Backcountry Skiing Avalanche Death on Berthoud Pass

Post by blogger | November 8, 2005      

A young snowboarder died in an avalanche on Colorado’s Berthoud Pass this past Sunday morning.

Samuel Teetzen’s day probably started out like many of yours or mine — excited about fresh powder and adventure with friends. He was found without his avalanche beacon, reports say he left it in his car. One wonders what went through Teetzen’s mind as he headed for an avalanche slope with his snowboard, but no avalanche safety gear. Did he know it was an avalanche slope? Or had Samuel for some reason let down his guard (something we’ve all done on occasion).

Reports say Teetzen might have died from trauma, making a beacon less of an issue. But it is an issue. First, other people had to possibly risk their lives during a lengthy search, if he’d had a beacon the search would have taken mere minutes. Second, staying alive in avalanche country is all about attitude. At home or the trailhead, putting your beacon on and testing it becomes a ritual that hopefully switches your brain to “avy mode.” It’s sad nothing that morning seemed to have caused Teetzen to think he was riding a slope with avalanche danger, and thus caused him to take switch to “avy mode” and take more precautions.

Teetzen’s accident brings another issue to the fore. Accounts state it was difficult to dig him out because of the snowboard still strapped to his feet. Whether you’re using skis or snowboard, will your gear come off if you get caught in a slide? Something to think about.

A tragic accident all of us can learn from. When you exit your car at the trailhead, turn the switch on your beacon to “avy mode,” but more importantly, do the same with your state of mind.

(Edited by Lou, November 2010, in response to feedback from family members who found my original writing style to appear harsh.)

I sincerely pray that the ski and snowboard culture on Berthoud pass changes to a safer approach. Why it has gotten to this point is beyond me. A cultural anomaly that saddens and even embarrasses me.


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12 Responses to “Backcountry Skiing Avalanche Death on Berthoud Pass”

  1. Laura Teetzen Anderson March 25th, 2009 12:56 pm

    Your article of November of 2005 regarding my only brother, Sam Teetzen dying as the result of an avalanche is sickening.Did you know him? Had you ever snowboarded with him??Did he care it was avalanche season? Well of course he cared. He was not on a death mission that day. He realized after hiking up Berthoud, he had forgotten his beacon in his vehicle.Hindsight is certainly 20-20. I’m glad you think you are so invincible that you will never make a mistake. And had he remembered his beacon, would it have saved him? Maybe he’d be a drooling vegetable in a nursing home. We’ll never know. Sam was an experienced backcountry snowboarder and was responsible. He was not on a death mission that day, but out for excitement. It is obviously a unilateral opinion of yours, without any knowledge of facts or research.
    As a result of his death, we annually raise money for avalanche awareness, not to mention built a playground for special needs kids. Instead of passing judgment, maybe you add a link where people can donate money so you can maybe make a difference in this world. Your article is at the best pathetic, Sam’s love and passion for life will always live on.Your misguided article about my brother will hopefully be buried soon.
    Laura Teetzen Anderson

  2. Lou March 25th, 2009 1:00 pm

    Laura, let us know what donation link you refer to. We’ll add it if it’s appropriate. It’ll also work from your comments.

  3. Jeff Stephens March 26th, 2009 8:17 am

    Lou himself once rode the white lion down Highlands Bowl (when closed) and nearly perished. Begs the question: “Did he know it was an avalanche slope? Did he care?” Maybe a touch of empathy is in order here, Lou.

  4. Lou March 26th, 2009 8:44 am

    Jeff, My intent with being harsh about these avalanche accidents is to possibly save lives. The fact is that many, if not most avalanche accidents are the result of gross errors in judgment. Including mine. I’ll continue to blog about accidents. If myself or a friend made a mistake and got ‘lanched, I would expect the same from other backcountry skiing bloggers. Sam’s accident was sad and I’ve got total sympathy for his friends and family, but the fact remains that he made a terrible mistake, and others may be able to learn from that mistake. In the backcountry skiing community, that is part of Sam’s legacy.

    I’d also submit that it’s not exactly easy to appear empathetic while criticizing a fatal accident. As a blogger and journalist, I’m willing to take the risk of looking bad if I can help prevent accidents. But I’ll continue to work on improving my approach. Perhaps that’s another contribution from Sam’s legacy.

    If anyone is interested in my own stupid mistakes:

  5. Laura Teetzen Anderson March 26th, 2009 1:31 pm

    We donate to Grand County Search and Rescue, with whatever equipment they may be needing. Brooklyn’s at the Pepsi Center sponsors it each year. It is a fun golf touney and silent auction and dinner. It is being held on June 29th this year.

    All I can say is that part of my heart was taken from me the day I lost my brother and I can’t say time heals, but it makes things different. He lived more in 32 years than many live in a life time. All you have to do is look at pictures and see that twinkle of his his next adventure lurking in his head:) In order to deal with his death, I had to look at it different. His spirit and love for adventure, adrenaline rush, whatever it was, it was grasping. Like one his his best friends told me ” he went out on the ride of his life”

    It sorta feels like a knife in my heart reading your article, as it makes him sound like an irresponsible idiot that went out that day on a death mission. I agree that awareness and wearing a beacon, helmet at all times, going with buddies, etc., is advisable. Sometimes our love for life and adventure outweighs our fear of death or consequences. It’s those of us that are left behind that really suffer, Sam had the time of his life. Long live the Spirit!

  6. Evan February 26th, 2010 11:22 pm

    I was searching through google looking for avy conditions on Berthoud Pass when I stumbled across your article and…

    It’s painfully obvious to me that the you decided to use someone’s death to snipe at snowboarders in the back country.

    “Teetzen’s accident brings another issue to the fore. Accounts state it was difficult to dig him out because of the snowboard still strapped to his feet. Will your gear come off if you get caught in a slide? Something to think about.”

    On a serious note, trampling on a guys grave to make a sidelong snipe at snowboarders is pretty sad. Will you have the decency to remove this garbage from your blog? Something to think about.

    Whatever Samuel’s reason for not being prepared for the worst in the backcountry are his alone to know; not for you to decide. I just hope that he died in bliss doing what he loved most. My condolences go out to the Teetzen family.

  7. Francis Kelsey February 27th, 2010 8:55 am

    Even though this happened many years ago, I just came across this sad article last night and wish to express my condolences to the Teetzen family.
    While this young man’s death is a very sad moment for his family, friends and others who enjoy the backcountry perhaps it may be best to analyse the situation to better prepare others who will venture into the backcountry.
    I don’t think Lou or anyone else is trying to “walk on someone’s grave” rather try and make those headed to these type of areas better prepared through knowledge and understanding. If it saves one person’s life it is worth it.

  8. Lou February 27th, 2010 9:51 am

    Francis, yes, after getting those comments I re-read my blog post carefully, as I most certainly had no intent of being mean or offensive. In the case of Laura, she is going to read anything about her brother through her own grief and loss, so whatever her feelings are I respect them. As for taking snipes at snowboarders, as Evan accuses me of, that’s ridiculous. All I was doing was trying to ramp up awareness of a known avalanche safety issue, that of snowboards staying on avalanche victim’s feet. Telemark gear has the same problem, and even AT bindings do to some extent, though to a lesser degree as the safety release helps quite a bit.

    The style of writing in the article is meant to make a strong point. The idea is to save lives. I’m not going to namby pamby around with that. More, I’m also quite willing to be criticized or do self criticism for my own mistakes, just so everyone knows this is fair.

    Teetzen made a number of tragic mistakes. Hopefully a few people will read this and not make those same mistakes. I’m 100% certain that if Teetzen was the fine man his sister says, he would want nothing less.

  9. Francis Kelsey February 27th, 2010 9:56 am

    right there with you Lou, you can count on me for support

  10. Lou February 27th, 2010 10:36 am

    Thanks Francis. It occurs to me that what might rub folks the wrong way are the questions such as “did he care?” Yes, of course he cared, but how much did he care? That’s the question for any of us. How much do we care? Are we really acting appropriately according to our own accepted risk levels? Or during a given decision moment do we “not care” and take that little extra risk that we sometimes get away with — but sometimes don’t?

  11. Joel Teetzen (Sam's Dad) August 1st, 2010 3:14 pm

    Lou Watched Sam being born as our first child. No parents could of had a more wounderful child , along with our two daughters. Lived five blocks from Lambeau field and will and always will be as big of Packer fan around. We went up to Winter Park many times with Sam . Had many people ask him where it was safe and he would tell them where NOT to be that day. Back country people are (as we found) are a different breed. The snows came early that year and , did he get carless that day. WHO CARES. Did we put others in danger? I hope not. Would the beacon of helped? He got hit by tens of thousands of pounds of a slab slid. Back country boarders are probably search and not rescued. Sam knew that. Lou- come to our golf memorial next year and see what our son ment to so many and what the $ that goes to Grand Co. search and rescue and Avelanch awhere ness to try and save a life. We loved our son and will always miss him and be so proud of him. Thanks The Teetzen family

  12. Lou August 1st, 2010 6:48 pm

    Hi Joel, I truly do appreciate how you and Sam’ s loved ones must care for him. And I of course can’t imagine the pain you must feel. I just need to emphasize that this blog post was not written for those folks close to Sam, but rather was written to help save lives by using Sam as an example. It is not a eulogy. My pointing out mistakes that Sam made may not be pleasant, but a big part of my mission as a writer is to help educate, and if I avoided writing analysis of accidents I wouldn’t be doing what I’m supposed to be doing. Trying to balance sensitivity with analysis is definitely one of the hard things about what I do, and is impossible to do perfectly, as someone will always read this sort of thing through the lens of their personal loss.

    If someone wants to write a brief eulogy for Sam, specific for WildSnow, I’d be happy to publish it here as part of this blog post… From what I’ve heard he was a wonderful young man and in having a backcountry skiing son of my own I truly can empathize with your loss.

    You ask “Who cares.” Well, I happen to care a great deal about anyone making a tragic mistake, especially young people just starting their life of mountaineering. Many of my readers care very much as well. It sometimes is not easy to watch, but one way people learn is by being made aware of other people’s mistakes. For example, I’m constantly concerned about my own son’s safety. If he reads this blog post and it makes him think more about his decision making process in the mountains, then that is good.

    As for my rhetorical question about whether your son cared or not, that is a question meant to elicit some thought from other backcountry users who read this blog.

    The question of people risking their lives to rescue someone is important. Simply put, any time anyone performs a backcountry rescue or recovery operation there is some degree of risk. This is axiomatic to backcountry rescue. I’m of course not certain how much risk those who searched for and recovered Sam were exposed to, but the issue of accident victims placing other people at risk is a very important ethical and practical issue that those of us in the backcountry sport world constantly discuss, ponder, write about, etc. Thus it would be remiss of me to not bring it up in any attempt to educate or remind folks about backcountry safety.

    I appreciate your fund raising using the focal point of your tragedy, with your intent of saving lives. Please be assured that my motivations are similar.

    Indeed, each year you guys do your event you are of course welcome to post a comment on this post reminding people about it.

    (By the way, I edited the above post by deleting the last paragraph about wondering if the snowpack could ever be made safer by global warming, as now that some time has passed it seemed to be irrelevant to the rest of the post and to trivialize it.)

    ‘best, Lou

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