Paul Andersen: Risking it all for pow-pow
When I learned that Rich Kerr died in an avalanche in Canada, my sadness was mixed with frustration.
There was no good reason, no justification, no practical purpose for a man in the prime of his life to die under a lethal cascade of snow.
Last Sunday, I skied into Pearl Basin and watched four skiers setting lines on the face of a ridge not far from where I worked a probe line in 1988 looking for the body of a woman who died with two men and her dog in a massive avalanche.
Last week I received an e-mail invitation to a video awards program by Powder Magazine celebrating, among other ski spectacles, the Best Powder footage. There is a connection to all of this that bears note, especially when it’s obvious that more deaths will accrue in the pursuit of powder turns.
In 1988, when I was a reporter at The Aspen Times, one of my beats was the “backcountry.” I relished this assignment because it got me out into the mountains, mostly writing about ski touring and hut trips, fun stuff.
One night the police pager barked about an avalanche in Pearl Basin. Early the next morning, I went into the field to cover the story. Skiing up toward Pearl, I found two body bags on the snow outside the Tagert Hut. They contained Roy Poteet, 31, of Carbondale and John Logsdon, 32, of Boulder; both were killed in the slide.
Still missing was Teeny (Kristyne) Jueng, 38, a Glenwood Springs councilwoman and emergency room supervisor at Valley View Hospital. She was buried with her dog, Bear, at about 12,000 feet in the basin below Castle Peak.
As I approached the slide zone, which was strewn with refrigerator-size chunks of snow, I was handed a probe pole. This reporter became rescuer as I worked alongside others in a futile search. Teeny Jueng wasn’t found until the middle of the next summer, exhumed by the heat of the sun.
What impressed me then was the power of that slide, the hardness of the set-up snow, the finality of those black body bags, and that Teeny and her friends had taken such a huge, unnecessary gamble. They paid the ultimate price, which the friends and family who survived them may still be paying.
Rich Kerr died on a guided trip two weeks ago in Canada with a group from Crested Butte. I rode bikes with Rich, a very likable guy. The friends with him in Canada are also my friends. One of them lost his wife to an avalanche several years ago near Kebler Pass.
Last Sunday, I stood on Greg Mace Peak and saw where skiers had put a skin track up a steep face on the same ridge that claimed Teeny Jueng’s group. Those skiers no doubt assumed the route was safe, but nobody knows, not the best guides in the world.
Despite a long fracture and collapse in an adjacent basin, those skiers accepted the risk and skied the ridge, each earning 25 turns in virgin powder in a spectacular setting. For those 25 bravura turns, they threw the dice and risked it all.
On Jan. 23, Powder Magazine will present video awards for outrageous skiing footage. For many viewers, this footage becomes a big incentive to perform ski antics of their own, like matching idealized powder turns in known avalanche terrain.
Stature as a skier is defined by how radical you can get. Those who die in the process are lionized the way Rich Kerr was in an absurd Daily News cartoon depicting him linking turns on a cloud in heaven.
Several realizations come to mind: 1. Dying “doing what you loved” is a form of suicide. 2. Glorified, high-risk videos obscure situations that kill people. 3. There is nothing heroic about probe lines and body bags.
Paul Andersen thinks bravado and complacency are a fatal combination. His column appears on Mondays.
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