The river behind my house has become a refuge from death this summer. It’s where I go to make sense of things that don’t.
I sit for a moment on the bank. The cattails are green with yellow tips, as if burnt by a flame.
I step into the middle of the river. Coolness slides past my ankles.
The last time we stood here was in June. The river was high and we could have swam. Chelsea stood like an ibis, aqua ponytail swishing at her waist. We talked about her Mom, who died from lung cancer last year.
Chelsea took care of her mother. Moved in with her, from southern to northern California. Took her to doctor appointments. Arranged hospice. Nine months of slow hell and sweet moments. All while working full time as a director and cinematographer for the PBS show Roadtrip Nation.
She was also working on the documentary LIGHT with me. That’s how we met. I needed an editor and found her online. Our first point of conversation was eating disorders so things got deep fast. And Chelsea could go there. She had that something that made people open up to her. She was a truth cipher and unpretentious.
For the next year and a half, we worked together daily. She wasn’t competitive but knew how to motivate me. She was honest but not critical. I’d have an idea and she’d say, “let’s try it!”
She was at home in the process, in not knowing. Maybe that’s why she loved climbing so much. I’d call her and say, “I don’t know … should I even keep going with this project? I have no idea what I’m doing right now.” And she’d say, “You’re making a documentary! You’re not supposed to know! So you’re right where you should be.”
Chelsea could operate cameras, edit, direct, write, capture audio, and produce. Whatever she didn’t know, she taught herself. No big deal. Chelsea was girl power; not the pink saccharin kind.
She didn’t care about credits or accolades, she just wanted to tell great stories, and she encouraged others to do the same, leaving a legacy of women who believe in themselves.
Chelsa worked hard for it. After studying film at Chapman University on a full scholarship, she interned at Road Trip Nation and over the next nine years became the backbone of the show, all while juggling side projects, saving up to buy a house with her partner Craig, and learning to climb.
She did everything 150 percent. And her mother’s illness was no different. When her Mom passed, it was during the 20 minutes Chelsea left her side for an errand.
We hadn’t talked about her mother’s death. Chelsea would change the topic or talk about a new project she was taking on. I knew she was hurting, that the words would come when they were ready. So we stood in the river. The cold slid between us.
It was not the typical friendship that grew over time and social events. It was zero to 100 about deep personal stuff. But there was a lot I didn’t know.
Like the time she diffused a fight at a “sketchy death metal show” with her friend Maya Tuttle. “Chelsea jumps in between these seething belligerent men and somehow, in an epic display of badassery, talks everyone down.”
Or the time she booked a bartender a ticket to somewhere because he’d never left the state of California.
Or how she was about to propose to Craig, the love of her life.
Or just how many people loved Chelsea like I did.
I’d never even been to her home. We’d never climbed together. But I knew she was planning to spend every scrap of free time at Tahquitz this fall. She was stoked.
“She just got that bug, like some people get,” said Dave Chitjian, her regular climbing partner and mentor. “She was so positive. Like, ‘It’s raining? Let’s go!’
I knew that if Chelsea climbed like she worked, she was organized, efficient and responsible.
“She was the most careful climber I know,” says Stav Levy, long-time friend and co-worker.
Chitjian said he was trying to get her to climb with him for years, but she just didn’t feel ready enough. “So she took anchor building classes, hired professional guides, took a women’s course in Bishop. Finally we started climbing together.”
“She went from leading 5.7 to 5.10 hard trad in a year,” says Chitjian. “She had a good head for it. And was a better climber than she would ever acknowledge.”
That’s the one thing Chelsea couldn’t do—take compliments. Sometimes I’d shower her with them just for fun. She’d squirm and squeal and walk away. They were all earned, all deserved.
A couple of days ago, Chitjian and his family hiked up to the base of the climb and placed some flowers for Chelsea. Then he climbed the route in her memory.
Eventually, he got to the tree where the sling Chelsea had clipped in used to be. “That sling was probably 15, 20 years old,” says Chitjian, who is replacing it with a chain, sheathed in plastic and webbing. “That should last at least 100 years.”
“It’s my way of giving back to Chelsea,” he said. “I don’t want anyone else to go through what we are going through.”
At the top of the route, Chitjian threw flowers over the edge. The petals floated down some four or five hundred feet to the slabs below. “I’m really gonna miss her, the focus, the drive, the passion.”
We all will. Today, I should be with Chelsea, filming the final scenes of our next documentary. Instead I’m standing in the middle of this ancient river, writing her obituary. It’s October and I’m wearing shorts. The river is low. The first snows haven’t come yet.
I watch the birds and the cattails and think about time and cry until my ankles get so cold my stomach aches and I step back onto the shore, tie my shoes, and head to the car. I’m driving south to Chelsea and Craig’s house today, to celebrate her life with the person she loved most.
When I arrive, Craig shares their last moments together. She got up at 5 a.m., kissed him goodbye, then penned a sticky note with a sharpie and left it on the mirror—”Enjoy the ride. We only get one.”
GO FUND ME