‘Gonzo swimming:’ How Hunter S. Thompson friend Matt Moseley trained in Vail area for adventure through Canyonlands

Colorado adventurer will discuss his 40-mile Green River swim in Avon on Nov. 4

John LaConte
Vail Daily
Matt Moseley swims the Green River in Utah on June 27, 2021, to bring attention to low flows in the Colorado River Basin. Mosley is co-chair of the Colorado River Basin Council for American Rivers and author of the critically acclaimed book, "Dear Dr. Thompson: Felony Murder, Hunter S. Thompson and the Last Gonzo Campaign."
Pete McBride/Courtesy photo

You may think it sounds crazy, but swimmer Matt Moseley says his recent adventure was nothing compared to an ordinary afternoon with the man who coined the term for it.

In June, Moseley completed one of the longer swims of his life, navigating a 40-mile section of the Green River in Canyonlands National Park without the aid of a wet suit or life vest.

Moseley trained in Avon with local endurance athlete Josiah Middaugh, who helped him put together a program to ready himself for the adventure.

“At first it just sounded like this weird, crazy idea,” Middaugh said. “And the more I thought about it, the more crazy it sounded.”

Middaugh said after learning of some of Moseley’s other open-water swimming accomplishments — including a 47-mile swim on the Colorado River, also in Canyonlands National Park, in 2015 — he realized Moseley was serious about the Green River idea and also had the skills to do it.

“I think he just needed someone in his corner to keep him on track to be able to complete something like that,” Middaugh said.

Moseley said when Middaugh agreed to train him, their meeting doubled as his moment of commitment in going through with the plan.

“Before that, I had been on the fence about it,” he said.

Moseley and Middaugh will discuss the training program and mental conditioning techniques used by Moseley at an event at the Westin Riverfront in Avon Nov. 4. at 5 p.m.

“American Rivers shot a short documentary film called ‘Silent River’ that I’ll be previewing at the Westin, as well,” Moseley said.

Matt Moseley on the Green River in Utah June 27. Moseley swam 40 miles in 14 hours and 36 minutes to raise awareness of climate change induced drought.
Pete McBride/Courtesy photo

High hopes

Moseley was a swimmer in high school and his wife, Kristin Moseley, is a water attorney for the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District. Twenty-six years ago, she gave him a gift which opened his eyes to the possibility of river swimming.

“We had moved from Telluride to Boulder, and she got people to chip in and buy this canoe, and it came with a trip down the Colorado River,” he said. “I had been getting back into swimming, I brought my goggles and swim cap, and I was like, oh my god, there’s no lane lines, there’s no clock, there’s no coach. It was very liberating.”

In his professional life, Moseley is a public relations specialist who spent seven years working with Hunter S. Thompson on the campaign to free Lisl Auman from prison in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Around that same time, following his liberating swim on the Colorado, Moseley began open-water swimming with his cousin, Glynde Mangum, a former member of the national swim team. In 2004, Moseley and Mangum swam 13 miles down the Colorado River from Moab to Potash Point during the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Thompson was impressed with Moseley and Mangum’s extreme swimming pursuits.

“He called it Gonzo swimming,” Moseley said.

Moseley said his original Gonzo swimming expeditions mostly happened in coordination with music events and festivals.

“We’d say let’s go to Burning Man, but we’ll swim 22 miles on Tahoe first, or let’s go to Jazz Fest in New Orleans and we’ll swim on Lake Pontchartrain,” Moseley said of his adventures with Mangum. Meanwhile, hanging out with Thompson who was well known for his excesses, “you knew it’d be crazy,” Moseley said. “But then holy (expletive), was it crazy.”

In more recent years, Moseley has realized the potential in using Gonzo swimming to raise awareness for important issues surrounding water. He says both he and his wife view water as the most critical issue of our time.

“With Water in the West, there’s a new normal now,” he said. “What do we do, and how do we create strategies to manage the river better, to collaborate about the uses of it, and what are the appropriate uses?”

After swimming the Colorado River to its confluence with the Green River in 2015, Moseley for years hoped he could one day swim the other side of the V-shape made by that confluence — the Green River to the Colorado River through Canyonlands — but had never committed to actually doing it. In the summer of 2020, Kristin read about Middaugh completing the Everesting challenge, biking the vertical equivalent of a sea-level-to-top-of-Mt. Everest journey in one day. Moseley said after she first helped him get to Gonzo swimming with the canoe trip down the Colorado River in the ’90s, his wife once again led him on his adventure path last year in the Green River challenge.

“She said, ‘You should call Josiah,'” Moseley said.

Middaugh then prescribed a regimen which would appear to be a form of torture to the average person. Among other things, “We did cold water adaptation in Horse Tooth Reservoir,” Middaugh said. “Without a wetsuit.”

Moseley said in 50 to 60 degree temperature water in March, he started at 5 minutes of immersion.

“Then we’d get to 12 minutes, 20 minutes, 40 minutes,” he said. “Until I was up to like an hour and a half in 58-degree water. Then I started coming out to Nottingham Lake, where it was still in the 50s in June.”

Matt Moseley pushed off from Mineral Bottom, Utah, at 4:54 a.m. on July 27, en route to completing the first-ever recorded swim of the Green River in Canyonlands National Park.
Pete McBride/Courtesy photo

Low flows

Moseley said he wanted to swim the Green River because he thinks the Green River is in trouble. In swimming it, he said he could also feel that the Green River is in trouble. He had set his projections based on a 3-mile per hour pace, and was doing better than that in the early section of his trip.

“But about halfway down, the river sort of lost its push, it lost its momentum, and I starting going like 2 miles per hour,” he said.

But long before then, Moseley had realized he picked a bad year to try to make good time down the Green.

“Probably 60 percent of my strokes, maybe 70, I was scraping the bottom with my hand,” he said. “I had to keep getting up and walking across sandbars.”

He later learned in a story from the Moab Times-Independent that on the day he had chosen, June 27, flows upriver in the town of Green River “were in the lowest 15% on record since the U.S. Geological Survey began taking measurements in 1895,” the Times-Independent reported. “The Green River would normally be flowing at around 7,000-20,000 cubic feet per second at this time of year, but a USGS station showed the flow at Mineral Bottom was 1,920 cubic feet per second when Moseley started his swim.”

While he did make it 40 miles, and felt he could swim much further, Moseley wasn’t able to reach the Green River’s confluence with the Colorado River. He didn’t have enough daylight after keeping a slower pace than he had hoped and was forced to exit the water 12 miles short of his goal.

“It just made me kind of sad, at the end, that the river was so distressed,” Moseley said. “It was hard to see.”

Nov. 4 event: Mental Conditioning for Endurance Sports

In June, 54-year-old Matt Moseley completed a first-ever recorded swim down the Green River through Canyonlands National Park, covering 40 miles in 14.5 hours. Moseley and his trainer Josiah Middaugh will discuss Moseley’s training program, mental conditioning techniques used for swimming long distances, how to be successful in endurance sports, and how those strategies can also be applied to life on Nov. 4, 2021, at 5 p.m. in the Westin Riverfront’s Gondola Ballroom in Avon. The event is free and open to everyone. Advanced registration is highly recommended, call 970-790-2051 to sign up.

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