Valley local, adventure guide Chason P. Russell dies in Crystal River kayaking accident
Mountain Rescue Aspen volunteer remembered for his expertise, mentorship outdoors
Chason P. Russell, a 41-year-old professional adventure guide and Mountain Rescue Aspen volunteer, died June 17 while kayaking the Crystal River, according to the Pitkin County Coroner’s Office.
The Roaring Fork Valley local drowned after his kayak overturned while navigating the fast-paced, difficult “Meatgrinder” section of the river just north of Redstone. Stan Prichard, one of two men kayaking with Russell, made every effort to rescue his partner but Russell became unresponsive while he was stuck in an entrapment in the river, according to an account of the incident by Russell’s longtime friend Josh Borof.
In the ensuing recovery effort, a group of nearly 30 people with a combined hundreds of years of expertise who knew Russell coordinated a calculated, careful mission to recover the body and bring closure to Russell’s family, wife, and loved ones, Borof’s account states.
He was a lifelong outdoorsman who began an accomplished guiding and instructing career when he was still a teen in his hometown of Telluride. He worked for nearly 15 years as an outdoor instructor for the Telluride Academy, an experiential outdoor education camp before moving to Aspen in 2011. Here, he worked as “adventure coordinator” and property manager for a family in the area, he told Adventure Journal in 2016.
His experience in adventure sports spans decades, with an accomplished resume of ski mountaineering expeditions, big-mountain competition, whitewater kayaking ventures and other outdoor feats.
He also was an involved member of Mountain Rescue Aspen, part of a team of volunteers who apply an extensive base of outdoor knowledge to local search and rescue efforts.
“He was certainly a very skilled member on our team,” said Jordan White, the president of the organization and longtime friend and adventure partner of Russell’s. “He was a guy who was happy jumping into any position that needed to be filled, big or small.”
White remembered Russell as a level-headed member of the Mountain Rescue Aspen team who often served as a mentor and shared his knowledge and respect for the mountains with others. The loss will hit the community hard given Russell’s wide reach in the outdoors community both in Aspen and Telluride, White said.
“He’s leaving behind a large group of people that in some way or another have been influenced by him and how he thought about the mountains. … We lost a pretty good one,” White said.
His influence on adventure education for youth continued here in the Roaring Fork Valley, where for several years he coached skiers at Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club and served as the head coach of the club’s big mountain team when it launched nearly a decade ago, said Freestyle Program Director Eric Knight.
It was there that he introduced the “energy laser,” a circle of pole-tapping, bellowing and positivity that remains a tradition with the club, according to current big mountain head coach Johnny Rossman.
“The spirit of Chason Russell is a radiant beam that strengthens all of those around. He protected and empowered individuals of all ages. On any adventure with Chason, you were guaranteed to learn something and always have a good time,” Rossman wrote in an email.
“His swift and fluid movements through the mountains left you mystified and motivated you to follow. Chason’s mountain knowledge was truly a gift from the heavens,” Rossman wrote. “If you were willing to listen, he would share that knowledge. He was a teacher and our leader. As he loved us, we will always love him.”
Rhianna Borderick, now an assistant coach on the big mountain team, met Russell a decade ago when she joined the team as a 14-year-old competitor. Russell showed her “all the best paths of life,” Borderick wrote in an email.
“Chason really showed me how to love the mountains — how to embrace their beauty along with their risks and come away grateful for the experience. Chason coached by letting you discover the strength and courage within yourself as he stood by in case you needed a little nudge,” Borderick wrote. “Through his constant positivity he taught me that there is no such thing as a bad day on the hill. Regardless of conditions or weather, every day is a gift, and any day in the mountains is a day to be cherished because it gives us a chance to do what we love in the most beautiful places in the world.”
Russell also was an avid photographer; he received his first camera at 14 and spent decades honing the craft. He earned a degree in fine arts and photography from Montana State University in Bozeman in 2004 and interned for the acclaimed Telluride-based skiing photographer T.R. Youngstrom.
“Photos are my life journal, they aren’t just art,” he said in a “Behind the Lens” feature for Wagner Skis.
He documented his expeditions in locales as close as the Elk and San Juan mountain ranges and as distant as the Himalayas and the Alps, sometimes sharing that work on an Instagram account dedicated to his pursuits.
But even extensive experience in the mountains does not preclude danger, noted White, the Mountain Rescue Aspen president.
“All those decisions we make out there are calculated, right? But you’re never that far from that calculated decision being just slightly off or anything going just slightly wrong,” he said. “You’re living on the edge, and most of us who try to spend any time at an elite level in a sport end up with that possibility.”
He is survived by loved ones and family who requested privacy during the difficult time.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include additional detail on the incident and ensuing recovery effort. A full account written by Russell’s longtime friend Josh Borof is now online at aspentimes.com/opinion/guest-commentary-recovering-our-friend-from-crystal-river-was-something-we-had-to-do-he-would-have-done-the-same-for-us.
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Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon is expected to remain closed due to potential structure damage underneath the eastbound lanes.