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UK mountaineer killed in Alaska whitewater rapid accident

Craig Medred
An English mountaineer who stood atop Mount McKinley only days ago is dead as the result of an accident during a weekend rafting trip on the Kenai Peninsula's Six Mile Creek. Photo via NOVA Alaska

An English mountaineer who stood atop Mount McKinley only days ago is dead as the result of an accident during a weekend rafting trip on the Kenai Peninsula's Six Mile Creek.

Chuck Spaulding, owner of the river-guiding business NOVA Alaska, said Steven Morton died after coming out of a raft on a float down the popular stream on Monday.

Morton was washed out of a boat filled with clients and a guide as they entered a rapid called Zig Zag, just downstream of another well-known Class V rapid called Suckhole.

Morton was a well-conditioned, middle-age man; an Alaska climbing companion earlier this month called him a “physical marvel.” The compliment was paid from a camp 17,200 feet high on Mount McKinley, North America's tallest mountain.

Morton came to Alaska in early May to summit McKinley, and apparently decided to stay and partake in a whitewater rafting adventure before heading home.

The cause of Morton's death wasn't immediately clear. Morton was wearing a drysuit, flotation jacket and helmet at the time he was swept away from the boat, Spaulding said Tuesday. NOVA was "still putting the big picture together,” Spaulding added late Tuesday.

Morton's swimming abilities may have been a factor, though NOVA assesses each rafter’s abilities before guiding them into Six Mile’s canyons, Spaulding said.

Morton was last seen alive floating away from his raft, which was headed out of the powerful whitewater in Six Mile’s third canyon. Spaulding said Morton had done well through the first two canyons of Six Mile and wanted to continue into the third.

Six Mile and other waterways were swelling with snowmelt after Memorial Day weekend as temperatures across Southcentral Alaska shot upward of 70 degrees, some places warmer, after a cooler-than-usual spring. Some rafters running Six Mile reported converting from paddle to oared rafting, mid-trip, in order to better navigate the Class V rapids.

Flushing through Alaska whitewater

By Tuesday, Six Mile had risen so high that it wasn't safe to run. Rafting is temporarily on hold. But high water didn't immediately appear to be an issue in Morton's death. Jay Doyle of the Chugach Outdoor Center in Hope, Alaska, reported running the third canyon's biggest whitewater rapids about an hour after NOVA with no problems.

A whitewater thrill ride about 70 miles southeast of Anchorage, Six Mile has been the scene of some unbelievably close calls and at least three other fatalities over the years:

-- In 1993, Lanier Hays and two friends flipped their raft; Hays was dead when pulled from the creek.

-- In 1997, 60-year-old Dr. Gary Archer, an Alaska-famous travel agent in his day, died in an accident in which a NOVA raft flipped.

-- In 2004, a 52-year-old Outside tourist, guided by Class V of Girdwood, died on the river. Clarence Savage from Chicago was washed out of a raft and temporarily pinned under a log. When he popped out, he was no longer breathing and could not be revived.

-- In 2006, a Nikiski family miraculously survived being flushed through two of the creek’s three canyons.

-- In 2010, a 19-year-old Louisiana woman was knocked unconscious when she hit her head against a rock. She was saved by Chugach Outdoor Center guides.

Faltered in rapids

Before floating down Six Mile, guide companies require their clients to don drysuits, float vests and helmets, then float down the river a ways to see how they will do if they come out of the boat in a rapid. Spaulding said Morton didn't "do particularly well" in NOVA's pre-float assessment, but he passed the test and asked to raft the third canyon.

The guide in charge of the day’s trip told Spaulding that Morton tumbled into a rapid and appeared to be doing reasonably well -- it's common for clients to pop out of boats in whitewater -- but that Morton soon began to falter. Water temperatures were around 40 degrees at the time, and "cold water shock" – which can lead to panic, hyperventilating, water inhalation and other problems – was a possibility once Morton began tumbling around in the rapid. Only minutes passed between the time Morton came out of the boat and was plucked out of the water by other rafters, Spaulding said. 

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com