The line to get lift tickets to Silver Mountain on Friday, the first day the resort was open since three people died in an avalanche Tuesday, stretched nearly to the gondola entrance by 9 a.m.
Fifteen minutes later, when the ski area was scheduled to start shuttling people up the mountain, the line from the gondola doors almost reached the ticket office. And many, if not all, of those skiers had this week’s deadly slide on their mind as they waited.
“My mom was nervous,” said 8-year-old Noah Truax, of Spokane Valley, who was getting his gear ready in the parking lot with his father, Chris Truax, just after 8 a.m.
Normally, the family skis at Lookout Pass, but they chose Silver for the $12 lift tickets on sale for Jackass Day, an event meant to celebrate the resort’s debut in 1968 as Jackass Ski Bowl. While those low ticket prices were honored, the resort canceled the festivities it had planned for the day out of respect for those involved in Tuesday’s tragedy.
And Chris Truax said he was confident everything would be fine, since they wouldn’t be skiing Wardner Peak, where some eight skiers were buried earlier this week: “I knew we wouldn’t be in any of those areas.”
That was the sentiment shared by many skiers on Friday.
“I’m sure the accident discouraged some people from coming up,” said Chris Walker, of Post Falls, adding that bad news shouldn’t deter a person from enjoying life. “There’s a news event every minute, every day that would deter you from doing just about everything.”
It seemed others shared that feeling, too. The mountain was packed by 11 a.m., and so were the parking lots in the early afternoon. About 1,500 people turned out, according to Gus Colburn, a resort spokesman who also, of course, was thinking about the avalanche and its aftermath.
“The people in the ski community are so amazing and the amount of love and support that has come from people in our region for our staff, volunteers and those affected by this is truly humbling,” Colburn said in an email Friday about the hundreds of volunteers and staff who helped with the three-day search.
“We’re excited,” said William Vanderheyden, of Spokane, who was visiting Silver Mountain with two friends. “It should be a good day.”
While riding the gondola up to the ski area, Brandon Benn, of Spokane, said he felt lucky to be on the mountain so soon after the avalanche.
“We were checking the conditions, making sure there wasn’t anything stopping us,” said Benn’s ski buddy Tristan Martinez, a Mount Spokane ski instructor.
Windswept snow, untouched by people for two days, covered the mountain’s ungroomed runs. The resort reported 10 inches of snow since it was last open, but many said it seemed like more. The seats on Chair 5, the ski area’s beginner lift, were buried in snow before resort staff began to prepare for reopening.
People whooped and yelled carving new paths down the mountain. One snowboarder FaceTimed someone, saying, “I want you to be with me on my first few powder snowboard turns,” as ski patrol roamed the area checking boundary ropes and the areas around chairlift towers.
Jack Dale, of Spokane, said the conditions were “amazing,” adding, “It sucks Chair 4 is closed.”
Chair 4 is the lift that took skiers to Wardner Peak on Tuesday before the avalanche. Other than that closure, it seemed to be business as usual at Silver Mountain – at least on the surface.
“Not the same energy, that’s for sure,” said Tristen Mokry, Dale’s friend.
Out of sight, a group of several skiers and snowboarders who perhaps know Silver Mountain best after skiing there for decades gathered around a fireplace at the ski resort’s bar around 11 a.m. as the mountain began to bustle with skiers. A grief counselor sat with the men as they discussed their longtime friend Carl Humphreys and Silver regular Scott Parsons, who both died in Tuesday’s avalanche, along with neurosurgeon Molly Hubbard.
The fireplace bar is the regular meeting place for the group after mornings of cutting fresh tracks in new snow before other skiers arrive. Humphreys was a notorious powder hog, hurtling down the mountain wearing sunglasses and his unzipped coat flapping around him.
“If we weren’t getting the powder, he was,” said Guy Jones, of Mead.
Humphreys was right behind Jones before the avalanche on Tuesday. Jones skied down so fast he didn’t realize the avalanche had happened, then helped with the search. Now he is dealing with some guilt, he said.
“They would’ve wanted us to continue what we’re doing,” Jones said. “Am I allowed to have this fun? Carl would say, ‘Absolutely, yes.’ So I’m going to pretend he’s right alongside me.”
The buzz from the $12 lift tickets did its best to wipe out any melancholy feelings on the mountain, said Landis Jackson, of Cle Elum, Washington. And maybe Humphreys would have wanted it that way, he said.
Jackson said he and a friend left open seats for those who died on their first chairlift rides Friday morning.
Paul Hoskinson, of Harrison, recalled how he used to gift skis to Humphreys on the condition he’d give them back when he was done with them. Many pairs turned into rock skis meant for early-season conditions, and Hoskinson displayed them on walls with the skiing surface facing up.
“The bottoms have so many shreds in them it tells the whole story of those skis,” Hoskinson said.
The men mostly laughed telling stories about Humphreys, but some tears were shed as well.
“It’s real fresh, man,” said Andy Austin, of Pinehurst. “I can’t get grieving and sad because I get a mental image of him – his smile.”
The group acknowledged it was cliche to say Humphreys died doing what he loved – but the saying rings true.
Bill Higgins, who also kayaked and rafted with Humphreys, shared how they were warned about a riverwide log before floating rapids on the Selway River during peak flows. They put it out of mind until they could assess it themselves, then spotted it while hauling down the river in the cold and rain.
“It was going thunk under the water, and then boof!” Higgins remembered. “It would stick up about 8 feet, then go boof under the water and stick up.”
The rafters then assessed how to time getting across the log.
Humphreys “just did it like a champ,” Higgins said. “He totally ate it, and he swam underneath that log while it was up.”
Then, determined to have a fire, Humphreys worked for hours to build a giant bonfire using river logs.
“It was just really remarkable to watch him in action,” Higgins said. “Fast friends with anybody. He did not know a stranger.”
For the first time, some in the group of daring powder-chasers – who got to know each other by first name, clothing, nicknames and shredding style over the decades – exchanged phone numbers and learned full names.
“We see each other every day, 100 days a winter,” Austin said. “And the fact that we don’t know each other’s last names is really weird.”
But the avalanche galvanized the group further as they thought about Humphreys and adopted Parsons and Hubbard into their odd fraternity, in Hoskinson’s words.
“It’s brought about 20 people together tighter than they ever could be,” Hoskinson said.
Jones said the avalanche won’t change how he skis but influenced how he prepared Friday. He brought a beacon, a shovel and a probe.
“I’ll ski Wardner again for sure,” Jones said, describing himself as a “magnet” to that part of the mountain. “I’ll be right there as soon as it opens.”
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