This story originally published in POWDER’s November 2016 issue (Vol. 45 Issue 3). PHOTO: Trent Bona
Name: Frank Coffey
LOCATION: Crested Butte, Colorado; Portillo, Chile
Roots: Frank Coffey hasn’t seen summer in 20 years. As the snow-safety director of Chile’s Portillo and Colorado’s Crested Butte, Coffey is one of the most respected minds in avalanche safety, known by his fellow experts for his experience and humility.
“We cheated death a few times together and I’ve always admired the man,” says friend and former U.S. Senator Mark Udall, who met Coffey 40 years ago at an avalanche clinic in Silverton. “He’s one of a kind. His wanderlust and the incredible niche he has filled on the snow-safety front has made it hard for him to settle in one place.”
A medical-school dropout who landed in Crested Butte, Coffey has seen his share of backcountry incidents, but his decision-making has kept him safe for over 40 years. (Though there’s a run in the Chugach nicknamed the “Coffey Grinder” thanks to one unfortunate incident.) The part-time expat uses the word “winter” in place of “years” and marvels at the fact that some people hate their jobs.
My life has been a constant struggle against boredom. I always loved to travel, to explore exotic cultures, and skiing and climbing have played into that in that I’ve worked all over the world.
In the spring of 1993, Robert Duval, a fellow patroller and my avalanche route partner in Crested Butte, died in an avalanche. He was skiing alone in an out-of-bounds area. I was the first to find him and, along with two other patrollers, we performed CPR until he was pronounced dead. In 1997, Henry Purcell, the owner of Portillo, and I were the first on the scene of a helicopter accident that killed two of my friends. The pilot, Jamie Pinto, was dead when we arrived at the site. T.R. Youngstrom, a 29-year-old photographer from Telluride, died in my arms. What have I learned? How fragile we are. That every day is a gift.
People say, ‘God, how can you still be living like you’re in college?’ Actually, I was pretty happy in college.
I live in the old train station with three roommates: my heli ski lead guide and two senior ski instructors. I share a bathroom with two of them. People say, ‘God, how can you still be living like you’re in college?’ Actually, I was pretty happy in college.
I don’t have to choose between Portillo and Crested Butte, and that’s the beauty of it. I don’t want to be in one place 12 months out of the year. I have this need for and love of being in new places.
There’s been an explosion in backcountry use in the wintertime, and a lot of people are just getting lucky. You see people making the same mistakes time and time again. A lot of people lack experience or aren’t paying attention when they’re out there. You need to speak up. People need to be brave and speak their mind and listen to their gut.
My backcountry partner is somebody I trust with my life. Somebody who is paying attention. And somebody who is fun. I don’t want to be around negative people.
There’s value in being silent in the mountains. If people do it right and they get away from all the noise and their gadgets and their freakin’ cell phone, they’re forced to live in the moment. Breathe in, breathe out, look around.
Mountain people just get something out of being in nature. It’s a unique and special way to be able to live life. And you know, I’m a full-on atheist, but it’s almost like religion.
At this stage in my career, it’s just pedal to the metal. I can’t get enough. I’m taking big bites out of life.