On March 22nd 2021, Gary Smith tragically died in an avalanche outside of Beaver Creek Resort in Colorado. Since 2018, Gary has been a frequent and insightful contributor to WildSnow. From Christmas Eve spent at the Wildsnow Field HQ cabin, to testing gear and sharing his love for steep skiing around the world, he was a pillar of the ski touring community and will be greatly missed.
As we rolled into the town of Nevados de Chillan, snow violently piled up on the sides of the road but barely stuck to the wet, warm pavement. The bald tires of our rental Peugeot, affectionately dubbed the Lion Car, swerved across it. It had been a long day: Flight from Denver to Houston followed by a red eye into Santiago and then a six-hour drive to the mountain. But with two meters of snow forecasted for the next two days, we had little choice but to get there. We stuffed our faces with pizza and Malbec and piled into a freezing cold hostel room to bed down for the night.
Gary Smith was our guide and the driving force for a trip to South America after he’d fallen in love with the Southern Hemisphere the summer before. With myself and Brian Zigulich, the three of us made it a perfect 100% attendance from the Vail Cripple Creek Backcountry staff, finally embarking on the trip we planned for so long. We had gathered the funds from a tip jar with a hand written note “Chile Fund” that was just too endearing for customers to pass up. The three of us had become close friends, skiing early mornings before work and often crashing in the office above the shop to be first out the next day.
Finally, dawn came to Nevados de Chillan and we awoke to find all lifts and mountain operations closed because of too much snow. Unwilling to be deterred, we slapped skins to our skis and began breaking trail through a meter of wet heavy fluff while more giant flakes soaked through our clothes. After one run of little more than 1500 feet of vert that was barely steep enough to turn on, we staggered, soaking wet, back to town. In the hostel, we huddled around the lone fireplace as acrid wood smoke saturated our ski clothes, along with that of every other skier around. That one smokey fireplace was the only source of heat or drying power.
Wet weather followed us for most of our trip through Chile and Argentina, but Gary’s absolute love for skiing pushed us out day after day. In Pucon we awoke to our 4 a.m. alarm clock and rain pattering on the roof. Brian and I were completely willing to call it our third consecutive weather rest day, but Gary had us load into the Lion Car to begin the long road climb to the parking lot of Volcan Villarica. We made it a few miles, hit a patch of ice impassible for our sad tires, abandoned the Lion Car and hitched a ride in utter darkness in the back of a pickup truck. This determination gave way to one of the most special days I have ever had in the mountains. An inversion thrust us above the clouds and a perfect coating of snow had fallen straight down all the way to the active crater that was the summit. After staring into the winding gyre of sulfuric steam and catching occasional glimpses of lava bubbling up (luckily Gary had the beta of where to rent gas masks in Pucon) we started a 6000+ foot descent of warm powder to the tiny ski resort that flanked the mountain.
Although the active volcano was unique, the ubiquitous excitement of local ramshackled skiers unceremoniously cradling their skis in their arms like firewood and trudging uphill was most memorable. We wove through a crowd of Chileans just discovering slipping on snow for the first time. Many were earning their turns by boot packing up the run and forgoing the chair lift, all smiles and laughter.
I watched this incredible dichotomy unfold countless times over my privileged four years working alongside Gary in Colorado. Gary was in the running for strongest and most confident ski partners I ever had, certainly the top of the list despite having been born and raised in Texas. With a foundation of technical prowess and aggressive style, he still always had time for the first-time ski tourer that came into the shop. The quiet intensity smoldering underneath the surface was always outwardly conveyed through sincerity and warmth. He had an intuitive love for gear and was instrumental in growing ski touring in the Vail valley.
He was also instrumental with the passing of the WildSnow torch from Lou to the next generation. His observations of the industry as a whole were imperative to my own confidence in taking on new projects and his excitement for the sport was undeniably contagious as we planned new posts and trips. As he continued to push his own levels of steep skiing, I started to hang back, but his storytelling ability brought me along on adventures that I couldn’t be there with him for. His incredibly successful trip to Denali and our conversations after stand out.
There are dozens of other contributions he has made to the site and I am glad that we did three very special podcasts together. His tragic passing in his own backyard of Beaver Creek came far too soon and is truly devastating to the WildSnow and Cripple Creek family. All we can do now is share his stories and continue to honor his memory.
Looking back through the years, I remember the final day of our South American trip, pushing stubbornly ahead together through the pain and weariness of a long journey. We climbed to one last volcanic summit of Llaima, before high fiving and simul skiing epic steep corn through thousands of vertical feet of brisk Andes air. This one we had barely pulled off, rolling into town late the night before, out of cash and out of gas. Gary haggled with our last fistful of pesos to get us a room and just enough bread and cheese for the long tour. In 19 days we had toured three days in Chillan, skied four major volcanoes, spent seven days hut skiing in Argentina sharing countless laughs, beers and games of rummy. We had driven almost 2000 miles, had the back window of the Lion Car smashed out and were limping the final miles to Santiago. Too tired to talk with sad news awaiting us back home, at least we knew we had rung out every drop of energy we had to give to one ski vacation.
But, if I could do it all over again, I would have toughened up for just one more of those soggy mornings to put boots on with Gary and head uphill. Because I know he had the stoke and the energy to always ski another day.