THE SER­PENT’S LAIR

SKI - - CLINIC - BY KIMBERLY BEEKMAN PHOTOS BY JEFF CRICCO

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.