Aspen Times Weekly cover story: What avalanches take from us |

Aspen Times Weekly cover story: What avalanches take from us

Amanda Charles
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Photo courtesy Kaitlyn SchappertCover by Afton Groepper

ASPEN – Andre Hartlief had every intention of coming to Aspen last Wednesday for the memorial of his close friend Brandon Zukoff, the free-spirited 26-year-old who died a year ago just outside the Snowmass Ski Area.

Like Brandon, Andre moved to Aspen with the idea of living the life of a ski bum. In 2007, he began his career in Snowmass as an instructor for Aspen Skiing Co., and true to ski bum form, also worked at the Stonebridge Inn; in summers, he chased the snow. Andre spent those months in New Zealand as a member of the ski patrol for The Remarkables ski resort in Queenstown. With aspirations to become a patrolman here, Andre returned to Colorado to patrol at Arapahoe Basin last winter, and this winter to patrol at Keystone.

Recognized by a contagious smile that inspired everyone he came in contact with, Andre spent his days chasing turns with Brandon and other close friends throughout the Snowmass community.

“There was no stopping those boys,” said Kaitlyn Schappert, best friend to Andre and girlfriend to the late Brandon Zukoff. “They would get bored staying inside the lines. For them, the untouched terrain in the backcountry was far more enticing.”

On Feb. 22, 2011, when Brandon Zukoff took what would become his last run down Sand’s Chute in the East Snowmass Creek valley, friends and family, including his close skiing partner, Andre, were left behind in disbelief.

“At the time, it was such foreign and shocking news to all of us,” Schappert recalled. “It should have been a wake-up call, a red flag to stop pushing the limits. But in the end, I realize it just made all of us, including Andre, want to ski more.”

If Zukoff’s death turned him into a romantic hero, a tragic inspiration to ski, his mission statement written before he died sums up all of the group’s philosophy, to live “like there’s no tomorrow.”

Andre Hartlief had plans of doing just that.

In an event just six days shy of Brandon Zukoff’s one-year memorial, Andre Hartlief joined two New Zealand friends and traveled 200 miles from their current home in Keystone to Wolf Creek Pass in Pagosa Springs, where 30 inches of new snow had fallen in recent days. The pass is a famous backcountry destination due to its relative ease of access, and reputation for collecting huge storms.

Standing atop the steep slopes of the pass and gazing down at puffy blankets of virgin powder, Andre and his friend’s most sought-after high was only a turn of the skis away. Equipped as instructed – with beacons, probes, shovels and years of safe skiing behind them – Andre watched in anxious anticipation as the first of the group dropped in, the fresh snow spraying and billowing out in heavenly rhythms behind his every turn. In the following moments, in a game trusted since the days on the playground, with locked eyes and glove-covered fists slapping against open palms, Andre and his friend recited four familiar words to see who would go next.

“Rock, paper, scissors, shoot.”

If life can be broken down by one final draw, one turn of the fingers, one emotional decision, Andre flashed one last smile, dropped his poles and said, “I’ll see you at the bottom.”

In a slide that was 3 feet deep by 600 feet wide and running 600 vertical feet, the 37-year-old was taken, buried and killed on the afternoon of Feb. 16. The first skier of the group was able to safely get out of the path, while the third was able to dig his way out with minor injuries.

Hartlief’s death marked the sixth avalanche death in Colorado this season. With more than two months left in the ski season, the state has already met its historic yearly average.

According to Brian McCall, the local forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), while Pitkin County has always been the deadliest for avalanches, this year’s snowpack has made for exceptional spooky conditions – ones that are considered the worst on record in 30-plus years.

“What we are seeing is a deep base with big sugary granules, otherwise called depth hoar. These granules do not bind with new snow, which means heavy top layers are sitting on weak bottom layers, making for a kind of perfect storm for avalanches.”

While this type of snowpack generally improves as we move into the spring season, recent stability tests in a snowpit at about 11,300 feet indicated highly reactive, unstable snow with one moderate slope fracturing into multiple, concentric cracks.

“It’s unusual that the weak layers are not getting any better,” said McCall, who attributes the unstable conditions to the weeks of dry weather we experienced at the start of the season. “Our tests prove that conditions are not improving, so people need to be really cautious well into the spring.”

Mike Sladdin, founder of Powder to the People, an advocacy organization dedicated to backcountry safety and etiquette, recommends that those attempting the side and backcountry should stay on the forest’s low-angle slopes below 30 degrees, like the ones found in the Wine Tree and Ptarmigan ski areas on Richmond Ridge.

But for longtime Aspen local and daredevil Marcus Scarth, whose resume includes summiting and snowboarding down Everest, this season’s snowpack is “a no-brainer.”

After almost losing his life to a slab slide five years ago on the Maroon Bowl, which he recalled sounded like a “train barreling down the mountain at 80 miles per hour,” Marcus practices conservative skiing and never ignores a warning.

“If you are a mountaineer pushing for the summit and the weathermen on the radios back at base camp are telling you not to go, the conditions are deadly, are you gonna go? For me it’s simple; you just don’t do it.”

In a collaborative effort to inform and educate the Aspen public on avalanche forecasts, safety and good decision making in dangerous situations, Powder to the People held its second installment of its popular speaker series last Friday in the Rio Grande Meeting Room, featuring a talk from noted local mountaineer and skier Mike Marolt.

In his talk, Marolt described a relatively new science of how the brain works in the survival decision-making process, elaborating on the basis that when faced with dangerous situations, intelligent people often make poor decisions. It sheds light on why someone like Andre would take similar risks as his friend, even after knowing Brandon died.

Noting that avalanche deaths are not accidents but mistakes, Marolt pointed out that throughout history, man is a primarily emotional being who’s intelligence vortex develops only over time; therefore, it is essential that when we encounter difficult scenarios, we train the brain to engage the intelligent vortex to bring a larger perspective to the situation.

“Oftentimes, especially with the kind of thrill-seekers we have here in our community, the emotional vortex of the brain is constantly overriding the intelligent vortex. We stand on top of the mountain and our brain is overflowing with sensory information – the virgin slope, the soft white snow. These are the times when it is most imperative to step back from the situation and really think.”

According to Marolt, the most terrifying aspect of our emotional being is that it makes us falsely believe that when we continue to improve our skills, make achievements and get better at what we do, we can find success across the board. In reality, however, more importantly in life or death situations, going up against something unknown “almost always puts one at a disadvantage.”

“I’m not one to judge or point fingers at what’s right or wrong with the excitements we chase in the outdoors,” said Marolt. “There are those individuals who go to the backcountry fully aware that it could be their last, and in a way it almost becomes an acceptable part of the game. But whether a husband, a brother, a son or a pure individual who dedicates their life to the mountains, also know that we have a responsibility to do everything we can to be safe, if only for the sake of our friends and community.”

The reunion and memorial did happen, although now it was for two.

With mounds of chocolate chip cookies and gallons of cold skim milk decorating the picnic table, more than 50 friends gathered at the Wine Cabin on Snowmass Mountain Wednesday, Feb. 22, to remember and celebrate the life of their dear friend Brandon Zukoff, and the more recent life of Andre Hartlief.

“I can’t pretend that I don’t sit and wonder why it was me who lost two of my best friends to the same fate in less than a year’s time,” Kaitlyn Schappert said, as she stared out into the afternoon sky.

“Dealing with their loss is the most painful thing I can ever imagine, and knowing that every time they went into the backcountry they were rolling the dice, playing with the fact that they could fall victim to the game, it’s so hard … but I would be a hypocrite if I said I didn’t understand … their constant search for more out of life, that’s the common denominator between all of us who live here. If there is anything I know, it’s that those boys died living, and while I’m left behind to pick up the pieces, I find comfort in the support of our ski community … we are all in this together, cherishing each moment as if it’s our last.”