Kent Rychel
Valley Voices

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January 11, 2014
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Vail Daily column: Life lived on the edge of a razor

Having grown up and lived in the mountains of Colorado my entire life, and having had an intimate relationship with the wonders and with the pain that those mountains can bring, I feel compelled to share some thoughts.

Since the beginning of human residence in the Colorado Rockies, each generation experienced its tragedy. Often more than once. The power of nature, amplified 100 fold in the mountains, periodically finds ways to remind us of its presence, and humbles us, breaks us, and demands that we acknowledge human fragility.

As a former teacher, and lifelong student of Colorado history, I look back at the pioneer spirit, guts, risk and reward that brought the first settlers into the area. Spanish conquistadors like Cabesa de Vaca pushed north from Santa Fe and entered Colorado in the early 1600s. Before the Mayflower, before New England settlement, Europeans were exploring and claiming the American West.

Following those original Spanish explorers were individual explorers, fur trappers and mountain men. They beat down the first paths and built the first cabins. Life was lived on a razor’s edge. One false move, and they were gone. Truly, these men were in the wilderness. No medicine, no supplies, only skill, wariness, a watchful eye and cleverness, enabled survival.

Guided by the mountain men were the first government surveyors and map makers. The newly formed United States of America, wanted to expand, build resource and wealth, and open the doors to the west. With forts built along rough wagon trails, security and provision were sparsely supplied and the big dreamers, the prospectors, ranchers, farmers came in droves, searching for independence, riches, a new beginning, a new life.

For all of these early pioneers, life was hard. Life was cruel. The new lands, and especially the mountains, would indeed demand a price and exact a toll. Avalanches wiped out entire mining camps taking the souls and dreams of its inhabitants with it. Mine collapse and methane gas explosions were all too common. It was nearly impossible to recover from injury or infection. Common ailments were often life threatening. Hostile tribes, falls from height, freezing weather, floods, fire, runaway horses, gunfights — all competed to sneak up on anyone at any time.

With the big mines and big cattle came the railroads. People were now streaming into the mountain towns. Leadville, Telluride, Silverton, Creede, Crested Butte, Aspen, Fairplay, Central City and Blackhawk, to name a few, were teaming with business, industry and activity.

White gold

As the mines played out, there was a dip in population in Colorado, but the National Park system, a new national highway system, and a burgeoning tourist industry worked together to restart that growth. Post World War II, Aspen, Winter Park, Loveland, Arapahoe Basin, Geneva Basin and many other small winter recreation areas were attracting people to an exciting new industry: Skiing.

Pete Seibert trained with the 10th Mountain Division at Camp Hale and fought on Riva Ridge in Italy during World War II. When the war was won, he returned to pursue a pioneer’s dream. A short distance to the north of Camp Hale, an incredible view of what is now Vail’s Back Bowls could be seen. Pete hiked the mountain along with rancher Earl Eaton, and as they hiked they made real the vision and inspiration of Vail.

As the ski industry grew and expanded to multiple snow sports and high-end real estate, the mountain valleys were infused with cash and opportunity that would have boggled the minds of those early prospectors and explorers. The new pioneers now came to the mountains for white gold ... for snow.

For many of us, our parents moved to the Colorado mountains with big dreams and sights set on a high quality of life and beautiful vistas. Being children in the mountains offered the opportunity to thrive in the world’s biggest playground.

In recent years, the mountains have become highly accessible with the advent of high speed lifts, fat skis, helmets, avalanche beacons, high powered snow mobiles, and in the summer, high-tech mountain bikes, motorcycles and ATVs. The ease of access and the popularity of the backcountry have combined to make the mountains feel innocuous. But a shadow lurks as it always has and always will.

No reason, no warning

Yes, the mountains remain the same. Indiscriminate, unforgiving and fickle. They will afford the greatest joy to one person and tragedy to another. No reason, no warning.

The hardy souls who take up residence and continue to play in this vast and incredible playground that we call the Rocky Mountains, know in the back of their minds that life here is still lived on the edge of a razor.

As a 16-year-old, I lost my friend Tommy Pitcher, 17, while skiing down a popular run in Steamboat. As a 30-year-old, I lost my very best friend, Todd Brown, 29, in a snowmobile accident in the backcountry near Crested Butte. Another former racer and student of mine, and upcoming champion free skier, Asher Crank, 17, was lost to us with a head injury practicing for a competition in Copper Mountain.

More recently, my employee and friend Mike Bowen, 32, thought he’d rip one run on his snowboard down a chute above Crested Butte before work. When he didn’t show up, we searched for him. Days later my good friend’s rescue dog finally found him. Long gone. This past summer, my fellow ski coach and great friend Crawford lost his son Zeke, 16, when he crashed on his mountain bike on Vail Mountain. Now, we hear of Tony Seibert, 24, son of my wonderful friend Pete “Circle” Seibert and grandson of famous Vail founder Peter Seibert.

The impact is far reaching and crushing to the families involved. The witnesses and rescuers will never be the same. They will relive, and try to correct the moment forever. Never is this something that we can get used to, or even come to terms with. We just keep on keeping on.

spirit of the west

All of these souls were young, children really, and they left a wake of sadness and trauma in the tiny, close-knit mountain communities. But they possessed that pioneer spirit. The adventurer who is willing to face the razor’s edge. The spirit of the mountain West infused their minds and bodies. No different than any of us, they were snatched away by the unfathomable power of the mountains.

We are left with only one choice. To keep living our lives with the void and pain forever present. To continue rejoicing in the world’s biggest playground, and to find joy in the memories and good times that were shared and shaped who we are, and continue to shape who we will be.

God rest Tony’s soul, and may he live on in our memories forever.

God help the Seibert family and may their friends give them comfort and support.

And may they, and we all find peace.

Kent Rychel grew up in the Vail Valley from the late ’60s through the early ’80s.

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The VailDaily Updated Feb 8, 2014 05:58PM Published Jan 14, 2014 04:15PM Copyright 2014 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.