To Bee Or Not To Bee
In March, when daffodils bloom by the kitchen door, I think of Roberto.
His memorial plaque, pounded into the rocks by the side of the ski run, reads:
“In Memory of our Friend Roberto A. Gasperl. Born Feb. 22, 1941, Cervinia, Italy. Died in an Avalanche Mar. 31, 1981, Snowmass, Colorado.”
It ends with a line from Tennyson:
“But O for the touch of a vanish’d hand,
“And the sound of a voice that is still!”
I ski past here all the time. In March sometimes I pause to scatter daffodils.
Odd what stays with you after 20 years. I remember the bowlegged way Roberto walked. I remember stories about huge slow-moving spring avalanches back home in the Alps. I remember how he tied up his lunch in a red and white checked cloth napkin, like a hobo’s bundle.
I remember the way he wore his goggles backwards on the back of his head, and I remember the sweet espresso he shared on ski patrol avalanche routes. I remember he skied better than the rest of us, and faster.
Why wouldn’t he? He never talked about it, but we all knew that Roberto once held the world speed skiing record, as did his father Leo before him.
Roberto believed that animals possess a sixth sense about avalanches, and that animal tracks across an avalanche path are always a good omen. “The animals know,” he’d say earnestly. He charmed you when he talked like that.
He patrolled for almost a season. Before that, he headed up the ski school. When Snowmass opened in 1967, Stein Eriksen became the official ski school director and PR guy, but Roberto really ran the show.
After Stein left, something went wrong. I don’t remember what. It doesn’t matter. Roberto needed a fresh start, that’s all. Still, Roberto quitting ski school and coming over to the patrol was like a Navy admiral resigning to enlist in the Marines.
He never really was a rookie on the patrol. He fit right in. You couldn’t not like him, or not respect him. He volunteered for everything. Most of all he liked to throw bombs and run avalanche routes. Then he’d lay down the widest, fastest powder turns you ever saw.
The winter of ’80-81 stayed pretty dry until February. Then the snows came, and the avalanches.
Roberto got buried twice that season, that I know of. The first time, when Mad Dog dug him out on the west side of Garret Gulch, only Roberto’s head stuck out of the snow. (Or was it his hand?) I recall that morning. Fred and I watched from across the gulch.
At home, Roberto’s photo graces our sunroom wall. He wears his goggles backwards as he sits alone on the High Alpine chair. When you ride by yourself, you’re supposed to sit on the inside of the chair ” the side closest to the lift ” but for some reason, this time Roberto sat on the outside.
He looks back over his shoulder at the photographer and waves his ski poles with one hand. He appears somehow triumphant. Two hours later he was dead.
I won’t relate the details of that March 31 morning. I wasn’t there. But it snowed the night before. Thinking themselves in a safe place, Roberto and his partner tossed explosive charges downhill from where they stood, hoping to set off an avalanche below.
Instead, a massive snowslide swept down from above, hurling them off a cliff and entombing Roberto under a ton of snow.
You weep. You bury the dead. Life marches on. On the patrol, a generation has come and gone. Who can remember?
Always in March, when lilac buds swell, and daffodils bloom by the kitchen door, I think of him.
Ski patroller and beekeeper Ed Colby, of Peach Valley, reports that the daffodils came a little early this year. Ed’s e-mail: email@example.com.
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