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Avalanche video shows Brigham moments before death in East Vail Chutes
Two people have lost their lives in the East Vail Chutes this season: Jesse Brigham on Jan. 4 and Matthew Gustafson Jan. 12.
By Tom Boyd 

Avalanche video shows Brigham moments before death in East Vail Chutes

By Tom Boyd

February 20, 2008 —  A video of Jesse Brigham's fateful trip into the East Vail Chutes was taped by his riding partner, Justin Lozier, and has been posted on the Denver Post website at

The accompanying article, by Jason Blevins, describes events which, presumably, are edited out of the Post's version of the video. It also repeatedly refers to Lozier as an avalanche expert. Although I have a great amount of respect for Blevins and the work he's done for the Post through the years, I must disagree with his description of Lozier as an avalanche expert. As my father, who has been backcountry skiing in Colorado since 1957, often says: "All the true avalanche experts are dead."

Harsh, but true. While most of us were lapping up fresh powder in-bounds, the trio of Lozier, Brigham, and Jim Muguerza headed out of ski area boundaries to take on the East Vail Chutes. Ominously, the video opens with a shot of Brigham riding out toward the lip of a large, overhanging cornice before Lozier calls out to him to stop. Brigham seems to have little comprehension of the danger he faces by riding the Chutes, especially on that day, in that place, in those conditions.

Lozier then instigates a kind of avalanche shear test by hopping up and down on a portion of the ridge which appears, in the video, to have the smallest amount of wind load. Lozier's voice-over mentions that the area they are heading into is known as "Charlie's Death Chute," and he recommends that everyone in the group stay within the narrow corridor beneath where he had performed his cursory avalanche test.

Sadly, with all the many great routes available that day - most of which were in-bounds - Lozier's group chose one which had tragic results.

Armed with beacons, shovels, and probes, I've skied a fair bit of backcountry myself through the years, some of which has looked and felt like it could slide anytime. My heart has raced as I've looked, after each turn, toward my escape route should a slab come loose behind me. What I've learned from those experiences is that it's not my place to judge what others try and do in the backcountry. But I've also learned that there are no black-and-white answers out there, no bullet-proof avalanche tests, no chutes that can't slide at any time, and no experts. There are, however, plenty of safe routes out there for non-experts to enjoy, without putting their lives so decidedly on the line.



Comment on article  2 Comments on "Avalanche video shows Brigham moments before death in East Vail Chutes"


Reid — February 20, 2008

Tom, you hit the nail on the head. As most of us were coughing up 12 inches of snow inbounds, there are always those who want more. The three men who ventured into the back country that day took a chance that many veterans would have passed like a crowded 1 a.m. bus on New Years Eve. As you can see on the video that Justin took, the first sign of turning around and checking your pride is the 1 foot fracture that he started by ski cutting at their route point. I'm no expert, but when a one foot slab goes, there is surely more to follow. What boggles my mind is the disrespect for mother nature. Winds were steady at 20-30 mph from the West to Southwest for many days prior, gusts were in the 50 mph range-50! Thats a lot of snow being moved around in an area that gets no "avi" control whatsoever. I've lived in Vail since I was two years old and I've never once skied East Vail, this is the reason why. I understand the solitude and the extreme skiing part of it all, everyone wants to ski the steep and deep, but why risk life for a few short minutes of incredible snow. I just hope this shows everyone that you can never control Mother Nature. Please respect the back country, all of the training, tools, and know how will not save you if the conditions are prime for a slide. Take care.


Buckley — February 21, 2008

Sitting over here in Korea, I've just read Jason's article in the Post, watched the video and read Reid's comment. Like Reid, I've been skiing Vail since I was two years old, but unlike Reid, I've ventured into the East Vail Chutes numerous times dating back to about 1999. Every death is tragic, even moreso when death comes at the prime of one's life. I'm saddened by the news from home I've read comfortably here in Korea. Friend's have joked that my being over here may have just saved my life this season. I can't say I can provide much of an argument. I simply know that I would have ventured out there numerous times this season; and I can't claim to be an "expert", because as Louie astutely noted, there just aren't any out there that can outlive a bad roll of the dice. But I will still defend the decision to venture out of bounds for those who are knowledgable and cautious.

I'm not writing to promote skiing in the side country, but I instead would like people to drop the holier-than-thou attitudes towards those who choose to take calculated risks. I've kayaked with the author of this blog and his father "Louie". They've put me in situations that have been much further out of my comfort zone than any day I've spent in East Vail (I'm not a very good kayaker). I assume they choose to kayak big water because they can read the waters, have experience under their belts and know that there is an unspeakable beauty in doing what they are doing. (I don't mean to put words in their mouth). The same may be said about experienced ice climbers who choose to free climb stuff that seems idiotic to the rest of us, hikers who press on alone in unfamiliar wilderness and fishermen who wade a little too deep to get at a good hole.

Life in the outdoors is fraught with scary potential for injury or death. I, for one, accept that. I've been very fortunate throughout my life, perhaps in some cases spared by a higher power.

I by no means am encouraging people to ski out of bounds. The sheer increase in traffic I've seen over the years is frightenting, and to me the driving factor in the increased number of deaths. I just don't want people to condemn those who make the decision to put themselves in harm's way as somehow "stupid" (not that any of the aforementioned have). To do so cheapens the memory of those who have passed and makes the rest of us wonder if taking chances in the wilderness (key word being wild) is worth the fleeting glimpse at the grandeur and beauty that comes with aligning the human spirit with Mother Nature's powerful hand.



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