January 1978, Bob McCord was breaking trail and I reluctantly followed. We aimed for a low angle ramp between steeper slopes topped with five foot cornices: wind-blown snow at the tops of ridges curled like Dairy Queen Cones. The slope steepened. We made a switchback turn. Behind me, I heard a soft crack and a low rumble. Turning to look, I watched a crack propagate 300 feet across the top of the snow slope; it widened and separated. The crown of the slab avalanche was a foot deep by me and four feet deep on the far side. We watched in awe as hundreds of tons of snow tumbled down the slope running 500 feet and coming to rest in the flats in a frozen pile ten feet deep. I looked at Bob, he turned and looked back. I said, “I told you so.”
The day was forbidding: a biting west wind with white, thin clouds filtering a weak sun. Our objective was the prominent corniced ridge south of Interstate 70 where it crosses Vail Pass. Breaking trail, our skis made a soft hiss; the only sound in the silent winter landscape. The snowpack was suspect: eight inches of dense windblown snow, on top of light recrystallized powder, resting on a thin layer of depth hoar, perched on top of a hard sun crust. In steep terrain the heavy snow would collapse on the lighter snow and the depth hoar would act as a frictionless ball-bearing surface on top of the sun crust—a classic recipe for a soft slab avalanche. Every so often, we would hear a WHOOMP, as the snowpack collapsed around us.
Photo: Bob, 1974
We skied on leather boots, wood skis, and three pin bindings. We lacked modern avalanche safety gear: beacons, shovels and probes. There were no avalanche forecasts, no cell phones. Help was a long way off in distance and time. We watched the weather and studied the snowpack; made our own forecasts and decisions—just be right.
Vail Pass was our winter playground. Blessed with accessibility, forgiving terrain, abundant snowfall and moderate wind it was the perfect backcountry ski area. South of Vail Pass were corniced ridges, cliffs, north facing bowls and open glades which held good powder snow days after a storm.
We discovered The Commando Run, an arduous, unmarked, 16-mile high altitude ski tour from Vail Pass to Vail ski area. Named after the legendary soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division who trained here during the winters of WWII, the Commando Run opened access to epic backcountry ski runs in untracked bowls, north and east of Vail ski area. Long before they became part of Vail, long before we knew the names; in unparalleled solitude we skied these massive, moderate angle, open powder slopes. Today, these slopes are called China Bowl, Tea Cup Bowl, Siberia Bowl, and Blue Sky Basin; part of Vail resort with thousands of skiers per hour whisked to the top on high-speed lifts.
Photo: China Bowl, Vail, CO, 1979. Photo credit: Bob McCord
On powder days we would break trail from Vail Pass to the pristine, untracked vastness of China Bowl. For our seven hours of toil, we were rewarded with hundreds of telemark turns down the middle of China Bowl. We exited China Bowl via a one-mile ski down Two Elk creek to a boot track which led over a small ridge to the bottom of Chair 5 at the base of Vail’s famous back bowls. We stood out like sore thumbs—telemark skis, wool pants with gaiters, storm parkas and packs; frozen beards, eyes shining with pilgrim fever. The lift operators treated us with respect, they knew we lacked lift tickets, but allowed us lift access; we were commandos.
I followed Bob to the top of the summit ridge. For the third time, I said, “Bob, this isn’t safe.”
Bob said, “We can find a way down.”
“No we can’t.” I said emphatically, “We can’t ski anything here, it’s too dangerous.” Bob looked down at the wide open, untracked powder below. I heard his mind working, felt what he was feeling, saw what he was seeing. But we came to a different conclusion: He saw powder turns, I saw danger.
Bob said, “We can ski down here, those big rocks will anchor the snow. It won’t slide.”
I rolled my eyes and said, “Bob you are out of your mind. The whole slope is going to slide. Those rocks won’t hold the snow.”
Bob said, “I’m good.” Case dismissed. “You can ski back down the track IF YOU WANT.” Shot fired. This was Bob’s not so subtle way of saying, “I’m skiing this and you can go down the easy way.
Resigned to fate, I said, “Okay. I will watch to make sure you are safe and then ski down the track.” I had no way to find him if buried, or dig him out. Skiing the slope was a very bad bet.
Bob pushed off with his poles, skis pointed downhill. Gaining momentum, he turned once, twice, and the snow cracked—all the way across the top of the slope above him; his weight and motion the trigger. The crown was three feet deep. In slow motion the sliding slab of snow broke into huge cubic yard chunks, Bob struggled to remain upright, his bamboo poles bent in ways not meant to be bent—they shattered, the wave of snow engulfed his knees, waist; he twisted and went down.
I met Bob in 1973, my sophomore year at Colorado State University. He was good at everything: surfing, water and snow skiing, rock climbing, kayaking, cycling, handball and soccer. Well, almost everything—not a good student. He was always up for an adventure and I was drawn to him; the little brother I never had. Bob was a diamond and we were all attracted to his cut, clarity, and color. But the diamond had a flaw: drugs, specifically alcohol and cocaine.
Photo: Bob in his element, Vail Pass 1979
We graduated from college in 1977 and left town. Bob was one quarter away from finishing college, but he couldn’t stand being alone so he moved to Winter Park, Colorado working as a ski instructor in the winter; fishing and kayaking guide in the summer. His drug problem worsened.
One winter day in 1978, I picked him up in Winter Park and we drove to Steamboat where his dad had a condo. That night Bob got hammered and talked me into driving him to the Clock Tower Bar, a Steamboat landmark. In the middle of the crowded noisy bar, he stripped buck naked and strutted—not streaked—through the bar. He disappeared. I found him outside the bar leaning against a post talking to two women; winter, ten degrees, in his birthday suit. I pushed him in the car and drove to his dad’s condo. My little brother, a flawed diamond, like Brad Pitt’s character in “A River Runs Through It.”
The avalanche pulled Bob down, he struggled to stay on top of sliding snow. He was swept downhill and pinned to the large rock—his “anchor.” The snow swept over him and cascaded down slope coming to rest 500 feet below in a debris field 200 feet in diameter and ten feet deep. He was on his back, body and face buried, but arm and ski with leg attached breaking the surface. With large chunks of snow still threatened to slide, I skied over the crown, dropped three feet onto a hard crust, slid down to Bob, removed my skis and used a ski to dig him out. Luckily, he was covered only by a shallow layer. I brushed off his face. With a big Bob smile he said, “You were right.”
I finished digging Bob out of the snow. He was okay, skis attached to boots, boots attached to feet, ski poles toast. We side-slipped down the hard surface of the slide to the flat and skied to safety in a stand of trees. Using the saw blade of my Swiss Army knife, we harvested two small trees and Bob used them as poles. Arriving at our cars, we threw our gear in, popped a couple beers and said goodbye. Bob headed to Winter Park and I to Boulder. No serious discussion of the incident, no debriefing; just another day for Bob.
Over the next ten years, Bob gradually and inexorably succumbed to drug and alcohol addiction. In 1991 at the Jackson Hole Ski Resort, I returned to our room in the middle of a beautiful powder day to find Bob sitting alone in a dark room snorting cocaine. I said goodbye. You can’t change someone who is an addict. Over the next two years, Bob would call late at night drunk, high or both. I stopped taking his calls and eventually he stopped calling. I assumed the worse: dead or in prison.
In 1999, I ran into Bob’s sister Carol in Telluride. A few days later Bob called. We reconnected the next year in Alta, Utah. Bob was sober; no more drugs or alcohol. We had a blast skiing together—brothers reunited. Over the next seventeen years we skied, mountain biked, rock climbed, and paraglided together. Bob lived in Hawaii and I in Minnesota, but we would get together for some crazy adventures once or twice a year. In between trips we would talk on the phone sharing stories of climbing, surfing, and paragliding. It was game of one-upmanship, but we always celebrated each other’s feats.
Photo: Bob and me, Moab, Utah 2013
In 2013, when I decided I had an alcohol addiction, Bob was my first call. He coached and supported me through those first tough months. Our bond strengthened.
On October 23rd, 2016, I got the call I always dreaded. Bob’s best friend in Hawaii, Ted Fonoimoana, called with the news that Bob died in a skydiving accident. I was crushed. My little brother who worked so hard to turn his life around was gone. I think about him all the time. While I am grateful for the time we spent together, there is an empty place in my soul that no one can fill.
Photo: Vail Pass on a epic day, 1980. Photo credit: Dave Bispham
On any given weekend day, the parking lot on top of Vail Pass is littered with snowmobiles belching smoke and polluting the air with noise. The solitude of China Bowl, Siberia Bowl and Blue Sky Basin has been replaced with thousands of skiers in their thousand dollar outfits streaming up and down the slopes. Arguably once one of the finest backcountry ski areas on earth, Vail Pass is a fraction of its original size. Instead of acres of untracked snow days after a storm, the slopes are tracked in a matter of hours. Instead of the smell of fresh mountain air, the sound of wind, the silence of solitude, Vail Pass now overwhelmed by machines. Paradise lost.