An Ode to Backcountry Bob

The grand adventures and tragedy of backcountry ski legend Bob Casper

I only skied with him once, but the memory still lingers. We were at a “poachable” ski hut in Colorado’s Never Summer Range, a place he lived in for a month once after convincing backcountry rangers to let him stay.

Bob Casper held court the entire cramped night, partying like a rockstar, enough that he fell off the top bunk with a clap of thunder at 3 a.m., while still leading the crack-of-dawn charge up and down No Name Peak the next morning. That day, we followed Casper down one of the most aesthetic lines I’ve ever skied.

Twenty-two years later and my buddy, John, who spent two years skiing the backcountry of St. Anton with Casper, brought the memory back with bad news. “Did you hear Casper died?” he asked. “Committed suicide up in the Northwest.”

John only found out about it because he hadn’t heard from Casper for a spell, hence the nickname, The Wind. “You wouldn’t hear from him for a year, and then he’d show up on your doorstep, ready to roll out a huge adventure,” John said. “Sometimes he’d stay for a month, driving wives crazy until he disappeared again.” So John Googled him and discovered the bombshell.

“Anytime you skied with him you came away with an epic story,” John reminisced, echoing my own experience with him in Colorado. With that, he launched into a series of Casper tales, painting a picture of a skier who lived life by his own rules, and got others to do the same.

Bob Casper lived a full life by his own accord. PHOTO:  Courtesy John McGowan
Bob Casper lived life by his own accord. PHOTO: Courtesy John McGowan

Exhibit A: Casper was likely Weber State, Utah’s only full-ride, starting linebacker who would take solo, pre-dawn ski tours in the Wasatch before practice as extra training. Domestic skiing options not big enough to contain him, from there he was Euro-bound, settling in St. Anton for eight years where he became the region’s most well-known off-piste skier. Even the local bergfuhrer guides would tap the giant, wild-haired red head for backcountry beta. “Fear just didn’t exist for him,” John waxed. “Whether skiing an improbable first descent with unthinkable consequences, or offending someone socially, he forged onward—consequences be damned.”

Casper let his tracks—laid with his trusty Kastle 215 Super Gs and Salomon SX91 boots, with custom-mounted Vibram soles—speak for themselves, as long as an avalanche didn’t wipe them out first. His lore included brazenly skiing the north face of Rendl above town, which hadn’t been skied for 10 years after it slid and killed World Cup racing progeny Gertrude Gabl, the most talented skier in the valley. Casper’s alpenglow-lit tracks straight down the Rendl’s gut remained there for days for all town to see.

“He taught us that there isn’t a limit to energy expended in the pursuit of adventure; to grab life by the balls and not let go until it bends to your will; and that the only true risk in life is in trying to live life without risk.”

Then there’s the time Casper skied a couloir on the north face of Stuben only to have an avalanche carry him over a cliff and lawn-dart him between two shoulder-width boulders. Losing a trusty Kastle in the process, he skied out on one ski and hiked up the next summer to retrieve it. Or, when living in a basement flat in Haus Strolz in St. Jakob, he awoke to a massive avalanche filling his room up to the ceiling. While he escaped via a window above his bed, the kitchen cook above him and six other townsfolk died. “By all accounts, he shouldn’t have walked away from that,” John continues. “Bob wasn’t looking for avalanches. Avalanches found Bob.”

Another survival tale came when skiing Red Lady outside of Crested Butte, where he lived for 10 years after St. Anton. An avy ripped loose and carried Casper 300 yards, breaking his femur. Unburying himself, he post-holed as far as he could before spending the night in a snow cave that collapsed. The next morning he crawled out and waved down a passerby.

This was all a result of the magnetic-like draw Casper had to aesthetic lines. “He had an uncanny ability for getting into trouble, and getting out of it,” John says. “He was incredibly bold, which led to logging more pristine descents than most aspire to in many lifetimes.”

But perhaps his greatest trait was getting others to traipse along. “He possessed a unique way of building intimate adventure alliances; of conveying that you’d been hand-picked as a co-conspirator to a serious ski descent,” John said. “He’d single you out of a crowded pub at 2 a.m., whispering between clenched teeth with a ridiculous economy of words: ‘You… me… Shindlergrat South Couloir… First Bahn.’ The first time I heard it, I felt I had arrived in the coveted Casperian inner circle.”

Casper's inner circle. PHOTO:  Courtesy John McGowan
Casper’s inner circle. PHOTO: Courtesy John McGowan

Social graces, however, didn’t come with the invitation. He wasn’t much for them, be it talking smack on the football field, chatting-up strangers’ girlfriends in a pub, or standing atop a cornice-lined peak. He lost his job as a bouncer at St. Anton’s hottest club, the Hotel Alber, after stuffing the resort owner’s son’s face in the snow. He also had a propensity for taking a deuce at the top of every summit, for good luck. Once he did so atop France’s Col du Chardonnet along the Haute Route, only to see a guide step in his pile a few minutes later in front of his clients. In trying to rub it off, the guide penetrated it deeper into his laces. “It had less to do with digestive function than some inner need to leave a physical monument to his ascent,” said John. “You could depend on it religiously.”

Alas, in the end it was his own hand, rather than an avalanche’s, that did him in. He took his life by gunshot at the Carbon River Entrance Station parking lot in Mount Rainier National Park on April 2, 2010 at age 49. John discovered the tragic news two years later. Casper’s legacy is in how he led his life and encouraged others to do the same. “Ask anyone who knew him and they’d say that he was among the top influences in their life,” says John, rattling off such lessons as passion, integrity, commitment, and courage. “He taught us that there isn’t a limit to energy expended in the pursuit of adventure; to grab life by the balls and not let go until it bends to your will; and that the only true risk in life is in trying to live life without risk.”

While no one knows why such a talented skier so filled with life and with such a propensity for avoiding death finally took his own in the end, his final place of residence, as listed on his death certificate, seems only fitting: Black Diamond, Washington.