Whitewater river junkies know the name well.
Aspen's Slaughterhouse section of the Roaring Fork River is considered to be among the best (and most terrifying) class IV rafting in the state. It's four miles of sustained adrenaline and difficulty, and the renowned Slaughterhouse Falls, a stomach-dropping, six-foot ledge, menacingly waits half a mile below the put-in.
Also known simply as 'Slaughter,' it's one of Colorado's most popular whitewater rafting destinations for its convenience to Aspen—the put in is just five miles from the downtown area. If you're looking for an exhilarating and refreshing rush this summer, there's no better place to test your mettle than Slaughterhouse.
Though the timeframe for running Slaughterhouse depends on snowmelt and rainfall, typically the season lasts from late-May through June, with mid-June usually being the ideal time to experience the best whitewater; some especially strong seasons last until early August. And because the Roaring Fork is a freestone river, which means it has no dams, water flow is dictated by snow melt. This spring saw a lot of late snow, which means the rafting season in Aspen will stretch a little longer.
We caught up with a couple of local experts, Elk Mountain Expeditions co-owner Lange Adams and Blazing Adventures co-owner Tim McMahon, for some tips on this rowdy section of river, including intel on what to expect, what to do if you fall out, and why you should tackle the adventure now.
Know What to Expect
Slaughterhouse's class IV classification means lots of aggressive paddling, technical maneuvering, and a higher risk of falling into the water—all in all, an adrenaline-filled excursion that might not be the best choice for timid types with limited experience in water.
For McMahon, a good way to assess whether prospective clients are comfortable with the idea of running Slaughterhouse is when they call for more information on Blazing Adventures' rafting trips.
“If they say they want a lot of splashy water, they want the boat to get wet, but they're looking for something maybe not as risky, then they’re probably better suited to Class III,” McMahon says. “If, when you’re saying that it’s very fun but very technical, lots of waves and rocks, you’ll be pushing hard, and they’re responding with ‘yeah, yeah, uh-huh,’ then that person is ready for Slaughterhouse,” he says.
McMahon notes that you don't have to have prior class IV experience, but that beginners "need to be athletic and fairly comfortable with aggressive swimming, because once you enter that that class IV section, the risk of going swimming goes up.”
Above all, experts say, being realistic and honest about your skill level is paramount while deciding if Slaughter is something you should attempt. Says McMahon: “It really is a partnership, because the guide can’t do everything."
After doling out wetsuits, helmets, paddles, and pdfs (personal floatation devices), a debrief before getting on the river is protocol before getting on the water, says Adams.
"We have a safety speech with all clients, which is essentially all the 'what if's of rafting, including what if I fall out of the raft, what if the boat flips, and we teach the clients how to most efficiently deal with any potential situation as it arises," Adams says. "Clients also get a separate speech on the how to's of rafting, also known as a paddle talk, teaching people how to stay in the boat, how to paddle effectively, and how to work as a team."
Here, some highlights of what you'll be expected to do on the river, all of which are especially important while running Slaughterhouse Falls itself:
- Know your commands and follow them. When the guide says "right," paddle right.
- Paddle effectively. Get that paddle deep into the water.
- Paddle as a team. Keep an eye on the cadence of how fast the others in your raft are paddling and try to paddle at the same pace.
What To Do If You Fall Out
Falling out of the raft (going swimming) or even the entire raft flipping are well within the realm of what's possible on Slaughterhouse (and any Class IV rapids), but it's not a reason to panic. Remember, you're wearing a pdf, helmet, and wet suit. Your guide will give you detailed instructions on how to get yourself back in the raft or to the shore safely, but here are some general tips from Elk Mountain Expeditions:
- If you fall out, don't try to stand up. Float feet first or swim sideways to shore.
- If you fall out, be an active member in your rescue. Try to get yourself back in the raft or out of the river as quickly as possible.
Take Advantage of the Action Now
At the time of this posting, water levels on Slaughterhouse were currently measuring at 842 cfs, according to McMahon. But those levels are continuing to drop, meaning that Blazing Adventures and other outfitters won't be running Slaughter for too much longer this summer.
Still, it remains one of the most popular excursions; Adam says that Elk Mountain Expeditions is currently running Slaughterhouse up to three times a day, five to six days of the week. Grab some like-minded buddies and join the action for an adventure you're likely to remember long after the summer is over.