Death on the Chama - Mountain Buzz

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Old 02-17-2019   #1
Raftinhunter's Avatar
Pagosa springs, Colorado
Paddling Since: 2004
Join Date: Jul 2015
Posts: 2
Death on the Chama

Hello fellow peeps in the whitewater world. Im new to this sight for the most part but I decided I had a story to tell so I joined. My name is Chris.

As the spring approaches, like all of you I start to get excited about river season. I live in SW Colorado, and we are getting hammered with snow, so I KNOW we’ll have a great river season this year. I’m a rafter. I love oars in hand. I too am getting excited about this upcoming season, but with high anxiety.

And so here’s my story. Here’s what happened on the Chama River in New Mexico on May 15, 2018. I’m telling it for many reasons, but mostly so all of you can make sure that what happened on my watch, never happens on yours.

So late last winter, my good friend Chris Phillips called me to tell me he and his girlfriend of 4.5 years were moving back to Pagosa Springs from Seattle. He owned property just a half a mile from me. He and his girl were set to build their dream home, and create a new life in Pagosa. They’d had enough of the city. Well sometime between then and May, I’d made a decision to head back east for the summer to help my brother out with some projects. Chris got to Pagosa around May 1st, and I was set to hit the road around the 18th or so. He was bummed I was gonna be gone for the summer. Knowing this, I suggested that we float the Chama for a few days before I left. He and his girl, Jazzmyn, were all in. They’d never done a river trip before and they were excited. To top it off, I own 2 rafts so they got to learn the ways of the oars as well. And there is no better place to learn than the Chama. At the last moment I invited another friend Eric, and he was ready to go in an instant. So I called and got a mid week launch permit, and it was on. I only 1.5 hours from the put-in so it’s an easy trip to put together quickly. And I love the Chama. Very special place.

Skipping forward, we decided to make it a 3 night trip. We launched on the 13th. Had great weather. Chris and Jazzmyn we’re loving everything about the trip. The views, the food, the experience and even the rattle snake we found at Aragon camp. 6 buttons!! Eric and I have done the Chama several times before, and we were both enjoying our time with future river people. As both Chris and Jazz were instantly hooked.

The trip was going great. Jazz has figured out how to handle the raft way better than Chris, so she was dong most of the rowing. Chris was rocking my ducky and digging it. We left Aragon camp the morning of the 15th, and I wanted to make it to a certain camp sight that I know of river right of where it changes from BLM to private land. It was a beautiful day. We got to camp around 330-4 if I remember correctly. Tied up all 3 boats side by side, and unloaded most of camp. The sun was hot, so I decided I’d finish unloading my gear after the sun went down behind the ridge. Chris and Jazz went for a walk down river and were gone for about an hour or so. Maybe less. When they can back you could see the love they had for each other. You could tell they were having the time of their lives, and were deeply in love. Chris was SO happy. SO alive. SO excited to be where he was and with the people he was with.

One of the last things I remember was Chris throwing grapes at Jazzmyn and I as we were sitting on the rafts relaxing. Chris was standing on shore throwing the grapes, we were trying to catch them in our mouths. Next thing I know, I look over and Chris is stripping off his clothes. Not thinking that he was about to do what he ultimately did, I looked away. Shit, I didn’t wanna see his junk!! That’s when I heard the footsteps and i looked back over and Chris had run down the side of the raft to the stern of the boat and dove head first into the river. What I saw next changed my life forever. My friends dead body floating. Face down. Lifeless. I immediately got into the river to help him. I knew he was dead the instant I got my hands on him. We tried CPR, and mouth to mouth but all efforts were meaningless. Unknown to us at the time, Chris had crushed 6 of 7 vertebrae in his neck and had completely severed his spinal cord. He was killed instantly. Dead.

After getting his body on the boat, we knew we had to get help. We dressed Chris and literally threw all the gear we had on shore back in the boats. And down river we went. With my friend Chris Phillips. Dead.

We eventually made it to the momentary where we were eventually helped by a monk named Father John. I will never forget him.

It was as bad a day as you could possibly imagine. I cry often. I miss my friend Chris. I wish I could’ve done something different. I have the safety speech prior to launching. He knew not to do what he did. Why did he do it? I don’t know. A quick lapse of judgement in a time of ultimate, pure joy? That’s my best guess. It was stupid though. He fucked up. And I’m pissed at him for it. PTSD is real. I deal with it now.

Ok, that’s about all I can share right now. There’s more to this story. But PLEASE, ALL of you rafters and kayakers, tell my story. Be smart. Emphasize this very story. Stress safety and smarts. Chris made a stupid decision. It cost him his life. Don’t let your friends make the same mistake. It really sucks.

On a side note, I will be on the Chama as much as possible this season. Myself, my dog and some of Chris’ ashes. I’m also bringing Chris’ family and a few of his close friends down the Chama in June. Thanks to the AWESOME folks at the Taos BLM office, I’ve been granted a permit to make it all happen. It will be an emotional trip. But a healing one as well.

Happy, safe boating all of you.

R.I.P. Christopher Pal Phillips. Miss you bro.

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Old 02-17-2019   #2
Durango, Colorado
Paddling Since: 2012
Join Date: Oct 2018
Posts: 336
Thanks for the somber reminder of how fast things can go from perfect to not.
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Old 02-17-2019   #3
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Salt Lake City, Utah
Join Date: Jul 2015
Posts: 207
Thank you for sharing this.
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Old 02-17-2019   #4
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Westminster, Colorado
Paddling Since: 1980
Join Date: May 2012
Posts: 563
Thank you for sharing and may peace be with you and yours.
"If you understand, things are just as they are; if you do not understand, things are just as they are."
Zen verse
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Old 02-18-2019   #5
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Danville, California
Paddling Since: 1970
Join Date: Jun 2012
Posts: 256
Decades back on the South Yuba in California, a regular boating partner and I were at the Edwards crossing waiting for the shuttle to get back. Just upstream of where the bridge shadow crosses the river, the Yuba tumbles over a class III drop which aerates that shaded portion for about 30'. My friend was hot and wanted to dive in. He planned to go head first, and I suggested that he move downstream past the bubbly area (the South Yuba has pristine clear water, as long as it's not fizzy). He replied that he was sure it was quite deep where he was standing under the bridge. So he dives, and ten seconds later surfaces, mumbling “help”. Being a bit of a joker, and with the tone of his voice un-panicked, I assumed he was pulling my leg. Until I noticed the water around him turning red..... I pulled him onto the rocks and used my T-shirt as a none-too-sterile rag to get as much blood off his head as possible so I could see what was going on. He was a bit dizzy and eventually, after ringing out the T-shirt two dozen times, I could see a short gash on top of his head that was very deep. River trip aborted at that point.

When we went down to the clinic – Grass Valley or Nevada City, can't recall which now – the ER doctor told me it never failed to amaze him how many serious injuries and drownings had occurred because of head-first dives into the South Yuba. This was a regular occurrence for him. Feet first is always best, and even then you better make darn sure you know where you are aiming. Sorry to hear about your friend Chris. It could easily have been my buddy too.
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