Aspenite dies in canyon fall
Aspen native Stirling Cooper Jr. died Saturday in a fall while canyoneering with his 12-year-old son in the Lower Black Box Canyon of the San Rafael River in Utah.
Cooper had lived in Aspen nearly all of his life. He is survived by his wife, Jody, and sons Brandon, 12, and Matthew, 10.
Cooper and Brandon had been out camping in the northern part of the San Rafael Swell, situated to the southwest of Green River in Emery County, according to Cooper’s longtime friend, Bob Helmus of Old Snowmass.
“They were hiking [Saturday] morning in what’s called the Lower Black Box Canyon, which is basically a hike and a tube trip through a box canyon of the San Rafael River,” said Helmus. “But the river was running fairly high and they decided to get out, and they were getting out at a place where people do get out – it was purely an accident – he just lost his handhold or foothold and fell.”
Helmus, who went to the scene Saturday after receiving word of the accident, said Cooper and his son left their tubes at the bottom of the canyon wall and began climbing the “fairly technical route” out, with Brandon in the lead.
“Then it’s unclear as to what exactly happened, but the sheriff thinks that in the 80-foot range [above the river], Stirling lost a handhold and fell off the canyon wall,” Helmus said. “Brandon heard yelling and a splash and that was it.”
Brandon then finished climbing to the top of the canyon wall and returned to their campsite where he broke their car window to get to a cell phone and dial 911, Helmus said.
Deputies with the Emery County Sheriff’s Office responded to the scene at about 4 p.m. Saturday, and were quickly able to pinpoint the search area because Brandon had left his backpack on the canyon wall after his father fell. However, due to logistical difficulties of conducting a river search at the foot of towering canyon walls, the search effort did not begin until early Sunday morning, according to Helmus. Searchers found Cooper’s body in or near the river at about 11:30 a.m. Sunday, he said.
Cooper, Helmus’ longtime climbing and ski mountaineering partner, was a very experienced outdoorsman, he said.
“He grew up in the outdoors with his father,” Helmus said. “This was purely an accident.” Stirling’s father, Stirling “Buzz” Cooper Sr., is a longtime area resident.
Cooper Jr. worked as a mortgage lender at Norwest Bank in Aspen, Helmus said.
Helmus said he was told an autopsy was to be performed today in order to determine the specific cause of Cooper’s death.
Helmus credited Brandon for handling himself with grace in the face of adversity.
“Brandon followed perfectly what he needed to do,” Helmus said. “Everyone who was involved had nothing but compliments for him.”
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