20 years ago, my half-brother, Martin, was killed in an avalanche in Stairs Gulch, a steep chute in Big Cottonwood Canyon in Utah. These were his poles. Martin was an important person in my life because he was someone who invited me to be a part of his world of mountaineering. He was an instigator of adventure, and taught me how to rock climb, backpack and ski. I’m lucky I had people like him in my life who could teach me what they knew about the outdoors.
When I went to ski all the lines in the Chuting Gallery, I knew that one day I would have to ski Stairs Gulch. It took me fifteen years of tiptoeing around the backcountry and learning about snow and avalanches to muster up the courage and the emotional energy. Still, to this day, when I go backcountry skiing, I think about Martin and I see a picture of his hands at his funeral after he died. They were crushed – black and blue – from the trauma of an avalanche.
When I went to ski Stairs Gulch, I found that being there, where Martin had his last moments, was strangely healing. I got to see what he saw and experience what he did. I’ll always have a deep, emotional connection to Storm Mountain and Stairs Gulch.
My experience of skiing that line and the rest of the Chuting Gallery project was documented in a short film called Follow Through. A few months after the film was released, someone reached out to me via email saying he had found a pair of poles in Stairs Gulch the year Martin died and was wondering if they were his.
At first, it felt like a punch in the gut, and I wasn’t sure how to react to the email. I procrastinated and put it out of my head. The next season, I got another email and I finally went to pick them up.
Low and behold, they were still in usable condition. I remember picking them up from this kind man who had held on to them for almost twenty years and feeling a special energy through the pole grip. I took them home, took a picture and sent it to Martin’s widow, Gitte. I asked her if the poles looked familiar. She said, Yes, they do. Wow, that’s crazy.
The logo and markings were preserved, the grips were intact, the adjustments still worked and the craziest part about it is that they are made by Leki. Leki was my first sponsor in the snowsports industry and I’ve been an athlete for them and part of the family for a dozen years and counting. They are a wonderful company to work with.
It’s pretty incredible that someone held on to them for all these years and they were able to make their way back home to our family. These poles are an incredible treasure to me. Holding the grips, I feel like I can touch a part of Martin. I’m excited to take them on many more adventures as I continue to remember and celebrate his legacy. When I think about Martin, I think about the responsibility I have now to continue to inspire people outdoors safely and educate about avalanches.
This post isn’t meant to give you practical tips about avalanche safety but instead to urge you to make decisions conservatively so you can ski, ride or climb another day. Your decisions in the mountains – they affect far more than just you – and the wound of losing someone you love never heals. You just learn to live with a hole in your heart.
We miss you dearly Martin.