Legendary Snowboarder Dies in Avalanche

Craig Kelly’s death last week in an avalanche on a remote peak in British Columbia seemed to be almost eerily preordained by the legend the snowboarder constructed during his life.

The 36-year-old Kelly, a four-time snowboarding world champion and three-time U.S. Open winner, was one of seven who died on 7,000-foot Selkirk Mountain, 34 miles northeast of Revelstoke and 250 miles east of Vancouver. At 10 a.m., January 20, an avalanche struck suddenly, burying most members of a party of 21 skiers traversing a glacier on a guided tour. Those who died were buried by up to 15 feet of snow. Among the skiers killed were two Californians: 39-year-old Kathleen Kessler, of Truckee, and 50-year-old ski instructor Dennis Yates, of Los Angeles. Kelly, one of the pioneers of backcountry snowboarding, was training to be a guide.

Kelly is often considered snowboarding‘s first professional. While that may be debated, it’s true he was the sport‘s first figurehead. Jake Burton, the founder of industry leader Burton Snowboards, Kelly’s longtime sponsor, attributes much of his company‘s success to its identification with Kelly’s mystique. “When I listened to Craig, my company took off,” said Burton at a recent industry ceremony honoring Kelly. “When the rest of the industry did, the sport also took off.”

The snowboarder‘s rise to prominence coincided with the snowboarding boom in the late ’80s and early ‘90s. Snowboarding fused the soulfulness of surfing with the aggression and versatility of skateboarding, making it a natural progression for a ski industry that was moribund by the time Kelly came on the scene. Snowboarding struck a chord with X-generation youths rebelling against the elitist mores of skiing.

But in the early days, it was an outsider activity that was considered radical and dangerous. It was often outlawed at conservative ski resorts. As an activity and lifestyle, snowboarding was in search of an identity and in need of charismatic figures around whom to rally. The iconoclastic Kelly was made to order.

Kelly grew up in Mount Vernon, Washington, where he was a nationally ranked BMX racer. He began snowboarding on a whim at the urging of his BMX sponsor. Kelly honed his smooth, powerful style at burly Mount Baker, his hometown hill, where he formed the seminal Mount Baker Hardcore Posse, which also included Mike Ranquet, one of the snowboarders who made Vin Diesel look good in XXX.

Like legendary surfer Mikey Dora, Kelly became disdainful of competition and media hype that seemed directed more at growing the industry than progressing the style and skill of the sport. After dominating the professional ranks in the mid- to late ’80s, when he won his world championships and U.S. opens, Kelly dropped out in 1991.

In so doing, though, Kelly only added to his legend. Prominent filmmakers, like Warren Miller and Greg Stump, and magazine writers and photographers were forced to seek out Kelly on his own terms, usually in the backcountry, riding powder. Photos and video sessions of Kelly became the holy grails of snowboarding, and Kelly came to be looked upon as the guardian of the sport‘s integrity. The images captured were those of an independent figure, carving beautiful turns in powdery, unmolested terrain far from the manufactured artifice of commercial ski resorts.

Recently, Kelly had moved to Nelson, British Columbia, to further concentrate on backcountry riding and guiding. The more elusive he grew, the more his image and statement of independence haunted the sport.

Kelly is survived by two children and his partner, Savina.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >