Scholarship winner returns to the backcountry
Eight years ago, 34-year-old John Knox McEwen Frank, a.k.a. “Knox Frank,” died in a spring avalanche near Ophir Pass about six miles west of Silverton while skiing with friends. A beloved Crested Butte resident, Frank was well-versed in backcountry know-how, but even for the most prepared there is risk in the sport.
The Knox Frank Memorial Scholarship for Avalanche Education was created in his memory by close friends and family shortly thereafter. The winner of an annual essay contest receives the opportunity to take an avalanche safety and awareness course in Crested Butte. Due to the pandemic, this year’s applicants were limited to Gunnison Valley residents.
Crested Butte’s Theresa Henry, part of the original scholarship judging panel and a close friend of Frank, won the scholarship this year.
Long time Crested Butte residents Jamie Schneider and her husband Brian thought up the idea for the scholarship. “We just make sure this happens every year, so we obtain the class, make sure the recipient has everything they need while they’re here, whether it’s rides, food or lodging,” said Jamie Schneider.
A number of past recipients were judges on the panel this year. Jamie Schneider emphasized there was a very strong group of applicants this year, it was a close race, noting Henry won on her own merits.
“I think everybody who knew Knox shed a tear of joy because it’s just beautiful to see it come full circle, and she’s so deserving of it,” Jamie Schneider said. “Education is the key to survival, whether it’s people who have gone into the backcountry and have knowledge to share like Knox or taking your own course and being self-sufficient.”
From pondering the application to the immense community support following her win, the entire process has been cathartic for Henry.
“It’s good sometimes to tap into emotions you might not be over and grind them down onto paper,” she said.
After losing her friend in a jarring and painful way, Henry took many years off from skiing in the backcountry.
“Knox was one of my best friends, and it was an emotional journey to dig up those feelings and to move forward. But after he had passed away I didn’t want to go backcountry skiing,” she explained. “I was too nervous, I had no avalanche education and relied on everyone I skied with. That posed a lot of danger to myself and my friends!’
Henry’s powerful, 1,500-word essay paints a vivid picture of learning to backcountry ski, with Frank as a constant source of humor and encouragement along the way. Applicants were asked to explain who they are, their passion for the outdoors, how they would utilize the new-found knowledge from the course and their plans for sharing their “overall stoke factor with others!’
Henry arrived in the valley in 2002, hailing from Indiana with no skiing experience and a fear of heights. Becoming entranced with the terrain near Crested Butte, Henry taught herself to ski, bike and climb the mountains. Her overall health improved and friendships bloomed.
As a single mother of two young boys, Silas and Dax Burbank, Henry felt like there was no time like the present to commit to her education. “This year I felt ready, and I’m ready to do this for me and for them,” she said.
Henry skis with her boys when she can, despite the difficulty of herding two kids on the slopes. “We ski to go get hot chocolate sometimes. It’s all a part of the learning process. It was another reason I wanted to apply for the scholarship!’ said Henry. “Skiing with my boys, I want to have knowledge of what’s safe and to have the tools to be safe.”
In 2012, a beacon Frank carried enabled searchers to find his body. Beacons, also known as transceivers, are an expensive but necessary tool in the backcountry. Henry was looking to update her own decadeold beacon before she skied offpiste again.
After posting on social media about the scholarship, Henry included in the post that she was on the hunt for an updated beacon, asking if anyone had input. She also encouraged her followers to donate to the Crested Butte Avalanche Center (CBAC) if they could.
In a matter of two days, an anonymous bow-adorned paper bag from the Alpineer appeared on the driver’s seat of her vehicle. It contained a brand new beacon.
“It was so emotional and overwhelming,” said Henry. “There is this connection of people wanting to support each other and spread the love around in this community. Beacons are no small gift by any means but the whole act of it all was pretty special and tugs at my heartstrings in so many ways.”
Despite attempts to try to thank the mystery gifter, Henry still has no idea who manifested this random act of kindness. And while the beacon was monumental, $470 was also raised for CBAC solely from Henry’s posted request.
In February, Henry will take an American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) Level 1 three-day course with Irwin Guides in Crested Butte.
“This is going to be a big year for backcountry skiing with travel restrictions and traffic on the mountain so bringing awareness to this issue is very important to me,” added Henry. “The mountain and where we live, the elements are so powerful, we’re seeing so many more people in our valley, and we need to look out for each other.”
Henry exudes gratefulness, and not just for the surprise on her car seat. She is thankful for the opportunity to learn how to keep herself and her boys safe while doing something she loves and honoring the memory of Knox Frank
“The last eight years have been about work and kids. Being a single mom, you kinda lose who you are, and this was a huge step in connecting with who I am and tapping into myself again,” Henry said. “It forced me to realize why and how I moved here. It was a great moment for me to take inventory in how far I’ve come while being here.”
(Morgan Schaefer can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Last Saturday, Dec. 19, Dr. Jeff Paffendorf, 51, and Albert Perry 55, both of Durango, died in an avalanche near Ophir Pass. A well known-skier from Crested Butte, Jeff Schneider, died skiing the Anthracites near Ohio Pass last Friday, Dec. 18.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) urged those traveling to the backcountry to exercise extra care and pay attention to the avalanche forecasts. Visit colorado.gov/avalanche.
From CAIC Sunday, Dec. 20:
The snowpack is below average across the state. Avalanches are mostly small, but very easy to trigger. This week, we have seen avalanches grow in size and they are going to continue to get bigger as the mountains get more snow.
Colorado is the home of weak snow and avalanches are not uncommon. This year is worse. We haven’t seen conditions this bad since 2012. Although the avalanche conditions are not unprecedented, they are worse than many people are used to. People are using avalanche-safety strategies that have worked in recent years, but current conditions require additional caution.