Tom Kelly: If only they had known
The incessant beeping of my iPhone jogged me awake. As a communications professional, those nighttime calls could mean a joyous race victory or something else. I knew we had no events. So it couldn’t be good.
It was Monday morning, Jan. 5, 2015. I glanced at the clock — it was a little after 2 a.m. Our U.S. Ski Team chief of sport, Luke Bodensteiner, was on the line. He was calm. But his news was grave. About 30 minutes earlier in a snowfield high up in the alpine peaks of Sölden, Austria, an avalanche had swept away a group of U.S. Ski Team development athletes. Two had still not been found.
It would not have a happy ending.
Bryce Astle, 19, of Snowbird, and Ronnie Berlack, 20, of Burke Mountain Academy were aspiring young ski racers. Bryce grew up dropping lines into the steeps of Alta and Snowbird. On a morning that saw race training canceled due to heavy snow the day before, they headed out with teammates up the Gaislachkogel (think James Bond’s Spectre) for some free skiing on a bluebird day.
Ahead was a powder field with fresh tracks. Very innocently, the group headed off the groomed trails, dropping off the ridgeline and down the Rote Karl towards the Rettenbach Tal below — the road I would drive every October for the World Cup opener. They were in heaven — whooping and hollering in the deep snow.
Until the mountain gave way. A crown 40 meters wide collected 3,500 tons (not pounds, tons!) as it cascaded down to the Rettenbachstrasse below. Bryce and Ronnie never had a chance.
This week, on the sixth anniversary, hundreds of friends, family and skiers from around the world gathered on Zoom to watch a live screening of “Off Piste: Tragedy in the Alps” — the film that has been seen by over a million people since its release two years ago.
There were many tears shed. But also a feeling that their deaths had led to change.
Over the past six years my mind often wanders back to the New Year’s Eve afternoon visit I paid to the home of Park City native J.J. Johnson to deliver a team radio for the trip. The popular local downhill ski racer was now a development coach. He had that ever-present J.J. smile going as he talked about his athletes heading to Europe the next morning. Five days later, Bryce and Ronnie would be gone.
At an overnight airport hotel stop in Munich, J.J. took the team out for a jog. Ronnie was being a goofball, just filled with joy at the days that were ahead. The next day as they drove up the Ötztal valley to Sölden, Bryce and Ronnie were awestruck with the alpine peaks. “How come they don’t put the mountains closer to the city,” joked Bryce.
On the day of the accident, Johnson was with coaches working on details of training. They got a crackly radio call that was unintelligible from another part of the mountain. They thought they heard the word “avalanche.” Soon they heard helicopters coming in. They had a bad feeling. They skied down and drove up the glacier road and found the scene.
Today, Johnson smiles when he reminisces about Bryce and Ronnie.
“Ronnie was the most giving person — especially for his age,” he said. “He was everyone’s brother. He would do anything for you or protect anyone on the team.” When he thought of Bryce, he recalled his smile. “He had a smile for everything — it was just classic. He would do anything for the crew. He had a passion that was both controllable and uncontrollable — all in a good way.”
If there’s a glimmer of light in the dark tunnel, it’s that because of the accident there’s a more heightened sense of awareness today. “It’s been slow, but I see the wheels turning now,” said Johnson of avalanche safety knowledge.
Myself — I had virtually no real avalanche knowledge back then. Having spent a good deal of time on European mountains, I, too, didn’t really appreciate or understand the danger of skiing off piste. While in America you have some sense of demarcation between controlled and uncontrolled terrain, there’s virtually none of that in Europe.
As Ted Ligety said this week when thinking back on the accident, “when you leave the groomed trails (in Europe) you’re outside the ski area.” Just that simple knowledge may well have been enough to save Bryce and Ronnie’s lives.
I’ve reflected back a lot on that long night. In those pre-dawn hours, I got to know the two athletes. It was my job to tell their story and to answer the many questions of “why?” I got to know two sets of parents, whose lives were forever changed. And I gained a greater appreciation for the simple knowledge points that can make the difference between enjoying a great powder experience and taking what could be your last run.
Even though my own backcountry time is limited, I read avalanche forecasts now and listen to avy podcasts. I took a three-day on-snow certification class. I give a lot of thought to the skull and crossbones sign at the top of 9990 and even wear a transceiver inbounds on certain days.
It doesn’t matter if you knew Bryce or Ronnie. Their story serves us all. Use this week to get to know them. Sign up for an avalanche safety class. Visit kbyg.org or brassavalanche.org to learn what you need to know before you go.
There’s no feeling comparable to floating down off a ridgeline in knee-deep snow. But remember the simple things so you can do it again someday.
Wisconsin native Tom Kelly landed in Park City in 1988 (still working on becoming an official local). A recently inducted member of the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame, he is most known for his role as lead spokesperson for Olympic skiing and snowboarding for over 30 years until his retirement in 2018. This will be his 51st season on skis, typically logging 60 days in recent years.
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As a skier, columnist Tom Kelly has long been aware of his sport’s lack of diversity. But until recently, he’d never realized how it affected him or what his role may be in it.