Friends, family remember backcountry adventurer Gary Smith
Smith was killed in an avalanche near Beaver Creek on Monday
In modern cities and towns, sometimes relationships among residents can be purely transactional. As both a shopkeeper and an adventurer, Gary Allen Smith understood this well.
But he also knew an age-old technique in combating the hollowness of superficial relationships. Smith’s friends said he would, simply, put you in a situation where you trust him with your life, and he yours. After that moment, your relationship with him was no longer superficial. You knew you had a real friend.
Smith died while skiing this week, during a backcountry mission with a friend. For a person who has skied from Switzerland to Alaska to Patagonia, the relatively tame slope, just outside the boundaries of Beaver Creek Resort in Eagle County, was a reminder to all that the fractional-percent chance of death is always present when skis are on your feet, and low risk does not mean no risk.
“He was skiing, doing what he loved best,” said Smith’s friend Joe Golting on Friday.
Golting described Smith as an always-present friend.
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“He was a person who, no matter what time of day or night, he would always have an open ear, an open heart, and an open mind,” Golting said. “If it was something you might need a friend for, he would be there.”
Conquest and contrast
When Vail resident David Ruttum needed new gear, he was somewhat timid in entering the shop nearest to him in Lionshead.
“Frequently you go into a high-end gear store, and the shopkeeper looks at you and evaluates are you cool enough for me to sell you equipment,” Ruttum said.
But Ruttum didn’t get that feeling from Smith.
“Gary actually cared about me and what I was looking for,” he said.
Ruttum is known locally for completing the 100-mile route known as Nolan’s 14, and in him Smith recognized the potential for a real friendship.
“From that point on we got to be ski touring buddies,” Ruttum said.
They skied lines in the Gore Range and the Sawatch ranges mostly, long day trips which started early and ended late, but didn’t require any overnight camping.
While Smith was known for great ski mountaineering conquests, he excelled at the intense local day trip, his friend Chris Baldwin said this week.
Baldwin said of all the hard-to-reach places in the Gore Range that he explored with Smith, one of the most fond memories will always be reaching the locally fabled Grand Traverse summit together, where they could look down into Vail Village and appreciate the contrast of the moment. They were the only souls in a very remote, yet very visible location, and they followed the moment with a death-defying line, the north face of the Grand Traverse.
The memory sticks out for Baldwin because it embodies Smith’s ability to balance the transactional relationships of the commercial core with the intense bonds that form in the backcountry community.
“If you want a contrast to the ‘Vail has no community, it’s not a real town’ theory, you need Gary Smith,” Baldwin said.
Skiing together locally, Baldwin and Smith reached a point where very few mountain faces in the Vail area were unreachable in a day’s journey.
Baldwin said this was due to a combination of two things Smith knew well: fitness and gear.
Smith’s knowledge of gear spawned an immense body of work on wildsnow.com, where he penned dozens of reviews and trip reports.
Wildsnow.com was founded by Colorado Ski & Snowboard Hall of Famer Lou Dawson, who is best known for being the first person to ski all of Colorado’s 14ers. The website is now run by Doug Stenclik, who said Smith was the passion behind the site after Dawson retired.
“I would have never taken on the (website) if not for Gary,” Stenclik said. “I felt he was a far better heir to Lou Dawson’s legacy than I was.”
Stenclik said Smith’s attention to detail made an impact which rippled all the way to the R&D rooms of major gear manufacturers.
In an episode of “Totally Deep Podcast,” Smith joked about how nail polish served him as an important tool in making a modification which could remove a few crucial seconds from a scramble to access your avalanche equipment in a rescue scenario.
“I got a (backpack) last year and wrote a review about it, and my two complaints were that you couldn’t distinguish the avalanche pocket from the main one very easily so I painted it with nail polish, and the other one was that all the avy tools were on the far exterior of the pack, and it made it kind of sloppy without compression straps,” Smith said.
The following year, the new packs had compression straps and the avalanche pocket had a bright red zipper.
“We’re gonna claim it,” Smith said.
Smith’s love for ski missions may have came from the many Christian missions he enjoyed as a child.
“Our family vacations were mostly mission trips,” said Gary’s Mother, Cindy. “We went to Mexico, Costa Rica and Nicaragua, so he was comfortable with international travel.”
A lover of both skiing and Central American culture, Gary Smith and his friends combined the two by summiting Citlalepetl, the 18,491 foot volcano in Southern Mexico, despite finding icy conditions on the mountain.
“Skiing is a nice term for what they did,” said Gary’s brother, Craig Smith.
Gary’s father, Phillip Smith, said the family took winter trips to Northern New Mexico when Gary was young, which is where Gary discovered his love of skiing.
And New Mexico was where Gary returned after graduating from the University of Texas. After spending a season working at the Red River Ski Area, he moved to Copper Mountain where he spent another season before landing in Vail.
Gary worked one season as a liftie at Vail before joining the ski patrol. He spent the summer of 2010 trimming trees for Charlie Earle at a ranch in the Edwards area, where he met ski patrollers Joe Golting and Rick Bell. The following season Smith joined Bell and Golting on the Vail Ski Patrol, where he earned the nickname “Ghostrider Gary” for his dedication in retrieving a wayward snowmobile.
But while Golting and Bell only took a brief interest in tree trimming and sawyer work, Smith took to the profession with the seriousness of all his endeavors. Eight years later, after moving from ski patrol to the backcountry shop, Smith also owned Earle’s business.
“He grew the business and had a tremendous first year,” Earle said. “He took his sawyer skills to a whole new level and was working on cutting private ski runs for people.”
In 2018 Smith also met Caroline Lewis and fell in love, ushering in a new level of motivation in his mind.
Smith’s friends enjoyed watching him take on a new phase of life in recent years, personally and professionally, in meeting Caroline and buying Earle’s business.
“I wouldn’t call it blossoming,” said Chris Baldwin. “He was exploding into this next phase of life.”
After uncountable adventures, David Ruttum said he and Smith had begun to enjoy mellow evenings at home together with Smith’s girlfriend Caroline, Ruttum’s wife Kerry and their 10-month-old daughter.
Ruttum said he will enjoy, as a final memory, a calm moment from a recent evening.
“You’ve got this incredible skier,” Ruttum said. “And he’s on the floor playing peek-a-boo with my daughter.”