its commercial authorization nor its pending 2018 application. WyoFile obtained the park incident reports from the National Park Service FOIA reading room website after making a request, likely among several others, under the auspices of the Freedom of Information Act.
For all their details, the Yellowstone incident report and interviews give few clues to the emotional impact of the event. Told in matter-of fact language, there’s little indication of the turmoil some in the group undoubtedly experienced.
One ranger described a distraught paddler back at the boat dock. “I observed a female wet from the waist down, later identified as [redacted] and asked her if she was cold,” the ranger wrote. “[She] was visibly distraught and shivering. I asked her if she was ok and if she needed any medical assistance. She shook her head side to side indicating no and I escorted her to my patrol vehicle and placed her in the front passenger seat with the heat on and doors unlocked…”
Conant’s family and friends still are coming to grips with the events. “Tim’s parents, family, and friends continue to be devastated by his untimely and tragic death and we miss him terribly,” family representative Steve Dwyer wrote in an email.
Flickr creative commons photo by Jeremy Reding some rights reserved.
My first experience with hypothermia was on a July 4th float trip on the upper Green. It was a typical warm July day with the usual afternoon thunder boomers. We got caught in a half hour squall and I got very wet in cotton street clothes. Never forget Cotton Kills!
Got off the river and built a fire but never got fully dry and as a mid twenty year old who had been out the night before partying in Pine doggy I was bullet proof. Boy did I learn a lesson. Had to spend the rest of the float in the bottom of the boat shivering and puking. Took most of the night in a sleeping bag just to get back to normal.
Lesson here… never ever underestimate mother nature’s ability to kill you with no pity.
Angus, another thorough detailed report, thanks.
Keith is right about Yellowstone Lake’s hazards, of course. Dumping in cold water gets you fast- I flipped a dinghy in a half-thawed lake once and was stupid enough to tow it behind me as I swam to shore. Spent the next hour under a scalding shower shivering uncontrollably.
Taking clients out who don’t know how to wet exit requires more courage than I need.
Still, it happens. Ask Doug Tompkins. Be safe, y’all.
The word, “flatwater” probably leads to an illusory assumption of safety. “Open water” might be better. Yellowstone Lake can become the North Atlantic in short order.