First came the sickening whump of a snowpack slamming down on itself. Then a crack, the sound of a snow-covered mountain tearing. When the avalanche finally stopped, seven skiers and riders lay dead in British Columbia's Selkirk Mountains. It was Canada's second-worst backcountry avalanche tragedy ever. News of one victim in particular dimmed the snowsports world: Craig Kelly, one of the most talented snowboarders in history.
A group of 21 had flown by heli into the Selkirk Mountain Experience (SME) lodge for a week of hut-based ski touring. The day of the accident, January 20, two groups were skinning up a 30- to 35-degree slope near the Durrand Glacier at about 10 a.m., investigators say, when a 100-foot-wide slide ripped out.
Two weak layers in the snowpack had kept the avalanche potential rated "in the middle of the danger scale" that day, according to Evan Manners, operations manager of the Canadian Avalanche Centre.
During the past five winters, 70 people have died from avalanches in Canada, but only five of them while guided by commercial operations. SME's reputation for safety is sterling.
Owner Ruedi Beglinger is partly the reason. Known as a stickler for safety, Beglinger is also renowned for submitting paying customers to predawn starts, 37,000-foot climbs, blisters the size of dinner rolls-and legendary powder.
News of Kelly's death ricocheted through the snow-sports world. One of snowboarding's seminal riders, Kelly helped shape the evolution of the sport. At 36, his résumé sagged with World Championships and film credits, from Warren Miller to IMAX.
Kelly, who practiced tai chi, was a quiet ambassador with a smooth style. "What first struck me about him was how brave he was," says Scot Schmidt, who skied with Kelly in films and later partnered with him in B.C.'s Island Lake Lodge cat-skiing operation. "One thing I liked about him was his respect for the mountains and his intuitive sense of danger."
Recently, Kelly had turned his focus to the backcountry. He had nearly completed work to become certified as a Canadian mountain guide. Just a week before heading to SME, he had taken his professional-level avalanche test. He passed, said friend and business partner Jeff Pensiero, "with flying colors."