“I dare you to find a cooler trip,” Doug Ponce, a senior guide with Mountain Waters Rafting, challenged his customers before hitting the revered, if not notorious, rapids of the Upper Animas River.
And he might be right.
Just to reach the runnable stretch of the Upper Animas is an adventure, requiring those seeking a thrill to hop aboard the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
For years, the railroad has offered to haul boaters and their gear up to one of the four “put-ins” at Silverton, Needleton, Tacoma Power Plant and Rockwood Gorge.
Aside from embarking on a grueling hike – carrying rafts, kayaks, food and, of course, the celebratory beer, the train is about the only way to access the roaring rapids of the Upper Animas.
Then, after taking in the dramatic scenery of the train's slow ride into the San Juan Mountains, rafters are faced with up to 30 miles of Class IV/V continuous rapids, known for their bitterly cold water, punishing flows and rocky river bottom.
Hundreds of visitors from all over the world each year pay for the experience. Over the years, commercial rafting companies have fine-tuned how they offer trips, slowly edging toward a more cautious approach.
As Mountain Waters founder Casey Lynch explained a few years ago, the Upper Animas is the only two-day, Class V run in the Southwestern United States, with the highest commercial launch in the U.S. at 9,000 feet, which requires travel in an 1880s steam train along the edge of the largest wilderness in Colorado.
But it wasn't always that way.
Scouting the Upper Animas River for raft runs began in the summer of 1981, when Wayne Walls, owner of the now-defunct Rocky Mountain Outpost, decided he wanted to open up the more than 100 continuous rapids in the Upper Animas, which, at the time, was considered kayak-only.
“We wanted to prove that a raft could make it, and we did,” Walls told The Durango Herald in 2012.
Over the summer, Walls invited more local rafters to join him on the excursion, and he learned the nuances of the river. That same year, Rocky Mountain Outpost was offering the first commercial rafting trips on the Upper Animas.
Then, in the mid-1990s, new boating technology truly changed the game. Whereas “bucket boats” required two people to bail water from the boat, while two people paddled and one rowed, the introduction of self-bailers (which essentially drain themselves through the floor of the raft) opened up the Upper Animas.
“They revolutionized what we were doing out there,” Dave Eckenrode of Mountain Waters said in 2012.
Three local companies – 4 Corners Whitewater, Mild to Wild Rafting and Mountain Waters Rafting – received permits with the railroad, and rafting the upper stretches of the Animas River blew up – but not without a price.
Lynch said in a previous interview there's a trend on newly discovered rivers: People push the envelope with new technology and confidence, then tragedy hits and that pulls back.
In 2005, the rafting community was delivered a grievous blow when a Mild to Wild guide and his passenger drowned after their raft flipped in Ten Mile Slide Rapid. On June 26, 2009, Laurie Clemmons, 35, of Mont Belvieu, Texas, died after she and the other passengers, in a raft guided by of 4 Corners Whitewater, entered the rapid backward and fell into the water.
While the rafting community reeled from the devastating event, commercial user days on the Upper Animas also plummeted – from 872 visitors in 2005 to just 167 in 2006.
The traumatic experience not only hit the hearts of everyone in the rafting community, it also prompted companies to reassess how they approach trips in the unforgiving rapids.
And, by all accounts, they've done a successful job. In 2014, the number user days on the Upper Animas was back up to 678, and, more importantly, no one has died in a commercial trip since 2009.
Ponce said customers interested in rafting the Upper Animas must first go through an extensive approval process. They are required to have rafting experience, be in good physical condition and be able to swim.
For clients who seem unsure of their ability, Ponce said he'll put them through a swim test, which basically involves throwing them into the whitewater park in Durango to see how they handle the chaos of falling off of a boat.
Companies are also more selective about when they run the river, even if it limits the period commercial trips can operate, said Matt Wilson, owner of 4 Corners Whitewater. Wilson said the most preferable flows are around 1,200 cubic feet per second, and he's canceled trips if gauges are over 1,500 cfs.
Depending on the section of river, the season generally starts in May. For a few weeks in June, the river is too high to run, then the season resumes in late June and July and sometimes extends into August.
“Over the years, these three companies have really come up with a pretty good protocol to run it safely,” Wilson said.
And for good reason.
For all the Upper Animas' notoriety in the boating world, one thing rings true: It is one of the most beautiful, chaotic, exhilarating, unpredictable, remote, magical, wild – the list goes on – raftable rivers in the country.
“It's one of the top-10 runs in the country,” said Aaron Lombardo, who runs safety kayak in the Upper Animas. “At higher flows, you can't beat it. It's full-on whitewater all day long.”
However, despite the legendary status of the Upper Animas, the stretch remains relatively unknown and overlooked. Though, taking into account its relative inaccessibility and extreme physical challenge, it's not hard to see why.
“It's just not the sort of run you hop on more casually,” said Kent Ford, a local kayaker. “It's a very long and committing ride with pretty good odds of ending in a hail storm. It just deters some folks.”
Yet for locals, the Upper Animas remains a world-class rapid in their backyard.
“It's the location that keeps it a hidden gem,” said Lombardo. “And I think all the companies are making safe choices when to go and when not to go. When we're up there on the same day, there's no competition. We all have each other's backs.”
This story has been updated to include the 2009 death of Laurie Clemmons, 35, of Mont Belvieu, Texas, in Ten Mile Rapid.