SURVIVORS: Part of a Colorado Sun series on close calls in the outdoors and life after a crisis
Ian Lamphere was sitting in his home office when he was struck with an idea.
He yelled down to his fiancée, Elizabeth.
“I don’t know, he’d read something about someone dying, and all the sudden, he says, ‘I think we should start a nonprofit to benefit the children of avalanche victims,’” Elizabeth says, recalling the epiphany that briefly enthralled her betrothed. “I paused and said, ‘That’s a great idea.’ I felt sick to my stomach, I remember. And then I just carried on working.”
Three days later, on April 20, 2013, Lamphere died in an avalanche on Loveland Pass.
Lamphere, Joe Timlin, Rick Gaukel, Ryan Novak, Chris Peters and Jerome Boulay had spent the early morning in the Loveland ski area parking lot at the Rocky Mountain High Backcountry Gathering, a rally to promote backcountry snowboarding and avalanche safety.
As they climbed onto the northwest face of Mount Sniktau and crossed the Sheep Creek drainage gully, they triggered a massive avalanche. All six were buried.
Boulay’s face was near the surface. Rescuers dug him free four hours later, his legs wrapped around a dead friend. Lamphere, Timlin, Gaukel, Novak and Peters were killed.
But more than five lives were destroyed that day. Parents, wives, siblings and friends still struggle daily with the absence of the loved ones stolen by the Sheep Creek avalanche, and with relentless yearning for what could have been.
Elizabeth knows, acutely, that pain. She’s raising their child, Madelyn, without her dad. She was barely 8-months old when Ian died.
Elizabeth and Ian shared a business distributing Gecko climbing skins to U.S. retailers. Ian also sold Stockli skis in the U.S. He had helped establish resort television networks back East. He had trained to be a heli-ski guide. He made snack bars with homemade maple fudge from his mom, back in Vermont, and peanut butter made by Elizabeth. He sold them as “Mother Fudgers.”
“He had a very active business life,” Elizabeth says. “He was the smartest man I’ve ever known.”
As she raised their daughter, Elizabeth joined Ian’s family to create the International Avalanche Nest-Egg Fund. The IAN Fund has helped more than a dozen families shredded by avalanches. The fund has sent kids to camps and schools. It supported relief efforts after the earthquake-triggered avalanche on Mount Everest that killed 21 people in 2015.
Financial aid is only part of the reason Elizabeth created the IAN Fund.
“My goal in starting this thing was to scare the shit out of people as well as help people who found themselves in the same position I was in,” she says.
The IAN Fund hosts three or four fundraisers a year and solicits support from gearmakers in the ski and snowboard industry.
“I feel like the hardest part in this thing has been getting industry support because (for) a lot of the companies, especially those that sell backcountry gear, it’s not in their best interest to advertise avalanche deaths,” Elizabeth says. “I’ve always hoped that the industry sees some responsibility in supporting a nest egg for avalanche survivors. This is an industrywide issue that spans both skiing and snowboarding. Anyone who uses the backcountry should be aware that this fund exists.”
That fateful morning, Ian called Elizabeth from Loveland Pass. He was joining a crew of snowboarders for a quick tour up a well-traveled gulch above the valley. They were already skinning when he called.
“He was going to be at the tent all day fitting skins, but he said they decided to go for a tiny tour. Just off the road. Really short. I said, ‘Is that a good idea?’ And he said, ‘Yes, of course, it’s a tiny tour,’” she says. “They told me five minutes later it happened.”
Today, Elizabeth says she’s part of a club no one wants to join. She has long since ditched Facebook, but those in anguish still find her, usually through the IAN Fund. The newest members plead for tips on survival. The hardened veterans celebrate painful milestones. The first days of school. Birthdays. Reunions.
“Making big decisions about your kid, it’s just so hard to do it alone,” Elizabeth says.
Madelyn, now in first grade, and her mom travel a lot. Elizabeth works remotely as an executive’s assistant and is determined to show her daughter the world.
“It’s what Ian would have wanted,” she says.
Elizabeth talks with Madelyn about Ian a lot, showing her pictures and videos. Madelyn can’t remember her dad, but she misses him.
“There are times when she gets really angry with me and asks me why I let him go skiing that day,” Elizabeth says with a forced laugh that sounds more like a sob. “She just told me the other day, ‘Daddy would let me watch TV. I know he would.’”
The Crested Butte boys cajoled and harangued Mike Horn to join them at Loveland that day. They always traveled together to trade shows and backcountry events, helping to sell snowboards and skins and usually always seeking out some turns.
Horn ran Kronicle, a backcountry-snowboarding magazine. Riding remote powder was his life and livelihood.
“Writing stories about these awesome destinations and experiences, I was kind of selling that experience,” he says. “We used to travel everywhere together, Jerome and Ian and I. We always had a blast, everywhere we went. And, man, they pestered me to come with them to Loveland.”.
But Horn passed on this trip. It was spring, and he wanted to ride bikes in Fruita.
Horn was sitting in his car with his wife, waiting out a rainstorm after a day in the saddle when Elizabeth called. She was blunt.
“She said, ‘Ian’s dead.’ I came back and the wheels were totally off,” he recalls, not trying to suppress his tears. “Sorry, man, it’s been a long time since I talked about that day.”
His world in Crested Butte began collapsing. His family of friends, bonded through the backcountry, was disintegrating. Elizabeth was struggling. Everyone was.
“And, simultaneously, I’m having my own internal crisis. Why am I putting myself at risk on a regular basis for stories, being in stupid situations to get photos and stories in the backcountry. Almost everything about producing a story in the backcountry goes against all the rules of safety,” he says. “All this stuff really spun me to the point where I was so inside my head (that) I had no desire to be out there.”
He left the magazine, penning a final, heart-wrenching editorial. It was tribute to Ian, his second friend killed by an avalanche. In 2008, his longtime riding partner Mike Bowen was swept to his death in terrain above Crested Butte — terrain where they often rode together and chutes where he had honed his powder skills a decade earlier, when he was a newcomer to the sport.
The magazine folded. And Horn, now the father of a young daughter, began questioning what was once a rock-solid love for lonely powder fields in the mountains. Yes, he ached watching Elizabeth navigate solo parenting. Yeah, there was a bit of “That could have been me,” too.
But there was a deeper, almost existential angst in his gut. He had defined himself as a backcountry snowboarder. After Sheep Creek, he was questioning who he was.
“I’ve come to a place where I kind of feel lucky to come out of my life in the backcountry relatively unscathed despite being completely ignorant for the first five years I was out there snowboarding,” he says. “Somehow I avoided being in the wrong place at the wrong time with Mike and Ian and Jerome and Novak. I feel like I rolled the dice a lot and somehow was presented with the opportunity to be, I don’t know, alive and able to raise a family.”
No one calls Horn to go tour and ride anymore. He rides the resorts. He has been in the backcountry only a handful of times over the past six years.
“It used to be this pure place,” he says. “It’s weird. Now I love it and I hate it. I love being out in the mountains. I love riding fresh powder. But now I have a zero tolerance for risk. Which pretty much brings my potential partners down to zero.”
Good, says Elizabeth.
“Mike knows,” she says of her close friend.
Elizabeth doesn’t mince words when it comes to avalanche safety. She wants gear manufacturers and retail shops to take a more active role in highlighting the risks of backcountry travel.
“It’s like they are giving keys to the Ferrari to infants and saying, ‘Have a great time on the highway,’” she says. “If you are willing to put your life at risk, that’s your business. I can’t change what people want to do. I can only tell them what I know. And what I know is the deepest of sadness for my child. I have a responsibility to tell my story. If I can prevent at least one kid from going through what my kid goes through every day, I will do whatever it takes. I have to.”
Elizabeth often talks at avalanche-awareness trainings and search-and-rescue meetings across the West. After sharing her story — she calls it “Love Lost in Loveland” — in Wyoming in 2016, a woman came up and said she and her husband were sobbing during Elizabeth’s telling.
“She said, ‘I know he heard you.’ And that’s what I want,” Elizabeth says. “If I can give anybody a moment of pause when they are putting on their skins, just a second, because that one pause, that one thought, maybe they will remember Ian, and that second can change someone’s life.”
More from The Colorado Sun
- State lawmaker from southeast Colorado dies after long battle with cancer
- The dirty battle over Nuggets, Avs on TV / CSU student’s death and gun culture / Indoor climbing is big business / Polis’ next hospital move / + More
- Drew Litton: Where’s Marley’s ghost when you need him?
- What’d I Miss?: Vote chicken
- A Colorado author thought she was done with characters she created 20 years ago. Then one came of age.