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OUTDOORS PETE THOMAS

A Tragic Ending to Snowboarder's Life

January 24, 2003|PETE THOMAS

Taking in the mountains rates even higher to me than the mark we make on them, and the people who do THAT are the ones I most wish to emulate.

-- Craig Kelly, snowboarder

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Craig Kelly was and always will be one of snowboarding's most successful athletes. He was a four-time world champion and three-time U.S. Open champion, a fierce competitor whose talent was matched only by his passion for a sport he helped pioneer.

But lately, what Kelly was really good at, and most passionate about, was, as he said, taking in the mountains, the pristine and powdery mountains. They were his home away from home. A place where he found inner peace. A glistening canvas on which he worked his awe-inspiring magic. A haven he never took for granted.

In a Snowboard Life magazine article a few years ago, Kelly referred to snowboards as "little more than toys" and pointed out that snowboarders' "good times in the hills are merely an evolution of the fun touring skiers have been onto longer than anyone can remember. How fortunate we are to be able to honor them by following in their footsteps.... "

A humble statement by the humblest of snowboarding pros, who totally removed himself from the bustle within boundaries of lift-serviced facilities and commercialization of the contest world, choosing instead the soulful art of free-riding as far from the crowds as possible.

This backcountry was Kelly's heaven, his reason for becoming a guide rather than a competitor. Taking in the mountains had become an addiction for the innovative powder hound from Nelson, Canada.

And on Monday afternoon, in the Selkirk Range of the Canadian Rockies northeast of Vancouver, it finally caught up to and overwhelmed him. Kelly and 13 members of an expedition on the Durrand Glacier were themselves taken in, swept up by an avalanche and buried by up to 15 feet of snow.

Remaining skiers and guides from Selkirk Mountain Experience -- Kelly was a guest, not working as a guide -- toiled feverishly to dig them out and did so within about 30 minutes, but it was too late for seven of them, including the 36-year-old Kelly.

Investigators ruled the deaths accidental, caused by asphyxiation. The slide was enormous, measuring about 150 feet wide and 300 feet long.

It did not appear to have been triggered by the actions of any of the skiers or snowboarders; rather, the wall of snow released naturally and without notice as the victims were traversing a slope.

News of Kelly's death sent shockwaves throughout the snowboarding community. Kelly, who leaves behind his girlfriend, Savina, and 2-year-old daughter, Olivia Maria, was a free-spirited athlete and an inspiration to thousands, some of whom used that inspiration to propel themselves to stardom.

"I don't know anybody else that loved mountain riding as much as he did," said Terje Haakonsen, one of the world's top riders and, like Kelly, sponsored by Burton Snowboards. "Nor do I know anybody else who had the style and grace coming down the mountain. He was my inspiration before I met him. When I finally met him he turned out to be the best possible role model."

Dave Downing, 34, one of Kelly's close friends and also a backcountry specialist, said that while he keeps telling people that Kelly died doing what he loved and where he loved to be, his passing is extremely hard to accept because Kelly was an expert in avalanche awareness and always studying the science of snow.

"I know so many people who go into the backcountry totally ignorant, but Craig knew what was going on," Downing said. "That's what makes this so ironic, so difficult to fathom."

In the latest issue of the quarterly magazine frequency -- the Snowboarder's Journal, Kelly talked about recently completing a top-level avalanche safety and awareness course, required of professional guides and forecasters.

"Really, there are limitations to what we do know right now about the snow because our observation skills are limited," he said. "Our ability to see through the snowpack, and see what is happening everywhere with the snow in a given month is not possible."

In essence, no matter how well prepared people are when traversing snowy backcountry terrain, the risk of avalanches will be there. This latest tragedy -- it's not the first and won't be the last -- is painful proof of that.

Downing, 34, who spends most of his winters filming and testing equipment in the backcountry slopes near his home in Lake Tahoe, said he has seen several avalanches, including one in which an entire upper-slope bowl released and shook the earth as it rumbled down the mountain -- but he has never been buried by one.

Downing and his wife, freestyle pro Shannon Dunn, are expecting their first child this spring, but he does not intend to cut back on his backcountry excursions.

"No way," he said. "Craig would be really bummed if I stoped riding powder because of what happened to him. He preached it and so do I. My guard will be up, but it has always been up. I'm sure his guard was up too, but.... "

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