Survivors describe deadly East Vail avalanche

The most piercing question is “Why?” and there is no made-for-TV sound bite answer, say the people skiing with Tony Seibert on the day an avalanche killed him.

Why did this happen to one of Colorado’s most skilled skiers?

Why not someone else?

Why anyone at all?

There is one “because.” Because the world is majestic and pristine at 11,500 feet above sea level, and if you love backcountry skiing, then there’s no other place.

Rebecca Selig is one of the world’s foremost professional big mountain skiers and was skiing with Seibert that day, along with two other experienced backcountry skiers. She has her own questions, but no time for blamers.

“People want to point fingers and find fault. If it’s for education, that’s great. If it’s for the placement of blame, I don’t have the energy for those people. I’m going to use my energy to help people recover and help Tony’s family,” she said.

Tony died Tuesday in an avalanche while skiing the East Vail Chutes. We all know by now that he’s Vail founder Pete Seibert’s grandson, and one of Pete Jr.’s and Teri’s four children.

In the Warren Miller film “Climb to Glory,” Tony speaks glowingly about his family legacy and being Pete Seibert’s grandson.

“We share the same passion my grandfather and his uncle shared 70 years ago,” Tony says in the film. “You can tell it lives on through us. It’s a different generation, but we share the same passion for the mountains and skiing.

“I’m really proud to be a descendant. Everything they have done has affected my life so much,” he said. “That’s the reason I am who I am today.”

PERFECT POWDER

Tuesday was a powder day.

“Tony had called the night before and wanted to go skiing with me,” Selig said.

The other two have a lifetime of backcountry experience. They asked that their names not be used.

“I felt confident with that group,” Selig said.

Tony and Selig got to Vail early and took a few runs while they were waiting for the others.

“We just giggled and laughed the whole morning,” Selig said.

Finally, late in the morning the four gathered at the top of the mountain and made their way through the backcountry gate toward the East Vail Chutes, past the signs that say they would be skiing at their own risk. They had all the gear, and they had years of experience and hundreds of laps in the East Vail Chutes between the four of them.

Several sets of tracks were already headed in there, so they weren’t breaking new ground.

“We weren’t sure if we were going to hit big powder or what was going to happen,” Selig said. “If you see tracks and don’t hear any rumblings, you think you’re probably OK.”

One in the group is a photographer and he went in first, skiing down to a spot near some trees and rocks where he could set up his camera, Selig said. He wanted to photograph the other three as they took turns skiing through the new powder.

They decided the other man would be second, and Selig would be third. Tony would ski last, but that was OK. There was plenty of powder.

The second man dropped in and made about 10 turns, and it looked stable, Selig said. He stopped about 20 feet from the photographer and waited.

Selig dropped into the same line as the photographer. She skied toward him as the motor drive on his camera whirred, capturing her graceful line as it fired eight frames per second. She veered away and headed toward the second man to wait with him, she said.

They were confident, but concerned and wanted to be prepared.

“We were talking about where we were going to go if it breaks and what we would do,” Selig said.

Selig had a tree she was going to hug. The second man was going to point his skis and run. The photographer was going to hunker down among some rocks and trees. They had a plan.

They turned to look back up the mountain, toward where Tony was grinning. Tony made about five turns near the photographer, his face beaming with joy as he floated through the deep powder, Selig said.

“He was stoked. We all were,” Selig said.

That’s when it hit, a tragic moment in the ocean of time. It sounds like thunder that never ends, and you’re inside the storm cloud. It was 700 feet wide and 12 feet deep. It ran 900 feet and was powerful enough to damage a house, says the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

“I can’t tell you where we went,” Selig said. “I hugged the tree for about five seconds, then I was swept away. There must have been 15 feet of snow over my head.”

She hopped down one of the steepest exposed faces in East Vail, trying to escape. The pummeling snow ripped off her skis and one of the poles from her wrist, sending her tumbling over a cliff, she said.

“After I went through the washing machine, I stood up and heard the other two, so I knew they were alive and weren’t buried,” Selig said. “At first we thought everyone was OK, that we’d all made it. Then we realized we hadn’t heard from Tony.”

They scrambled around, searching frantically, she said. The photographer found him in the trees facing down hill.

While Selig frantically called 911 and the Vail Ski Patrol, the photographer began CPR on Tony. The second man ran 100 feet on a broken leg, struggling to get there to help.

Within minutes they were all together, Selig said.

FRIENDS AND HEROES

They weren’t alone that day in East Vail. Other friends were skiing nearby and came over to join the group and help. Other friends in the East Vail Chutes had seen and heard the avalanche and started calling Selig’s cell phone.

“There were so many calls at one time, but I remember it all so vividly,” Selig said.

Jeremy Aschenbach was first on the scene.

He has skied the East Vail Chutes almost every day for 15 years and was out there Tuesday. In fact, he was out there Friday.

“It’s all about fresh powder. It’s out there. If you live here, you know the thrill of deep, fresh powder,” he said. “You can have some of your best days out there and some of your worst days out there.”

A buddy on Vail Ski Patrol knew he’d be back there and called to see if he was OK. When he told him about the avalanche, Aschenbach knew right where it was and rushed over.

“Is everyone accounted for?” he shouted when he got near.

He has seen several avalanches and been caught in a few, but he said he’d never seen anything quite like this. The trees and debris made it look like a war zone, he said.

“There were uprooted trees everywhere,” he said.

Ski patrollers were there in minutes, Aschenbach said. For more than an hour they rotated performing CPR on Tony. Finally, ski patrollers zipped up Tony’s jacket and they started down, carrying the injured skiers on the sleds the ski patrollers had provided.

“One part of me was thinking we should all have been dead. Another part of me was saying ‘no,’” Selig said.

The ski patrollers told them they did all they could. Selig called them “heroic” and wants to thank the grief counselors who’ve helped the survivors and Tony’s family. She is also thankful for the skiers who rushed into harm’s way in the East Vail Chutes to help.

Lots of people are offering help. Some more sensible than others, but most mean well, Selig said.

“When you’re not OK, you’ll listen to people, and I’m not OK,” Selig said.“I don’t want to sink into self-pity. I want to honor Tony’s family and support them.”

The community has embraced The Seibert family.

“They’re surrounded by people who care and love them,” Selig said.

Selig just spent the better part of two years in Michigan with her mother, as cancer slowly claimed her. She spent some time in South America skiing and has been hitting it as much as possible since returning to Vail.

“I’ve been skiing my little heart out since I’ve been back. It’s what gives me life,” Selig said.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or rwyrick@vaildaily.com.


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The VailDaily Updated Jan 13, 2014 02:52PM Published Jan 10, 2014 06:18PM Copyright 2014 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.