Ski to die

Steve Romeo is dead.  The influential backcountry skier and blogger died in an avalanche in the Tetons less than a week ago.  As the Black Diamond blog put it: “Steve never wasted a day, or an hour, and he was leading the life he dreamed for himself, which is the most any of us can ever aspire to. It’s easy to see he died doing what he loved, but Steve Romeo’s real legacy is that he lived doing what he loved. Live to ski—that was his motto.”


I’ve somewhat guiltily indulged in mocking over the years, for what I saw as his occasional tendency to advocate and promote a rather uncritical view of living in the mountains.  Yet there is no disputing that he lived doing what he loved, and the use of outdoor pursuits in ensuring a satisfying and meaningful life could not be closer to my heart.  In addition to an impressive archive of powder days and ski lines, the 5+ years of TetonAT tell a story increasingly interested in contemplating the reasons anyone spends time doing technical sports in the mountains, primarily through the lens of avalanche safety. In the last year, more and more posts mentioned or were devoted outright to that forgotten center of the avy triangle, the human factor.

Any death like this one ought to ask a host of questions, the first one in this case inevitably being about the reason for increasing avalanche fatalities. The first answer, when snowmachines are removed from the discussion, has to do with an increasing user base and is in most respects a business and public policy question. The more interesting question concerns why such a substantial percentage of those deaths continue to be experienced users. This naturally segues into the third and fourth questions: is backcountry skiing excessively dangerous, and what level of danger is acceptable when seeking to “live doing what you love”?

I’m not qualified to answer the third question, but I do think post-TGR ski culture, the GoPro universe, and the internet are at least partially to blame, or at the very least need to feature prominently in the discussion.  All these tools help to make the extraordinary, if not ordinary, at least much more accessible.  The inspirational reach of this is hugely empowering and democratizing, but I cannot help but think it dangerous.  Backcountry skiing, at least in the more alpine forms the get close to ski mountaineering, may well fall into the realm of outdoor pursuits I choose to not do because the odds are just not good enough.  Running class V whitewater, technical alpine climbing, paragliding; all things I find intriguing but will never do.  The objective hazards are too great.  While I don’t think statistics are especially useful here, it might reveal more about me than anything else that I find such things off-putting.  But the next step in bringing full attention to the human factor in avalanche education has to be the virtue of backing off, or not going in the first place.  It’s good to see influential voices like Andrew Mclean and Jeremy Jones discussing this openly.

That said, it’s easy to see I have a hard time hearing “s/he died doing what he loved” occur far more often with reference to certain backcountry user groups.  For many reasons, not the least of which because it is almost always he, and increasingly a female partner and children left behind to grapple with the long term application of such an attitude.  In the end, the one thought which rises out of the fog here is that this is such a one-dimensional view of the process of finding meaning in life.  There are likely to be, or at least I hope, a full and diverse spectrum of interests which unfold throughout 5 or 6 or more decades of adulthood, many of which are interests whose nature is necessarily unforeseen and depth of satisfaction is inscrutable.  It strikes me as presumptuous to think that the passion of one decade is so worthy as to risk the annihilation of the rest.

11 responses to “Ski to die”

  1. It is very unfortunate that so many great backcountry skiers die in the mountains. Like world class mountaineering climbers, world class mountaineering skiers put themselves at risk to do what they love. By that I mean the folks that like to conquer peaks in the Himalayas. To a large extent, it is for the same reason, avalanches.

    I wonder, though, if the large number of fatalities are the result of folks wanting to have it all. For every skier like Romeo, there is probably two are three very good skiers who die because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many of those are not trying to do a first descent, or some tour that has never been done before, but are just trying to have a fun day in the mountains. I wonder if many of those die because they want the great bowls that can be found at the (relative) safety of the ski resort, combined with the thrill and serenity of being out in the wild. I’m afraid that is not a very good combination.

    I have a friend that skis 90% (or more) of the time in the backcountry. This includes logging roads as well as some rolling terrain. He owns a number of different skis. He was telling me about his fattest pair. He said he doesn’t have skins for those. I asked him why. He said because he only uses those on the lifts. If there is enough powder to justify the use of those skis, then he doesn’t want to be in the backcountry. He will pay the money to make sure the avalanche crew does their job before he gets there.

    We recently had a couple of terrible accidents that occurred on the same day. The weather for that day and the day before it was quite intense. There was a lot of snow, and it was coming down at a low elevation. I talked to him, and he said he was going to do a half day at a resort. I went solo, on a safe area on a logging road. I didn’t ski powder, but I skied an area that is not skied that often (because it is so low). He skied powder, but he didn’t get to experience the backcountry. We both made compromises, and we both had great days.

    To be fair to the folks that live in other parts of the country, the situation is different on the western slopes of the Cascades and the Olympics. Our snow tends to come in wet. If we do get dry, powdery snow, it consolidates fairly quickly. In other words, if you are willing to wait, you can usually find great, extremely scenic (world class) places to ski. On the other hand, the snow in the Rockies tends to fall dry and stay dry. You can get an avalanche a week after a storm. That just doesn’t happen in the Northwest (other than warm weather slab avalanches, which are easy to predict and obvious to avoid). This makes skiing in many places of the Rockies inherently dangerous. In other words, there are places in the Rockies that I would simply avoid all winter. Those places are best experienced in the spring.

  2. Dave – This topic has been occupying our thoughts lately – I’ve read TetonAT for years too & have always been jointly inspired by Steve’s high-adventure orientation & concerned about the ‘close calls’…where does ‘the expert’ draw the line with ‘extra ordinary’ restraint in such a spooky snowpack year?…Yes, “let them take risks, for Godsake” – each to his own experience for sure — &, while I really admired Steve’s spirit, I’m with you on threshold risk….

  3. Clayton Mauritzen Avatar
    Clayton Mauritzen

    I don’t have anything particular to comment on this piece except to say that it is the latest in a series of thoughtful, organized, intelligently discussed pieces lately. It’s not only clear that you’ve stepped up your game as a blogger, but that your place as a backcountry adventurer only enhances the depth of your reflection. Thought- and heartfelt kudos.

  4. I agree. Well said.

  5. “There are likely to be, or at least I hope, a full and diverse spectrum of interests which unfold throughout 5 or 6 or more decades of adulthood, many of which are interests whose nature is necessarily unforeseen and depth of satisfaction is inscrutable. It strikes me as presumptuous to think that the passion of one decade is so worthy as to risk the annihilation of the rest”

    Couldn’t agree more, Dave. There’s so much to enjoy during a lifetime that I’m more than happy being concidered a chicken by some of my friends ;)

  6. Great stuff. Lou over at posted a thoughtful note too…

    1. Indeed, well worth reading (and asking the same questions, largely):

  7. Every BC fatality brings these question to my mind. After reading the reports I try to put myself in the same situation. Would Iahve made a different choice? Or would I have died? I’ve skied enough in the BC to know that every day, and every line are capable of taking your life. Sometimes a BC fatality is just bad luck. But often there is a series of border-line reckless decisions that lead to the death. We had one in Utah a few weeks ago that just should not have happend. The skier who died was pushing the limits of the snowpack for days leading up to the accident.

    I love skiing the BC. But sometimes the risk is simply too great. This winter has been spooky from the outset. I’ve only had a few days on snow. Big deal. I’m happy, healthy, and looking forward to a season of bike riding, always hoping that next winter will be more friendly.

    I fear that the “internet-icon” culture can fuel bad choices. I don’t know the details of Steve’s accident. That both he and his partner were buried suggests that the slide occurred while they were hiking, or that they were both skiing simultaneously. It could be neither. I don’t know that we’ll ever know all the details. But I do wonder if we don’t push ourselves into poor situations in pursuit of “the next great blog post” or “this is what my fans expect me to do, what would they think if I wrote about backing off a peak because we felt spooked?”

    The BC is dangerous. But it doesn’t have to be overtly so. There are nearly always lines to ski that are as safe as can possibly be. They may not be epic or iconic or photogenic, but they are, nonetheless, there. What is more valuable to us, simply being in the outdoors or bagging magazine-lines?

  8. I agree and enjoy our relatively safe BC outings. Bad things can still happen but risks can be mitigated. It may not be the most adrenaline-producing endeavor but it’s still fun, a good workout and peaceful.

    I am getting over my cold and ready to start planning a good spring outing provided conditions don’t continue to deteriorate.

  9. […] an era in which the seriousness of skiing in avalanche terrain is beginning to be given full shrift, I think the market for such gear will only […]

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