Slide Rules

An avalanche buried their friend -- and a Denver trio is still digging out.

Richard knew Mike from work -- both were in the masonry business -- and they'd both moved to Denver at about the same time. They also had serious skiing in common. Richard had been skiing since he was four years old. His mother had raced and patrolled at Berthoud Pass ski area. "I grew up skiing," Richard says.

His first trip to British Columbia that year did not disappoint: beautiful scenery, perfect skiing, wonderful times. As soon as he got back, Richard immediately started selling his best friend, Kenny Peterson, on it. The two had known each other for 25 years, since they had started hunting and fishing together at the age of seventeen. When they were twenty, Richard and Kenny road-tripped to Alaska. They stayed for a month, sleeping outside, fishing, hiking, eating fresh-caught crabs. Richard even married Kenny's sister. When the two divorced, he and Kenny stayed close -- maybe even closer than before.

"Heli-skiing was his lifelong dream," Richard says. It wasn't an exaggeration. Kenny, a former ski instructor at Purgatory, had told his future wife, Peggy, the exact same thing when they met in Durango in 1984. "He loved to make first tracks," Peggy says. "Over the years, it was always there in his mind. He didn't talk about it all the time. But it was there." Instead, Kenny had passed his love for the sport on to his four children. By the time his young girl was four years old, the Petersons could ski together as a family.

"If you ever have an opening for me, tell me -- I'm there," Kenny told Richard. His chance came in June 2001, when a couple of men who'd planned to make the annual trip to B.C. canceled. With Kenny's July 17 birthday coming up, Peggy cut a picture of a skier out of a magazine and stuffed it inside an envelope with a note. "Go for it!" it said. "Happy birthday."

The group -- Barry, Mike, Richard and Kenny -- arrived in Revelstoke, B.C., on February 9, 2002. The first morning at the lodge dawned cloudy, but with promise for an uncharacteristically nice day. Blue streaks slid through the gauzy cloud cover. Barry, Mike and Richard knew what to expect of the day. But it was Kenny, the newcomer, who was the most excited. When Richard woke up the following morning, his best friend was already sitting on the edge of his bed, looking out the window toward the mountains.


Barry is firm in his Christian faith, and when he describes the mountains of Western Canada, he can't help but see a divine footprint. "When God made the mountains, I believe he made them with himself in mind: majestic, awesome, unsearchable, impressive, striking, touching and even, perhaps, fearful," he says. "Unless you have been there, you cannot imagine just how majestic the Canadian Rocky Mountains are."

One hundred sixty miles due west of Calgary, Revelstoke is practically surrounded by towering mountains -- the Monashee Range to the west and the Selkirks to the northeast. Although the town itself sits at less than 1,500 feet of elevation, three dozen miles away, peaks soar as high as 11,000 feet. The contrast is awesome.

Typical of most heli-skiing operations, the evening before and the morning of the first day out there are spent on avalanche training. Clients are taught how to use their beacons; they also conduct a mock search-and-rescue operation.

The Denver-area group had been joined by a half-dozen other guys from Seattle and England. Their guides were two men with plenty of experience: Heinz Mueller, certified by the International Federation of Mountain Guides, had five years with the heli-skiing company; the assistant guide and tail-gunner -- the guide who brought up the rear of each run -- was Stefan Seidler. He had been guiding the Selkirks for two years.

With half the morning already gone from the training, the number of runs during the first day was always less than that of subsequent days, during which a group can anticipate a dozen good trips down the mountain. Even so, by the time the group broke for lunch, halfway down Mt. Laforme, on a route known as "Old Man," they'd had two great runs through knee-deep powder. As they always did about this time, the men had regressed to primordial ski-bum mode.

"Typically, the food is great," says Barry. "So we're sitting around, seeing the helicopter off on the horizon, looking at this amazing scenery. Everyone is just quiet, eating and looking." Inevitably, the same conversation they have each year begins again: "We start speaking about how we're going to move to Revelstoke and just ski. At this moment, this is what we do."

Kenny was overwhelmed. He turned to Richard. "You know," he said. "I've tried to think about how to describe how beautiful this place is, how awesome the skiing is. And you know what? The words don't even come close." Richard snapped a picture of his friend. "You could see the excitement in his eyes," Peggy says.

For the first run after lunch, the group was flown up to a landing area on a shoulder of Mt. Laforme, just over 8,000 feet in elevation. The location was less than twenty miles from Revelstoke, but it seemed a world away. An open bowl of fresh powder lay before them. About a half-mile down, the run was peppered with trees, after which it leveled off into a creek bed. While not a killer decline, the 35-degree slope assured plenty of vertical drop.

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