How I Returned to Skiing After My Brother’s Tragic Death

Losing her brother to a ski accident could have meant the end of her own life as a skier, but in time, something changed.

Photo: Courtesy photos

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On December 19, 2016, when her brother died high atop Breckenridge Ski Resort, Erin Pitts Alexander was certain she would never ski again. When Kevin, an expert skier, collided with a tree, her place of solace and joy was transformed into dark, foreign terrain.

“The mountains had always been a safe place for me–and Kevin,” she says. “But when he died, they became a dangerous place.”

Born only 15 months apart and always together, people often mistook Kevin and Erin for twins. They spent long summer days growing up exploring the rock formations behind their Loveland, Colorado home. In the winter, they skied.

“We started lessons at Eldora and we loved it right away,” says Erin, now 54, who started skiing in fourth grade “It felt natural to us, like we’d always been skiers.”

In a high school PE class, they practiced turns on a giant, carpet-covered ramp they built in the gym and on the slopes of Hidden Valley, a ski resort located about 40 miles up the road in Rocky Mountain National Park.

“That class was significant in that we developed a relationship with skiing,” Erin says. “It wasn’t just something we did, it became something we were a part of.”

At an age when siblings often distance themselves, Kevin and Erin were closer than ever. In addition to heading to Copper Mountain together most weekends. They had matching shirts printed that read, “Our Parents are the Pitts.”

The pair went to Boston University together, where Kevin joined the club ski team. He started in the downhill but soon switched to slalom, which was a better fit for his quick edge-to-edge style and risk tolerance.

“As he put it, ‘Those downhillers are nuts’,” Erin recalls.

Life took the siblings in different directions after college. Both married, started families, and dove into demanding careers: Kevin in Colorado and Erin in Switzerland.

In 2011, Erin moved back to Colorado to be closer to family, moving her husband, Steve, and daughters, Hannah and Catherine, into a house only four blocks from where Kevin lived with his wife, Rebecca, daughter Kiera, and son, Jack. Kevin now had his original ski partner back.

“When I first moved back, we had this beautiful day at Copper just the two of us,” Erin recalls. “It’s like we were retracing our tracks from high school when our goal was always to be first up the lift and last off the hill.”

Erin sometimes paused on the hill to watch her brother’s graceful turns.

“Skiing was a zen space for him, where he could truly, purely, be himself,” she says. “Did I ever think Kev would die skiing? God, no. Absolutely not.”

The 2016-17 season was not off to a great snow start, with many resorts unable to make their forecasted Thanksgiving opening. Recent snow at Breckenridge mid-December allowed it to open some new terrain, including Alpine Alley, which tops at roughly 12,000 feet.

Like any experienced skier, Kevin headed into the bluebird skies the morning of the 19th in search of the best snow on the mountain. At the top of the Horseshoe Bowl T-bar, many skiers pause to take in the view over the tips of their skis: the town of Breck spread out below and the white-crested waves of the mountain range beyond.

The run begins in the baldness above the timberline before dipping just low enough for a few islands of trees to dot the run. Kevin skied into one of those groupings and didn’t come out.

Since it was a Monday, Erin was at work in Louisville when she got the call.

“When mom told me Kev had died in an accident, my mind interpreted that as a car accident,” she says. “I just couldn’t comprehend that he would die skiing.”

According to the National Ski Areas Association, 43 skiers and snowboarders die in the US each season. That calculates to a one in 1.3 million chance of dying while skiing. Like nearly 90 percent of skiers and snowboarders, Kevin wore a helmet.

Following her brother’s death, Erin searched for a cause, watching footage from cameras around the resort and meticulously researching every factor at play that day.

“Did he catch an edge? Did he have a heart attack?” she asked herself. “But eventually I realized even if I figured it out it wouldn’t bring him back–I had to let that go.”

Like brothers and sisters often do, Erin and Kevin had taken care of each other through life’s tough times: brother’s broken ankle, sister’s blown out ACL, and their parent’s divorce. That December day, Erin did her best to soothe her mom, Ena, before hanging up and immediately going into crisis management mode.

“I was numb as I called family members and tried to deliver the news as carefully as possible,” she said. “Meanwhile, I’m driving up I-70 past places we used to ski.”

Kevin’s wife, son, and daughter were waiting for her in a ski patrol office at the mountain’s base.

“It was all I could do to try to keep them together,” she recalls. “Then I had to pack up all of Kev’s things–including his skis.”

She drove the devastated family home and immediately began planning memorial services so that they would be as far before Christmas day as possible.

“He looked beautiful at the funeral,” she recalls. “I just wanted to pound on his chest and yell, ‘Breathe dammit!’”

After that, life didn’t allow Erin much time to process her grief. She spent the first four years after her brother’s death helping other family members through their darkest hours, continuing to meet the demands of a high-pressure job, raising her two daughters, and negotiating a contentious divorce–all without the help of her big brother or the place she used to seek solace.

Just a year after her brother’s death, Erin made her first trip up I-70 for a work meeting in Beaver Creek.

“I cried all the way up there and left as soon as I could,” she says. “Just seeing people put on their ski gear filled me with panic. Skiing had become a way that people die.”

Over the next couple of years, she slowly returned to the mountains. Initially, she only visited places that had nothing to do with skiing or held any memories of Kevin, such as taking a whitewater rafting trip in a river close to home. As the shock of losing her brother to a skiing accident lifted, the idea of returning to the slopes began to surface. She began hiking at higher and higher elevations and edging closer to ski culture. Eventually, she found herself in Telluride, where streets end at lifts, and the runs loom over the small town.

“The fear of the mountains lightened with each trip and positive memories of time in the mountains came back in,” she says. “It came to me I didn’t want all the history of Kev and I skiing to end with his death. I wanted to recapture the joy we felt so often when together on the slopes.”

Flash forward to December 27, 2022, six years after Kevin’s fatal accident.

As Copper’s Super Bee lift crests the second rise on its journey to the top of the mountain, Erin’s eyes fill with tears. “Kev is so happy I’m here,” she tells a friend. “He knows how much the mountains mean to me.”

It’s the day before what would have been Kevin’s 55th birthday. Even though it is one of the busiest weeks of the ski season, Erin wants to ski before she loses her nerve.

Despite her fears of the darkness that might await her on the ski slopes, the day is drenched in sunshine and joy. She smiles so big, her teeth get cold, taking mountain-top selfies with 14ers as a backdrop. She laughs even when she crosses her tips and executes a face plant.

“I’m OK… better than I have been in a long time,” she tells her mom in a lunchtime call. “It’s so beautiful up here.”

After lunch, she finds a quiet place in the woods to sit and look at the trees. She holds a polished stone in each hand, one to leave in the woods for her brother and one to carry home. There are greetings of love, words of goodbye she didn’t get to say, and tears in the snow.

“That day put a period at the end of skiing for me,” she says. “I don’t know if that period is at the end of a chapter or the end of the book. Either way, I returned to the mountains, where I feel the strongest connection to my brother.”

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