Last month’s headline: “Snowboard icon Craig Kelly killed in British Columbia avalanche” probably didn’t hit the under-30 crowd as hard as it did me. Kelly’s name was on my first snowboard (along with copious amounts of hot pink), purchased with lawn mowing money in 1988. He was the center of the snowboarding universe back when Burton advertised in surfing magazines and riders wore green and pink psychedelic jumpsuits; and to me, the quiet kid from Virginia who actually bought one of those things: “where will you ride it?” I can still hear my uncle asking -; he ruled. I’ve since moved on, as most grown-ups do, to old-fashioned skis, but it was the snowboard, and partly the pioneering riding of Craig Kelly, that got me out on the snow in the first place.
In his prime he was truly a man among boys. One of the first riders to really push the boundaries of the new sport, Kelly dominated the halfpipe, the downhill, and even ski racing holdovers like the Giant Slalom. Snowboarding was, out of the box, a very American sport, and in the early days Kelly was the only American who mattered. I still remember being surprised the first year he didn’t win at the U.S. Open. It just didn’t seem right.
Kelly faded from the spotlight before snowboarding became an “extreme sport.” Before the X-Games, before Playstation 2, and before there was money to be made jumping around on the ice, but he never really left the sport behind. He was once called “the greatest snowboarder who ever lived” and he was committed to retaining that title as long as he could stand vertical on the board. Teaching workshops, guiding tour groups, working as a design consultant for Burton snowboards, passing the sport down to the next generation; this was Kelly in retirement. He amassed four world championships and three U.S. titles in his 15-year career, but in the end all the 36-year-old really wanted to do was go out and ride.
Even when he was still competing you could see the backcountry ride start to creep into his life. He was spending more and more of his free time riding the mountains around his Wyoming home, allowing his freestyle reputation to slide as he built a career as the first backcountry snowboarder. My second board, this time a free ride -; read: backcountry-board, also had his name on it; fortunately without the hot pink.
In an interview with Mountainzone.com in 2000, Kelly spoke of his career in Zen-like terms.
“There’s just a feeling you get from certain things you do in life that just kind of feel pure and independent of what’s actually, physically, going on,” he said. “All of a sudden you have this feeling of clarity. Backcountry snowboarding has really done a lot to boost that feeling in me.”
Free riding was what Kelly loved, it was his driving force, and it will be his legacy to the snowboarding community.
If Craig Kelly’s death should teach us anything, it’s that nothing can be taken for granted. He was one of the most experienced backcountry skiers/riders in the world, riding in country that he had covered hundreds of times, and he still slipped up. He still got caught with his back turned. For many of us, the lure of the backcountry is as strong as ever, I’ll be the first to admit it. But for all the safety precautions, all the new technology, and all the avalanche scouting, accidents still happen. In the end, our brains are the best protection we have; learning to use them on the slopes will keep these kinds of tragedies from being repeated. Be safe out there.
Memorial donations are being accepted by the Canadian Avalanche Association.