Colorado’s Singletrack Wars

23 Apr

Josh Harrod pedals through his hometown at a child’s pace, savoring the autumn emptiness and crisp air at 8,200 feet. It’s early October in Nederland, a last bastion of Front Range freedom located 13 miles west of Boulder, which might as well be New York City as far as local Nedheads like Harrod are concerned. Theirs is a place where residents go door to door asking if anyone needs firewood, and where locals fought the idea of putting sidewalks on their dirt roads. There’s a co-op grocery and funky boutiques and the only chain is Ace Hardware. About 1,500 people live in the city limits, but the broader population extends five miles in any direction and totals around 7,500. “The reason I moved up here 20 years ago is because it wasn’t Boulder,” Harrod says. “You could go out and get lost in the woods.”

Harrod, 47, has graying stubble and is wearing a plaid, collared shirt for our mellow weekday jaunt. We met that morning at Tin Shed Sports, a local shop where he works as a bike and ski tech. Tin Shed also serves as unofficial headquarters of the Nederland Area Trails Organization, an advocacy group that Harrod cofounded. The organization has no paid membership but counts about 200 people on its e-mail list as well as $2,000 in donations in the bank and $1,000 in tools that Harrod, NATO’s president, stores in his garage.

Five minutes into our ride, Harrod turns onto a trail called Sugar Magnolia. Known as Sugar Mag, or High Fructose Mag to locals, the boulder-strewn singletrack used to be a steep, ripping connector from downtown Nederland to West Magnolia’s broader trail network on the southwest side of town. One day in the spring of 2011, Harrod was riding home from work when he found the trail flagged for a reroute. Two days later, a new trail had been cut adjacent to the original. Some of it had been machine graded into a four-foot-wide path with none of the technical challenge that defined the prior route. Locals soon learned that the work had been completed by, among others, the Boulder Mountainbike Alliance (BMA), an advocacy organization that made its name fighting for trails around its home city. This struck them as strange and more than mildly infuriating. Why would a group headquartered a half-hour east and 3,000 feet lower be messing with their backyard?

The answer was complicated. Despite the seemingly sudden intrusion, BMA had been working on trails in West Magnolia since 2004, soon after the U.S. Forest Service published a travel management plan that indicated Sugar Mag crossed private property and was too steep in places. Rerouting Sugar Mag had been on the docket for years, but almost nobody in Nederland knew about it, which is where the strife began. The 2011 work served as an appetizer of sorts for a broader undertaking that became known as the Magnolia Non-Motorized Trails Project, a Forest Service–approved overhaul of the entire network. 

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The co-op in Nederland (Tony Webster/Creative Commons)

Until recently, the Nederland system included more than 60 miles of singletrack, mostly trails that locals had built ad hoc over a period of decades. Only about 16 miles were considered legal by the Forest Service, which is where things got sticky. BMA drafted a master plan in 2014 that inventoried all the unofficial trails, many of which were subsequently marked for obliteration, including some that locals had been riding for years. BMA claims its goal is to expand the network—bringing it up to 44 miles of system trails—and generally make it more rideable, smoothing out technical features and widening certain sections of singletrack close to town, for example. Nedheads contend that the organization is overstepping its bounds and should focus on its own backyard. But since the trails are all on federal land and part of Boulder County, they fall under BMA’s purview.

The genesis of the conflict can be traced back a decade, when forest transients were Nederland’s biggest problem; they often set up camp in the middle of trails or used the singletrack as their bathroom. There were knife fights, rampant drug use and methamphetamine production and discarded needles, unattended campfires, burning diapers, and massive amounts of trash and human waste. Regular law-enforcement patrols helped clean that up, as did a proliferation of bike trails, which brought a lot more people than had ridden there before.

Despite their positive impacts, the increase in singletrack and crowds also created problems. Eventually, it boiled into the rarest kind of mountain-bike-access dispute, wherein two groups of riders (as opposed to, say, cyclists clashing with hikers) battled for control of the same trails. The situation included threats of physical harm and cloak-and-dagger tactics to undermine each other’s efforts. 

“I don’t know if people are missing this or just don’t want to see it,” says Corey Keizer, 41, a member of BMA and NATO who lives in Boulder and is close friends with a lot of riders in Ned. “But the crux of the issue is that people in Boulder feel like Nederland is theirs. And it’s not.”

“If I moved to Nederland tomorrow, would my opinion suddenly be more valuable?” counters Jason Vogel, a longtime BMA board member and its former president. “Every time I hear someone from Nederland say, ‘These are our trails, it’s our backyard, so we should have more of a say than you do in what goes on here,’ it just rubs me the wrong way.” 


There probably wouldn’t be a problem if Boulder didn’t have some of the worst mountain-bike access for a supposed outdoor mecca in America. It was the first U.S. city to ban mountain bikes, in 1983, and any local will tell you the allotment of bike-legal trails remains laughably small. BMA was founded in 1991 as the Boulder Offroad Alliance to combat the closure of Boulder’s trails to bikes. It now has more than 1,000 members, which is still a fraction of the nearly 40,000 mountain bikers around Boulder who want somewhere to ride.

Despite BMA’s influence as the most powerful fat-tire advocate in the region, it still doesn’t trump the established guard in Boulder, which is decidedly hiker first. Time and again through the years, local mountain bikers have encountered a wall of resistance when they’ve tried to expand access anywhere close to their homes.

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Josh Harrod, in his element (Devon O'Neil)

Nederland, meanwhile, has long held tight to a ripping trail system accessible from town, primarily in West Magnolia, a.k.a. West Mag. Locals started building singletrack in the late 1980s, and they added to it in the early and mid-1990s, often duct-taping rakes to their chainstays and dragging trails into shape. Maintenance happened organically; everyone pitched in. But problems arose when word began to trickle downhill.

An hourly bus between Nederland and Boulder served as a pipeline of sorts for new riders to discover the bounty of singletrack around town. It wasn’t uncommon for Nederland locals who worked in Boulder to ride two hours of trail to work then take the bus home, as current Nederland mayor Kris Larsen, a research scientist at the University of Colorado, often does. Harrod did that too for a spell before taking a job at Tin Shed when it opened in 2012. “The trails,” Harrod says, “are the reason this shop happened.”

“There’s a ruggedness to them, a backcountry feel close to good restaurants and bars,” adds Keizer. “That’s been intentional.”

But as anyone with a secret stash knows, once the door opens, it can be hard to close. Awareness of the network spread as Boulder grew. Outsiders poked around West Mag and got to know its nooks and crannies. This included Vogel, a 40-year-old Austin, Texas, transplant who might be public enemy number one to Nederland riders—a distinction he doesn’t exactly run from. “The only reason why BMA knows about social trails is because I like to explore in the woods, and I happen to be BMA’s main advocacy guy,” Vogel told me the first time we spoke.

Vogel, who’s been riding West Mag for more than a decade and built the kiosk at the trailhead, also started a bike patrol to crack down on the transients who were shouting at cyclists. He believes that Ned locals’ claims are outdated and driven by NIMBYism. “The West Mag area is discovered. Like, these aren’t your hidden trails anymore,” he says. “They haven’t been hidden since the Forest Service did their first travel-management plan in 2003. That put them on the map. Latitude 40 had them on their map, all the map companies have these trails on their maps.”

Longtime local John Colton, who has been riding Nederland’s trails since the mid-eighties, has heard that stance before. “Please look at it from our point of view,” he says. “There wasn’t a problem. You coming up and building a system is creating a problem for us.” 


The Magnolia Non-Motorized Trails Project overcame numerous hurdles on its way to approval. They included a massive 2013 flood and 2014 wildfire, to say nothing of the social dynamics simmering under the surface.

One might think that a forest in distress would coalesce two groups of like-minded recreationists. Instead, with few exceptions, BMA and NATO got along like battering rams. There’s a saying in access disputes: if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. And as Nederland residents continued to find trails that had been flagged for reroutes without their input, they wondered what was going on behind the scenes. So in 2013, they filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Forest Service and learned that then BMA president Vogel had been sending condescending e-mails about NATO to the grand overseer—Boulder’s district ranger, Sylvia Clark. In one, Vogel wrote: “Will NATO be an effective partner in managing the forest? Once I’ve had a chance to feel them out, I will report back and let you know how I personally see the situation evolving.” He asked Clark to keep their exchanges confidential, but the FOIA request resulted in NATO seeing everything he’d written.

“I didn’t mean it to be some underhanded maneuver to discredit them,” Vogel says now, “but I can totally see how they would be like, That asshole was talking behind our backs the whole time.”

A furious Nederland local sent a threatening Facebook message to BMA’s executive director at the time, Steve Watts. “You fucking losers stay away from the Nederland woods and trails or you are going to have some bigger problems on your back.” Watts reported it to the police. The local apologized two hours later for his “idle threat.”

Still, the bad blood festered. A garage band in Ned wrote a song called “Trail Vultures,” in reference to BMA. Tin Shed installed a large map outside its entry showing “trails to be obliterated” and refuting BMA’s claim that it is helping to build a new 44-mile network.

The Forest Service is stuck playing referee, but the agency doesn’t seem to mind. “We think projects like this benefit from having different opinions,” Boulder Ranger District spokesperson Reid Armstrong says.

Implementation of the Magnolia project began in the summer of 2017. That September a beloved ribbon of singletrack called Aspen Alley was demolished and replaced with a much wider, more basic trail. Harrod calls that loss “the biggest blow.” Ironically, BMA had included footage of people charging down the old Aspen Alley in a fundraising video—which ultimately helped to pay for the trail’s destruction.

NATO members believe BMA’s machine-built trails are incompatible with the area’s rugged character. “People come to Nederland because it’s different,” Harrod says. “This has made stuff far easier.” BMA leaders point out that the trails closest to trailheads are designed to be more attainable and that many of the “more desirable” trails in West Mag won’t be completed for a decade.

“Look, we need to be able to take people up to the forest, because we have such capacity issues in Boulder. And we need for them to not get in over their heads,” says BMA President Marcus Popetz. “In a perfect world, if there was a trail that could be built three minutes away from Boulder, yeah, I’d do that, because then I wouldn’t have to drive my car. But since there’s not, your emotional attachment to these trails doesn’t trump the fact that I have tens of thousands of mountain bikers who would like to use a resource that they own.”


We reach the top of High Fructose Mag, and Harrod turns onto Supervü, a newly built, NATO-named trail with a stunning panorama. We snake down the new Aspen Alley—much wider than the original, with whoop-de-do jumps—and make our way over to Hobbit Two and Three, where BMA’s machines are working to expand and smooth the trail. Harrod harrumphs and decides to turn around before encountering any workers. “I see West Mag as our sacrifice area,” he sighs, adding that he doesn’t tell anyone about his secret trails now.

So far only five miles of trail has been eliminated, with the same amount added or rebuilt. But everyone knows more is coming. People are dealing with that in different ways.

“On one side, I’m trying to tell my guys in Ned, Change is going to happen, so you can sit here and put a stake in the ground and try to fight it for as long as you can, but eventually that stake is going to come up and get moved,” Corey Keizer, BMA and NATO member, says. “Or you can be the force that steers that change.”

Not everyone in Nederland is against BMA. Mayor Larsen, 43, who was born and raised in Boulder, believes it is “doing really good work” and that denying the inevitability of change is “not realistic” due to the Front Range’s growth.

Despite their disagreement over whether an opinion should count more if someone lives three or 30 minutes away, leaders of BMA and NATO meet and discuss plans now, a prospect that would’ve been laughable two years ago. "It's not great," Popetz says, "but we do meet." 

“Shared leadership is the wave of the future, as far as designing and implementing projects like this across our public lands,” says the Forest Service’s Armstrong. “That’s not how we handled these projects historically. We would just make decisions.”

Harrod and I continue to Hobbit One, then Re-Root, a popular legacy trail near West Magnolia Road. For all that has happened since he stumbled upon the Sugar Mag pin flags eight years ago, Harrod seems to have found a balance, albeit uncomfortable, between begrudging and accepting the changes.

That doesn’t mean he forgives the principle, however. We hop onto a newly built section that he calls Bathroom View only half-jokingly. The trail initially was routed within 10 yards of a local residence, allowing riders a clear sight line into the house as they pedaled past. The owner begged the Forest Service and BMA to move it farther away, which they did. But Harrod still wonders why it was placed so close to a local's home to begin with, given the less intrusive options nearby. He shakes his head.  

“Just because you can,” he says, “doesn’t mean you should.”

Murder on a Mountain Bike

26 Nov

Around 10 a.m. on Friday, September 15, 2017, Ginger Chase-Watkins called the Old Town Bike Shop in Colorado Springs looking for her husband, Tim Watkins. She hadn’t heard from him in more than 24 hours.

A bike mechanic and lifelong outdoorsman, Watkins was known to spend nights in the wild, something he had done since he was a boy in Palmer Lake, Colorado, the town where he and Ginger grew up and still lived. But lately he’d been sleeping in his car, often parked at a local trailhead, to escape the turmoil in his personal life.

When Ginger had arrived home from work the previous night at 8:30, she’d seen Watkins’s car in the driveway but noticed that his custom-built Tessier mountain bike was missing. His absence struck her as odd, but she was exhausted from a string of 12-hour workdays as a medical-imaging technician. Knowing that Watkins had terrible night vision, she texted him asking his whereabouts—was he visiting his parents, who lived nearby? having a beer at O’Malley’s Pub?—then fell asleep. When she woke up the next morning, he still had not come home. She texted again and then left for work at 6 a.m.

Watkins, 60, had not been in a healthy state of mind recently. He had been struggling with memory loss for at least a year—a result of hitting his head too many times as a kid, he said—and financial problems had put his marriage in limbo. Ginger had supported them for months before he found work, but a few days before he disappeared, she asked him to leave the house. It was less a separation than an attempted reset, she said months later when we spoke at her home. “I just felt like I wasn’t getting any help, and I needed a minute to myself,” she said. Tears ran down her cheeks. “I have such hurt about that.”

In the months before his disappearance, Watkins had battled depression and even considered suicide. Still, now that he was employed at Old Town, Ginger knew he would never skip work. “I thought, This is not like Tim,” she said. “He’s out there, he’s hurt, we need to find him.”

Watkins knew how to handle himself on a bike. He basically created the mountain-biking scene in Palmer Lake and Monument, sister towns a half-hour north of Colorado Springs in El Paso County. He and Ginger lived three blocks from Pike and San Isabel National Forest, home to a vast network of singletrack, much of it off the map—unless you had the map that Watkins made himself, which served as a fat-tire bible for new arrivals.

Ginger reported Watkins missing after she called Old Town, and she posted information about his disappearance on social media the next morning. A local search party formed; around 2 p.m. on Saturday, a volunteer found a cycling shoe on the side of Mount Herman Road, three feet from an upright beer can and not far from the popular Limbaugh Canyon Trail. Ginger confirmed that it was her husband’s shoe—a size 42 Pearl Izumi. Years ago his feet had been disfigured in an accident, and he almost never took a step without his shoes on. She figured he couldn’t be far.


More than 2,700 people live in Palmer Lake, but when Watkins was growing up, the population was closer to 1,000. He was a daredevil, tearing down Balanced Rock Road on two wheels and using his shoes for brakes. In his twenties he grew into a powerful mountain biker, if not a graceful one. He bounced around Colorado, ski-patrolling at Loveland and riding singletrack in Crested Butte, where his brother David settled. “He was always chasing incredible dreams,” David says.

Eventually, he landed back in his hometown, got married, and had two children—Arielle, now 27 and a mother herself, and Isaac, 25. His first marriage ended in 1993, and in 2000, he opened Monument’s only bike shop with his second wife. He undercharged and overdelivered, supporting the scene in his spare time. It’s likely that no one built more local trails than Watkins did.

“He was this amazing angel up there, and everybody knew him,” says two-time Olympian Alison Dunlap, a longtime friend and riding partner. “But he was a quiet leader. He didn’t brag. He had his bike shop, and he just loved to ride.”

Dunlap met Watkins, who was 12 years older than her, in 1987, when she moved to Colorado Springs to attend college. They became close friends and frequent riding partners during her rise in the sport. Watkins often led her on rides around Mount Herman Road, where trails like Bobsled and Stoopid and Mule snake through the forest. His local favorite, however, was always Limbaugh Canyon—a stunning creekside singletrack that he helped build, lined by wildflowers and aspen groves.

By 2014, Watkins had been divorced twice—the second happened about a decade after the first—and was losing hope of finding a partner when he and Ginger started dating, nearly 40 years after they’d been childhood friends. He liked to think he could save people, and she needed love and support: she’d lost her sister to diabetes, her father to esophageal cancer, her son to suicide, and her brother to lung cancer, the last two deaths happening just a few months apart in 2010. “After my son took his life, I lived in this house with the shades drawn and tried to be invisible,” Ginger said. “And somehow Tim knew that I needed help. I worked nights, and I’d wake up and he’s out shoveling my driveway. I was mortified, like, somebody found me out. But he just knew that I was hurting.”

One day Watkins asked Ginger, a recreational mountain biker, to go for a ride. She was intimidated, but he was patient, and they bonded over the sport. A month later, they fell in love during a trip to Crested Butte. Ginger says Watkins brought her back to life, and friends say she did the same for him. “I just wanted to bring the world to him and bring him to the world,” she says.

They married in September 2015 at the annual Vinotok fall harvest festival in Crested Butte. They lived there for a year, including three months in a tent, before returning to Palmer Lake in September 2016. That’s when Watkins started to struggle. He’d suffered through depressive episodes before, often feeling like a screwup because he never made much money. This time was no different. When he couldn’t find work back home, Ginger’s sole-provider role wore her down and created tension.

Compounding things, Watkins’s memory problems worsened. He was forgetting people’s names and where he was going. He repeated himself in conversation, which added to his despair. Two weeks before he disappeared, he thanked Isaac for spending the day with him. “If it wouldn’t have been for hanging out with you today,” Watkins told him, “I don’t know that I wouldn’t have taken my own life.”

Isaac made his father promise he would never kill himself.  “I shouldn’t have even said that,” Watkins replied.


The day before Watkins disappeared, he and Isaac got together to split a six-pack and watch a movie. Ginger had asked Watkins to leave a few days earlier, and he was worried about their future as a couple. After the movie, he loaned Isaac $20, a sum that likely ate up much of his savings. Then he called Ginger and asked to come home. “Of course, you big goofy redhead,” she told him. “Get your butt home. I’ll be there in a half-hour.”

Watkins called Isaac to let him know he had a place to stay—and to thank him, once more, for being there when he needed someone. “I appreciate how good a young man you are,” he said in a voice mail. “I’m grateful for a good son.”

The following morning—Thursday, September 14—Ginger got up for work at 5:30. Watkins rarely rose that early, but he did that day. It was Ginger’s 52nd birthday. He hugged her and asked if she wanted to go out to dinner. She said she’d rather save it for their weekend trip to Vinotok—a getaway they both hoped would get their relationship back on track.

Watkins spoke to a friend around 11 a.m., which is how it was determined that he left his house for a mountain-bike ride around 10:30 or 10:45. Ginger got home that night to find his bike gone, then went to work again the next morning. It was only after she called Old Town that she started to panic.

The Palmer Lake Police Department decided not to initiate a search right away because there were no extenuating circumstances, such as Watkins being on medication or a reason to suspect foul play. After Ginger posted news about his disappearance on Saturday morning, locals started combing the trails west of town—as Isaac had been doing since the previous day when Ginger told him his father hadn’t come home. Isaac didn’t think his dad had gone back on his promise about suicide, but he also didn’t rule it out.

“I made sure that search and rescue knew the background—that he could be somewhere away from the trail, trying not to be found,” Isaac says. “So we were looking in some obscure places that were special to him.”

By noon on Saturday, the civilian search party numbered 60. Some thought Watkins had crashed and couldn’t move. Others wondered whether a mountain lion had attacked him. (Watkins once had a mountain lion leap over his head when he stopped to pee during a ride.)

Three hours after Watkins’s shoe turned up on Mount Herman Road, a searcher found his bike resting on its side next to a spruce tree, as if Watkins had laid it down and gone for a hike. The bike was fewer than 50 feet uphill from Forest Service Trail 715, a.k.a. Limbaugh Canyon, but completely hidden from view. The front tire was flat, and the gearing suggested that Watkins was going downhill when his ride ended. The bike was roughly a quarter mile north of where Limbaugh Canyon Trail breaks off Mount Herman Road.

Spurred by the discovery of Watkins’s shoe, the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office launched an official search that afternoon, involving both humans and dogs. It continued Sunday morning, aided by 120 friends of Watkins’s and concerned locals who spread out off-trail. One of the civilians discovered Watkins’s cell-phone case, grocery card, and various other wallet contents scattered along Mount Herman Road, a half-mile west of where his shoe was found. That was past the Limbaugh Trailhead, heading away from Palmer Lake, which struck people as odd. Then, just after noon, as Ginger and Isaac hiked above the trail, their radio crackled.

“We need help down by where Watkins’s bike was found,” someone said.

“What kind of help?”

“We need the coroner.”

Ginger and Isaac sprinted down the mountain. Ginger wailed as she tried to get to Watkins before someone tackled her. She got up and was tackled again.

According to sources familiar with the investigation, Watkins had been shot in three places and buried beneath logs and branches in a shallow depression 40 yards west of the Limbaugh Canyon Trail. Bullets had grazed his ear and injured his hand; the likely fatal shot, from a .22 caliber, entered near his ribs and never exited. Closer examination of his front tire later revealed that it had also been shot. Watkins is the first mountain biker known to have been murdered during a ride.

There was still a banana in his pack, suggesting he was killed early in his outing, before he’d stopped to eat it. Whoever shot him had taken his hydration pack, jacket, helmet, phone, shoes, and socks.

No one knew why he’d been shot—whether it was intentional or an accident that the killer tried to cover up. Watkins had no known enemies. He was not confrontational. But it was hard to ignore the attempt at hiding the body. As Ginger says, “It’s one thing to accidentally shoot somebody. It’s a whole other thing to bury them.”


The El Paso County Sheriff’s Office won’t comment on its investigation into Watkins’s death, and any records about the case (which is still open) are not publicly available. Various theories have emerged about what happened. The first of them—murder—gained traction eight days after Watkins was found, when police in Woodland Park, a town 20 miles west of Monument on Mount Herman Road, arrested a then 31-year-old transient named Daniel Nations on unrelated weapons charges. After that the El Paso Sheriff’s Office charged Nations with felony menacing for an incident that took place in late August. According to the arrest affidavit, Nations accosted and threatened a passing dirt biker with a hatchet at his campsite on Mount Herman Road after placing logs in the road that forced the rider to stop. Woodland Park officers searched Nations’s car and found a hatchet and a .22-caliber rifle, according to media reports, the same caliber bullet that killed Watkins. Nations’s wife and two young children were with him at the time of his arrest.

Additionally, detective Jason Darbyshire of the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office told Outside that Nations had acted aggressively during a road-rage incident in Monument around the same time. Nations “got out of his vehicle, confronted another driver, and ended up kicking and breaking their windshield,” Darbyshire said, adding that the incident “escalated very quickly.” A judge’s gag order prevented that case report from being released.

At the time of his arrest, Nations was a registered sex offender who was convicted of indecent exposure in South Carolina in 2007 and domestic battery in Indiana in 2016. Circumstantial evidence led Colorado officials to question him about Watkins’s murder—he’d been spotted driving back and forth on Mount Herman Road during the search and glaring at volunteers, according to multiple searchers. Although investigators questioned Nations about Watkins, they never named him as a suspect. Three months after his arrest, prosecutors cut a deal with Nations that allowed him to plead guilty to the felony-menacing charge and receive no jail time.

Detectives told Watkins’s family that they had no evidence to link Nations to the murder scene: ballistics tests were inconclusive, meaning the bullet inside Watkins was too deformed to match its striations to the murder weapon, and DNA tests were also inconclusive, though it’s unclear whether Nations submitted DNA.

Nations was extradited back to Indiana in February to face charges in three counties for, among other offenses, failure to register as a sex offender and possession of marijuana. He pleaded guilty and served time in multiple jails. He agreed to an interview with Outside twice during his time behind bars, but each time he was transferred or released before law enforcement made him available. In early July, he returned to the Colorado Springs area to see his children. Subsequent attempts to contact him were unsuccessful, though he did give a tearful interview to the Colorado Springs Gazette in August in which he called the Watkins allegations "preposterous" and said, “I’m not what they made me out to be.”

Katelyn Nations, who filed for divorce after her husband’s arrest in Colorado, did not respond to multiple interview requests. She told the Gazette that she bought their .22-caliber rifle a week before Watkins was killed. She said Nations had access to it, but that it was primarily for protection from other transients and thieves.


Another possibility is that someone shot Watkins accidentally, then hid him to conceal the crime. If that happened, the culprit could have been one of the many sport shooters who have frequented Mount Herman Road for decades—even after the practice was banned there by the U.S. Forest Service in 2014. The conflicts between trail users and shooters is fueled, some say, by the zone’s close proximity to Interstate 25 and lenient management by the Forest Service. The situation was serious enough that multiple locals told me they’d long worried that a mountain biker would get shot in the area. “I always said it’s going to take a death for the Forest Service to try to rein in the shooting,” said Brad Baker, who often rode with Watkins and assisted in the search.

To get a sense of how a shooting accident might happen there, I started by driving up Mount Herman Road from Monument. Its intersection with Red Rocks Drive is a spot where mountain bikers often park before riding farther up the dirt road and connecting with a trail. Signs declaring ‘NO SHOOTING’ are posted every mile near town, then higher on the road at a handful of pull-offs that mark departure points for various trails.  

Watkins usually pedaled up Mount Herman Road to a place called Shooter’s Alley, a popular sport-shooting hangout on top of a rocky bench that overlooks Limbaugh Canyon. A short singletrack starts there and quickly connects to Forest Service Trail 715 at a four-way intersection, where it contours the hillside before diving down into Limbaugh. Watkins’s body was found just downhill from that intersection.

Shooter’s Alley is one of three heavily damaged shooting sites near the crime scene. Despite the 2014 ban, you can still find stuffed animals in tatters and shredded paper targets. Across a quarter-acre swath down the hill from Shooter’s Alley, dozens of trees, some up two feet in diameter, are either pockmarked by bullets or sheared near the base, weakened by so many shots that the wind blew them over.

In addition to the local regulation prohibiting the use of firearms here, there’s a federal law that prohibits unsafe shooting on all U.S. government land, regardless of which agency manages it. “The regulations say things like: no shooting in an occupied site, you have to have a backstop, you can’t shoot a tree,” says Dave Condit, deputy supervisor for Pike and San Isabel National Forest, whose 2.75 million acres includes Mount Herman Road. “You also can’t leave trash lying around.”

Which means that pretty much everything that was happening on Mount Herman Road, in plain sight of anyone who passed, was illegal. Several locals told me that they had seen people shooting down the middle of the road. Jim Latchaw, who estimates he’s ridden Limbaugh Canyon close to 2,000 times, once saw someone peppering the singletrack while he was riding it. “I could see where the bullets were hitting, right on the trail,” Latchaw says. “I was shouting for them not to shoot, but they shot anyway.”


To understand why this practice continued for decades, with virtually no law-enforcement patrols—locals who rode or hiked the trails along Mount Herman Road multiple times per week estimated they saw an official presence just a handful of times each year—it’s important to remember where it was taking place. El Paso County is one of Colorado’s most conservative areas. The Air Force Academy, Fort Carson Army base, and Focus on the Family, a socially conservative Christian-advocacy group, all call El Paso home, as do hundreds of thousands of gun owners.

As mountain biking grew around Mount Herman, so did the close calls. Six locals told me they have heard bullets whiz past their heads while riding, close enough to feel the displacement of air. Isaac Watkins recalls camping in Limbaugh Canyon as a teenager when a bullet suddenly exploded the rocks a few feet away from where he was sitting. “I thought I was being targeted deliberately,” he says.

Watkins hated having to deal with shooters, but he never provoked them. “I witnessed him with a shooter multiple times, he was very friendly,” says a longtime friend and riding partner of Watkins who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of retribution from sport shooters. “He rode up and said, ‘Hey guys, I’m not against shooting or anything, but I just want to let you know there’s a trail right down below, where your bullets are going.’ Usually they’d say, ‘Oh, OK, I didn’t realize there’s a trail down there. We’ll make sure we’re shooting into a backstop.’”

Interactions weren’t always so cordial, though. Trucks on Mount Herman Road were known to pass cyclists extra close and accelerate as they passed, showering the riders with dirt and rocks. “You knew it was intentional,” says Alison Dunlap. “I would never have ridden that road alone.”

Brian Mullin, a board member with Friends of Monument Preserve, which builds and maintains trails in the area, says his group tried to convince the Forest Service that shooting along Mount Herman Road was unsafe. The organization invited people in power to come see for themselves, including county commissioners, Forest Service staff, a TV news team, even a representative from the NRA. “It took five years of intense pressure and lobbying” to convince the Forest Service that a shooting ban was necessary, Mullin says.

The Forest Service typically assigns just one law-enforcement officer to each ranger district. The agency always has the option to take immediate action and enact changes to its rules, but Condit says he tries to avoid closures as a management solution. (A Forest Service spokesperson declined Outside’s request to interview the district’s law-enforcement officer; the spokesperson also declined to comment on the county’s investigation into Watkins’s death.)

When the Forest Service finally banned shooting on Mount Herman Road, Frank Landis, then the agency’s outdoor-recreation planner, justified the decision by citing “18 months of consistent close calls.” The drama didn’t end with the ban, though. Soon after it was imposed, state senator Michael Merrifield, a longtime friend of Watkins and a frequent Limbaugh Canyon visitor, pedaled past a father squeezing off rounds with his two sons in front of a ‘NO SHOOTING’ sign.

“You’re not supposed to be shooting here,” Merrifield said.

The father turned and glared. “Maybe I’ll make you the target,” he said. Merrifield kept going.

Sport shooting—and the spent piles of shells, ratty couches, and bullet-riddled televisions that Watkins and other locals begrudgingly helped dispose of—was a problem throughout the forest, including on Gold Camp and Rampart Range roads outside Colorado Springs. In 2015, a 60-year-old grandfather named Glenn Martin was killed by an errant bullet while camping with his family, roughly 20 miles from where Watkins was shot. Martin’s killer has never been found.

Merrifield, who recalls an incident in 2011 or 2012 in which a bullet barely missed his head while he was riding in Limbaugh Canyon, decided a few years ago to stop going to Mount Herman Road. “In my opinion, the sheriff’s office and the Forest Service didn’t put enough manpower into it,” he says. “You didn’t have to hike to find people breaking the law—it was obvious. You could drive along and people would be shooting right by the side of the road. I don’t think law enforcement was doing nearly what they should have to enforce the law.”

When asked whether he initiated a conversation to change the protocol, Merrifield said he did not. “It just never came to my mind until after Tim got killed,” he says. “And I was so angry and frustrated. I haven’t had the opportunity to say anything, and I don’t know what good it would do.”


Many locals have stopped riding Limbaugh Canyon. Others have armed themselves. “I still go up there every day, but I brought a little pistol with me for a while,” says Latchaw, who is 73 and fought in Vietnam. “It’s just a five-shot .38, real small. I hate to carry it.”

Some hope Watkins’s death leads to a civilian ranger team—or at the least, tighter Forest Service enforcement. “We’ve got to change how we’re policing this area,” says Rob Meeker, 39, who grew up in Monument and helped organize the civilian search. “I think that would be one of the best ways to honor Watkins—make Mount Herman Road a place where people feel safe to ride again. Right now I’d go ride it, because I have my .40 on my hip, but a lot of the biking community is scared to ride some of the best trails in the state. And that’s bullshit.”

“We’re not against shooting,” says the friend of Watkins who asked not to be named. “We’re against—well, literally, there is a Forest Service–system trail right where the bullets land.”

In early January, I met four of Watkins’s friends to retrace the route he likely took the day he died. We rode up to Shooter’s Alley, where bullet-riddled trees looked like beavers had gnawed them down to stumps. The first time I visited, two weeks earlier, I’d seen a handmade sign taped to a tree, apparently challenging Watkins’s killer to a gunfight. 

‘Leave a date and time and location. Let’s finish this up.

You will not win, this is not your mountain, this is our mountain,

THIS IS TIM’S MOUNTAIN.’

The sign was gone when we rode through the four-way intersection and descended into the canyon. I could see why Watkins loved this ride. You feel like you’re totally removed from the world, when in fact you’re just off an interstate.

What happened to Watkins remains a mystery. Everyone has theories, but the questions linger. Was he ambushed and robbed by a transient? Targeted as a mountain biker? Accidentally hit by a sport shooter, then killed to cover up the mistake? Was he pedaling when he was shot? Was his body moved?

Several people have wondered if the killer removed Watkins’s shoes because he or she was unfamiliar with cycling cleats and couldn’t get them off the pedals. If that level of tampering was involved, how did no one else see anything on such a popular trail? A pair of mountain bikers who rode into Limbaugh from Mount Herman Road that day, roughly 30 minutes before Watkins would have passed through, said they noticed nothing unusual.

“I was trying to rationalize all the rational motives, but I get the feeling this was maybe just an irrational act,” Isaac says. “I don’t really see anybody benefiting in the long run.”


Watkins’s family and friends yearn for closure, but the case took another twist on September 2. Kevin Rudnicki, a 20-year-old Palmer Lake native, went hiking on Mount Herman and never returned. A weeks-long search failed to find him. Just before he left, his mother reminded him to be careful because of what had happened to Watkins. He was last seen on the same trail where Watkins was killed: Limbaugh Canyon.

Ginger participated in the search for Rudnicki, which brought back hard memories from a year ago. The day after searchers found Watkins’s body, she and Arielle joined Meeker and Meeker’s father and hiked in to the site. As a group, they carried two shotguns, two handguns, and a rifle that Meeker’s dad used to cover them from a distant ridge. Ginger crawled into the shallow hole where Watkins had been buried, an image that still terrifies her.

“I have these nightmares of him being aware of what was going on,” she says. “I mean, he was out there for three days. Did he die right away? The death certificate said it was within seconds, but I don’t know.”

She was sitting in her living room, petting one of her Ibizan hounds. A framed photo of Watkins hung above a framed photo of her son, Josh, who died seven years earlier. “It’s more than I know how to deal with,” she says.

One of Watkins’s friends named a trail after him along Mount Herman Road and put up a sign. People hug the sign as a way to connect. Ginger rides there, too, though she’s not ready to ride Limbaugh again.

“It’s a minute-to-minute, day-to-day process,” she says. “I still can’t wrap my head around how you go for a mountain bike ride and are murdered.”

Chasing a Couple of Geezers on a San Juan Traverse

12 May

Matt Wells has many nicknames, chief among them Uncle Fuzz, but it isn’t until his old buddy Jerry Roberts calls him abuelo that reality sinks in. We are standing in Roberts’ yard on Easter Sunday 2017, in the small southern Colorado town of Ridgway, inventorying our gear before attempting a ski traverse of the San Juan Range. For some reason, up until now I have viewed this trip like any other. Only when Roberts used the Spanish word for grandpa did I remember: I am about to try and cross one of America’s king ranges with a 70-year-old (Wells)—while following his 68-year-old friend Denny Hogan’s lead.

We pad around in the sun, each of us brimming with the nervous excitement that precedes a week in the wild. The San Juans’ tall, striking skyline looms to the south. I have come at the behest of a friend, 42-year-old Tim Cron, who is four years my senior. Cron used to work with Wells in Idaho and saw in the trip a unique opportunity. Not only would we be chasing a rare objective, but we’d also get to learn from a pair of masters in Wells and Hogan.

Hogan, who organized the trip, drove south from his home in Buena Vista and met me on Wolf Creek Pass the prior day. We stashed a truck there and continued on to Ridgway, where in recent years an impressive array of mountain men have retired to an alpine-desert version of their former selves. Roberts, who used to oversee avalanche mitigation along the notorious Million Dollar Highway between Ouray and Silverton, acts as a sort of ringleader, and whenever a member of the old guard shows up, à la Hogan and Wells, the rest of them emerge like werewolves.

Almost on cue, Peter Lev appears at 10 a.m. A retired guide and former co-owner of Exum Mountain Guides in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Lev partnered with Hogan on an attempted first ascent of the west face of Mount Huntington in Alaska 38 years ago. Earlier this winter, he relocated from the Black Hills to Ouray, just down the road from Ridgway, at the base of Red Mountain Pass. Lev almost summited 13,321-foot Trico Peak yesterday, he tells us, and enjoyed a marvelous solo ski descent. He is 77.

Roberts knows that Cron and I are here to learn from Hogan and Wells, and he assures us we will. “These guys are mentors without being mentors,” he says. “You see how things are done just by watching them.”

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Wells, left, and Hogan relax next to Cunningham Creek. (Devon O'Neil)

Hogan became interested in a San Juans traverse after reading that George Lowe and two friends skied it in 1992. Hogan has since tried it nine times, succeeding four. The 65-mile route basically follows the Continental Divide from west to east, and you spend much of your time above treeline—for better or worse. Hogan had long tried to convince Wells to join him, but it didn’t come together until this year. Wells recruited Cron, his former mentee on the Sun Valley Ski Patrol, and Cron invited me for an even number.

Aiming to complete the traverse in six days—an ambitious timeline even with good conditions—we divvy up supplies in the driveway. Lev, who has climbed the Grand Teton more than 400 times, shakes his index finger at Hogan. “You clearly still like to carry a heavy pack. What the heck is wrong with you?” Hogan laughs and blushes, but weight will indeed prove to be a factor during our trip.

Neither Lev, whose ski pack now consists of a hip pouch with a small bottle of schnapps, nor Roberts can physically handle such a traverse anymore. With each lament that another of their brethren has succumbed to a heart attack or brain tumor, it becomes clear how rare our two partners are. Cron and I are here to see how they still do it, so that one day we can be the holdouts.


Hogan and Wells met as Colorado Outward Bound guides in the 1970s while ski training on Teton Pass with, among others, future Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard. They slept outside 16 days a month and went on to travel together for decades. Wells, who lives in Hailey, Idaho, and still maintains a solid build to go with his fur (hence the “Uncle Fuzz” moniker, or Fuzz for short), spent 14 years guiding on horseback in Mongolia. He also made nine trips to Nepal and 15 to Peru, mostly to climb. Still, he never took himself too seriously, as evidenced by one of his favorite lines during our trip: “Do you know who I was?”

Hogan, whom Roberts likens to a mountain elf, stands five-foot-six and is known from Alaska to Colorado for his modesty and dirtbag ways. He learned to climb when he was 14 and eventually compiled one of the most underrated résumés of any amateur adventurer. In 1974, Hogan and three friends completed the first ski crossing of Greenland’s South Cumberland Peninsula, a journey that took 42 days. “The Inuit thought we were nuts,” Hogan recalls. He has kayaked or rafted the Grand Canyon five times, narrowly survived a speed descent through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River, made first alpine ascents in remote locations, rock-climbed with the late Fred Beckey, and last year rode his bike from Banff to Buena Vista for fun.

The first time Hogan skied across the San Juans, he did it with the late Randy Udall. They met at Wolf Creek Pass, where Hogan found out Udall only had five days until he was due back home, instead of the seven they’d planned. Hogan, an aerobically gifted athlete who loves to suffer, barely hung on to Udall’s ferocious pace. When they collapsed into camp each night, Udall would swallow a stick of butter and go to sleep, Hogan says. Still, they finished the route, and Hogan was hooked. No one has done it more than he has—or survived more close calls along the way.

As Easter Sunday fades toward dusk, Roberts drops us off at the end of a dirt road in Cunningham Gulch, just outside Silverton. The mid-April snowpack is firm as we set out on skins, crossing under a series of avalanche paths, one of which killed six miners on St. Patrick’s Day in 1906. The valley floor is littered with avalanche debris now, too, 20 feet of snow and broken trees piled up in mounds. We find a dry patch of tundra next to the creek and set up camp. I recline in a mesh-and-aluminum chair, one of a handful of luxuries I have packed. “You’re breaking my heart,” Wells jokes, lying on the ground, chairless.


On our way to Highland Mary Lake the next morning, we stop next to a creek to fill our water bottles. Wells is already struggling to keep pace and acknowledges out loud, for the first time of many, that he is the slowest skier in the group. Not that it dampens his spirit. He looks at Hogan, who has removed his hat for a moment, revealing a horseshoe of hair and a shiny cranium. “Man, you are bald,” Wells says. “You look like an egg in the nest.”

A short time later, we stop again and Hogan asks Wells if he is feeling the altitude—an indirect way of asking why he is moving slower than the rest of us. Wells takes exception. “I remember when you were feeling the altitude,” he fires back. Hogan grins: “Where was that, South America?”

We reach the lake at 4 p.m., and I ditch my pack to ski a run above our camp. Wells shows Cron how to anchor our tent stakes more securely, and I get a lesson in extracting water from a frozen lake courtesy of Hogan, who once trained Navy SEALs in winter survival on Mount Elbert, the highest peak in Colorado. (He also worked as a prison guard and, later, as a bureaucrat with the BLM.)

Hogan, an early proponent of light-and-fast travel, would prefer to bivvy in the open, as he did on most of his 13 trips to Alaska. But he and Wells are sharing a thin shelter here, albeit one that leaves them exposed to wind and snow along the edges. Hogan’s only insulation from the frozen ground is a thin foam pad that extends to his knees. Cron and I, meanwhile, have inflatable pads and a three-season tent with a vestibule.

I am already a little worried about our pace, given we fell short of Hogan’s stated goal this morning. But I remind myself it’s early.

The next morning, Wells and I skin past a set of bear tracks as he tells me about his last big climb, eight years ago in the Cordillera Huayhuash of Peru. He and his partner were 62. “We knew when we got to the top,” Wells says. “We were like, ‘This is it.’”

Later, he shares some life advice out of the blue. “Don’t be afraid to apologize.” I admit that I have a tendency to hold grudges if I feel someone is in the wrong. “You’ll learn to let go,” Wells says.

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Pausing in front of the Grenadiers subrange. (Devon O'Neil)

The four of us stop on a dry tuft of grass at noon, staring across at the Grenadiers subrange, one of the most stunning landscapes in Colorado. Hogan and Wells spent much of their early twenties exploring these peaks with Outward Bound. Forty-five years later, they are content to gape and remember. “That range really excited us as young men,” Wells says. “It was a great place to gain your maturity and do some shit.”

Hogan made the first winter ascent of Jagged Mountain in 1971 with a friend, Arturismo Agasuma, who died two weeks later while climbing the Wham Ridge, which we are looking at as Hogan tells the story. Hogan then points toward Arrow Peak. “See that ramp coming off the north face? I skied that,” he says sheepishly. “It’s my only extreme ski descent.” He pauses, examining the ramp, which turns left above a giant cliff and weaves its way down to an apron. “I’m actually quite proud of it.” He pauses again. “Don’t tell anyone.”

Hogan laments that he can no longer find partners for even moderately hard outings. His neighbor in Buena Vista, 73-year-old ultrarunner John Nail, is an exception. It was Nail who invited Hogan to pedal home from Banff last year. “I asked him, and his wife has asked him the same thing, ‘When are you going to quit?’” Hogan says. “His reply is, ‘When I die. Because if I quit, I’m gonna die.’”

Both Wells and Hogan have small pensions and collect Social Security. They implore me and Cron not to follow their retirement strategies. Cron, who owns a hotel and bakery in the 100-person town of Stanley, Idaho, isn’t sold. “It depends on what you want to retire to,” he says. “If you want to retire to this, it’s a lot easier than if you want to retire to golfing.”

“Fuck golfing,” Wells snaps.

We lie on our packs in the sun, relishing the moment. I can’t take my eyes off the Grenadiers. It feels like we can touch them. Finally, Hogan and Cron rise and set off once more. Wells dons his pack and steels himself for another long stretch of white expanse toward Hunchback Pass. Just before he leaves, he says to me, “All my life, I’ve done this stuff. Sometimes when I’m out here plodding, I think, Why?” Then he skis off, not bothering to answer.


A half-mile before the pass, Wells runs out of gas. Cron, who is still built like the college football player he was, skins back and takes his friend’s pack. When Wells finally reaches Hunchback, he collapses on the shale. We are already way behind schedule, and it seems imminent that we will pull the plug given further progress could put us in no-man’s land with little food or fuel. But that is Hogan’s decision to make since he knows the route, and he is not ready to concede.

Cron and I climb and ski Hunchback Peak, leaving tracks that shine in the alpenglow from camp. That night, a furious windstorm rolls through. Camped above treeline on an exposed ridge, we get smacked in the face all night by our tent. A pole nearly snaps. It is enough to seal the deal.

Hogan holds an impromptu meeting in their shelter first thing in the morning, where he announces that we are abandoning the traverse. Instead, he suggests we ski down Bear Creek then up to Stony Pass, turning the trip into a loop and ending back at Cunningham Gulch. I try to hide my disappointment.

We ski down to the Rio Grande River and ford it in our boot shells. Sitting on a grassy bank while our feet dry, Hogan recounts some of his other failures on this route. One year he got caught in a 36-hour blizzard with nothing but a bivvy and shovel. He bailed down Deep Creek, finally taking shelter in an outhouse on the second day, then skied 16 miles to a highway and hitchhiked to Creede. It makes me feel better somehow, knowing he has failed on this route more than he’s succeeded.

We set camp a mile below Stony Pass and make our first fire of the trip, which acts as a salve for my wounded optimism. The flames warm my face as Wells laments the death of amateur alpinism—regular people doing big stuff in king ranges. Neither he nor Hogan has ever been sponsored. “We were just the debris,” Hogan says. By the time I slip into my sleeping bag, I am no longer upset that we bailed. I’m just glad to be debris.


We know it’s cold the next morning because Hogan finally has put on long underwear. Single-digit temperatures, biting wind, and two inches of snow keep us curled up until 9 a.m. Then we set out for our first group ski. We pass a site in the snow where an eagle killed a fox, leaving just the skinned head and some feathers, one of which Hogan collects to bring home.

While climbing a col to a small peak just west of Stony Pass, Wells loses purchase on firm snow and falls, hard. He had been skinning with one climbing bar up and one down to make it easier on his two replaced hips and to compensate for his shortened stride. I feel bad when I see him slide. I downclimb, grab his skis, and help him to his feet. Then we regain the col. We don’t talk much about his slip, but I can tell it’s on his mind.

During the descent, he falls again. As he sidesteps back up to retrieve a pole, I wonder to myself if his end is nigh. But he rebounds once more and finishes his run, then heads back to camp happy to have skied in such a special place.

The next morning, we set out on our final climb of the trip. “Life is story, man,” Wells says. We are nearing Stony Pass, where we will rip our skins and descend all the way to Cunningham Gulch. He is smiling wider than he has all trip. “Man, it’s fun, shooting the breeze.”

The sun beats down on our charred lips and rosy noses. “You’ve seen the scope of our lives on this trip,” Wells adds. “We weren’t big players, but we were always in the game. And therein lies my satisfaction.”

I have wondered for much of the week if I am witnessing a last hurrah for Hogan and Wells as adventure partners. I ask Wells if he’ll do another ski tour like this. “Yeah,” he says. Then he thinks about it. “I say that lightly. I’d like to.”

We arc huge turns, trying not to tip under the weight of our packs, down a glorious bowl and back into Cunningham, where the end of the road awaits. Later that afternoon, we attend an outdoor party in Ridgway, the tiny town where legends live.

Peter Lev, who never said much on an expedition, is blabbering away with Hogan in the barbecue line, sipping IPAs in the spring sun. They can barely hear each other due to loud music and bad ears, but they cling to the moment like they clung to the side of Mount Huntington 38 years ago, pinned by a storm and doubting their chances. Steve House, arguably the world’s greatest alpinist and a Ridgway local, walks up with his wife and toddler son to shake Lev’s hand, as well as the rest of ours.

I had questioned my decision to join this trip, giving up Easter with my family and going incommunicado for a week. But this scene reminds me why I came. We share stories from our week with Roberts and Lev, who are eager to hear about the adventure. That we fell short of Wolf Creek Pass is an afterthought. Roberts tells us that the winds when we were camped on Hunchback likely exceeded 75 miles per hour, based on nearby weather stations.

“Well,” says Lev, a sparkle in his eye, “that’s what you get for wanting to climb mountains.”

Hurricane Irma Destroyed My Childhood Paradise

15 Mar

As a kid, you can’t control where you grow up. To land somewhere like St. John, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, takes luck—and in my case an adventurous mother.

My fraternal twin brother, Sean, and I were five years old when our mom decided that she was tired of commuting from Westport, Connecticut, to New York City. So in December 1985, she and her boyfriend bought a 41-foot sailboat named Yahoo, we packed everything we owned into 19 duffel bags, and we headed south.

St. John, half of which is covered by Virgin Islands National Park, offered singular beauty—and plenty of places to anchor our new floating home. Mom took a job as a landscaper in Fish Bay and eventually got her real estate license. Sean and I fell in with a rat pack of kids who congregated after school to play tackle football, catch tarantulas and lizards, and crawl under barroom floors in search of quarters. We grew up boogie boarding and surfing on the south shore. One day we took turns reeling in a 350-pound shark off the west end of Jost Van Dyke, next door in the British Virgin Islands.

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After two years on the boat, Mom bought a house. A house that, on September 6, 2017, was completely destroyed by Hurricane Irma. At the time, my mother was on the mainland for a wedding and a visit with Sean and me in Colorado, where we both live with our families. Four days after the storm, we found a YouTube video with aerial footage of our neighborhood. It was annihilated; I didn’t recognize our home, a modest two-story structure that had survived hurricanes for 30 years. It looked like someone had shot a missile into it. So did our neighbors’ houses. I watched the video five times. Despite studying the footage, which covered at least a quarter mile in all directions, I could not locate our roof.

It had been more than 15 years since I’d lived on St. John, but I still considered it home. It’s where I learned about the world, everything from fishing to race. When we were nine, my brother and I spent an entire spring glued to a chain-link fence watching St. John’s all-black Little League team practice. The West Indian coaches, former pro prospects Orville “Chopper” Brown and Terry “Chino” Chinnery, asked if we’d like to join the team the following year. We did. On September 16, 1989, while practicing in the island’s main town of Cruz Bay, I got hit by a pitch and broke my elbow. As the doctor wrapped it in a cast, he said, “Have you heard about the storm coming?”

irma
Devastation at Bitter End Yacht Club, on Virgin Gorda (Steve Simonsen)

He said it was called Hugo and that the territory was in line for a direct strike. The Virgin Islands have a long, fatal history with tropical cyclones. The first recorded major hurricane hit the island in 1697. Devastating storms followed in 1772, 1819, 1867, and 1916. It had been decades since a legitimate threat had materialized.

By then we were in our new house a half mile above Cruz Bay; other residents live in small communities scattered above bays and beaches. We were oblivious to the storm’s power. Instead of installing hurricane shutters or armor screens, like people do now, we duct-taped an X over each of the six sliding glass doors and sat on our living room couch as Hugo roared through with 150-mile-per-hour sustained winds. We watched a neighbor’s roof peel off, a shed get picked up by a tornado, and a restaurant’s roof slam into our yard like a kite. When the glass started to bow, Mom told us to hide under the bed.

In 1995, Hurricane Marilyn landed another roundhouse. Sean and I were in Connecticut when it hit; Mom rode out the storm on a boat in Hurricane Hole, a sheltered bay that offers some protection from the wind. Though the boat held its position, people who hunkered down in more vulnerable locations on shore still insist that the winds were substantially stronger than the 115-mile-per-hour forecast.

I recall images from those storms, but the damage I saw on the Irma video was in a class by itself—three or four times as bad as Hugo and Marilyn combined, locals estimated. “The forces were just incomprehensible compared with previous storms,” says Rafe Boulon, a St. John native and retired scientist whose great-grandfather opened the U.S. Weather Bureau office on Puerto Rico in the early 1900s. “Some places lost probably 10,000 years of sand and vegetation in a matter of three hours.”


As soon as Irma formed as a tropical storm off the west coast of Africa on August 30, it grabbed scientists’ attention. Weak upper-level winds over the Atlantic and sea-surface temperatures that were two degrees warmer than average made for an ominous mix as the storm moved toward the Caribbean.

“It’s amazing how much difference just one or two degrees can make at that water temperature in terms of how strong a hurricane can get,” says Jay Hobgood, an associate professor of atmospheric science at Ohio State University who tracked Irma and has been studying hurricanes since the 1970s.

Despite a roughly 400-mile diameter, Irma had to thread a needle to inflict catastrophic damage on populated places. Most destruction occurs in a hurricane’s eyewall, a band of brutally violent wind spinning counterclockwise around the eye; beyond that, winds drop off quickly. This creates a 40-to-60-mile-wide path where you don’t want to be. Almost all hurricanes pass between Trinidad, just north of South America, and Bermuda. But most of them track north of the U.S. Virgin Islands, which have only a 3 percent chance of being hit by a hurricane that’s Category 3 or stronger.

Irma soon grew to Category 5, with maximum sustained winds of 185 miles per hour—the second-highest speed on record for an Atlantic hurricane. The day before it hit, Chopper got a call from his son, ­Okyeame, who works in intelligence for the U.S. Navy and is Sean’s and my godson. At 61, Chopper is built like a defensive end and remains as imposing as when he served as the island’s unofficial patriarch, someone who mothers would bring their sons to for discipline and direction. Okyeame told his father that he had researched the storm and it was a monster—nothing like it had hit St. John in generations, if ever. Chopper felt a wave of fear wash over him.

The same day, I called my closest friend from childhood, Galen Stamford, who was living in the one-bedroom apartment on the first floor of my mom’s house with his wife and six-year-old daughter. Sean and I met Galen our first week in the Virgin Islands. He grew up to be one of the top surfers in the region and a beloved island figure. Like everyone else, he had been watching Irma’s advance with dread. “I don’t think your mom’s house is going to survive this one,” he said. He had decided to stay at a friend’s concrete house in Peter Bay, on the north side of the island, where the windows and doors would be protected by a large armor screen. They had stocked enough food and water to last three months.

Across the 20-square-mile island, the 4,000 residents finalized preparations of their own. In Rendezvous Bay, on the island’s south side, Carlos Di Blasi, a 53-year-old restaurant owner, had decided to ride out the storm in the house that he and his wife, Maria, had built 16 years earlier. It had one-foot-thick concrete walls and a roof made of corrugated tin, three-quarter-inch plywood, and half-inch cedar.

Sailors in the area frantically rushed to secure their boats. Longtime skipper Richard Benson, 66, buzzed around in his dinghy helping other people get ready, including his son, Daniel. Benson owned one of St. John’s iconic charter boats, the all-black, 84-foot “pirate ship” Goddess Athena. He had a long blond beard and gold teeth, and he was known for his stern temperament and reliability. He and Daniel had five boats to prep between them, but as they worked, Daniel was fighting a stomach bug that left him barely able to speak. “I felt terrible,” recalls Daniel, a 26-year-old artist and surfer. “All I wanted was to be with my dad and help him.”

Before Benson steered the Goddess Athena to Coral Bay on September 5, he did something that was rare for him: he admitted regret. “We should’ve sailed south two days ago,” he told a friend.

Benson didn’t have as many options as smaller-boat owners did for where to seek shelter. In Hurricane Hole, the National Park Service allots 105 spots across four bays where captains can clip onto a one-inch-thick chain strung across the ocean bottom. But boats longer than 60 feet aren’t allowed to use the chain, so Benson positioned the Goddess Athena in the shallower water and mud of Sanders Bay, across the harbor.

Terry “Chino” Chinnery (Steve Simonsen)
Daniel Benson (Steve Simonsen)
Jean and John Leonard (Steve Simonsen)

Just north of where Benson anchored, a 50-year-old lifelong sailor named Adam Hudson tied off his 27-foot Bristol, Solstice, in roughly the same spot he always did: in front of the old customhouse on the east side of the bay. The first time he rode out a major hurricane on the water—Hugo, when he was in his early twenties—Hudson escaped a pileup of boats by jumping into chest-deep water and wading to shore as raindrops shelled his skin. He and his dad watched their boat get pounded for the next eight hours, irreparably damaged. This time he figured he’d be fine, if for no other reason than he’d always been fine in this spot—the same rationale Benson seemed to be using.

The night before Irma struck St. John, it mowed down Barbuda—an island three times the size of St. John—leaving 95 percent of its buildings uninhabitable. St. John­ians who watched the radar that night were forced to accept a grim reality.

“Imagine you’re skydiving, and you pull the rip cord and nothing happens,” Daniel Benson says. “You look at the ground, and the glance that you and the ground exchange, that moment of imminence—that’s what it felt like.”


On the morning of September 6, the storm ramped up at different times in different places, but it happened quickly every­where. In Peter Bay, Galen and his storm mates—seven people and six dogs—observed an almost instantaneous change when the eyewall arrived at around 11:15 A.M. “It was like a snap of your fingers,” he said. “There was no warning. We went from 70- to 160-mile-per-hour winds like that. The bronze railings started to whistle. You could hear ceramic roof tiles getting ripped off one by one.”

Five miles south, Carlos Di Blasi and his family lounged in a bedroom watching a movie, wondering why it was so quiet. Their house faced east and was tucked against a mountain, sheltered from the west winds. Until 12:30 P.M., you could have heard a quarter hit the floor. Then a big gust shook the house, and Di Blasi decided that they should move downstairs to a more secure room. He walked to the closet to get his shoes as Maria and their 11-year-old son, Alejo, looked out the window.

Bang! A deafening explosion rang out—suddenly the dark room was light. Di Blasi looked at his 15-year-old son, Mateo. A long two-by-six beam had pierced the roof like a javelin and missed his son’s head by inches, spraying his hair with wood chips.

Bang! A second beam landed on the other side of Mateo. He stood there, frozen, as water gushed through the ceiling holes.

Bang! A third beam came through. Maria started screaming. The four of them raced downstairs to a bathroom under a concrete ceiling and listened as 11 more beams—ripped from another house by a tornado—­penetrated their roof.

At the other end of the island, in Coral Bay, six-foot waves crashed down on Hudson’s boat, breaking its mast. At 1 P.M., he felt an anchor line snap, and the boat started taking on water. He knew it was only a matter of minutes until it sank, so he grabbed his savings—$5,000 in cash that he kept in a drawer—crawled onto the bow, and waited until the pulpit disappeared into the water. Then he began to swim for his life, greenbacks in one hand, ball cap in the other.

He estimates that he swallowed a gallon of saltwater during the swim. He reached the shoreline, crawled up to a rock, and clung to it for five hours in the fetal position, shivering and slurping rainwater.

Several islanders say they felt an earthquake at the height of the hurricane. Water rose through sink and shower drains, then disappeared. Walls expanded and contracted. “I thought 10 percent of the people on island were going to die,” Daniel Benson told me. “I honestly thought that.”

Across most of St. John, the storm simmered down between 5 and 6 P.M. The eyewall had passed, and a hurricane’s outer bands usually bring more rain than wind. But high on Bordeaux Mountain, the island’s pinnacle at 1,283 feet, the fury was just ­beginning.

Debby Roberts-Liburd, a grandmother whose family lives on a remote plot above southern Lameshur Bay, counted seven tornadoes between 5:30 P.M. and 1 A.M. She had already watched three relatives’ houses get blown apart when her own roof flew away at 10:30 P.M. Then the wind sucked the toilet straight up and out of the bathroom.

“Ma,” yelled her son, L.J., “we cannot stay in this room, because we all will be sucked out.” As Debby hurried outside to take shelter on the lower floor, L.J. saw a tornado coming and knew she wouldn’t make it back inside before it arrived. He ran and grabbed her around the waist as she clung to a water drum. “Don’t look up,” he said.

The wind lifted Debby’s legs off the ground and shook her like a fish. “Just hold on, Ma!” L.J. said. “Don’t loose off, ’cause if you loose off, two of us gone!”

When she felt her grip slipping, Debby prayed. Please, Lord, don’t let anything cut off my hands. Almost instantly, she heard a ssssssip, and the air went still. She ran inside.


The morning after felt apocalyptic. Not a leaf remained; the islands were so brown that the color even showed up in images from NASA satellites. Bizarre sights filled the landscape. Chopper came out of his house to find his dog eating his cat. Boats were stacked on shore like sticks in a campfire. Desperation set in. Looters ripped out ATMs. My mom worried that her belongings would be ransacked before she got home. Galen heard stories of people getting robbed at gunpoint, and he began sleeping with a spear.

At first, some 2,700 residents were unaccounted for—more than half the population. “I was getting two to four messages a minute for a while,” says Jon Shames, president of St. John Rescue, a volunteer organization.

In the sailing community, boaters shared news of who they’d seen and who they hadn’t, in what is known as the Coconut Telegraph. It soon became evident that nobody could find Richard Benson or the Goddess Athena. Daniel Benson spent days using a jury-rigged VHF radio to try and hail his dad. He got no response, but he heard the Coast Guard trying, too, which gave him hope.

Unfortunately, the Atlantic hurricane season was far from over. Two weeks after Irma passed, Maria walloped St. Croix and Puerto Rico—major hubs for the relief effort on St. John. Even though St. John dodged a direct strike, its supply chain was broken.

Richard Benson’s fate remained a mystery for 19 days, until someone saw a British news story about an unidentified man who was found nine miles northeast of Coral Bay, on Tortola’s coast, the day after Irma. “Caucasian, between the ages of 60 and 70, medium build, 5'7 to 5'8 and 160 lbs,” read the description. “He had a long blond beard and hair and was wearing blue coveralls like that of a marine engineer when he was found.” Daniel took a helicopter to identify his father at the morgue. He was, remarkably, the only St. John resident to die during the storm.

The author’s brother, Sean, and their mom. (Steve Simonsen)
The family home without its second story. (Steve Simonsen)
The author and his mom. (Steve Simonsen)

Not long afterward, Daniel located the Goddess Athena—or at least the remaining 20 feet of her. The stern, one of 546 shipwrecks left by Irma in the U.S. Virgin Islands, had washed up inside the barrier reef at Johnson Bay, just southwest of Coral Bay. It was a skeleton. The steering wheel and helm were gone, and the interior was gutted except for a light bulb and a speaker. The only thing that Daniel found of his dad’s was his old underwater camera.

My mother arrived on St. John three weeks after Irma, the day the St. Thomas airport reopened. She spent long hours picking things out of the rubble, which she stored in her car, and doing laundry at a friend’s house where she was staying. She applied for FEMA aid. She got exhausted quickly and often.

Everyone kept asking what she was going to do, and she didn’t have an answer. Rebuilding at age 68 with a FEMA loan sounded daunting, but so did the alternative: leaving the island she loved.


I got my first view of St. John two months after Irma, on November 6. Sean and I joined Galen, two friends from Colorado, and my father-in-law to tear down our house to the foundation. Part of me feared the job, not for physical reasons but for emotional ones. Still, the rubble had sat long enough, and we knew Mom would need it gone if she decided to sell the land. (Before she paid off her mortgage five years ago, the bank required her to have hurricane insurance, which cost $18,000 a year. She got rid of the coverage once she settled the debt.)

It’s strange to take a sledgehammer to your childhood home—demolishing the kitchen counter and what’s left of your bedroom walls. But that was better than cleaning out the freezer, which had sat unopened for two months in 85-degree heat. Thousands of rotting maggots combined with shrimp scampi make a strong case for the world’s foulest smell.

As I broke down walls snared in vines, I couldn’t help but imagine how the house had come apart. Assuming that the roof went first, the west-facing wall must have been flattened by 200-mile-per-hour winds. The remaining walls likely collapsed after that, then the south deck and railings, everything swept into the bush.

Iguanas watched from the treetops as we shoveled soggy debris into buckets and piled it eight feet high in the driveway. In one shovelful, I collected a remote control, part of the kitchen table, a phone book, chunks of moldy drywall, and a bottle of vinegar. In the next, my high school ID, more moldy drywall, A River Runs Through It  on DVD, and a Christmas card to “Gram” from Sean’s kids.

I dug a box out of the mud that contained our grandparents’ Kodachrome slides from the 1950s. Mom found her Woodstock ticket stubs. We discovered a plastic bin full of a hundred framed photos from our childhood and hers, somehow sitting dry next to three bins full of water.

On the third day, a neighbor surveyed our work from his still standing deck. “See!” Mom shouted up to him. “I told you they’d come rescue me.” For the first time in weeks, she sounded hopeful.


Despite spending that week on St. John, I knew I had seen only a portion of Irma’s impact on the region. So in late November I returned, joining local photographer Steve Simonsen on his boat. We motored all over the British Virgin Islands, which neighbor St. John, visiting people who had survived the eye and were now left to rebuild.

One of our first stops was the world-­renowned Bitter End Yacht Club on the east side of Virgin Gorda, a 64-acre resort spread across a mile of sandy coastline. Sixty of its buildings—including 40 rental villas—were destroyed. “It has to be totally reimagined,” John Glynn, a marketing executive, told me.

We pulled up to the dock and met Henry Prince, a 20-year employee and Virgin Gorda native who guessed that it would take at least three years for Bitter End to look anything like it did before the storm. “You’re not going to rebuild it the way it was. You have to rebuild it for the new type of hurricane,” he said.

We headed across North Sound past Necker Island, where Sir Richard Branson has weathered every hurricane for the past 40 years. He told me that 300 of his private island’s 600 flamingos survived winds that broke his anemometer when they hit 210 miles per hour. We stopped for lunch at Leverick Bay, one of the most devastated communities, where four out of every five buildings had been blown apart. Marina manager Nick Willis was sipping a beer on his deck when I found him. He told me about the damage but also how Irma had brought out the best in people. Like the rich Czech guy from Nail Bay who had paid hundreds of locals $10 an hour to work on their homes after the storm. Or the man who had boated up to the marina and handed Willis $100, asking only that he give it to someone who needed it. “It just brings you to tears,” Willis said.

We drove around Tortola with Chino, my old baseball coach, who mentors island kids and lives in Cane Garden Bay, a port famous for its beachfront restaurants, all of which were destroyed. We saw where the ocean had ripped graves out of the earth in Carrot Bay and flipped a 99-ton ferry upside down on Jost Van Dyke. We gaped at a battered airplane fuselage—without its wings or tail—balanced atop a ruined hangar at the Beef Island airport. I heard rumors that the British military measured gusts up to 285 miles per hour. (The unofficial wind speed record is 318 miles per hour, set by a 1999 tornado in Oklahoma City.)

None of the sights, however, compared with what we found on Cooper Island, a tiny cay off the south shore of Tortola. As we neared a concrete dock, an old West Indian woman walked toward us holding a knife above her head. I got off the boat and approached her slowly, introducing myself and asking if I could talk to her about Irma. “Of course. Come in!” she said. She led me and Simonsen toward a makeshift white tent—actually a sail draped over some coconut trees. A frail-looking man limped along the beach to meet us.

Jean and John Leonard explained that they weathered Irma right here at sea level. Jean, 84, came from Trinidad so long ago that she’d forgotten the year. John, 90, was born on Cooper Island and had lived here all his life. Before Irma they had eight boats and 15 fish pots just offshore. Like many Virgin Islanders, they’d seen their share of hurricanes and did not fear them, so when a boat arrived to take them to Tortola, they declined.

Their son, who lives on Tortola, sent his 15-year-old boy to stay with them during the storm, in case they needed some muscle. Soon after the deluge began, a sea grape tree fell on their roof, followed by a coconut palm. The house began to break apart. Ten-foot waves combined with the fast-rising surge almost pinned the Leonards to the bed they were hiding under. Their grandson kicked down the door, and they ran outside. As the wind and ocean raged, John turned to his wife of 54 years. “I can’t make it anymore,” he said. He lay down in the water. Jean grabbed a pile of dry clothes she’d stored in a drum and propped them under his head to keep him from drowning.

The next day, when their son came to check on them, he was stunned. “He say he didn’t expect to see we alive,” Jean told me in her Trinidadian accent. “He didn’t expect to see we at all.”

Two dogs and hundreds of ducks, many still limping from Irma, scurried around in the sand next to an outboard motor and various buoys. Bags of corn for their animals—they also have more than 80 goats, which they sell to a butcher on Tortola—were stacked on the dock. I couldn’t help but notice a second sail fashioned into an A-frame, 50 feet down the beach. I walked over and peeked inside, seeing two old mattresses on rickety frames under the sail. This was where the Leonards were sleeping. Before the Royal Marines brought them sails, they’d slept in the open.


The Virgin Islands face an uncertain future. The first three months after Irma were focused on solving basic problems and getting electricity restored. It helped that, in addition to local organizations, longtime St. John second-home owners Tom Secunda—a billionaire cofounder of Bloomberg—and country-music star Kenny Chesney launched extensive relief and evacuation assistance. (By the end of the exodus, most believed that St John’s population had been cut in half.) FEMA had contributed nearly $300 million to the islands by mid-­December, including loans, and at one point Virgin Islands National Park requested $68 million in hopes of catalyzing economic progress on St. John. “The challenge is keeping this place on the radar for the American public and also for Congress,” acting park superintendent Darrell Echols told me.

The long-term environmental fallout is unknowable. It took more than three months for the dangerously high levels of bacteria, possibly from runoff tainted by septic backups, to clear up on two popular north-shore beaches, Maho and Oppenheimer. The coral reefs have been stressed by the same runoff. One scientist told me that it could take decades for the red mangroves to recover.

As for reconstruction, David Rosa, an engineer who lives and works on St. John, said that he expects a change in building codes because of Irma. Currently, everything must be constructed to withstand 165-mile-per-hour winds. “It wouldn’t surprise me if they went up to 180 or even higher,” Rosa said. Still, stronger buildings are more expensive: one-inch rebar, for example, costs six times as much as half-inch.

The most important question is how and when tourism will rebound. Five of the resorts on St. John were still closed in early February, and the two biggest, Caneel Bay and the Westin, don’t expect to reopen until 2019. Arthur Jones, owner of Arawak Expeditions, said that he expects to lose two-thirds of his business over the next year. “We are a tourism-based economy, and when tourists don’t come, we are going to be hurting,” Jones said.

“Things are going to change here,” said Miles Stair, an old friend who has lived on St. John for 46 years. “People will go, people will come. Are we going to have fewer restaurants? Are we going to see fewer tourist dollars? Is that good, bad, somewhere in between? I think it’ll be years before we really gain a perspective.”

Richard Branson, who likened Irma’s damage to a nuclear strike, is leading an effort to unite the region so it will be less vulnerable to future storms. It’s called the Caribbean Climate-Smart Coalition, and he views it as a sort of Marshall Plan for the region. The goal: get the Caribbean islands—including the U.S. and British Virgin Islands—­recategorized as a bloc, so they can receive lower-interest loans faster and better insurance terms. “It’s much easier for, say, the World Bank to deal with all the islands at once instead of lots of individual islands,” says Branson, who was forced to cancel bookings at his Necker ­

Island resort through September 2018.

As for the likelihood of more megastorms hitting the Virgin Islands, it’s one aspect of climate change that scientists disagree about. In general, most believe—and the models agree—that we will see fewer Atlantic cyclones. But when conditions align, they could bring monsters.


Infrastructure aside, Irma’s remaining wounds are personal. Galen’s wife and daughter left St. John four weeks after the storm and will probably remain off island through the school year. They’re far from the only family living a fractured existence.

“Life is hard all over again,” said Adam Hudson, the sailor who lost his boat in Hugo and then another in Irma, over a beer on the Coral Bay waterfront.

Daniel Benson was still processing his father’s fate when I met him one afternoon at Hart Bay. We walked out to the rocky point and sat next to the break where Sean and I had learned to surf. With his blond dreadlocks tucked under a bandana and tattoos honoring his roots—U-S-V-I across his left fingers and Love City, Cruz Bay’s nickname, on his thigh—Daniel pondered what happened to his dad.

Benson was believed to have had ten large anchors securing the roughly 40-ton Goddess Athena, so the fact that his boat was found elsewhere means he must have cut his lines. But why? Though friends have differing opinions, Daniel believes his dad lost his dinghy and couldn’t get to shore as the storm picked up. And if his anchors then started dragging, he may have decided to fire up the 200-horsepower diesel engine and roll the dice in the open ocean rather than be smashed on the rocks in the bay.

“I think he made it pretty far south, then a wave took him,” Daniel said. “I can only imagine hanging on to a steering wheel while duck-­diving 20 feet of solid water. I just wonder how many waves he dove through before he finally said fuck it. Or maybe he didn’t. Maybe the waves just broke the helm right off.”

In late November, a St. John Rescue truck carrying Benson’s remains led a procession through Cruz Bay. People lined the streets to say goodbye. “I know everybody says my situation is maybe heavier than what they went through,” Daniel said, “but from my perspective, the woman who crawled out from underneath her collapsed house in the middle of the storm, who barely had enough room to breathe, I think she went through something heavier than me in the storm. The girl who had to run out of her house because it exploded and got into a car, then had to go to another car because the first one exploded…” He trailed off. “Everybody has experienced a whole different kind of crazy with this hurricane.”

Sean and I have tried our best to support our mom after Irma. She put her property up for sale in early December, and she’s spending the winter near us in Colorado. In her bedroom, a sign reads Don’t look back. You’re not going that way.

It was hard for her to admit to people that she was leaving. So much of her identity is tied to St. John and enduring life on a volcanic rock in the middle of the ocean. I tried to remind her that the results were out of her control. As Galen said, “We’re like the fleas on a dog, and we got hit by the paw.”

A handful of friends whose homes survived told me that they feel ashamed when people ask how they fared. Mom understands, despite landing on the opposite side of that fate. “In some ways, I’m sad that I wasn’t actually here for the storms. I’ve thought of that a lot,” she said one night at dinner. “ ‘Missed out’ isn’t the right phrase, but I’ve imagined what it must’ve been like, even though it’s unimaginable.”

It’s a weird feeling to know that I can’t go home anymore. I think about sitting on our deck and watching the sunset, picking ripe passion fruit off our vine, hearing the roosters crow each morning. But I remind myself that the island will always be there.

One afternoon in late November, on our way back from the British Virgin Islands, Simonsen and I stopped at the Baths, a famous boulder-strewn beach on Virgin Gorda where you can swim in caves and jump off rocks and nap on soft white sand. Like most beaches in the wake of Irma, it was empty and stunning. I did some bouldering and squeezed through a couple of caves, then jumped into the water to cool off. A family of four, including two boys under ten, snorkeled by. I asked the father where they were from. “Originally the UK,” he said, before gesturing toward the lone sailboat in the bay. “Right now we’re living aboard.”

I smiled to myself and told him they were lucky boys.

Outside correspondent Devon O’Neil wrote about mountaineer and photographer Cory Richards in August 2017.

To Get to the Summit, Cory Richards Had to Lose It All

24 Aug

When alpinist and photographer Cory Richards dug himself out of an avalanche in 2011, he emerged alive but scarred—an ascendant star in a community that tends to shun the very idea that trauma can have lasting effects. As his profile climbed ever higher, his career and personal life imploded. Six years later, one of the world’s best artist-adventurers comes clean about the panic attacks, PTSD, and alcohol abuse that nearly killed him.

As soon as Cory Richards realized that he had survived the avalanche, he turned his camera on. 

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It was February 2, 2011, and Richards had just summited 26,360-foot Gasherbrum II—the 13th-tallest peak in the world—with two of mountaineering’s titans, Simone Moro of Italy and Denis Urubko of Kazakhstan. The trio had endured vicious weather and minus-50-degree temperatures to become the first climbers to conquer one of Pakistan’s 8,000-meter peaks in winter, a goal that had thwarted at least 16 teams before them. On the way down, however, an enormous white wall of snow and ice ripped free from neighboring Gasherbrum V. Richards watched in terror as the torrent of debris screamed toward them, hitting with such fury that it hurled all three over a gaping crevasse. When it was clear that they had lived, Richards snapped a now iconic self-portrait, his beard coated in icicles and his eyes frozen in a terrified stare. He was bawling. 

cory-richards-avalanche-self-portrait_s.jpg
Richards iconic 2011 self-portrait on G2. (Nigel Parry)

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Ten months later, Cold, a documentary directed by Anson Fogel using Richards’s G2 footage, won the Grand Prize at the Banff Mountain Film Festival. Richards became famous overnight. He started shooting regularly for National Geographic, which put his avalanche portrait on the cover of its 125th-anniversary issue. The North Face made him one of the company’s most visible athletes and produced a T-shirt featuring that same photograph. Richards toured the country sharing his survival story and screening Cold to audiences ranging in size from 100 to 2,000. He estimates that he sat through the film more than two dozen times in the year after its release. Initially, he enjoyed watching himself nearly die. “I got a total charge from showing it,” the 36-year-old says. “I thought it was positive.” His presentations exhibited the wit and charisma his friends had long known, but the near-death experience was always the crescendo. “The final act that would leave me vibrating,” he says. “It was like having too many consecutive shots of espresso.” 

Only later did Richards come to understand what was really happening. Each time he relived the episode, he was poking a crocodile in the eye, tempting it to snap. His G2 success made him the first American to summit an 8,000-meter peak in winter—and arguably the hottest commodity in the outdoor industry—but it also served as a catalyst for post-traumatic stress disorder. The topic is rarely discussed among professional adventurers, but it affects far more in the field than anyone might expect or be willing to admit. 

Over the next four years, Richards did what he could to maintain the image he had created. He went on expeditions and excelled as a photographer, shooting features for National Geographic in Myanmar, Botswana, and Antarctica. But behind the scenes, he suffered what he describes as an “unraveling of self.” He got divorced, left his primary sponsor, and lost his fitness to a cocktail of booze and shame. For a while, he considered taking his own life. “I just didn’t want to feel that pain anymore,” he says.

Richards eventually turned to therapy, and recently he has shown signs that he has managed to halt the free fall. He summited Mount Everest without oxygen in 2016, then again with oxygen this past May, garnering mainstream attention via social media and appearances on CBS and ESPN. His return to prominence makes it easy to believe that he has finally vanquished the demons that consumed him. But the reality, like Richards himself, is far more complicated. PTSD was only the latest chapter in a tumultuous sequence of events that began in adolescence and included substance abuse, violence, and stints in a psychiatric ward. The past left him searching for direction and self-acceptance—quests that continue today.

I first met Richards at the New Orleans Café in Kathmandu in October 2009. Each of us had just returned from an expedition, me to western Nepal with a trio of professional skiers, and Richards to 22,349-foot Ama Dablam with Melissa Arnot. By then, Richards had already summited Denali, attempted the south face of Aconcagua, and notched a handful of difficult routes in the Alps. He’d also spent two months climbing on 27,825-foot Makalu with Steve House, arguably the greatest alpinist in the world at the time. But he was still virtually unknown outside the core climbing community. We drank beers until the bar closed, sharing our ambitions, griping about how hard it was to break into our respective fields. “I don’t know how to do it,” Richards said. 

Even then it was easy to peg him as a future star. He glowed with confidence and charm; he was the kind of guy who could enter a conversation with strangers and have every set of eyes and ears glued to him. He was self-deprecating and vulnerable, unafraid to talk about his failures and fears despite having what he admits is “a huge ego.” 

His rise happened swiftly. Within a two-year span, from 2009 to 2011, Richards helped establish new routes on 19,990-foot Kwangde Shar with Ines Papert and 21,329-foot Tawoche with Renan Ozturk; he summited 27,940-foot Lhotse solo with oxygen; then he joined Moro and Urubko for the historic ascent of G2—the first 8,000-meter peak he climbed without oxygen. 

That he was given those opportunities has a lot to do with him checking boxes that almost no one else can: He performs at elite levels athletically and with a camera at high altitude. He also gets along with a range of personalities, or at least he does when his mood doesn’t turn foul, as it often has since childhood. “When Cory is having a high moment, he’s one of the most entertaining, fun, creative, full-of-life people to be around,” says photographer Keith Ladzinski, who cofounded 3 Strings Productions, a Boulder, Colorado, creative agency, with Richards and Andy Mann in 2010. Everyone I spoke with who’d spent time with Richards pointed to the volatile mood swings that always seemed to lurk beneath his bubbly surface. “When he’s low, he won’t answer texts, won’t answer phone calls,” Ladzinski says. “He just kind of closes out the world.”

Richards will be the first to tell you that he is a good but not great climber—an opinion shared by nearly everyone who has climbed with him. “Cory’s talent in my opinion was really more as a photographer,” says Steve Swenson, a Seattle-based alpinist who has summited Everest and K2 without oxygen. 

cory-richards-portrait-nyc-with-camera_s.jpg
Richards in NYC (Nigel Parry)

Swenson shared a climbing partner, George Lowe, with Richards’s father, Court, and met Richards during a backpacking trip in Wyoming’s Wind River Range when Richards was ten. Later, as a young adult, Richards rented a condo from Swenson in Canmore, Alberta, where he climbed with some of the best alpinists in the world, including Will Gadd, Barry Blanchard, and Raphael Slawinski. They nicknamed Richards “Little Whipper Bitch,” because he routinely tried and failed to climb above his ability. He often ended up dangling from a wall.

Richards was a brooder from a very young age. The second child of Utah ski bums (Court and Richards’s mother, Kit, met when he was ski-patrolling at Alta and she was cleaning rooms at the Rustler Lodge), he grew up in Salt Lake City. Kit, worried that he was depressed, took him to see a child psychologist when he was one year old. Cory and his brother, Dave, who is two years older and works as a ski patroller at Alta, didn’t get along. Though Cory desperately sought Dave’s approval, he never got it. 

“That has been one of the more painful relationships of my life,” Richards says. “I just always wanted that bond.” Both were gifted students and athletes, Cory in climbing and Dave in skiing, but Cory struggled. A doctor diagnosed him with depression in sixth grade and put him on Prozac. He dropped acid in junior high, grew dreadlocks, and quit going to class. His grades plummeted. He stopped climbing. “It was very frustrating,” Court says. “I was sort of at a loss.” 

Shortly before Richards turned 15, his parents ran out of ideas about how to control him. “Every day we’d say, ‘We are in charge of this house,’ ” says Kit. “And he’d go, ‘No, you’re not.’ ” They put him in a juve­nile psych unit in Salt Lake City, which led to a 12-step program called LifeLine, where older patients walked him around the building while holding onto his belt loops. He ran away three times in eight months and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. After the last time, when he was 15, his parents said that if he didn’t go back to LifeLine, he couldn’t live at home. He moved out.

Some nights he slept at a friend’s house, other nights on a park bench. For a couple of weeks, he lived with an LSD dealer. He broke into his parents’ house and stole money, leaving behind notes to say he loved them and was sorry. “People tired of me very quickly,” says Richards. “I demanded space and attention as a child who was trying to scream at the top of his lungs at everything, all the time. And it was for attention. I don’t know what I was trying to say other than, ‘I’m very hurt and I’m very lost, and I feel fucked up.’ ” 

Kit and Court agonized over Cory but made two pacts as a couple. First, Cory’s disruption would not destroy their marriage. Second, if Cory chose to commit suicide, as Kit’s brother had done at 15, it was out of their control. “I know that sounds truly cold,” Kit says, “but for our well-being I had come to terms with that fact.”

The defining incident in Cory and Dave’s brotherhood took place when they were 17 and 19, respectively. Cory had bounced around from family friends in Idaho to a rented house in southern Utah to an aunt and uncle in Seattle. He got so depressed that one day he decided to drive home to Salt Lake and seek help. When he arrived, he and Dave got into a fight; neither remembers what it was about. They had always pummeled each other like cage fighters—way beyond normal sibling brawls—but this time Dave lost it. “I pounded knots on his head,” Dave says. Cory flailed as he fought off his brother, then kicked out two of his car windows in anger. The next day, convinced that he needed professional help for his depression, Cory asked his mother to take him back to the psych unit.


Though Richards eventually emerged from his adolescent turbulence, his mental health issues continued to haunt him. Some research suggests that those who struggle with such problems may be more susceptible to PTSD. Richards has taken anti­depression medication for most of his life, and there is a history of depression and addiction on both sides of his family. When he headed to Pakistan for the G2 climb, he was primed to struggle if he encountered trouble.

At the time of that expedition, Richards had already attracted the attention of established climbers. Moro asked him to join the G2 team after watching Richards’s ­rapid ascent of Lhotse in 2010; Richards had ­summited the world’s fourth-tallest peak in six days with virtually no ­acclimatization. He had also caught mountaineer Pete Athans’s eye that spring. It was Athans who pitched Richards as a photographer to National Geographic.

Richards got his GED and spent a semester studying photography in Austria. Andrew Phelps, his instructor there, referred to him as “one of the best we’ve ever had.” By the time of his post-G2 ascension, however, Richards was still relatively green when it came to professional photography. He launched his career serving as an assistant to a fashion photographer. That led to gigs shooting expeditions for Alpinist, Climbing, and Rock and Ice.

Then came G2. When the North Face and National Geographic organized an expedition to Everest in the spring of 2012, in ­honor of the 50th anniversary of the American summits of 1963, Richards was a logical choice to partner with alpinist Conrad Anker for a high-profile attempt of the West Ridge and Hornbein Couloir. The route hadn’t been repeated since Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld climbed it 49 years earlier. The organizers sent an all-star team of climbers up the standard route, while Richards and Anker tackled the harder line, disseminating regular updates to millions of followers via social media and the publication’s website. 

“There was so much pressure, which I had assumed, and there was so much media around it, which I had created,” Richards says. He felt rattled from the start, repeatedly voicing his concern about the Khumbu Icefall, then lagging behind Anker as they climbed technical ice toward the West Ridge on an unusually warm day at 23,000 feet.

“If I’m really honest, I didn’t want to be there,” Richards says now. “It was too hot, I was wearing a down suit, and I think I knew: I need to get the fuck off this mountain.”

He was already overheating when Anker shouted “Rock!”—just in time for them to dodge a microwave-size slab that had fallen thousands of feet. They retreated, but Richards could not control his breathing on the descent. Longtime Everest doctor Luanne Freer, who treated Richards when he came off the mountain, would later say that he was taking 80 breaths per minute—four times the rate of a normal person at that altitude. “His eyes were as big as dinner plates,” Freer recalls. “He looked terrified.” 

The more tests she ran, the more she believed Richards was having a panic attack. Her suspicion was all but confirmed when she administered a dose of Valium through an IV and he calmed down immediately. He confided that he had been struggling to move past his close call on G2, and he and Freer discussed how the tough-guy mountaineering culture might not look favorably on a panic attack. Richards knew what she meant. “Climbing is macho—chest pounding and high fiving and fist bumping. It’s not a touchy-feely place,” he says. 

In the end, Richards was evacuated to Kathmandu. News reports characterized his condition as altitude related or possibly a pulmonary embolism. Richards did little to counter those stories. Once he calmed down, he even tried to get back on the mountain. Anker, who declined to be interviewed for this story, would not let Richards rejoin the expedition. Humiliated, Richards spent the next three days getting plastered in Kathmandu. It was the start of his implosion. 

The effects of psychological trauma remain a mystery to some degree but are much better understood than they were even a few decades ago. This is mostly due to combat veterans sharing stories of their struggles with PTSD. Former Marine ­David Morris, author of The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, believes that the prevalence of PTSD in the military overshadows how common it is throughout society. “The central message of PTSD research is that memories are not created equal, unlike men,” Morris wrote in an e-mail. “If you almost died, there is a 12 to 20 percent chance”—or so the research suggests—“that it’s gonna haunt and hound you for a while.”

As Morris reports in his book, one study of 5,877 people showed that natural disasters like avalanches and earthquakes can leave as much as 5 percent of their victims with PTSD. That pales in comparison with human-caused events: nearly half of all female rape victims and 15 percent of military veterans experience the condition. 

Laurel Mulholland, a Boulder-based therapist who works with Richards and other adventure athletes, says that “our brain kind of encapsulates trauma, and certain things trigger it. When we haven’t processed it, we can start to wonder, What the fuck is wrong with me? Why am I experiencing panic on this bike ride when I’ve done this bike ride a thousand times?”

Hilaree Nelson O’Neill is one of many who can relate to that. In January 2010, a year before Richards survived the G2 slide, the North Face–sponsored athlete was guiding a heli-ski trip in her hometown of Telluride, Colorado, when a female client fell into a creek, got her head wedged under a rock in such a way that O’Neill couldn’t free her, and drowned in 12 inches of water. O’Neill, who was the mother of two young sons, stopped sleeping at night. She suffered a panic attack in a chairlift line when she saw one of the first responders from the accident scene. She and her husband drifted apart and got divorced, an outcome that O’Neill says was directly related to her ­trauma. 

“I think I was in shock for a year,” says O’Neill, who sat through three therapy sessions immediately after the accident at the behest of her employer. “I didn’t want to let my kids out of the house. I didn’t want to let them ride their scooter bikes. It just seemed like I’d lost control.”

Other athletes tell similar stories. Steve House completely rearranged his life—no more free soloing, no more dangerous expe­ditions—after narrowly surviving a 2010 fall in Banff National Park. Joe Simpson, whose book Touching the Void ranks among the greatest survival stories in history, once dismissed PTSD as an excuse for poor behavior but experienced crippling flashbacks when he returned to the site of his accident 17 years later. Steve Swenson suffered for months after a woman he was climbing with slipped from a ridge last summer in British Columbia and plummeted to her death.

“I could be sitting there having dinner, and all of a sudden that image of the woman falling off the mountain will pop into my brain,” Swenson says. “You can’t sleep—you replay those images over and over.”

It’s impossible to know how many adventure athletes suffer from PTSD, in part because formal diagnoses are rare. But awareness is growing. Mulholland says that adventurers dealing with trauma now comprise 70 percent of her practice—up from just 10 percent five years ago. Her clients include rock climbers, alpinists, skiers, even kite surfers. “People say, ‘I put this off for years because I thought it was a sign of weakness,’ ” she says. “Or ‘I never thought I’d come to therapy,’ or ‘I never thought of this as trauma.’ I’ve heard every one of those statements.”

Still, there is some skepticism among professional adventurers. It’s a reflection not only of the community’s hypermasculine culture, but also of the fact that everyone reacts differently to trauma. Before Simone Moro survived the G2 avalanche with Richards, he was injured in a 1997 slide that killed renowned alpinist Anatoli Boukreev and their cameraman, Dimitri Sobolev, on 26,545-foot Annapurna. Moro has never missed a minute of sleep, he says.

Jimmy Chin was thrown 50 feet by the wind blast of a massive serac avalanche on the North Face of Everest in 2001. Ten years later, he survived another large slide without serious injury, near his home in the Tetons, just days before he planned to fly to Nepal and ski the fabled Lhotse Couloir. Chin says he suffered no lasting effects from either event, even though he canceled the trip to Nepal. “If I were really tough, I would’ve just sucked it up and gone to Lhotse,” he says of the 2011 accident.

Chin, 43, speaks with a hint of detachment when addressing trauma’s effect on adventurers. Though he agrees that therapy has its place, he believes previous generations dealt with things differently than millennials, whom he refers to as “fragile snowflakes.”

“I came up under Galen Rowell and Rick Ridgeway and Conrad Anker and David Breashears,” Chin says. “And it’s like, fuck, everybody’s been traumatized, you know? A life in the mountains is hard, man. If you’re making a living at it and you’ve been around 45 expeditions, a lot of shit can go sideways.”


Even before his freakout on Everest, Richards often joked with friends about having developed PTSD, but he was a long way from embracing it. “It was like, ‘Oh yeah, that was fucked up, ha ha ha,’ ” recalls climber Matt Segal. “Just brushing it off a little bit, not really accepting that it did actually mess with him.”

The panic attack changed his perspective. After digesting what Freer told him in Nepal, he began researching psychological trauma in the summer of 2012. “All these little things were aligning,” he says. “Like memory loss and my behavior—you can go down the list. I was like, I think I might have some form of PTSD.” 

Richards still took assignments and spoke in public, but behind his pensive Instagram captions, which now reach more than 900,000 followers, he was lost. “I felt like it was all fake,” he says. He relied on alco­hol to numb his mind. He cheated on his wife, Olivia Hsu, a yoga instructor and professional climber who he married in the fall of 2011. People began to wonder whether he was merely a product of good climbing partners and luck—two commodities that had seemingly run out.

In 2014, Richards was preparing for a National Geographic expedition led by O’Neill to Hkakabo Razi in Myanmar. O’Neill suggested he try something that had helped her process her own trauma. Eye-­movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR, is a form of therapy that at its most basic involves following a finger or sound from side to side while discussing a traumatic memory. Doing so helps the nervous system integrate the event and make sense of it, proponents say, so it stops haunting the patient. 

Richards, who had begun processing the avalanche through talk therapy, worked on EMDR with Mulholland. He says it evoked a visceral reaction—“convulsive, nauseating, full-body tightening, clenching, and dry heaving,” he says—that left him exhausted. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” 

But it didn’t solve all his problems. Though he performed without incident on the Myanmar climb, back home he was still struggling. He drank too much, kept cheating on his wife, felt ever more ashamed, and sank deeper into a hole. Eventually, his wife found out about his infidelity. He was shunned by many in the climbing community in Boulder, where he lived. He bottomed out in January 2015, ending his marriage, splitting with the North Face, and giving up his equity in the production company he founded with Ladzinski and Mann—all in the same month. 

Richards had considered killing himself back when he was 12, and those self destructive thoughts began to reenter his mind. He always had plenty of sedatives to help him rest during long travels for work. To take them all “would’ve been easy,” he says. “You’re out pretty quick.” When asked how close he came to following through on his thoughts, he says, “The idea of killing myself was very real and very present. Because I didn’t want to wake up to that feeling anymore, looking at myself in the mirror, knowing what I had done.” 

Richards’s ex-wife acknowledges that he can be a “great, fun guy” but also an enigma. “He’d say to me, ‘I’m so lucky to be married to you. I’m afraid someday you’ll wake up and realize what a phony I am,’ ” Hsu says. “I would be like, ‘What are you talking about? I married you, I love you, don’t be ridiculous.’ But now it makes more sense.

“I don’t know what explains his actions, whether it’s being a narcissist or trauma,” she adds. “It’s kind of a concoction.” (Richards concedes he has narcissistic traits but denies that he is one.)

As the 2015 spring climbing season unfolded, Richards sat at home day after day, alone. Months passed. His public image—of the gifted photographer and daring climber and charming public speaker—taunted him. Few people knew how far he’d fallen.


In a life defined by highs and lows, it’s only fitting that Richards would earn redemption on the world’s tallest peak. Ten months after he left the North Face, he signed with Eddie Bauer in October 2015. Despite his public meltdown on Everest, the brand saw him as a “bright, ener­getic personality with an impressive climbing and creative résumé,” director of marketing Kristen Elliott says. Richards saw the sponsorship as a means to reclaim some semblance of what he’d lost. “Eddie Bauer didn’t even know how pivotal they were in pulling me out of this,” he says. “They came in and gave me enough financial support that I could train, focus solely on being a climber again, sort of put my life back together.” 

Knowing he couldn’t afford to fail on another high-profile Everest expedition, Richards adhered to a torturous three-month training regimen, designed by Steve House, who now runs a coaching business, for the spring 2016 climb. House continued to help him on Everest, too, sometimes exchanging 20 text messages a day. On May 19, five days before he summited, Richards had a particularly bad day and texted House: “My fucking numbers suck. I hate knowing that fatigue level is so high!” To which House replied: “Seriously forget the numbers. Time to get into your body. Not your head.”

Richards struggled to keep up with his climbing partner, Lake Tahoe, California, guide Adrian Ballinger, during their acclimatization rounds, but the dynamic shifted on summit day. Ballinger’s energy began to wane, while Richards gained strength. As they climbed higher, Ballinger began slurring his words and shivering uncontrollably. The then six-time Everest summiter (all with supplemental oxygen) aborted his attempt. Richards summited alone, after covering the last 1,800 vertical feet in eight hours—nearly twice as fast as it takes the average climber. Ballinger admitted to feeling jealous that he couldn’t continue, but he told me, “If it had to work out that one of us summited and one didn’t, I would’ve chosen Cory a hundred times out of a hundred. I honestly mean that. I feel like so many people didn’t believe in him.”

In June 2016, shortly after Richards returned from Everest, I met him at his lux­ury two-bedroom apartment on Pearl Street in Boulder. It was the first time I had seen him since 2009, and despite his triumphant achievement he seemed on edge. The glow I had witnessed seven years earlier was missing; now I saw only raw reflection. His face tightened when he described his mindset from the prior year. “I hated the world. I hated it so much,” he said. “I hated that people thought I was one thing but I felt like something different. I hated that I had come from this place of being told I was a fuckup, and I had done everything in my life to prove to people that I wasn’t, and somehow I couldn’t believe it.”

Perhaps the only thing more painful for Richards than his loneliness was his estrangement from his brother. In their early thirties, he and Dave, who is now the director of Alta’s avalanche-safety program, went four years without speaking. Despite small steps toward reconciliation—like when Dave joined Instagram and Snapchat to follow Cory’s adventures—they are not close, and both acknowledge that they might never be. “I found my life in the mountains, and Cory found his,” Dave says. “Different mountains.” 

Each, however, can relate to the effects of trauma in their respective pursuits. For Dave, that meant responding to fatal accidents as an avalanche professional. He remembers little things from his early missions: the hand with a gold wedding band sticking out of the snow; the young man missing the back half of his head. There were more than a dozen in all. Some loitered in his mind for months. But he felt that they weren’t a serious issue. 

Then, last fall, an excavator overturned on a steep slope at Alta; the driver fell out of the cab and was crushed to death. Dave observed the gruesome after­math. All the other images he thought were gone came flooding back. He couldn’t sleep. He stared at the wall for two weeks at work. “I was having abso­lutely terrifying visions of broken people in my sleep,” he says. His mother mentioned that EMDR had helped Cory, and Dave sought it out. Processing each image through EMDR, he says, “brought me back to life.”

The nature of psychological trauma is such that not everyone responds to therapy—be it EMDR or talk—the same way. But many adventurers who’ve been traumatized swear by it. That represents a change from past eras, when mental health care was often scoffed at—or simply out of reach for a climber who wasn’t as successful as Richards, especially considering that sponsors almost never provide insurance. 

Not only did House go to therapy after his accident in 2010, but he also recommends it to young climbers through his nonprofit, Alpine Mentors. “For a lot of us,” he says, “the first step is just knowing that there is a feeling there. I remember my first few times seeing a therapist. He’s like, ‘So, what do you feel about that?’ I’m like, ‘What do you mean?’ I wasn’t very aware I even had feelings like that to begin with.”

Richards credits therapy for getting him through his worst times and helping him manage his PTSD. “It’s not that you won’t be bothered by avalanches or explosions, but you come to peace with the experience ­rather than being trapped by it,” he said when I visited him in Boulder. Despite his recent summit, he still seemed uneasy. He’d been drinking a lot, but not to cope with trauma or even to celebrate, he said—he was just bored. “It’s the letdown after. And I know this always happens. This is what I do. It’s been a month now and it’s time to saddle up and start training again. But it’s OK to come home and be a wreck for a month.”


In February, I flew to Bozeman, Montana, to check in with Richards once more. He relocated there late last summer, needing a change of scenery from Boulder and wanting to be closer to his parents, who live two hours east in Red Lodge. We went skiing at Big Sky, where we hiked an exposed ridge that Richards said reminded him of Everest. 

He was training, preparing to return to Tibet and support Ballinger on his attempt to reach the top of the world the hard way—without oxygen—honoring a pledge he made after their 2016 trip. He knows how much it stings to fail and how euphoric it feels to get back on top. 

The visit was more subdued than our past meetings, for good reason. In December, Richards finally accepted that he could not control his “slow burn” drinking habit and quit cold turkey. He completed a 30-day treatment stay in Thailand and attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings every morning at seven when he’s home. He says he has had no problem staying sober. 

As we sat in front of his fireplace, he told me that he still struggles with self-doubt and loneliness. He’d tried to go skiing a few days earlier at Bridger Bowl but couldn’t get out of the car when he got there, despite fresh powder and an empty parking lot. “I felt more isolated and removed than I had in months,” he said. “I turned around and drove home.”

Richards, who still works with a therapist once a week and remains on antidepression medication, is trying to face his bad days. He accepts that his mental wiring could mean that he’ll never attain complete peace of mind. So it’s easy to wonder why he keeps going back to risky environments to climb when he could simply focus on his photography assignments. (He spent much of the past year shooting part of a National Geographic piece that, ironically, focuses on the new science of happiness, in locales ranging from Copen­hagen to Singapore.) But Richards says his Himalayan climbing career is far from over. “Everything is clearer and makes so much more sense up there. There’s nothing like it,” he says. “I don’t need climbing to define me anymore, but that’s why I’ll always go back.”

His patience paid off again this spring, when he and Ballinger summited Everest. Ballinger did so without oxygen, but Richards donned a mask as he began struggling at 28,500 feet, so that the two of them could stand at the top together.

As for his PTSD, Richards views the entire experience differently now. Maybe he had no choice but to change his perspective—anything else would have amounted to agony. “I would’ve struggled with depression and alcoholism regardless, but that avalanche was the biggest gift I’ve ever been given—professionally, personally, emotionally, physically,” he says. “Because it pushed me into a place of such utter fucking darkness that I was either going to kill myself or I had to evolve.”

He looks up from the fire. “That’s the beauty of any traumatic experience. It gives you the opportunity to grow.”

Outside correspondent Devon O'Neil wrote about mountain biker Howard Grotts in August 2016.

The Race to Ski the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain

29 Jun

Among the countless peaks around the world that have yet to be skied, one stands alone in prestige and allure: the 28,251-foot K2. The reasons it remains unskied are many—fatal exposure on much of the route, notoriously harsh weather, an oxygen shortage—but they do not include a lack of interest.

Over the past 25 years, a handful of the most accomplished steep skiers in history have tried to notch the first descent of K2—skiing off the summit and continuing uninterrupted as far as conditions allow back to base camp. All have failed. At least two, close friends and ski partners Michele Fait of Italy and Fredrik Ericsson of Sweden, died during their attempts. Fait fell while skiing low on the peak in 2009, and Ericsson fell near the summit during his ascent in 2010.

In recent weeks, two more aspirants began trekking into the Karakoram Range in northern Pakistan to try to notch the historic first descent, which could happen anytime from mid-July through early August. One is Davo Karnicar, a 54-year-old father of seven from Slovenia who made the only complete ski descent of Mount Everest in October 2000, five years after he completed the first full descent of Annapurna with his younger brother, Drejc. The other is 29-year-old Andrzej Bargiel of Poland, who brings an impressive résumé of his own, having skied Shishapangma in 2013, Manaslu in 2014, and Broad Peak in 2015, the first complete descent of that mountain.

Though the two men do not know each other—and each is organizing his own expedition and support teams—their simultaneous attempts set the stage for a month of two-plankin’ intrigue unlike any in K2’s history.

Karnicar first attempted to ski K2 in 1993. But when a storm blew away his unanchored skis at 25,900 feet, he aborted his climb despite still feeling strong enough to summit. He has thought about the peak ever since, waiting for someone to ski it, wondering if he should return. Before he left for Pakistan, Karnicar said he wants to ski K2 for everyone who has failed, especially those who perished. “Each try to ski, each experience on the mountain, because of them I’m much closer,” he said. “We don’t know each other, but we are like one group with the same wish.”

Bargiel, meanwhile, observed K2 from Broad Peak in 2015 and says that he views it as “a next step” in his ski career, which began with skimo races in Poland and advanced to 8,000-meter peak expeditions starting in 2012. Both he and Karnicar dismiss any notion that they will compete for the first descent. “Safety is number one, and I believe we’re going to work together instead of everyone on his own,” Bargiel says. “Davo is very experienced, and I’m really looking forward to talk with him and share opinion on how to approach K2.”

Among those who have made past attempts, Hans Kammerlander may have come the closest to skiing K2, in 2001. The brash Italian claimed to have skied off the summit for a few hundred feet before witnessing a Korean climber fall to his death in fading light, at which point he took off his skis and downclimbed the rest of the route. (Though some doubt his claim.) Two of the most recent attempts, by Connecticut-born ski patroller Dave Watson, in 2009, and German mountain guide Luis Stitzinger, in 2011, came tantalizingly close in their own rights. Watson was in position to summit with a handful of other climbers, but after ascending just 150 vertical feet in four hours due to deep snow, the group turned around. Watson skied the infamous Bottleneck—the first person on record to do so—from about 700 feet below the summit.

“Every turn was a crux,” Watson recalls. “I would throw a turn and be skidding to a stop, and while I was skidding to a stop, I’d feel the power leaving my body. I had black dots swirling around in my eyes, and I was hyperventilating, trying to catch my breath.”

Stitzinger also turned around shy of the summit due to bad weather. He skied from 26,400 feet and continued almost without interruption to the Abruzzi Glacier, downclimbing only a 700-foot section of steep ice and rock near Camp 3. Both Watson and Stitzinger believe the Cesen Route, which follows a precipitous south-southeast ridge from the Shoulder down, on the peak’s south side, allows for the best chance at an uninterrupted ski descent. Karnicar intends to follow that line, while Bargiel says he may combine it with portions of the nearby Polish Route, an über-exposed line on the south face, depending upon snow coverage. The Cesen includes a rock band just above Camp 2 that could require a detour through some couloirs that Stitzinger estimates are 55 degrees.

Karnicar, whose primary sponsor is the Slovenian shopping-mall conglomerate Tus, will have a small team, including one friend to help fix ropes to Camp 3 and four Pakistani high-altitude porters, three of whom have summited K2. Bargiel’s team includes three climbing partners and a video production crew, with much of his financial support coming from the Polish Mercedes dealership Sobieslaw Zasada.

As with any major expedition, optimism reigns in advance of the men’s attempts. But it is also tinged with caution—from the skiiers, as well as those who grasp the task at hand.

“I hope they will not risk too much,” Stitzinger says. “K2 really is a maneater.”