John Clauson, Assistant Snow Safety Director at Silverton Mountain Resort, passed away on July 25, 2012, after battling acute leukemia. I’ve worked with a lot of people who are role models, heroes to kids, public faces of the sport, but the John Clausons of the world are the people I really look up to. He understood that if you really want to live your joy, you have to be willing to give it away, to put it in service of other people. He was a veteran of some of the gnarliest avalanche work out there, a great ski and river guide, and a true skier. If there is A Point to being a human, he had an exceedingly firm grasp on it.
There’s a culture among the guides and snow safety staff at Silverton, of having each other’s back no matter what, getting off on helping other people have the best day of their lives, and being ready if things go sideways. I love the skiing there, but, much to my editor’s annoyance, I keep going back every year to hang out with people like that, because they help me understand The Point. John Clauson was the definition of that spirit.
When I was in Silverton last season to profile Clauson and the other core members of the area’s snow safety team, he was polite but firm about not wanting recognition, telling me that he preferred to stay in the background and help people out. That day he was complaining about how his legs were killing him, wondering if he was just getting old or what. Which, though we didn’t know it then, was the leukemia.
A couple of hours later, at the end of the day, I blew my knee out in a not-so-great spot. Clauson traversed a patrol toboggan across a huge and hateful sidehill, and he, Doug Krause, and photographer Scott Smith got to work. With no time to set up anchors, they lowered me through exposed terrain using unanchored hip belays and manually wrestling the 250-pound load. It was scary, awkward, backbreaking work. There were a couple of places where, if anyone screwed up, we all would have clattered off a cliff onto exposed boulders. They did everything perfectly.
By the time we got down to the road, it was the end of a long, cold day, Clauson’s legs were hurting, and I’m sure that he wanted to be home with his wife and son. But he was cracking jokes and grinning away. He was concerned about my knee, that I’d be bummed out on the abrupt end to my season. And I was, but mostly I was stoked that I had been with the right people.
The funny thing is, I’m pretty sure that pulling me out was nothing compared to what John had gone through to get that 100-pound toboggan over there, across thousands of feet of steep and thickly forested sidehill. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody. He never mentioned it.
Troy Nordquist, John’s frequent partner on hairy control routes at Silverton, called after the funeral to tell me the Clauson story he had told to the several hundred people who had gathered to remember him.
“It was a bad day. It’s 20 below all the time in Silverton, and this was a notably cold day. And the wind is ripping up high, blasting the ridgetops. It’s way too rough to work out there, but there was something coming up and [owner] Aaron Brill really wanted to try to get some control work done. So we show up for work, ride the lift up to the patrol shack on top of the mountain, and make up our packs for the day to do control routes. Six guys huddled in this little shack, freezing. And the wind is ripping, blowing ice chunks and gravel through the air. It’s hideous. So after a bit [Snow Safety Director] Doug Krause pulls the plug, tells us we can stand down, it’s too gnarly for ops, and everyone basically breathes a sigh of relief because they can get the hell out of there, maybe avoid frostbite.
“Meanwhile, as we’re tucking our collective tails between our legs, Clauson picks up his pack, looks at me and says, ‘OK Troy, let’s go.’ He starts hiking up the ridge to do his route, which starts from the very top of the peak. And I’m like, ‘OK, I’m your partner, I got your back, this is totally crazy but whatever, we’re doing it.’
“The ridge is brutal. There are rocks blowing through the air. At one point the wind knocks me down and I have to crawl because I can’t stand up again. We do big hikes with heavy packs every day, it’s cold and windy all the time here. But this is something else: a total beatdown.
“So we get to the top of the Billboard, 13,500 or whatever, wind’s blasting, more than 20 below, we’re staggering there on the summit, hunched under the weight of our packs after the worst hike ever, and John grins at me and says, ‘Makes you feel alive!’
Our thoughts are with John’s family, friends, and co-workers at Silverton and Arkansas Valley Adventures rafting.