Gone but not forgotten: Notable Vail Valley deaths of 2019
It takes all kinds to make a community. These are some of the loved ones we lost in 2019
We are a collection of stories about the adventures we enjoy as our time goes by.
Time, not money, is what we have to spend, but like money, some have more to spend than others.
These are a few who left us in 2019 who made their time count. It’s by no means a complete list, but maybe we can all see some of our better selves in the good they did.
Pepi skied Vail before it was Vail. Born in Austria, in 1932, he was an apprentice cheesemaker and worked his way onto the powerful Austrian Ski Team of the 1950s. He migrated to the U.S. in 1960, landing in Sun Valley, Idaho.
Vail came calling when Vail pioneer Dick Hauserman showed Gramshammer a film about the new ski area. He met with Pete Seibert, Morrie Shepard and Bob Parker after the last event of the pro skiing season at Loveland. The next day, they climbed to the top of Vail Mountain in Earl Eaton’s snowcat contraption and skied the Back Bowls. This was before lifts, so Pepi had to climb out. “That took forever!” Pepi said at the time. And that, young people, is how the Vail run “Forever” was named.
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Pepi Gramshammer said often that his move to Vail was the best move he ever made. He and his wife, Sheika, opened Gasthof Gramshammer in 1964, the last Vail Village business still owned by its original owners. Vail grew up around them.
Pepi and Sheika’s Crystal Ball raised more than $2 million for ski-related organizations. They were instrumental in bringing World Cup ski racing back to Vail in 1983, as well as landing the World Championships to Vail in 1989 and 1999.
In 2005, Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schussel honored Pepi for his achievements in America, a proclamation coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the Austrian Ski Federation.
As the years flew by and Pepi became one of Vail’s revered elder statesmen, he smiled often and said, “It was not so bad after all.”
Sanford Morris “Sandy” Treat Jr. lived every minute of his 96 years. He was a regular fixture in local veterans organizations and one of the original members of the famed 10th Mountain Division.
Sandy was born on Jan. 22, 1923, in Flushing, New York, the only child of Sandy Treat Sr. and Jane Woodruff Treat. He grew up in New York City and attended Deerfield Academy where he was a star first baseman and skier. He graduated in 1941 and headed to Dartmouth College where he joined the ski team.
Shortly after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Treat learned that the United States Army was forming a division of ski troopers. He joined as soon as he could. He trained so much he became a trainer. When the war ended, he mustered out in late 1945 and returned to Dartmouth.
He rose to the top of Alcan Aluminum Corp. and his career moved him all over the world. Children were born, wives were married, life was lived. His bride Kathy lived in Vail, and in 1985 he did too. His handprints are all over the valley.
“I flunked retirement,” Dick Gustafson was fond of saying during his busy retirement years. He was busy and productive during all his years.
Gustafson was American to his very marrow. His father served in the Army Air Corps during World War II, so Dick spent some of his youth being homeschooled in the backseat of the family’s 1941 Chevy Coupe as the family rolled across the country to his father’s next assignment. It should surprise no one that he was an Eagle Scout and represented six states when he addressed a congressional breakfast and President Harry S. Truman in the White House.
He married Wendy Makepeace, migrated with his family to California, then Kansas City, and finally to Vail where he and Wendy opened the town’s first hardware store, named “The Hardware Store.”
Gustafson was twice elected an Eagle County Commissioner and basically willed the FAA to spend more than $25 million on runway improvements at the Eagle County Regional Airport, literally paving the way for the first commercial service from Los Angeles and Phoenix.
All that made it possible for him to convince the top brass to put a military helicopter base at the airport in 1985. The Colorado National Guard’s High Altitude Aviation Training Site now trains more than 400 military crews every year from around the world.
On the way up to Derby Mesa for Ben Wurtsmith’s memorial, some folks had to weave gently through a couple dozen cattle on the loose on Derby Mesa Loop road. A bull the size of a cement mixer with a bad attitude, gave a guy in a compact car a look that made it clear who was the head of that herd, and it wasn’t the compact car or the guy in it.
From heaven, Wurtsmith was smiling. He’d had that showdown many times during his long and rewarding life, and loved to tell about it.
Wurtsmith spent his life ranching in Burns, in northwest Eagle County, like his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren after him.
There was the time Wurtsmith was talking with federal officials about how sage grouse habitat is like time: “We have plenty, but none to waste.”
Dan Rohlwing was a spiritual entrepreneur.
Sure, he was a CPA for five years in the Midwest, but he soon worked for something higher in someplace higher. He earned his Master of Divinity degree from Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and made his way west to Vail to start churches. He started two, and a school.
He was the founding pastor of Gracious Savior Lutheran Church in Edwards, and Grace Fellowship in Gypsum. He spent 36 years ministering in the Vail Valley.
Perhaps his greatest achievement, besides marrying his high school sweetheart Kathy and turning out four delightful children and 11 grandchildren, was helping found Vail Christian High School in 1998.
Eric Hill spent his life saving people as a longtime local firefighter, a member of the U.S. Air Force and a devoted family man.
But irony can be astoundingly cruel. While his final moments were spent surrounded by his comrades from the Gypsum Fire Department, he wasn’t among their number. Instead, Eric’s fellow firefighters were responding to the scene of the accident that claimed his life on March 16. Hill was on the job with a Colorado Department of Transportation maintenance crew near Dotsero when he was killed.
“He was able to save so many people, but they couldn’t save him,” Hill’s wife, Cissy, said.
Hill grew up running and riding in the mountains and attended local schools. He graduated with the Eagle Valley High School Class of 1986. Along the way, he earned the nickname “Hillbilly” and his younger brother Jeff said the statute of limitations has expired on some of their more memorable antics.
He served for six years in the Air Force and was stationed in England for much of that time, which coincided with Operation Desert Storm.
Following his honorable discharge, he settled in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he met his future wife, Cissy, before coming home to the Eagle Valley, where he made the move that would define his professional life — he signed up as a volunteer for the Gypsum Fire Department. After a few months, he decided to volunteer in Eagle as well.
“He just wanted to help people. He just wanted to be in the thick of it,” Cissy said.
Life is fragile, more so if you’re in the business of saving others as Tayler Esslinger was. Esslinger was a deputy with the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office and a Gypsum firefighter.
When Esslinger donned his brown deputy uniform shirt for his first-ever shift, he was so proud he smiled for a week.
Esslinger chose that life’s work for his short life because serving his community was not just his career, it was his calling. Somehow, though, his psyche wandered into a dark place and he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
At his memorial service, firefighters and police officers walked in slowly, many shaking hands, some asking the reflexive question that we all ask all the time, “How are you?” Then they stopped a moment for the unspoken reply, “heartbroken and confused.”
Nancy Lyon was born on June 18, 1932, in Aurora, Illinois, and found Vail in 1964 when both she and the ski area were very young. Nancy and husband Bob came skiing by themselves for a couple of years and then started bringing the children. Now Nancy’s great-grandson, Quinn, is skiing here.
The Vail Valley is lucky to be filled with people like Lyon, who landed here and left their love.
Paul Gilbert Swayne Miller
Paul Miller gets as much credit as anyone — more than most — for the most innovative use of open space ever conceived: Dry Lake Motocross Park north of Gypsum.
When Dry Lake opened for last summer’s riding season, Rocky Mountain Sport Riders sent Paul off at full throttle, dedicating a track where younger and inexperienced riders can learn. Paul and Mary’s children, Siena and Windham Miller, led more than 100 dirt bikers on a parade lap that celebrated their father’s life and legacy.
When it was over they smiled into the brilliant blue Colorado sky and scattered some of their father’s ashes in the soil around the motocross tracks Paul spearheaded. As Siena tossed a bit into the air, a fresh spring breeze puffed some of her father’s ashes back onto her riding jersey over her heart.
“Look!” she said smiling, “I have a little dad on me!”
For those who ride, there’s a little Paul in, and on, us all.
If Rebecca (Becky) Sue Puhl loved you, you stayed loved.
Puhl was the kind of person who makes places like Vail run so well. Like so many of us, she did not appear special, but with so many like her, she made Vail the special place it is. Becky grew up in Utah and Minnesota, landed in Vail for a management internship and probably figured she’d stay a year or two. She stayed for 28.
Vail is lucky to have her and so many like her.
Mutter graduated from Vail Christian High School as a highly decorated varsity athlete, prom queen and student council president and then returned home after college to impact the lives of a lot of local kids through ministry, as well as playing and coaching at Vail Christian.
She died from a medical emergency that resulted in a car accident on Highway 6 in Edwards. She was only 31.
After high school, she continued her soccer career at Concordia University in Nebraska for two years. She transferred to Baylor University and finished her college degree.
The celebration of her life in March was a true celebration, with music, memories and scriptures that reflected her deep Christian faith. There were plenty of tears, of course, but the bright echoes of Lauren’s life were reflected in those who came, packing Vail Christian’s Grace Auditorium, with still more people observing a video feed in the school’s gym.
“I could not be more proud to share my best friend,” her sister Caitlin said. “She never put herself first. She had a servant’s heart.”
Paul Cuthbertson embodied the spirit of the ski town where he was born. He was raised in Vail and Frisco and attended Vail Mountain School from kindergarten through fifth grade.
A talented Alpine racer who skied for Ski and Snowboard Club Vail from ages 5 to 19, Cuthbertson switched over to the Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy in sixth grade and attended the school through his high school years, graduating in 2016.
Before enrolling at Montana State University in Bozeman, Cuthbertson chased his competitive Alpine dreams for two years after high school, under the SSCV banner. In Bozeman, he was studying mechanical engineering and design while also finding time to explore the mountains he so loved.
“Paul was an avid and highly accomplished alpine, telemark, and backcountry skier,” his father wrote. “While living in Bozeman, he took up competitive big mountain telemark skiing, and spent most of his free time backcountry skiing or ripping the steeps of Bridger Bowl. When not studying or skiing he would be found bouldering and rock climbing, or mountain biking.”
Cuthbertson died in the backcountry in May while trekking to a popular backcountry hut to celebrate his 21st birthday with friends and coworkers. A foundation has been created in Cuthbertson’s memory that will award scholarships to mountain youth who have a passion for life and dedication to achieving excellence in their pursuits.
Corey Borg-Massanari loved a good adventure. Just days after returning from a ski trip to Whistler Blackcomb in Dec. 2018, the 22-year-old Vail local was off again to explore another mountain, road tripping with some friends to Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico.
“He didn’t let life pass him by,” his mother, Bobbie Goron, said. “He was always fishing and hunting in Minnesota, boating, just always doing something. He loved his family, loved his friends, and just lived his life.”
That life was cut way too short when Borg-Massanari died Jan. 21 in an Albuquerque hospital from injuries sustained from an in-bounds avalanche at Taos Ski Valley on Jan. 17.
After graduating high school in Minnesota, Borg-Massanari opted to take some time off from school before moving to the Vail Valley in 2016 to live with his dad and attend Colorado Mountain College. He started working at the Patagonia store in Vail Village during the winter and as a guide for Zip Adventures in Wolcott during the summer. And he tried to ski every free minute he had.
An organ donor, Borg-Massanari’s final act was giving life to others. Hundreds of medical staffers lined the halls at the University of New Mexico Hospital as he was wheeled into his final operation.
Ryan Benjamin Kirby-Daniels was many things: smart, a loving brother to his younger brother, a great skier and a horseman. But, his father Stephen Daniels said, his independence is what truly defined Ryan.
It is often said that the best thing for the inside of a kid is the outside of a horse. During his mid-teens, Ryan spent 15 months at a horse ranch in Arizona learning to train horses, as well as himself, earning high school credit. His family bought him a horse when he returned. They still own it. When he returned to the valley he attended Red Canyon High School. It suited him better — more flexibility, fewer kids. He soon went his own way and earned his GED on the first try.
Miller took a stroll one spring morning with some camping gear, and fell in the raging Eagle River and drowned. He was 18.
Pam Boyd, Scott Miller and Nate Peterson contributed reporting to this story.
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