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JHSM Issue 17 - When Life Breaks
Mike McKelvey was 31 when he passed away last winter in an avalanche on Togwotee Pass. Photo: Mike McKelvey (self-portrait)

When Life Breaks

After the tragic avalanche death of Mike McKelvey, his family and friends work through their grief

I stepped outside my door into the biting November wind. Clouds hung low in the slate-grey sky, whispering of snow. I went to work uprooting the last of my vegetable garden and preparing the beds for the long winter ahead. I thought about life and death, and for a moment I found some peace in the simple movement of shovel and earth. But a green pickup turned down my driveway and pulled me from my reverie. I knew the young man at the wheel was there to tell me the most difficult story of his life.

Mike McKelvey’s friends gathered in my living room that afternoon to talk about the avalanche that killed him. Each man knocked tentatively on my front door but their faces lit up with knowing recognition when they saw each other. I met Dawson Handley first, then Sean Cook and Sean Loehle. Patrick Rice arrived with a case of Pabst. We settled in and dialed in the final member of the crew, Scott Askins. The smiles and friendly chatter slowly lapsed into silence. “Well, Sean, Dawson, myself, and Mike were all roommates,” Sean Loehle quietly began.

Snowboarding had brought them all together, in one way or another. Scott Askins first met Mike when he moved to town in 2015 and began working on the Park & Pipe crew at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Scott was impressed that the new guy always had his camera gear at the ready. As they began riding and shooting photos together it became obvious to Scott that as good as Mike was behind the lens, he was even better in front of it. They became frequent contributors to Jackson Hole Snowboarder Magazine over the next few years.

Mike was always down to do cool things. He took his friends climbing at City of Rocks and cliff jumping in Hoback Canyon. He pushed their limits, but he was always so positive and so encouraging that he motivated them to progress. “I felt like he knew me better than I knew me,” explained Sean. Mike’s passion for riding, filming, and making snowboard films coalesced them into a crew. They were fired up to go out and make something amazing together.

Morning Mission

The crew put on their boots in the dark. Their gear was still wet from the day before, which they had spent hitting a jump in one of their favorite zones on Togwotee Pass. Towards the afternoon that day they began building a second, larger kicker a few hundred yards away, and this morning they were headed back up to session it. It was February 18, 2021. They were excited to go snowboarding.

The morning light broke cold and bright as they drove north out of Jackson. The valley had just been pounded by a storm that had dropped 28 inches of snow across two days. But only an inch had fallen the night before and the sun was out, so their plan was to finish the build and then film all afternoon. They knew the snowpack was treacherous: the day before a snowmobiler was killed in a slide south of town, and three days prior a man suffocated in a tree well at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. The group of friends also passed a cracked snow face on the drive up where an avalanche had recently released naturally—more evidence of volatile conditions. But they felt good about sticking to one familiar spot hitting a jump, and they made a conscious choice to stay off of bigger slopes with more exposure. They wanted to play it safe for a while until the snow settled down.

The “Compression Kicker” is famous in snowboarding. This jump has been featured many times in videos through the years and it’s on the checklist of spots for pros visiting Jackson to film. Mike and his friends had dissected video parts and triangulated the location of the jump based on landmarks they could see. The area turned out to be surprisingly easy to find and is less than a mile by snowmobile from the road. “We were definitely drawn to the spot,” Dawson said. “It was easy access and it’s a pretty sweet little spot.”

Light snow flurries glittered in the air as the crew pulled their sleds into the shadow of the steep landing around 8am. They went to work setting up. “We got a fire going,” remembered Patrick, “and kinda made a zone for the day.” There were finishing touches to put on the in-run and they needed to set the boot pack and figure out camera angles. The sun was patchy; when their weather window came they would need to be ready to roll.

Mike and Dawson were excited. They were both ready to throw down tricks right off the bat. “You guys are just going to straight-air it,” Mike said. “I’m going to get a trick on this real quick!” Everyone could tell he was planning something big. Dawson and Mike squared off and played rock, paper, scissors for who would get the first hit. Mike won.

JHSM Issue 17 - When Life Breaks
On his test run Mike absolutely destroyed the Natural Selection course he had helped build.
Photo: Jared Spieker

Collecting Moments

Dave McKelvey’s gruff Pittsburgh accent broke as he talked to me about his son. “He lived more in his 31 years than I have in my 60-plus.” I could hear the emotion pent up in his voice even through the phone. But he wanted to tell me about Mike. His family and friends had stopped bringing him up as much at home. They wanted to protect Dave from painful memories, and they didn’t realize that there are much worse things than remembering.

Mike and his dad were close and talked every day. Sometimes when they ran out of stuff to chat about they just sat on the line in silence, content to be connected. “Mike was a prolific thinker who pondered life, existence, and spirituality,” Dave said. Then he paused his recollection to compose himself. Mike had told him, “Life is short, Dad. You can’t make it longer—you gotta live it.”

“He was so incredibly easy as a child,” Dave continued. “I would just strap him to my back and take him anywhere.” He and his wife Kim spent many family vacations visiting the Outer Banks in North Carolina with their four kids. Mike picked up skimboarding when he turned five, running back and forth through the seafoam until after dark every night. He told his dad he wanted to be a pro surfer when he grew up. He wasn’t going to let living eight hours away from the nearest surf break stop him.

What Pittsburg lacked in waves it made up for in ice. Mike started playing hockey, just like his older step-brother. He also got his first snowboard: a Ride Menace with step-in bindings. Traveling around the east coast for hockey tournaments afforded the family plenty of opportunities to stop at nearby ski hills to snowboard. Dave told me a story about a trip they made to Blue Knob near Altoona, Pennsylvania. The first run was chaos: all the kids took off downhill on their snowboards and Mike was the only one who didn’t come back up. Nobody knew where he was. The ski patrol scrambled to find him and Dave raced down to the bottom, searching frantically for his eight-year-old. He found him at the base of the lift standing in his socks, crying. His snowboard was on the ground next to him with his boots still strapped into the bindings. It turned out that the step-ins had iced up and Mike couldn’t get his board off to go back up the lift.

Mike became obsessed with snowboarding. For his high school graduation party, he rented a Uhaul truck and went to the local ice rink where they gave him trash barrels full of “snow” from the Zamboni. Mike and his friends laid down carpet on a hill in the McKelveys’ backyard and dumped the snow on top. That rail session in eighty-six-degree heat became one of Mike’s first snowboard videos.

Mike badly wanted to go to college at the University of Denver. He had gone to Colorado on a business trip with his dad, toured the school, and fell in love. A quick detour to ride A-Basin sealed the deal. But tuition was far more than the McKelvey’s could afford. Then a letter showed up one day from the financial aid office at DU. They were offering Mike a huge amount of money. “We called to check,” Dave said. “They said it was actually a mistake, but you can keep it.” He chuckles. The trajectory of Mike’s life changed profoundly after that. “Once he saw the mountains out West, that was it.”

JHSM Issue 17 - When Life Breaks
Mike grew up snowboarding at small mountains all over Pennsylvania. From day one, he was obsessed.
Photo: Dave McKelvey

Desperate Search

Patrick’s radio crackled to life: “Mike dropping in five…four…three…” It was near 11am and the clouds had finally parted. Patrick was positioned opposite the landing, on the other side of the small gully at the bottom. He had a video camera trained back uphill framing the landing.

Dawson had a GoPro mounted on a pole and he was filming right next to the takeoff. Scott—the group’s main photographer—was shooting stills from the opposite side of the massive kicker they had built. Thirty feet away, both Seans were positioned on top of the knuckle of the landing, watching the slope below with their avalanche equipment at the ready in case something happened. Everyone was stoked. Their crew was sick, the weather was good, and they all had the same feeling: yo, we’re about to get some stuff!

Mike dropped in for the first hit and threw a massive frontside double-cork 1080—a trick he had been trying to land clean for years. He went huge and sailed past the intended landing. The extra time in the air caused him to over-rotate and he ended up hitting the snow on his back, about halfway down the slope. “If he would have landed at the top, there wouldn’t have been so much snow behind him,” said Scott.

“It just all happened so fast,” said Sean Cook. “He dipped below the ridge out of sight and the whole fucking thing just went into the gully.”

The avalanche ripped six feet deep and propagated across the entire slope. Hundreds of thousands of pounds of snow cascaded 40 yards downhill in the space of a moment, exposing bare rocks and grass underneath. It all came to rest instantly in the small ravine at the bottom.

Then a lot of things happened at once.

Sean Loehle ran forward shouting “Slide!” and leaped off the avalanche crown, dropping six feet to the frozen dirt below. He began sliding out of control down towards where he knew his friend lay buried. Dawson and Scott dropped their cameras and jumped down into the slide path. They also tumbled head-over-heels down the hill. The remaining snow on the slope had no cohesion at all, like giant piles of sugar. Sean Cook took a beat and ran back to the jump to grab their big shovel, a small move that proved critical later on. Less than a minute later they were all standing on the rock-hard debris pile below.

“Go to search, go to search!”

Their beacon training raced through their minds as they fanned out. The debris was concentrated in the bottom of the gully so they didn’t have much ground to cover—they knew roughly where Mike was. But it was hard to get a read on him and the numbers they saw on their beacons were difficult to understand. They showed Mike was still eight meters away. After crossing the small ravine they honed in on the smallest number they could find: four meters. They couldn’t hit him with their eight-foot-long avalanche probes. Fighting panic, they started clearing snow from the spot, and finally, Scott was able to stick his entire arm down into the debris and locate Mike with the tip of his probe. Their friend was underneath them, buried more than 12-feet deep.

Mike McKelvey Avalanche - Togwotee Pass - Jackson, Wyoming - Teton County Search and Rescue
The avalanche path into the gully below. The crown was 6-feet deep.
Photo: Teton County Search & Rescue

The Last Text

I turned into a cul-de-sac in East Jackson I had never been down before. It became a maze of parking lots and alleyways at the end, but I eventually parked my truck in front of a red two-story garage at the right address. I had come to talk with Jess Goucher, Mike’s girlfriend, about their life together.

I had never met Jess in person, though I recognized her from her Instagram presence. The Jess I saw online was a strong, smiling shredder. The woman that introduced herself to me in her warm kitchen was a darker shade of that person. Grief changes us all and makes us more serious. Nine months had passed since the avalanche, and she had woken up sobbing in the night unable to go back to sleep. We sit down at her dining table and I can see that pain still there in her eyes, beneath the surface.

“I always felt so good around him. Brave and beautiful and myself,” she began. “All the things I like about myself the most came out in his presence. No stress, just so fun. I don’t even know how you explain it—he just got me.”

Jess met Mike when she joined the Park & Pipe crew at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort four years prior. She remembers him being helpful and kind, and an excellent teacher. He was also great at going rogue, ducking into places he wasn’t supposed to be, and creating adventure. She always felt safe around him no matter what circumstances. If Mike believed you could do something, you could do it.

Their friendship grew over the years and then blossomed into something more during the summer of COVID in 2020. They both had gotten out of long-term relationships and they started hanging out all the time. They shared the same dreams and passions, and from the beginning, it was just easy being together. In the fall they took a road trip together across the country to visit their families, and rock climbed everywhere they could along the way. Mike took her to one of his favorite spots, a place called Jackson Falls in Illinois. Jess remembers pulling in through a cornfield and wondering where the climbing was when all of a sudden a huge ravine opened up in front of them. The climbing was magical but intense: when she took a big fall off a bouldering route Mike barely managed to catch her. They lay on the ground in a pile laughing and marveling at being unharmed. “It was the time of my life, just the two of us,” said Jess.

When the winter arrived they were back at work on the mountain. They often stayed late, chainsawing and shaping in the dark. They loved building the park together. “If the park wasn’t looking good, people would say ‘Oh, Jess and Mike must’ve had a couple days off’,” she laughs. They helped build the incredible Natural Selection Tour course and had both gotten to ride it after the event ended. The footage of Mike hitting the Natural Selection course is incandescent—he had found a new gear in his snowboarding and was taking flight.

Mike stayed over at her place on Tuesday, the night of the 16th. They woke up together on Wednesday morning and she said a quick “bye babe” as he walked out the door. Those proved to be her last words to him. Her voice broke as she told me, “I’ll just forever see him leaving like that.” That night he got back exhausted from the first day hitting and building the jumps up on Togwotee and was too tired to come over. On the morning of the 18th, Mike texted her one final time as he drove back up to the pass with the guys:

I love you.

JHSM Issue 17 - When Life Breaks
Mike and Jess loved to cook together and they spent a lot of time in the kitchen listening to the Jazzy Beats playlist on Spotify.
Photo: Olaus Linn

Extraordinary Effort

The crew dug as fast as they could. Everyone was attacking the snow with their shovels trying to get to Mike. The scene was chaotic and Scott got smashed in the face. He carried around a black eye for days afterward. As the hole got deeper they sorted themselves into roles: one main person dug down while the others moved the excess snow out of the way. As soon as the person in the hole was too exhausted to keep going, they pulled him out and someone else jumped in. There was so much snow that the big shovel Sean had thought to grab up above was their best tool.

They realized too late that it had been a mistake to dig straight down as it got harder and harder to get snow out of the hole. In hindsight, they figured out that it would have been easier to start digging towards Mike from several paces away, knowing how deep he appeared to be. Finally, a shovel hit Mike’s back. They quickly found his head, and as they uncovered his face he made a noise: part exhale and part whimper. Hope fired in Patrick’s heart; he thought they had gotten to Mike in time to save him.

The crew agrees that at that point they had been digging for somewhere between five and eight minutes. It had been perhaps 20 minutes since Mike had gone off the jump, and was now roughly 11:30am. At this point, they sent Sean Loehle to go call 911. The call was difficult; his adrenaline was pumping and he was winded. He kept trying to explain their location: Togwotee Pass, right off the road, easy to find. Why couldn’t they understand? Finally, he hung up so he could keep shoveling.

Teton County Search & Rescue (TCSAR) Chief Advisor Cody Lockhart analyzed the rescue that unfolded to try and save Mike at the 2021 Wyoming Snow and Avalanche Workshop (WYSAW) in October. He said that at 12:04pm the page went out to their team that there had been a deep avalanche burial on Togwotee Pass. As luck would have it, there was already a TCSAR team on Togwotee that day: they had come up to do snowmobile training. Within minutes that team was re-routed to the avalanche scene.

Mike was laying face down which made it difficult to keep his face free of snow while they worked to get him out. He was unresponsive and his face was blue. Freeing his snowboard was the most difficult part. They finally got him loose and up onto flat ground. The hole they left behind was 15-feet deep. The Search & Rescue crew arrived on their sleds right as Mike came up out of the snow. The official timeline pinpointed that moment at 12:30pm. They started CPR, with Mike’s friends taking turns doing the rescue breathing. Once again, each man went as long as he could before the next person took over. One of them vomited, his body rebelling against the circumstances. CPR continued for the next 30 minutes until an ambulance arrived from Grand Teton National Park and brought an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) machine to try and restart Mike’s heart.

The crew finally stepped away from him when the second rescue team arrived with the AED. The area had become a swarm of activity as personnel from five different agencies and teams converged to try and save Mike. His four friends shivered as they watched the rescue continue to unfold. The adrenaline that had given them the strength to dig like madmen and then do 30 minutes of CPR was ebbing, and shock was setting in. Suddenly there was a ray of hope: They heard the call go out over the radio that Mike had a pulse.

That call was made at 1:20pm by the team working on Mike with the AED. The machine had managed to restore his pulse. Suddenly he wasn’t just a body that had been pulled from the snow. “From a rescue standpoint, that really spun things up,” said Lockhart. “We’ve got a live person here that’s really struggling. We need to give them the best shot that we can.”

Waiting For Word

Jess Goucher had been having a tough morning. She had gotten some sad family news the night before and she was in a funky mood. Her original plan had been to go out to JHMR to grab her board and then head up to meet Mike and the guys for the afternoon at Togwotee. But instead, she found herself at a barbecue restaurant downtown, drinking ciders with a friend. She hadn’t heard back from Mike since his final text that morning. As the day wore on she got more and more concerned. Something had happened. Then she got a call from Scott: There had been an accident and he needed a phone number to call Mike’s dad.

Back in Pittsburgh, Dave McKelvey was already worried. For six weeks he had been feeling an almost obsessive sense of paranoia and dread for his son. He knew it had already been a wild winter and that the avalanche conditions were dangerous. He texted Mike early that morning and asked him not to go: It’s too much. Just take a break. His son texted back: Just an odd winter Dad. Lots of inexperienced people in the backcountry. This is a safe zone.

Scott Askins said that the call he made to Dave that afternoon was the hardest one he’s ever made in his life. There was nothing any of them could do but wait and hope.

The helicopter landed on the highway near the parking area as they packaged Mike up to be short-hauled away from the scene. In a short-haul rescue, the victim is transported in a sled suspended from a long cable attached to the bottom of the chopper. It’s used in situations where the weather or terrain prevents landing. In this case, Mike was lifted into the air with two rescuers on the end of the rope with him, continuing to breathe for him.

At 2:00pm the short-haul brought him to the parking area and the waiting ambulance. Somewhere in the air, they lost his pulse again. By 2:10pm they had him in the ambulance and had restored his pulse a second time, as they raced him down the road towards the Jackson Hole Airport where a plane waited to take him to the advanced trauma center in Idaho Falls. But somewhere along the way, Mike’s heart gave out a final time, and they couldn’t bring him back. “The community gave him as good a shot as we could,” said Lockhart.

Jess was still sitting at the barbecue joint when she heard the news from Dave that Mike had died. She says she just went out into the street and screamed. People gathered at her apartment that night as she alternately cried, drank, and played her violin.

Mike’s three roommates went back to the house they all shared to wait for some word. It was dark by the time they got home and they were more drained than they had ever been in their lives. When Dave called and told them that Mike hadn’t made it, the world seemed to break. All of that insane effort hadn’t been enough.

Back in my living room, there was silence that stretched on into minutes. The guys were quietly crying, remembering that final heartbreak. We were all crying.

JHSM Issue 17 - When Life Breaks
Photo: Mike McKelvey

Aftermath

Mike’s friends discovered a different side of him when they went back to Pittsburgh for the funeral. They learned about his deep love for art and graffiti. Mike was part of a crew of artists, and when his friends explored his city they found his DASEK tag all over the place. They suddenly realized that there was so much more to him than they had ever known. He had lived many lives already at 31. They were welcomed in by his family and they bonded over their shared love for him, but it was still too difficult to talk about what had happened or to tell anyone the story.

Jess and Dave both desperately wanted to hear their account. Each of them asked me if I would tell them what I had heard about the events that day. Jess was hoping for closure, and I think Dave was hoping to find some answers. From a thousand miles away it’s hard for him to imagine why his son died, what series of choices led to him being buried. What they both know beyond a doubt is how hard the guys who were with Mike worked to save him. Their efforts were heroic, regardless of the outcome.

I think Mike’s friends are still searching for answers too, and still second-guessing what they did and didn’t do. They’re experiencing post-traumatic stress, struggling with anxiety, depression, and loneliness. It has become hard for them to reach out and talk about what they went through because they feel like the only people who will understand are the ones who were there. It was incredibly brave for them to relive that terrible day step-by-step with me. For my part, I hope that maybe having the story written down and shared with our community will help ease that burden a little bit. Everyone needs to talk more about Mike, especially with each other.

I spoke with Dave by phone the day before Thanksgiving. We chatted for an hour straight and still hadn’t covered Mike’s early life before he came to Jackson Hole. Dave likes to tell stories and he loves his son with all his heart. We made a plan to talk again the following Friday, to make sure I had everything I needed to write this story. I hope he enjoyed those chats as much as I did. Dave’s whole family is hurting but they’re each finding their own ways to cope. I think he’s the one feeling lost right now: He told me a story about how recently he couldn’t stand being cooped up in the house anymore, so he drove all night to the Outer Banks. He parked at the beach and watched the sun come up. Then he went and got a cup of coffee at a diner and worked a little on his laptop before he headed home.

Jess got a job digging on the park crew at Mount Hood and spent the summer in Oregon snowboarding and shaping park features. She made some cool connections along the way by actively advocating for herself and her passion for park-building. Those connections led to an invitation to participate in shaping the first terrain park built entirely by women at an event called Take The Rake, set to happen in December at the early-season park destination Trollhaugen in Dresser, Wisconsin. We agreed that Mike would have loved that she earned that opportunity for herself and been incredibly proud.

JHSM Issue 17 - When Life Breaks
Mike kept prolific journals of writing, art, ideas, and graffiti.

Hard Lessons

I think that every time someone dies in the backcountry there are things we can learn. The introspection is part of the grieving process, and part of how we honor the person who is gone. I think it’s safe to say that Mike would want us to engage with what happened to him, and maybe make different choices in the future. Unfortunately, I don’t know if he and his buddies could ever have known for sure if that landing was safe to ride that day. It is such a steep, short slope, and there’s no guarantee that they would have realized the danger, even if they had dug a test pit or done other snow analyses. Mike just went huge, and he landed in the middle of the slope, at the perfect point to trigger that slide. The terrain trap at the bottom is very real. That steep of a pitch, ending in a very flat bottom should always be a red flag. There was just nowhere for all that snow to go except right on top of Mike.

The avalanche conditions in the valley, the signs of natural slides they saw on the way up, and the instability they knew existed in the snowpack in the very bottom layers were all cautionary signs, too. But they understood those signs and attempted to mitigate the risks as best they could, and I don’t think we can pass too much judgment on that. The mistake Mike made is one every backcountry user has been guilty of at some point: he just got too comfortable with a dangerous area, and he trusted it with his life.

Death is messy. When we pass on we leave hard things in our wake: grieving loved ones, things left unsaid or undone, and dreams left unrealized. None of Mike’s friends or family will ever be the same again. His absence is a hole in their lives that will be there forever. But all of them remember him with so much love, and as a person that inspired them, that pushed them, that dared to believe that life is more about the experiences you collect than the things you own. Mike lived that ethos every day. Each person who knew and loved him will carry those lessons with them through their life as if he were still encouraging them to do the things he knew they could do, even when they didn’t know it themselves.

Mike’s family set up a GoFundMe called “Be Like Mike” Legacy to collect donations for a memorial scholarship to provide avalanche training and gear to splitboarders through the Jackson Hole Outdoor Leadership Institute. Please consider a donation: https://www.gofundme.com/f/be-like-mike-legacy

Olaus Linn is the publisher and creative director for Jackson Hole Snowboarder Magazine. @olaus

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