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Ashes in the San Joaquin: One Skier's Life, Death, and Immortality

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Andy Sawyer’s closest friends knew he was bipolar and given to bouts of depression. The rest of us knew him more superficially: as a legend of American ski mountaineering. Sawyer skied the Himalayas, the Andes, and all over the Sierra. But his best-known exploits happened in southwest Colorado, in the precipitous, avalanche-prone San Juan Mountains. His signature first descent was The Wire, a ridiculously steep, narrow couloir that can be seen from the Telluride ski area—visitors blanch to hear something so lethal can be attempted. And Sawyer nailed it in 1992, on the wickedly long, hard-to-turn boards of the day.

And now we were on top of a cliff, preparing to sprinkle his ashes into a couloir. One couldn’t help but note shades of

The Big Lebowski

. Like Donny, the memorialized in the movie, Andy grew up surfing and “explored the beaches of southern California, from La Jolla to Leo Carrillo and up to Pismo.” Also, the guy holding Andy’s ashes, Nieler, wore shades, hippie-long hair, and a graying beard, not unlike the Dude. But


him, Nieler had the wind on his side. When he opened the plastic bag he’d toted here, 13,460 feet above sea level, Andy’s ashes floated gracefully into San Joaquin Chute. It was June 1, just six days after Andy hanged himself in his girlfriend’s Telluride-area apartment. He was 43.

Andy made aw-shucks modesty an art form, especially when describing his feats in the

Telluride Watch

newspaper. Check his take on local ski-mountaineering history: “A 1992 descent of The Wire on Silver Mountain opened the door to ever-more difficult ski routes,” he wrote, never mentioning that the descender was he. In his stories he existed only in the vaguest third person. When the dean of Colorado’s active ski mountaineers, Lou Dawson, was writing his history book

Wild Snow

, he said, “Andy was so modest and understated, I had trouble getting any ‘historical’ information out of him and thus didn’t write the coverage I now know I should have.”

Andy, along with his brother Hugh, also coached freestyle skiers. He enjoyed the dual pleasures of achievement and helping others succeed. No matter how happy or accomplished a guy appears, however, something darker may lurk over his shoulder. Medication hardly helps. Mental illness is poorly understood not just by the public but by medicine itself. So the longer they go through life avoiding avalanches, crevasses, and rockfall, the more you hear of depressives succumbing to their demons.

San Joaquin Chute presented a natural choice for Andy’s memorial ski. Not only does it fall as steeply as 40 degrees in a section no wider than a ski length, but it also plunges 900 vertical feet. What’s more, by starting at the aforementioned 13,460 feet, San Joaquin hovers above the Telluride backcountry. From the ski area, it appears even steeper and gnarlier than it truly is. It’s a bragging-rights chute. A résumé builder. And it was first skied by Hugh, in 1982.

About 60 skiers gathered early the hungover Sunday morning after Andy’s wake and began booting up the sunny south side of San Joaquin Ridge. Some carried power tools, others an extra ski. There was wine, beer, and other ingestibles. It took the last stragglers an hour and a half longer than the first greyhounds to reach the ridge, but no matter. The snow was utterly stable spring corn. Before Nieler spoke and scattered Andy’s ashes, he and others broke out a cordless hammer drill and bored holes into the rock at San Joaquin’s top. A pair of Andy’s retro skis—orange-ish Nordica bumpers from the late ’90s—were signed with Sharpies and bolted to the rock.

While some of the group descended an easier neighboring peak, a full 30 of us dropped into the San Joaquin. I went 26th of 30, and encountered absolutely zero of Andy’s ashes. Still, there was no denying the chute’s sudden spirituality.

Maybe the 2009 ski season won’t be the first winter Andy Sawyer will miss since the 1960s. As Andy’s mother told Nieler before he set off for San Joaquin with the Nordicas, “If you find someday those skis have moved from the top of San Joaquin to the bottom, you’ll know why. And who.”