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Chris Onufer: 1970-2012. A Friend in the Mountains

[ 4 ] March 13, 2012 |

Words by: Michelle Smith

Summer, 2010. I’m sitting at my desk at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, staring at my computer screen. I’ve been typing all morning. I’m extremely bored.

“Looks like you’re working pretty hard there,” comes a voice from behind.

I smile, then look up. It’s Chris Onufer.

“Hardly working, is more like it,” I say.

Chris stands with his elbows crossed onto the railing above my desk. A faint smell of grease emits from his well-worn tram-mechanic clothes. We’re in the administrative offices at the resort, but he acts like he’s right at home.

Which he is. Chris has worked at the resort for nearly twenty years. Every employee around us says hello when he walks in.

I hardly know the guy, but I know what’s up. He just got back from an amazing adventure, and I can’t wait to hear about it.

“OK: where’d you go?” I ask.

“I just got back from skiing on Rainier!” he says. A giant grin erupts from beneath his scruffy mustache. I smile, knowing he’s about to unload. This will definitely beat working.

I turn away from my computer to give him my full attention. As he recounts the rest of his tale—his first Ironman in Idaho, his summit efforts on Washington’s highest peak—I can feel my own aspirations grow.

——————

For the next couple of weeks that summer, every time Chris comes by my desk, he wears that same smile and tells a similar tale. And every time, it fires me up for my own adventures.

One day, it’s my turn.

“I just climbed the Northwest Ice Coulior on Middle Teton!” I blurt as he walks up. I’ve been waiting for him all morning.

“Really? Awesome!” He leans his thin, muscular build into the railing above my desk so he can hear more. It’s like watching a scrappy, five-foot-ten eight-year-old settle into a story.

“It was so challenging, Chris,” I say, honestly, “but it was the kind of day I’d dreamed about, too.”

As I recount the trip—the 2 a.m. start from town, the run-in with an unidentified animal in the darkness, the perfection of the weather, so warm we could have climbed the couloir in t-shirts—Chris’s smile gets deeper and deeper. His kind eyes beam with energy. With each detail, he nods, affirming every positive thing I have to say about the trip with a “Reeaally”, then interjecting a few questions of his own. It’s a climb he wants to do, too.

When I’m done, I pause. I barely dare breathe what I’m thinking of next.

“Chris, I want to try an ice climb on the northwest side of the Grand Teton.”

A look of concern crosses his face. “Geez,” he says. “Isn’t that kind of quick? You haven’t been climbing for that long.”

‘’I feel confident about it,” I respond, maybe a little quickly.

He has a point. I haven’t been climbing for that long, but I feel that after our climb on the Middle Teton, it’s the next step.

“Well, be careful out there,” he says. His feathered, light-brown hair and weathered skin suddenly make him look older than his forty years. “It’s big terrain up there.”

—————–

Fast forward one month, to the Grand Teton massif. I’m roped up on the Valhalla Traverse, headed for the Enclosure Couloir. The slope we’re crossing is ugly and gray, the ice pocked with stone spit off from above. Below us lies a 2,000-foot cliff.

I don’t know if my crampons hit a rock or if they simply failed to bite—but in an instant, I’m ricocheting over loose rocks in a big dirty fall.

When the rope pulls tight, I bounce, then come to a rest. My leg is mangled. It’s shattered. My back is broken. I’m banged up bad. But at least I’m alive.

A near-miss. I survived. It could have been different.

Why wasn’t it different for Chris?

——————-

“When you’re ready to take your first turns at the Village, I’ll do the same,” Chris says to me. “On a snowboard.”

I’ve just gotten out of the hospital. My leg is in a giant cast, and I have it awkwardly propped up on my desk at work. My back aches. Chris doesn’t snowboard. I know that. He’s a skier. He hasn’t ridden a snowboard in 10 years.

I search his eyes. When I find them, they hold mine in that now-familiar gaze.

——————

On closing weekend in April, Chris walks toward me at the base of Apres Vous lift at the Village, board in hand. I almost cry at the sight of him. It has been seven months since my accident.

We duckwalk toward the lift, him more awkwardly than me. As the chair comes around, I think the liftie will have to slow it—Chris looks like he doesn’t know how to get on.

“OK, Michelle!” Chris says on top. “Here we go!”

I laugh out loud as he cautiously, slowly makes his first turns. I’ve been afraid of how my leg and body were going to feel, but as I watch him make his own turns down the mountain, I couldn’t feel more at ease.

—————-

Summer. The sun is shining. I’m back at work… back inside.

I look away from my computer screen and down to my phone.

I send Chris a text: “Wanna run up to the top of the Tram?”

Less than ten minutes pass.

“Sure,” comes the reply. “Meet you in 30 minutes at the base?”

I change into my running clothes and walk down to the base. Chris is hard to miss. He’s already jogging in place, that silly grin on his face. He has a headband on, and a fannypack, too. He looks hilarious. I can’t help but laugh.

“Ready to go runnin’?” he yells.

We jog to the summit of the 4,000-foot mountain, pushing as hard as we can. On top, there’re still a few hours of daylight left.

“Wanna go rock climbing?” Chris says, sounding like he just drank a giant pot of coffee.

Any feeling of exhaustion I have disappears immediately.

We ride the tram down and jump in his car. Chris drives along the winding Moose-Wilson Road to Blacktail Butte with the radio cranked to the local pop music station. He sings every word to every cheesy song that plays. Both of us grin into the late-afternoon sun. When it dips below the Tetons, we’re still climbing.

Like a powder day, Chris’s company is an addiction. It’s hard to get enough of his positive, relentless energy.

—————–

“People have no fucking respect for the mountains this season.”

It’s the winter of 2012 and we’re watching the video of the Pucker Face avalanche. Chris is pissed. “They’re dropping into whatever the fuck they want!”

Time and time again this winter, Chris has turned back on missions in the Park. On Teton Pass he takes the most conservative route down Glory. He seems to just straight-up avoid the sidecountry at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.

The season’s snowpack is sketchy, and Chris is concerned about his friends’ decision-making in the backcountry. It’s clear he won’t be making the same mistakes.

“I don’t want to die in an avalanche,” he says.

————–

Tuesday afternoon, March 6, 2012. I’m lying in bed sick with a stomach virus. My whole body aches. I’m exhausted.

I call Chris. In a few weeks, he’s headed to Baffin Island with Steve Romeo on a ski expedition, and I’m trying to special order an expedition outfit for him for his upcoming trip.

We chat for a bit about my health and his trip. Then he starts talking about his plans for an outing in the park the next day.

“I’m supposed to go check out some south-facing couloir off of Ranger Peak tomorrow,” he says. “But I don’t know.” His voice is full of hesitation and uncertainty. “I’m feeling tired. My knees are achy. Romeo wants to get a really early start, and I have to pick up my dad at the airport in the evening….”

I wish now that I’d convinced him to stay home; I wish I’d told him to get some rest. But I don’t, and the topic changes quickly.

“Hope you feel better tomorrow, Michelle.”

“You too, Chris.”

“OK, seeya.”

“Bye.”

It’s the last thing I’ll ever say to him.

———–

The mountains make us feel alive. It’s what we live for. It’s who we are.

And at any given moment, we choose to pull the trigger or pull the plug on our adventures in their midst.

For reasons we’ll never fully understand, Chris chose to go into the mountains that day. He chose to cross the lake. He chose to skin up that couloir. He knew the risks.

The same drive for the mountains that brought us together is the one that took him away.

———–
A public memorial will be held for Steve Romeo and Chris Onufer at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, March 13 in the Village Commons (behind The Mangy Moose) at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Donations in memory of Steve and Chris can be made to the Bridger Teton National Forest Avalanche Center, Teton County Search and Rescue and the Jenny Lake Rangers of Grand Teton National Park. A Facebook page has been set up as a tribute to Steve and Chris. This is a great place to write your own tribute and read others.

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Category: Mission

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  1. tim fuller says:

    hey michelle, i’m tim. went school with ounfer up @ university of maine @ machias. we were fraternity bros. i recently saw your spot on abc news and wanted to reach out to you some how because chris was a mutual friend and i agree he did have such an energy and spirit about him. you always wanted to hang out with him. always smiling and full of life. hadn’t seen him since 1993 and always wondered what he was doing and how he was. i’m so glad he ended up in jakson hole. he always talked about it and proud of him for following his dreams. i’m happy i knew him and i’m you knew him. the recent and way back memories of chris will stay with me forever.

  2. Kristen says:

    Michelle- beautifully written & illustrated. He was an asset in the climbing world, and in the work place. The only peace I have about this was he was doing what he loved in a beautiful place! Peace n Love- Kristen

  3. Melissa says:

    Wow, what a heartfelt tribute, Michelle. So well written that I felt like I was part of your friendship with Chris. You’ve touched on every aspect of being one with the mountains, including the risks involved. Nicely done. Sending good energy your way in this time of loss.
    Peace and love,
    Melissa

  4. jake kay says:

    Well said Michelle. I did not know Chris, but I am glad to know more about him