POWELL — The family of a kayaking guide who died in Yellowstone National Park two years ago is suing the company that employed him, its owners and several of its employees. In the suit, Timothy Conant’s mother alleges that negligence by OARS and its workers caused the 23-year-old’s death.
Conant, of Salt Lake City, fell into Yellowstone Lake on the afternoon of June 14, 2017, while working to help a client whose craft had capsized. Conant was never able to get back into his kayak and remained in the water for an extended period of time, ultimately becoming hypothermic and drowning before rescuers arrived.
It was the first death on the lake in roughly 20 years.
In a complaint filed in Park County’s District Court earlier this month, Conant’s mother, Molly James, contends that OARS breached its duty of care to Conant by “forcing” him to guide a trip in dangerous conditions, sending him out with two other “extremely novice” guides and failing to adequately train all three guides on safety equipment and emergency procedures.
“[T]here was no one on that tour on June 14, 2017, that was properly trained to handle the type of situation that occurred, and which was entirely foreseeable based upon the severe weather conditions and frigid temperatures,” according to a portion of the complaint, filed by Cody attorney Jalie Meinecke.
Conant had been working for OARS for 45 days and was the most experienced of the three guides, though his family said he had “almost no experience kayaking” before joining the company.
Wyoming OSHA, which oversees workplace safety in the state, fined OARS $20,586 in connection with the incident, finding several “serious” violations. OSHA officials said the guides — all in their first year — were not trained in rescue techniques, were not familiar with the company’s emergency response procedures and were wearing only everyday clothing. In its report on the incident, the National Park Service quoted multiple people on the tour as saying that high winds made for “unfavorable kayaking conditions” that afternoon.
A spokesman for OARS did not return a phone message seeking comment on the lawsuit by press time.
OSHA records indicate that Conant’s death was the only time that OARS has been penalized by the agency. The Park Service’s report on the incident said the California-based outfitting company had no recent record of safety violations or any other issues in Yellowstone.
The company’s general manager, Tyler Wendt, told WyoFile last year that OARS made “substantial changes” to its practices after Conant’s death. That included “doubling down” on training, adding “thermal protection” for guides and guests, and having guides bring an inflatable kayak to use in the event of a rescue, WyoFile quoted Wendt as saying.
“We have been wrestling with an adequate operational response since the day it happened and aim to do everything we can to prevent a reoccurrence,” Wendt told the online news outlet.
OARS provides guided experiences across the West and internationally. It’s a licensed concessionaire in both Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone.
On June 14, 2017, Conant and two other guides took a group of nine clients to the West Thumb Geyser Basin. They were on the way back when gusty winds apparently tipped one customer’s kayak over, according to statements included in a Park Service report. The guides got the client back into his kayak, but Conant fell out of his own kayak, possibly hitting his head in the process, the Park Service investigation said. He quickly surfaced and grabbed onto his upside-down kayak with a “bear hug.”
Meanwhile, the client’s kayak remained full of water and he began showing signs of hypothermia, so the guides decided they needed to tow him to shore.
Thinking Conant was OK, the other guides left him behind. One guide said “she thought Conant already knew how to get back into his kayak” and the other said she “had the same assumption,” a park ranger wrote in a later report.
However, Conant never got out of the 38- to 45-degree water. By the time a guide returned to help him, he was floating motionless and appeared confused. The guide used her cellphone to call a ranger for help, but then her phone died. With limited information about who needed to be rescued and where, it took Park Service personnel another 50 minutes to reach Conant.
In the meantime, two other kayakers tried to help rescue Conant, but by the time they got him onto their kayaks, he was unconscious. When a Park Service boat arrived at 6:32 p.m., Conant was not breathing. First responders were unable to revive him.