Taos County crew completes risky recovery in Río Grande Gorge

Body identified as Columbus, Mississippi man

By John Miller
jmiller@taosnews.com
Posted 11/5/19

A recovery crew hazarded a mission into one of the most rugged sections of the Río Grande Gorge near Taos early Sunday morning (Nov. 3) to retrieve the body of Chris Oswalt, a 62-year-old Columbus, Mississipi man who died after attempting to kayak the Taos Box late last month.

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Taos County crew completes risky recovery in Río Grande Gorge

Body identified as Columbus, Mississippi man

Posted

A recovery crew hazarded a mission into one of the most rugged sections of the Río Grande Gorge near Taos early Sunday morning (Nov. 3) to retrieve the body of Chris Oswalt, a 62-year-old Columbus, Mississipi man who died after attempting to kayak the Taos Box late last month.

"He lived his life to have fun in the outdoors," said Oswalt's friend and hunting partner, Alan Hall, who added that Oswalt was raised on the Tom Bigsbee River in Columbus. "He came out to New Mexico every year. He would make it his annual trip. Sometimes he would stay a month, and sometimes he would stay up to three months."

Though he knew his friend to be adventurous, Hall said he was shocked to learn that Oswalt's body had been found in the gorge west of Taos late last month near the Taos Box, a set of Class IV rapids respected by even the most experienced river guides in New Mexico.

“Him being by himself? That didn’t surprise me,” Hall said. “He loved to kayak, but he’d done it alone a lot. I think the deal of it is that he just didn’t know what he was getting into."

That's also what John Nettles, a member of Taos Search and Rescue, suspected when he came across Oswalt's frozen remains while kayaking Oct. 27 several-hundred feet below the steep – and in many places sheer – slopes of the canyon.

While the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator has yet to determine Oswalt’s official cause of death, Nettles said it appeared the man had fallen from a cheap kayak and later died of a fall while attempting to climb out of the canyon.

Nettles said Oswalt was wearing only a flannel shirt, blue jeans and leather cowboy boots when he died. Photos on Oswalt’s Facebook page, however, show the 62-year-old standing next to a kayak wearing a wetsuit.

Following a week of planning, Nettles and two other members of Taos Search and Rescue set out downriver in two boats around 8 a.m. Sunday morning from John Dunn Bridge, the same location where they suspect Oswalt began his ill-fated trip.

Water levels flowed at just 300 cubic feet per second when Oswalt’s body was found, but that rate had dropped even lower by the time the water team started out on Sunday, leaving exposed rocks in the team’s path and lengthening the time to complete the trip.

As the boats started downstream, Taos County Undersheriff Steve Miera, Taos Search and Rescue President Delinda VanneBrightyn and 10 other crew members hiked around a spiral-shaped rock shelf at the west rim several miles to the south.

From there, they descended a precipitous 400-foot field of scree that leads to the river. On the way down, VanneBrightyn slipped on the loose ground and slid into a boulder, injuring her knee. While a radio crew at the rim briefly discussed lifting her out with a helicopter or sending her downstream on one of the boats, VanneBrightyn opted to continue on in spite of an injury that worsened throughout the day.

Once at the river, the ground crew hiked about a half-mile downstream to where Oswalt’s body lay on the opposite bank near a steep cliff. Part of the team scaled the rocks to take photos of the body while VanneBrightyn and other responders forded the river in an inflatable raft to begin packaging the remains into a body bag.

The ground team helped load the body into one of the rafts, which then navigated the remainder of whitewater in the Taos Box and reached the Taos Junction Bridge by around 4:30 p.m., VanneBrightyn estimated.

She and Miera both agreed that the recovery was one of the most dangerous they have done yet in a region filled with wilderness areas where people get lost, injured or killed every year.

“It was a very intense rescue,” VanneBrightyn said. “I think that we’re all grateful that everyone made it back safely because of the dangers both on the steep slopes and the river.”

She said her team will likely only make the same descent again in the case of a rescue mission, where a life is at risk and time is a more significant factor.

“Anything could happen easily on that descent, where a person could get in real trouble,” she said. “Quite frankly, that’s why we had a subject there to bring out, because people don’t realize the severity and the dangers of the gorge,” she added. “And I think that they take it much too lightly and therefore people perish, sadly.”

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