In the fall of 1992, Reed Finlay moved to Jackson Hole from North Carolina and got a job as a liftie on the upper mountain. A year later, another rookie showed up to work the same shift. His name was Steve Romeo, from Vernon, Connecticut. The two skiers quickly formed a bond and started exploring the Tetons together. Over the years, skiing drew them as close as brothers, and together they accomplished some of the burliest descents in the Tetons.
As Romeo evolved from resort skier to one of the finest ski mountaineers of his generation, he also survived his share of close calls. He had escaped at least three avalanches, including one a year earlier, according to his girlfriend at the time. That avalanche instilled in him a level of fear that he had never felt before. He discussed it with her openly, even while maintaining a confidence that had never waivered. He knew that if something didn’t feel right, he could turn around. He pointed to the fact that it had taken him seven attempts to finally ski the Grand Teton. The devotion, discipline, and skill to mark such an achievement made him a proud skier.
On March 1, 2012, Romeo went to St. John’s Medical Center in Jackson to see Finlay. The day before, Finlay’s wife had given birth to a boy, and Romeo gushed over the parents and their newborn. He was especially happy to meet the infant and quickly saw the young skier’s future. “He let him grip his finger like a ski pole and joked about teaching him to pole plant,” says Finlay.
Six days later, Romeo and Onufer set out across Jackson Lake to meet their fate. Work and new fatherly duties dictated that Finlay could not go with them. As a ski patroller at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Finlay had noticed strong winds the day before, loading the upper elevations that weren’t noticeable from the valley. Nevertheless, he was surprised at the route his friends had chosen for their ascent, which led them right into the starting zone of the avalanche path.
An investigation of the accident led to a scathing report in the Jackson Hole News and Guide. In it, park rangers questioned Romeo and Onufer’s decision making and implied the two had a cavalier attitude about their objective that day. Asked whether an avalanche airbag could’ve saved their lives, since neither skier was fully buried by the slide, a ranger answered, “The best tool they had with them, they weren’t using the most. That was their brain.”
It was a hurtful comment to the skiers’ friends and families. But Finlay says even Romeo would’ve agreed with that assessment. “If it was someone else who’d died, and Steve and I had read that article, we’d have agreed with it,” he says. “We would’ve said, ‘These people messed up.’ They could’ve made the right decision. But because they were in a hurry, and because it wasn’t sliding on them as they went up, and because they had to get Chris’s dad from the airport, they let their guard down.”
Finlay then pauses to reflect on what it means, and adds, “Even experts make mistakes. If you’re a kid, it’s a good lesson.”
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