THE SERPENT’S LAIR
IN THE LATE ’90S, VAIL’S EXPANSION INTO OUTER MONGOLIA CREATED SOME OF THE MOST DANGEROUS LIFT-ACCESSED TERRAIN IN SKIDOM, A ZONE KNOWN AS EAST VAIL. IT REMAINED A SECRET FOR NEARLY A DECADE, FIERCELY GUARDED BY THE ECLECTIC RAT PACK WHO SKIED IT. NOW IT’S A POPULAR PROVING GROUND FOR LOCALS AND FRONT RANGERS ALIKE—AND THE OLD GUARD IS HOLDING ITS BREATH.
I’m sweating in the spring sun, despite my unzipped vents and bare hands. Just a half an hour ago, we were completely alone, trenching corn in a pristine backcountry line called Tweeners, just above and adjacent to a line called NBA (Nothing But Air), which killed 24-year-old Tony Pardee Seibert four years ago.
Cricco veers left into the shadows and we unshoulder our skis in front of Vendetta’s. We walk up the stairs, smelling hot pizza and that dive-bar bouquet of beer-soaked carpet and bleach buckets, and post up at the bar. The bartender greets Cricco with a beer and asks him if he wants his usual—a slice of Snow pig pizza with pineapple—and I order the same, because this is a guy who knows what he’s doing.
As we shoot the shit about kids and work, he casually points to the bumper sticker behind the bar: “Pardee On.” It’s like a secret code, memorializing Vail’s prodigal prince, whose loss still sews this community together—nearly four years later— like thread through a needle. “He was a good kid,” Cricco says, looking down at his beer.
If you don’t know about the East Vail Chutes, or, as locals call them, EV—and even if you do—you probably should never ski them. This is a zone so hallowed, and so dangerous, that the only reason I was able to get Cricco—the EV guy—to take me back there is that he owed me a favor. (“But don’t quote me,” he says.) He has worked hard to protect this place, never publishing the locations of his photographs and even turning down assignments that would require him to expose it. Because EV is 3,000 vertical feet of steep, scary, pow-choked, cliffy, and avalanche-prone chutes that legitimize what is otherwise seen as the sprawling golf course of ski areas. And for locals, it’s this zone that defines you.
I FOLLOW MY FRIEND JEFF CRICCO THROUGH THE GRASSY COBBLESTONE STEPS OF VAIL VILLAGE, PAST THE PATIO SCENE AT THE RED LION AND UGG-BOOTED TOURISTS SHOPPING.
These days, it seems to everyone who knows the place that EV’s getting skied way more often by way more people. “It’s a zoo,” Cricco says, chasing the thought with a swig of beer. It may not yet compare to the basic-backcountry-bro scene of places like Jackson, which these days is like a Six Flags in July, but because EV is so unique and so dangerous, any increase in traffic feels exponential. A sticker slapped on the sign by the gate that exits the resort boundary says it all: “Smells Like Front Range.”
As for me, I grew up skiing Vail from the ’80s on up, thrashing bumps with my brother, mostly; Prima, Pronto, Log Chute, Highline was our mantra. As a kid, I heard a lot of tales about EV, and I knew a handful of guys (my brother included) who skied it. It felt like a forbidden forest to me then, a terrifying and beautiful fairyland—if you know how to mind the quicksand.
Which is probably why, before last season, I’d never skied East Vail. I’ve skied in Chile, Norway, British Columbia, Slovenia, Iceland, Alaska, and Austria, but this line right in my backyard remained unchecked. Every time I drove over Vail Pass I’d salivate over all the tracks, embarrassed that I’d never accomplished this local rite of passage. I even lied about it once, during a particularly fragile period of my life, to an ex-boyfriend’s brother whom I was trying to impress. Because how could I not have? The truth is that I was too scared—and rightfully so—to go back there without someone who knows way more than I do.
Because when it comes right down to it, I’m just another Denver girl who depends on my legit local friends to guide me to the goods. Smells like Front Range, indeed.
I’M STANDING ABOUT 10 YARDS BACK FROM THE
edge of a cornice, the massiveness of which I cannot judge from the tree I just peed behind. Cricco, sporting sunnies and a casual AT set-up, scopes it out near the edge. (I, meanwhile, am swamping up my helmet, goggles, and alpine race boots that, even unbuckled, make my feet fall asleep.) I had asked him to show me CDC (Charlie’s Death Chute), not because we were considering skiing it, but because it’s infamous for exactly for what its name suggests. It’s late spring—sunny as hell—and everything is bomber, but, as sweat trickles down the gully of my back, I wait for his word.
“Ok come over here,” he says. I trust him implicitly. Long before Tony Seibert and his friends—a mostly punk crew—were born, long before Instagram—and its concurrent culture of, as Cricco says, “positively reinforcing people for doing stupid shit”—Cricco was here, skiing every single day. It was his photos of the slide that killed Seibert in 2012 that appeared in the
Vail Daily, among other pubs. Cricco was part of an eclectic rat pack—Johnny “Rotten” Lyons, Hardy Bodenheimer, Zach “ZLP” Littlepage, Eric Anderson, Gabe “Super G” Schroder, Andrew “Coup” Couperth-wait— who skied these lines every day back in the ’90s, just after Vail’s 1998 terrain expansion that made EV easily accessible. Their story reminds me of the famed Jackson Hole Air Force, whose motto was “Swift, Silent, Deep,” except, well, these guys were way more silent.
Coup, Bodenheimer, Littlepage, and Anderson all worked at Kenny’s Double Diamond ski shop, and today, all of these guys are still deeply rooted in skiing: Coup and Bodenheimer at Head Skis, Littlepage at DPS, Anderson at Salomon/Amer Sports, Schroder at Dakine.
I glide over to the cornice, and I can see it all—a gorgeous, shimmering playground. Chutes give way to rolling pow fields, steep trees with cliff-band benches to the right and left, and the sun-baked east-facing slide path with a rib of rock melting through. It’s a giant bowl with virtually zero safe zone. If someone on the opposite side triggers a slide, it can zipper off the entire face and wipe out everything and everyone all the way to I-70. According to Cricco, East Vail’s burgeoning popularity is making it more dangerous, not just because the bros’ Insta posts are seductive, but because skier compaction might counterintuitively make the zone more dangerous. When it goes, it’ll go all the way.
“All the fatalities happen in January,” he says. Indeed, he’s mostly right. There have been eight fatalities in EV since the late ’80s—a number most locals think is surprisingly low—five of which occurred during the first half of January. But that doesn’t mean any of the other months are safer. In February 2012, Vail
Daily reported six or more East Vail avalanches during a single week—only three of which were reported to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center—whose victims got lucky with only a broken femur, broken ribs, and a collapsed lung. According to Brian Lazar, deputy director of the CAIC, a lot of stuff goes unreported back there, probably due to embarrassment. “People think everyone will judge them,” he says. “And they will.”
There was the late-December 2013 avalanche that swept
then-22-year-old Edwin LaMair through the trees, landing him and his brother on “The Today Show” because their GoPro footage went viral. And then there was Tony. In January 2014— only two weeks after LaMair’s now-famous brush with death—a slab 900 feet wide with a crown measuring 10 feet at its highest swept Tony Seibert, grandson of Vail cofounder Pete Seibert, to his death. He was 24 years old.
Cricco points out Panic Ridge with his pole, an island of elevated trees below, where you can post up relatively safely and watch the mayhem above. “We always say we should bring a megaphone and a bong and just hang out there, because you see some funny stuff,” he says. He points out some other lines, NBA, where Seibert died, and Tweeners, where we’re going to ski.
We boot back up the shoulder and Cricco points out where we’re going—an open swath through the trees on the right that rolls like a water slide—and drops without looking back. I give him 15 seconds or so, then follow, laying into the soft snow and trying not to cross his tracks. It’s better than we expected, temps being what they are, and when I catch up with him in our safe spot in the trees he suggests we do the Mushroom Chutes on the next run, where he thinks we’ll get the last pow that lingers here today.
He tells me about the orographic lift, how storms dump a disproportionate amount of snow on EV, and how wind loading is a huge factor, partly why EV is so dangerously avy-prone. Vail reports 350 inches of snow a year, but EV’s numbers are likely almost twice that. He tells me all kinds of stories, but mostly he tells me about how he and his crew lied to everyone—bosses, girlfriends, coworkers, friends—about where they skied and how good it was, all to protect their stash.
“DAY AFTER DAY, YOU COULD POINT OUT ALL YOUR
tracks,” says Coup, whom I’ve known for 15 years, over lunch of fried pickles and Cubans in Boulder, “because all the tracks were ours.” They skied in 200cm GS skis and clunky Alpine Trekkers, using cornice saws and avy gear. “Pepi [Stiegler] bought one beacon, one set of skins, etcetera, just so we could get a pro form,” Coup says.
To avoid people seeing their tracks off the poma, they’d ski into Outer Mongolia and skin from there, Coup says. “No one was skiing EV back then. We were greedy. And thank goodness there was no social media,” he says. “No one knew what we were doing… I remember people making fun of us in the lift line because we had packs on.”
They had their fair share of mishaps. Coup blew his knee there—an injury he struggles with every day—and skied out on one leg. “That was a week after Powder hit newsstands,” referring to his first of three ski-magazine covers that Cricco shot of him which now hangs on the wall at Bart and Yeti’s, a locals’ bar in Lionshead. Coup also recalls seeing his buddy jump on a shelf that released and swept him off a 50-footer, which then released another slide. Coup was prepared to launch the cliff to dig him out, but then saw him surface, still attached to one ski. “That was the scariest,” he says. He thinks for a minute, and then says, “I saw three or four friends get taken over the years. But patrol never once had to respond to a situation from us.”
He hasn’t skied EV in more than two years. “People are going back there trying to figure it out, with no avy classes,” Coup says. “Every year it got busier and busier.” Then he laughs. “Cricco used to say to guys we’d see back there, ‘How do you ski to Denver from here?’”
The Forest Service does not have any hard data to back up this anecdotal rise in EV’s popularity, and Vail Resorts declined to allow ski patrollers to comment, but, judging by the increase in the number of bus riders from East Vail back into town in the winter months—up 23,083 from 2005 to 2015, according to the Town of Vail Department of Transportation—it’s safe to say Cricco and Coup are right. Besides, it doesn’t take stats to know that backcountry skiing has gone mainstream; just drive up Colorado’s Berthoud Pass on a Saturday and you’ll have all the evidence you need.
Katelyn Jerman, public affairs officer for the White River Na--
tional Forest, offered this vague corroboration: “Recreation use in general is up across the forest for both summer and winter use, so it would make sense that you are hearing from locals about an uptick in use in that specific area.”
It also makes sense that many riders who are venturing into EV aren’t properly trained, simply because it’s so easy to access from the resort boundary. According to Lazar at the CAIC, that’s the first of three reasons why EV is so treacherous: “The barrier to access is low,” he says, “so people don’t need solid backcountry skills to get into that area.” Also, “EV is almost uniformly steep. It’s almost all avalanche terrain.” And thirdly, “The consequences of even small slides are big because of terrain traps,” like trees, which kill people by blunt-force trauma, and gullies, where snow funnels and causes deep burials. “It’s also one of the only places in the state where there have been multiple avalanche fatalities in the same slide path,” Lazar says.
Gabe Schroder, who now lives in Sun Valley, says a lot of the people who get lured back have no clue how dangerous it can be. “It’s a rowdy zone on a generally tame mountain. That can add an element of complacency.” He talks about how he sees “sponsor me” vids of people stopping on Mushroom Rock and traversing above cliff bands. “We had a rule that if we were going to hit a cliff, we’d come into it with heat and send it, and get off the slope as fast as possible,” Schroder says. “We also weren’t going back there the day after a storm...I don’t claim that we were the most savvy and experienced skiers out there, but we certainly seemed to have a little more common sense and respect for the mountain than people have today.”
Almost everyone I speak with who knows this area inevitably comes to the same conclusion: It’s surprising more people don’t die back there.
CRICCO AND I SLUICE THROUGH SOME MORE
hot pow, getting deeper into the trees and crossing a flat catwalk that must be a service road in the summer. I recognize this road from the only other time I’ve skied back here—in Water Tower, just looker’s right of East Vail—earlier this season with my friend Timmy Dyer and the first two of three of the local “O’s,” Nacho, Gonzalo, and Santiago.
That day was pure pow. I remember the sun coming out of the graybird and momentarily igniting the snowflakes in the air as we billygoated down through a cliff band, and then hit big pillows stacked with fluff. I also remember a lot of willow-whacking and gully-crossing and side-stepping in the runout, and thinking that this is about as much adventure as one run should contain. Sure, hardcores love to hate on Vail. But, as Gonzalo summed up on the bootpack past the gate, “East Vail is why I live here.”
This time, as Cricco and I ski down toward the road, the runout is not so much a runout at all, but a cleared avy path so beautiful and perfect it’s easy to forget why trees don’t grow here. We pick our way through the yards of empty vacation houses at the bottom, crossing short sections of melted-out lawn, and then post up at the bus stop and unshoulder our packs. Snow is melting in rivulets into the rocks and sand on the side of the road.
The bus comes, and we sit behind a visiting couple in street clothes talking to the bus driver, a crusty dude rocking Pit Vipers. In Cricco and Coup’s day, there was no bus; they’d ski the underpass down to mile marker 184 and stand on the shoulder thumbing for a ride. “One guy would put his thumb out, and the rest of us would sit in the snowbank and watch for police,” Coup had said. “There were a lot of days where my biggest fear was just hitchhiking out.”
Cricco and I listen to the driver telling the tourists all about the old days, about when he and his buddies used to ski EV without any “transmitters or nothing.” Cricco smiles. Things are certainly different now, but then again, the story of stashes getting “discovered” as the new generation moves in is a story as old as the sport itself.
Then I think about Tony, about the photos on his Facebook memorial page—a beautiful blond kid with a huge smile. He had this crazy energy, rebellious and infectious, and seemingly inextinguishable. And the videos of his skiing show ability so fluid and natural, it’s like it coursed through his veins.
I think about all the other beautiful heroes we’ve lost over the years—Doug Coombs, Shane McConkey, Arne Backstrom, Sarah Burke, Erik Roner. I think about all the stupid shit I did as a kid, and all the stupid shit I hope my own daughter never does. Then I think about Tony Seibert’s mom, who still patrols at Vail.
Some things, it seems, always stay the same.
Evans and Morris complete a sunrise skin in East Vail, racing against an approaching orange dawn.
The terrain where Tony Seibert was killed in an avalanche in January 2014. Seibert was the grandson of Vail cofounder Pete Seibert. Opposite: Head Ski product manager Andrew Couperthwait goes chest deep in the chutes, circa 1999.
From top left: Doug Evans and Mark Morris take in the alpenglow after an early-morning climb in East Vail; the conditions are favorable for Vail freeskier Bryan Finocchiaro; the resort boundary.
Colorado native and bluegrass musician Morris rips the Vail backcountry with Interstate 70 snaking through the valley in the distance.