Few skiers had more experience in the backcountry than Gary Smith.
The Eagle County mountaineer had skied Denali, explored some of Colorado’s most remote peaks and shepherded countless skiers into the backcountry with his in-depth gear reviews for Wildsnow.com and work at Cripple Creek Backcountry shop in Vail.
On Monday, the 37-year-old mountaineer died in an avalanche beyond the boundary of Beaver Creek ski area. He was the 12th person killed in an avalanche this season in Colorado, tying a grim high-mark set in 1992-93.
Smith and a partner were skiing in an area known as Sanctuary Chute, a steep northwest-facing slope below treeline. Skiers often access the backcountry zone by leaving Beaver Creek from the top of the Larkspur Express chairlift.
A report from the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office said his partner was able to locate and extricate Smith from the avalanche. Beaver Creek ski patrol and Vail Mountain Rescue group worked into the night Monday to recover Smith, who was a former ski patroller.
“He was one of the greats,” said a longtime friend who worked summers with Smith on a timber-clearing crew.
Smith is the fifth Eagle County local to die in an avalanche this season. Last month, three Eagle residents were killed in a slide near Ophir Pass outside Silverton and a Vail man was killed in an avalanche in East Vail, outside the Vail ski area boundary.
Smith spent three years as the manager of Cripple Creek Backcountry’s shop in Lionshead and recently transitioned to an editor position at Wildsnow, where he penned trip reports and gear reviews. He was well respected as one of the most experienced backcountry skiers in the valley, with many years spent exploring the region’s most remote peaks. He also skied major lines on Alaska’s Denali in 2019 and volcanoes all over South America in 2018.
It rained almost every day on that trip to Chile and Patagonia, said Doug Stenclik, co-owner of Cripple Creek Backcountry and Wildsnow.
“He pushed us out every day. He was not going to waste a single moment in Patagonia feeling sorry for himself about the rain,” Stenclik said.
Stenclik said it’s impossible to count the number of people Smith introduced to uphill skiing.
“I don’t know if anyone in the valley pushed harder than him, but he was so happy in the trenches getting new people out on skis for their first time and he’d do it with such humility, you’d never guess he was this amazing skier,” Stenclik said. “He’d go from the biggest lines on Denali to skiing up a groomed run at Lionshead with a bunch of first-timers with the same excitement.”
It had been almost five weeks since Colorado had an avalanche death, after a particularly bruising stretch that saw six skiers and snowmobilers killed in February. A warming trend and weak snowfall had reduced avalanche danger, with layers of weak snow bonding into a stronger base. Storms in recent days have dumped more than a foot of fresh snow on the resorts and higher peaks above the Eagle River.
Avalanche danger was considered moderate on Monday, with forecasters from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center warning about wind-drifted new snow accumulating in “open, steep, north-facing slopes.”
The U.S. is enduring a deadly backcountry season, with Smith’s death marking the 35th avalanche fatality this season. That tally includes 20 skiers and snowboarders, eight snowmobilers and five climbers. In Colorado, the 12 men killed include 10 with many decades of experience in the winter backcountry. And they all were older, aged between 37 and 69. The average age was 46, compared to the U.S. average for the past three decades of 33.
Heading into the season, there was real concern that a deluge of newcomers in the backcountry would overwhelm search and rescue teams. Backcountry gear sales were spiking and then the snowpack stacked up poorly, with a rotten base layer across the West shedding large avalanches. But there hasn’t been a surge of inexperienced backcountry travelers getting into trouble.
That’s leaving avalanche educators and SAR teams wondering about the effectiveness of their aggressive outreach and safety campaign this season. On one hand, the lack of newcomers getting caught in avalanches could mean their messaging is working. But the numbers of experienced skiers and snowmobilers getting caught is troubling.
“Knowing the gear sales and knowing that people are getting out and not having multiple calls per day, well that leads me to think we’ve been really successful,” said Jeff Sparhawk, the president of the Colorado Search and Rescue Association. “To see that we haven’t had any of these younger, new Colorado residents dying in avalanches that tells me a lot. But now the challenge is how do we continue the message for those people who have the education or have been out for years if not decades. How do we say to them ‘Hey you really gotta pay attention. You have to recognize the consequences of your actions.’”
Forecasters at the CAIC describe this season’s snowpack as posing a once-in-a-decade avalanche hazard across the state.
“I think it may be catching some people by surprise, even people who have a lot of mileage under their belt,” Brian Lazar, CAIC’s deputy director, said in an interview with The Colorado Sun two weeks ago. “So the way we have been explaining it, it’s hard to really develop these tried and true travel connections that you know are going to work when you’ve only seen conditions like this two or three times, even if you have been doing it for 30 years. So I think it’s been hard for people with experience to adjust to these once-in-a-decade conditions.”
Forecasters and search and rescue teams remain guarded. March and April are big months for backcountry travel. And avalanches. In the past 10 seasons, 72 skiers and snowmobilers have been caught in avalanches recorded by the CAIC in March and April, with 20 killed.
“We are not out of the woods yet,” Lazar said.