I’m writing these words in the aftermath of the death of our friend in an attempt to make some sense of the last few days, as well as to tell the details and truths as I know them of the events up to and after Chason Russell’s death on the Crystal River.
Chason was kayaking with his longtime adventure partner Stan Prichard of Carbondale on Thursday night, as well as another man. On the lower half of the Meatgrinder Rapid, Chason flipped over and missed the very narrow window of opportunity to “roll” his kayak upright again before he began dropping into the next rocky section of whitewater.
I assume during this section that he was upside down, Chason took a hard blow to the helmet and felt the need to eject himself from his kayak. Chason has been kayaking for over 25 years and has only “swam” out of his boat once or twice, an incredible fact and a testament to just how good a kayaker he was.
Upon “swimming” out of his boat, Stan was immediately with Chason and attempting to rescue his partner. Chason was never lost. Stan Prichard was by his side the entire time. Stan brought his boat to within Chason’s reach and made contact and began paddling him to shore.
The two went through another “hole” or large rapid, which caused Stan’s boat to flip. The two lost contact at the time and Stan “rolled” his boat back upright to see Chason get flushed over the next river feature and submerge completely. He saw Chason begin to rise and then stop just shy of the surface. We know now that Chason’s leg became stuck in an “entrapment,” or lodged between rocks that held him in place.
Stan whipped his kayak into the “eddy” or slack water just behind Chason and attempted to make contact again. The situation became quite dangerous for Stan, as during the ensuing efforts he lost his paddle while attempting to make contact with Chason and had to paddle to shore by hand. Once on shore he made every effort to get a rope to Chason but too much time had past and Chason remained stuck and had become unresponsive.
The effort that Stan put into saving his friend cannot be overstated. In the end, Chason was lost to kayaking. He had spent the entirety of his life pursuing the sport all over the world. Kayaking and skiing were his passions and nothing made him happier than being on the water in all its forms with his friends and loved ones. He was truly a river otter in human form.
As the news spread Friday morning, his friends from around the state began to travel toward Redstone. We arrived throughout the afternoon to be together and console each other in a time of hardship. Upon arrival it became clear that Chason would not be recovered by any formal entity, Sherrif’s Office, Search and Rescue, or otherwise. It was Stan Prichard’s firm opinion that Chason never became dislodged from his entrapment and was still in the same basic location. Efforts to identify him from drone footage were not positive and so no action was to be taken by local authorities.
Those of us who knew and loved Chason could not stand by without attempting to recover him from the river. So, the assembled group made some calls and rounded up all the necessary equipment to perform a body recovery on our own. The group was comprised of about 30 people: swift water rescue technicians and instructors, ski patrollers, mountain guides, world class kayakers, rock climbers, doctors, EMTs and loved ones. They ranged from Telluride, Silverton, Durango, Ouray, Aspen, Carbondale and Tahoe, and as a group had literally hundreds of years of experience to draw on. This was not a cavalier effort, but a calculated, well thought out and careful mission.
In a five-hour period on Saturday (June 19) the group built a ropes system across the river to guide a raft, controlled from shore, into the area where Chason Russell submerged. We conducted a “grid search” of the roughly 15-by-15 foot space in the lower half of Meatgrinder rapid. As a brief hailstorm rained down, we located his body.
Members of the group were able to get a rope around him — his body was approximately 3 feet below the surface. Again using our ropes system we were able to pull him free. He was still caught by the same entrapment that held his leg and was found within a few feet of his last sighted location. Ultimately, we were able to get our friend out of the river and bring some much needed closure to his family, wife and loved ones.
I would like to thank the Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District for the gracious use of the Redstone firehouse, and to the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Department for understanding our need to attempt to bring Chason home.
It was hugely cathartic to our group to come together and have a place to focus our grief and energy. Chason would have done the same for any one of us. I would also like to thank everyone who came to lend a hand. No one was asked to come for that purpose, we all just showed up, which in my opinion was the truest act of love.
Lastly, I want to thank Stan Prichard. I have never known a stronger person in all my years of outdoor adventures, as a kayaker, as a climber and as a dedicated friend. Stan led the team in our effort and was in the raft as we recovered our friend. He never gave up trying to bring Chason to shore and we are all very grateful for his efforts.
Like I said before, Chason Russell was never lost, he just moved into our hearts and our paddle strokes, our ski turns and our powders days, and he will remain with us for all river miles of our lives.
Josh Borof is the president of the Telluride Mountain Club and longtime friend of Chason Russell.
Editor’s note: For information on the Chason P Russell Memorial Fund, go to www.gofundme.com/f/chason-russell-memorial-fund.