Why are so many of the best skiers dying?
|In the early hours of March 7, 2012, Steve Romeo and Chris Onufer set out across a frozen Jackson Lake, in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. Their goal was to ski a remote couloir in the northern Tetons. From the parking lot at Colter Bay, their route included a three-mile skin across the lake and a climb of more than 4,000 vertical feet to the southeast ridge of 11,355-foot Ranger Peak and its massif. They intended to be back well before supper, as Onufer was scheduled to pick up his father at the airport that evening.|
Ten years ago, a quick tour to Ranger in the middle of winter would have been unthinkable for all but a handful of skiers—mostly due to the distance involved and the relatively cumbersome gear available at the time. But today, with lightweight technology allowing skiers to move swiftly across snowy landscapes and online weather and snow conditions providing instant updates, a peak like Ranger has never been more accessible. For skiers like 40-year-old Romeo, the author of the popular ski mountaineering blog called TetonAT, and 42-year-old Onufer, a longtime tram maintenance manager at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Ranger was in their wheelhouse.
Romeo was one of the most experienced ski mountaineers in the Tetons, and his blog became known as the authoritative voice for steep skiing in Wyoming. Onufer had exceptional skills in the high alpine and was considered a valuable and reliable ski partner due to his calm demeanor and training as an EMT and second lieutenant in the Teton Village Fire Department. Together, Romeo and Onufer had skied all over the Tetons, including the Grand Teton, and were about a month away from embarking on a ski expedition to Baffin Island.
The previous 24 hours brought heavy winds and six inches of new snow to the Tetons, creating a 14-inch-thick windslab. That morning, the local avalanche forecast called for “moderate” danger, with partly cloudy skies. “The new snow rests on slick sun crusts,” Bridger Teton National Forest Avalanche Center reported, “and will easily slide with human triggers.” According to the BTNF, “moderate” danger means natural avalanches are unlikely, while human-triggered avalanches are possible. It is the first stage up from “low” and is responsible for more than a quarter of all avalanche fatalities in the U.S. Fully aware of the dangers, Romeo and Onufer were comfortable navigating through the danger scale, and according to friends, were not afraid to turn around when conditions didn’t feel right.
As they climbed the southeast-facing couloir of Ranger, they were completely in their element: the pinks and purples of a cold Wyoming sunrise; the mental and physical challenge of the climb; the solitude and wildness of traveling through remote mountains; the bond of having a ski partner; and finally, the anticipation of the descent.
But that evening, Onufer never showed at the airport. His father called the authorities, and they soon found his son’s pickup truck parked at Colter Bay. The next morning, the park service flew a helicopter over an avalanche pile at the bottom of Ranger, where they picked up signals from two avalanche beacons. A skin track could be seen just below the fracture line at 10,300 feet. Romeo and Onufer had made it a few hundred feet short of their goal when they were caught and killed by a 3,000-vertical-foot avalanche.
The deaths sent shock waves through the ski community, which was already reeling from a tragic winter that saw several high-profile skiers perish. Jamie Pierre, the big air king, had died in an avalanche while snowboarding at Snowbird in November, before the resort was open. The beloved Sarah Burke had succumbed to injuries in January after crashing during what friends called a routine halfpipe training session. One month before the Ranger incident, three people were killed in an avalanche on a popular sidecountry line at Stevens Pass, Washington. The victims included the director of marketing at the ski area, the head judge of the Freeskiing World Tour, and a longtime local who was married with two kids. Along with Romeo and Onufer, these were skiers who weren’t supposed to die. Regarded as pioneers and influencers, they were all highly talented and incredibly experienced—yet their lives were snuffed out in minutes, like a gust of wind passing through the trees.
Even before last winter, the ski industry had been quietly grappling with a troubling trend: Too many of its best athletes were getting killed. Memorials and remembrances were becoming all too frequent. Squaw Valley alone has memorialized eight skiers in three years. Tight mountain communities enriched by passionate, kind, and genuine people have been left trying to fill gaping holes. Every fall, magazines like this one roll out yet another tribute to another dead skier—the editors trying to balance paying respect to a hero and a friend while celebrating the search for deep powder, big air, and the next phenomenal athlete willing to go bigger, faster, farther than the last guy.
“Since the modern rise of freeskiing in the ’90s, progression has often been referred to as higher, faster, stronger,” says Mike Douglas, who at 43 has been at the forefront of skiing’s leading edge for nearly two decades. “Someone is going to jump a bigger cliff, do more spins, go higher out of the halfpipe, or ski that big mountain line faster. That’s what we view as progression. It can go on like that for a long time, but it’s a finite cycle. At some point, it has to start kicking us back in the ass. And that’s a little bit of what we’re seeing.”
A common rationalization is that mountains are dangerous, and skiing is a risky activity—always has been, always will be, especially for those pushing its boundaries. But as the 2011-12 winter played out, that explanation didn’t seem to go far enough. From chairlifts to cyberspace, the chorus of heartbreak and tragedy reverberated across the ski community. People started to wonder when skiing had evolved from being a fun activity, where the day’s thrills, spills, and excitement would be recounted later over beers, to a sport where any little mistake would cost you the ultimate price. One week after another, you waited for the next piece of devastating news.
And it came.
One week after Romeo and Onufer’s deaths, word came from Alaska detailing how a heli-ski guide named Rob Liberman—a Telluride local and sales rep for DPS Skis—had been killed, along with a client, in a massive avalanche. Then, seven days later, emergency dispatch was called to an accident just outside the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort boundary. A 24-year-old woman named Sally Francklyn—a former patroller at Copper Mountain with unlimited potential—sustained massive head trauma after falling down Once is Enough, a terrifying line off Cody Peak that had once been the sole domain of the Jackson Hole Air Force but is now considered doable for most expert skiers. Her parents got lucky. Sally didn’t die. Instead, she has spent the last eight months trying to re-learn basic skills.
With so many fatalities and near misses, some people are starting to think skiers need to change their approach, maybe take a step back from the edge. Romeo’s mantra, which he often quoted on TetonAT, was “Live to Ski.” But in a time that’s seen so much tragedy, maybe it’s time to live to ski…another day.
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