Vail man loved backcountry powder

Steve Lynn
Vail, CO Colorado
Special to the DailyMatthew Gustafson, who died Saturday in an avalanche in an East Vail chute, stands at the top of a backcountry run three years ago in the same area.

VAIL, Colorado” Matthew Gustafson used to get up at 1 a.m. to hike four or five hours in the dark up 14,000-foot peaks with Jack Rossman. Then the men would ski down in the fresh snow.

“There are few people that will do that with you,” said Rossman, who survived the same avalanche that killed Gustafson Saturday. “I’ll miss him.”

Gustafson was a loyal, honest friend and an excellent athlete, friends said. The Vail resident died Saturday at age 33 in an avalanche in the East Vail chute called “King Tut.”

Friends called Gustafson “Gus” or “Icky,” the latter after the fictional character Ichabod Crane because Gustafson, like the headless horseman’s foil, was tall and thin.

“He’s just the kind of guy who was always happy and laughing,” said Scott Cramer, of Gypsum.

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Gustafson grew up in Jamestown, N.Y., and moved to Vail in 1994 after he graduated high school. He worked at the General Store in Lionshead for a couple years and then moved on to Vail Ski Tech, where he worked for several years.

Four years ago, Gustafson started his own business, Matthew Gustafson Woodworks, but also laid tile and installed stone in people’s homes.

Gustafson was a skilled carpenter and liked to make cabinets and custom pistol cases. He recently completed a large stone fireplace in his East Vail home.

He lived there with his girlfriend, Kerry Nagurney, of four years. Nagurney had dated Gustafson in high school and later moved to Vail to live with him.

The jobs Gustafson held in Vail gave him plenty of time to ski.

When Gustafson worked at Vail Ski Tech, he skied around 100 days on Vail Mountain and more than 50 days in the backcountry each year, said Gypsum resident J.J. Mikels, who has known Gustafson since the men moved to Vail the same year.

Mikels had seen Gustafson fall less than five times in 14 years of skiing.

“He was one of the best skiers I’ve ever had the pleasure to ski with,” Mikels said.

Friends said Gustafson liked skiing above Eisenhower Tunnel; Loveland Pass; Fourth of July Bowl, Mount Baldy and Buffalo Mountain in Summit County; Independence Pass; Mushroom Bowl near Vail Mountain; and others.

“The list of places he skied is infinite,” Mikels said.

Powder days on Vail Mountain usually ended in East Vail Chutes when the untracked powder disappeared.

Gustafson skied “fast and smooth” on powder, cliffs, hard pack and crust, Mikels said.

“He made it look easy,” he said.

Matthew “Tooth” Toth knew Gustafson since Toth moved to Vail in 1996. He skied with Gustafson Jan. 7 and 8 near where Gustafson died.

Gustafson had skied East Vail Chutes for about eight years and always carried a beacon, probe and shovel, friends said.

Gustafson and his friends skied the backcountry safely, taking precautions such as digging into the snow to evaluate the snowpack and waiting for each skier to descend a slope until the next skier went, Toth said.

Gustafson skied familiar terrain in East Vail Chutes that he and friends had skied “hundreds of times,” said Matt DuHadway, of Eagle.

“This was our stomping grounds,” DuHadway said.

“In hindsight, probably it was the wrong decision to be there,” DuHadway said about Saturday in East Vail. “But it’s hard to say.”

Mikels said Gustafson was not a “reckless thrill-seeker.”

“He just really loved to ski powder,” Mikels said.

Toth said he will stay away from East Vail Chutes “for a while.”

“I would also advise anybody else who’s looking to go out there to be very, very careful,” Toth said.

“He was one of those people you would want to have in your circle of friends,” Toth said. “He was always there when you needed him and always very positive. He’s going to be missed.”

Gustafson once rode his mountain bike down the Colorado Trail to help Scott Cramer fix his broken bike chain.

Cramer would have cut his ride short without Gustafson’s help, he said.

“He’s just the kind of guy you would want to be with, and if something did go wrong he would help,” he said.

Gustafson liked to make videos of him and friends skiing together, Mikels said.

“He would always turn the camera back to his face and would say, ‘Today is going to be a good day,'” Mikels said.

Rossman declined to comment specifically on Saturday’s avalanche, but he said that he had been skiing East Vail Chutes for 23 years and had introduced Gustafson to the area.

Rossman and Gustafson had been skiing the chutes “four or five days in a row” before Saturday’s avalanche, he said. The men often were the first ones to get to the chutes in the morning.

“The mountains start talking to you, but sometimes you don’t listen,” he said.

Staff Writer Steve Lynn can be reached at 748-2931 or

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