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Turns to Remember

Local ski hero was also down for the shred
By Michelle Smith Photo by Carol Viau

It was a mild March day when I found myself standing at the base of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, along with hundreds of other individuals, to celebrate the lives of two amazing men, Chris Onufer and Steve Romeo. Less than a week earlier, they perished in an avalanche while ascending Ranger Peak in Grand Teton National Park. Chris was one of my best friends.

Chris’s dad, John, was the first to address a swelling crowd. “I am very proud to be Chris’s father with all of his expertise in his sports, and career with Jackson Hole Ski Corp, but what I am most proud of is his character.”

For me, Chris’s character came to life the first time we went into the mountains together. We were both going to do something that neither of us had done in a very long time: snowboarding.

It was April 2011, closing weekend at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Chris and I were at the top of Apres Vous. After sustaining a serious leg injury nearly eight months prior, I was finally able to make snowboard turns again, but I was nervous about how my leg was going to feel.

Chris Onufer onDenali, spring 2011.
Chris Onufer on
Denali, spring 2011.

To ease my tension, Chris, a skier, agreed to make his first snowboard turns of the season when I was ready to make mine. He hadn’t been on a snowboard in 10 years. As I watched him fumble with his binding straps and struggle to stand up, I realized he was much more nervous than me. But without any hesitation Chris took off first.

“Here we go!” Chris yelled.

A co-worker noticed Chris. “Is that Chris on a snowboard?” he yelled in disbelief.

Chris casually responded, “look, no hands,” as he rode by with a smile and wave.

We all laughed. The riding felt great, and we rode for the remainder of the day.

That next day Chris approached me with a huge grin. “I just rode Corbet’s on my snowboard. I didn’t land it, and almost broke my thumb, but it was awesome.”

“Want to make your first backcountry snowboard turns after work on Teton Pass?” I asked eagerly.

“Yes!” Chris replied without hesitation.

As we prepared ourselves at the top of the pass, Chris, underneath his scruffy mustache and weathered skin, looked like a five-year-old with a new toy.

Chris had trouble in the powder that first ride down and took some rough falls.

But when we got to the bottom Chris yelled: “That was great. Let’s do it again!”

“Sure!” I responded in surprise.

The second lap was similar to the first, but once again Chris wanted to go for another lap, and we would have, if there had been more daylight. Even on a snowboard, Chris had a relentless amount of energy, and when I was out there with him, so did I.

Last January, I signed up for a Randonee race at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. I planned to do the race on my splitboard.

“Want to join me as I practice my splitboard transitions on Teton Pass tomorrow?” I asked Chris. Instead of telling me how boring, slow, or tedious it sounded to go up and down some runs on Teton Pass with a splitboarder, Chris responded with a simple “Let’s do it.”

As I practiced my first transition on the pass Chris watched closely. I fumbled, and ended up putting the wrong binding on the wrong ski. “Shoot,” I yelled. “That just wasted 30 seconds.” Chris responded by taking a marker out of his pack. He marked each binding and ski with an L and R.

“No problem now,” he said with that familiar smile of his.

On my second transition the attachment to my binding pin broke. “Dammit!” I yelled in frustration.

“It’s OK. We’ll just fix it,” Chris responded. Again, he reached into his pack, pulled out a string, and fixed the attachment. It was like Chris had become a splitboard equipment expert in a matter of minutes.

February 2012 came around and brought with it a huge storm, but a sketchy snowpack kept Chris and I out of the backcountry. Instead, we spun tram laps all day. As we rode bottomless powder down the Hobacks, I noticed that Chris’s snowboarding had improved immensely since last spring. He was slashing turns; a huge rooster tail followed him down the mountain. At the bottom of the run I hooted and hollered as he came toward me. When he reached me he fell over and then took a seat in the snow.

“I guess I must be all pro now. I even stomped Corbet’s the other day,” he quietly joked. I laughed and sat down next to him. Although his snowboarding was different now, Chris hadn’t changed a bit.

As we sat there we both took a moment to take in the day. I knew that in a few minutes we were going to ride back down to the tram, and we weren’t going to stop until the tram shut down for the day.

That was the last day I rode with Chris. It was no different than the first. Although Chris’s character came to life when we went snowboarding together, it didn’t change who he was. For the same reasons