Shunryu Suzuki “Life is like stepping into a boat that is about to set sail and sink”
rubber block carving by Rōbert
After a ski patroller’s death, a flurry of questions Forest Service permitting issues complicate a southwestern Colorado tragedy~~ by Jonathan Thompson
It’s mid-December, grey and cold outside, the snow that should be here conspicuously missing. But inside the windowless U.S. District Court building in a Durango, Colorado, business park, there is no season, just beige walls illuminated by overhead fluorescents. Doug Sutton and a handful of friends and relatives stand around in the hallway outside the courtroom. Sutton, dressed in a tweed blazer, scarf and tattered, stained jeans, looks out of time and out of place. He also seems despondent, despite the fact that he arguably just won, if there could be a winner in such a situation.
A few minutes earlier, U.S. Magistrate Judge David L. West ordered Randall Davey Pitcher, the 52-year-old CEO of Wolf Creek Ski Area in southwestern Colorado, to pay a fine and serve probation for conducting search and rescue training and avalanche research without a permit on Forest Service land outside of the ski area last winter. It’s a petty offense and almost certainly would have gone unpenalized — except for a tragic circumstance. During one of the unauthorized training missions, 38-year-old Wolf Creek senior ski patroller and avalanche technician Colin Sutton, Doug’s son, had been swept away and killed by a large avalanche.
Pitcher not only lost a friend in Colin, but the charges and the resulting proceedings have also brought attention of an unwelcome kind. Pitcher has long been a darling of the media for taking a maverick approach to running his family’s tiny, unconventional ski area and resisting corporate glitz, for refusing to bet on real estate and teaming with environmentalists to beat back a Texas billionaire’s plan to build a small city adjacent to the ski slopes. Despite a reputation for high safety standards, Pitcher is now being portrayed, by Sutton and some media reports at least, as a maverick of a different sort: One who plays fast and loose with the rules, possibly endangering his colleagues.
George with a couple of young future ice climbers. Russ, George & Kyle, 1993.
Thanks to the George Gardner Scholarship Fund, I was able to have an amazing experience with the Silverton Avalanche School. I learned so much and am very humbled by the consequences of ignoring the dangers of the winter environment & not following proper protocol. I am much more confident because of the education, training and winter skills I gained at the avalanche school all because of a scholarship given to me by the GGSF.
The instructors at the Silverton Avalanche School were very experienced and knowledgeable which made the experience enjoyable and educational. The Back Country Access shovel, avalanche probe and avalanche transceiver given to me by the George Fund was extremely easy to use and reliable. The avalanche transceiver is simple and very effective in a search situation for a buried transceiver. We learned to use it by burying another beacon under the snow out of sight of our partner and searching for it with our own. The probe is a very useful tool for evaluating snow pack layers and for finding a buried body. The shovel is a very necessary tool to have for digging snow pits or recovering an unfortunate skier that is buried.
I am planning on taking a Level II course with the Silverton Avalanche School next winter because I think it would be a valuable class and make me a more competent and safe backcountry traveler.
Thank you George Fund so much for giving me the opportunity to attend this amazing class and begin learning the necessary winter skills to travel safely in the winter mountains.
Telluride Helitrax was founded in 1982 by four Telluride friends: Mike Friedman, Mark Frankmann, David Bush, and Brian “Speed” Miller. The operation, originally named the Telluride School of Ski Mountaineering, sought to provide backcountry guiding services around Telluride.
Friedman, Frankmann, Bush and Speed quickly realized they were a bit before their time with a backcountry ski operation, so they shifted their mindset from human powered skiing to helicopter powered skiing. These guys were adamant backcountry skiers and knew they all had the skills and snow safety education necessary to start and run a heli-skiing business. They got in touch with the US Forest Service and submitted an operating plan to utilize the terrain surrounding Telluride. A few months later they were granted a Special Use Permit and began operations.
Photo: Mike Friedman/Telluride Helitrax Collection
Telluride Helitrax launched its first trip over Mountainfilm weekend in 1983 and has been in continuous operation ever since. Helitrax utilized a Bell 47 Soloy in the early years which fit a pilot plus two people. Typical groups were characterized by one guide and three clients skiing powder conditions in the winter and corn snow in the spring.
It’s rumored that the Telluride Ski Patrol pulled four skiers’ passes for skiing out of bounds which led to the formation of the Telluride School of Mountaineering. Thanks Telluride Ski Patrol class of 1982!
Photo: Mike Friedman/Telluride Helitrax Collection
Check out these cool pictures from Cathy Hartt in Montrose. She was walking her dog around 7:30 this morning when she observed this “snowslide” at Buckley Park.
Gerald & Allyn “solemnize” their marriage by the mayor of Alta.
I’m riding in the backseat of a vintage 1948 Buick RoadMaster running late for a flight at the Santiago airport. My head rings with a Pisco buzz, the result of a four hour lunch at the Tongoy with an old friend. We reviewed lies and good times that we’ve shared while skiing the Rockies and Andes and in other adventures. In my mind I compare the old ride, belching out fumes and rattling down the highway to my old friend, Señor Tim Lane. Both genuine, classic originals…..
There was tension in the voices heard over the crackle of the radio – between forecasters and the highway’s regional CDOT teams. Then, Jerry’s succinct words: “We’re in full conditions here, boys and girls,” the first hint that we might be witnessing a once-in-a-lifetime storm. But of course, at the time, none of us really knew. It was 11:00 pm, January 8, 2005, and it would be an understatement to say it was a stormy night. Forecaster Mark Rikkers was in one truck racing south towards Molas Pass, while lead forecaster Jerry Roberts and his visiting side-kick Tim Lane were headed the opposite direction up Red Mountain, checking on the rapidly deteriorating road conditions and increasing avalanche hazard threatening Highway 550, from the Uncompaghre Gorge above Ouray all the way to Coal Bank Pass – the north/south life-line of southwestern Colorado. That night, after an already long day of shooting, I was allowed to stay behind and supposedly catch up on much-needed sleep. A night that was sleepless nonetheless, especially since around here we make a habit of snuggling with our Motorolas; no avalanche forecaster worth their Pisco Sours would be sleeping when it’s dumping nearly 3″ per hour on a severely burdened continental snowpack. So there I lay, wide awake, eavesdropping. Using radio call names, Jerry Roberts is anxiously trying to reach Mark Rikkers: “3 Mary 5-1, this is 3 Mary 5-0; what’s your 20? Mark Rikkers: “Hey Jer, it’s 3 Mary 5-1, I finally made it to Molas Pass – really bad visibility; what’s happening your direction?“ Jerry: “Mark, I’m with a crazy woman stuck in a snowbank near the Muleshoe turn (below a particularly nasty avalanche path) – will need help getting her out so we can shut this highway down. Can’t reach the Red Mountain plow driver – can you try radioing from your location and send him our way?” Mark: “10-4, I’ll give it a try.”
So, trolling for something to do, I ventured an earnest call to Jerry (knowing it was probably a mistake). “Uhh, 3 Mary 5-0, this is 3 Mary 5-2; is there anything I can do from here?” Pause. Jerry, with the whole world listening and a storm puking 3″ an hour, replied, “Thanks 5-2, uhh yea…when we get this lady out we’ll be escorting her back to Silverton for the night, but she might not be able to find a place to stay…doesn’t speak very good English, think she’s Romanian…you think she could camp on your sofa for the night?” I pause, suspicious. “Uhh, yea, sure, I guess so.” Jerry: “Great! And one other thing…I think she’s from the circus…and I think she has a monkey with her.”
Long pause. “Did you say MONKEY?” Jerry: “Ya, I think it’s a MONKEY. Will your dog be okay with that?”
~Revisiting Cliff’s place on the Mesa after 11 years and changed hands; for some reason I dug into a pile of stones we stacked up to support his prayer flag pole raised so many years ago… and there was his Tibetan Mani stone…..~
L to R~~~Andy Gleason, Jerry Roberts, Pat Ahern, Denny Hogan, Mike Friedman, Speed Miller
This morning I said to my wife, Dana, I need to check Jerry’s blog to see if he has his monsoon forecast out. It seemed past time. I logged in (early), half way down my cup of joe, but nothing new about impending summer drenchings. Of course, I then perused the latest posts to catch up on Jerry World. Then, after a couple of years of enjoying the Report, I somewhat impulsively submitted my application for a subscription. Why now? As Tom Robbins might have speculated: it must have been the twitch of an ancient frog leg in Timbuktu that made me click through my new level of devotion. And, then, within minutes, my just reward. Ding! went my computer and up popped your monsoon forecast. Serendipity? A cosmic tongue wag sent via the wispy morning breezes from our county road to yours? One can never know how these things happen, and should probably leave it all alone lest a bruja was involved.
But, thank you for your prompt reply to my telepathic request.
William Steding, PhD
Center for Presidential History
Southern Methodist University
‘Seldom Seen’ Denny Hogan has finally been freed (end of May) and is happily retired from his snow ranger position with the feds… Below are photos from his younger days working in the San Juans. Thank you George Corn for the photos from the San Juans 40 years ago….
Capital City, Co. near Lake City
Denny with Mike Friedman and George Gardner later in life in the San Juans………
City of Rocks
Each encounter I have with Jerry O, usually to wander around the mountains, I come away with something new, a different way of looking at the world. Dialogue shared on books, film, art, music or old bars like the Family Dog in Berkeley (where we both spent time watching New Riders of the Purple Sage or some other Bay area band)… I depart wondering how someone becomes so creative? I had a conversation with mountain roshi, Peter Shelton, and he offered; “It’s amazing to me how Jerry, a wonderfully gifted sculptor that works in 3D, can produce such beautiful paintings in 2D after a single painting class.” Local painter extraordinaire, Susie Billings called Jerry O’s paintings “Inspired!”
Each painting was produced in an afternoon studio session at The Ah Haa School of Art. – J.R
In the ceramics studio at Berkeley, the spirit of misrule reigned. Under the cigar chomping,
whiskey-swilling tutelage of Peter Voulkos, we were continually challenged to push out
beyond conventional notions of what is beautiful. “Death & Dump Ware” was the result of
having to make a teapot in under two minutes. Art & aesthetics discussion was ignored;
making stuff was the only thing that mattered. “You might try a little something here”, was
With Robert Weatherford at Ah Haa we have been similarly urged to push against our notions
of beauty, discard our need for control, challenge our academic preconceptions, upset the
apple cart of Art and maybe find our authentic voice.
I’m often reminded of Henry Miller’s suggestion to “Paint as you like & die happy”.
As for subject matter, the sign in English on a Japanese music store in Nihonmatsu,
“Music is Vitamin of the Heart”, pretty much sums it up.
– Jerry Oyama 2013
l to R, Davie Agnew, Paul Crooks, Denny Hogan and Matt Wells. The early 70’s (nineteen) with stolen OB van~~ winters end in the Colorado San Juan mountains