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Kelly lived life 'strapped in'


Jan. 22 - MOUNT VERNON -- Legend. Pioneer. Icon.

     Those are the words used to describe Craig Kelly, a world-class snowboarder from Mount Vernon who died in an avalanche Monday in British Columbia.
   In recent years, Kelly had turned away from the glare of fame. He loved escaping the confines of resorts to ride in the pristine backcountry. BURTON SNOWBOARDS

     Kelly, a four-time world snowboarding champion, was one of seven people killed in the backcountry near the Durrand Glacier when an avalanche buried them in snow up to 15 feet deep.
     The bodies of the three Canadians and four Americans were recovered, and Royal Canadian Mounted Police are continuing their investigation of the accident.
     "It was like swimming down the roughest river I've ever been in and trying to keep my head above water," said survivor John Seibert of Wasilla, Alaska, who was caught in the avalanche that thundered 300 feet down the mountainside.
     The seven people killed were part of a group of skiers and snowboarders who flew in by helicopter to a mountain chalet with access to untouched, wild glaciers and slopes. Their weeklong trip started on Saturday. Fourteen survived the avalanche.
     Kelly, 36, was a snowboarder before most people knew what snowboarding was. Known for his fluid style and precision, Kelly was one of the first professionals in the sport. An intelligent, articulate man, he was also a sort of unofficial ambassador who helped bring snowboarding to what had been exclusively ski slopes.
     About 10 years ago, Kelly left the world of competitions and media buzz to pursue his passion for thick powder, steep slopes and the company of nature on his own terms.
     He could blaze a trail down a mountain and leave a trail like a silk ribbon.
     "Craig could pick a beautiful line down a mountain that just fit all of the nooks and crannies," said his business partner and friend Jeff Pensiero of Nelson, B.C. "He'd be going a zillion miles an hour down the mountain and just make it look like ballet."
     Pensiero said Kelly had been asked to help with the trip to Durrand Glacier and jumped at the opportunity to learn from the tour operators, Selkirk Mountain Experience Skiing.
     Kelly spent much of the past few years splitting his time between Mount Vernon and Nelson, where he helped run a Cat-skiing operation and was studying to become a fully certified guide through the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides.
     There he also met his girlfriend, Savina Findley, a student of Chinese medicine, and became a father with the birth of Olivia, nearly 2.
     Kelly had traveled to Revelstoke, in southeastern British Columbia's Selkirk Mountains, to help guide a group of 21 skiers and snowboarders when he was killed. He used a "split" snowboard, which splits in half to help with climbing up hills, then fits together to board down a slope.

     News of Kelly's death traveled fast in the snowboarding world.
     "The whole industry is in shell shock at this point," said Cody Dresser, associate editor of Transworld Snowboarding magazine. "We're at a total loss."
     In addition to Kelly, the dead included Ralph Lunsford, 49, of Littleton, Colo.; Dennis Yates, 50, of Los Angeles; and Kathleen Kessler, 39, of Truckee, Calif. Three were from Canada: Naomi Heffler, 25, of Calgary; Dave Finnery, 30, of New Westminster, B.C.; and a 50-year-old man from Canmore, Alberta, whose name was not released pending notification of relatives.
     Yesterday, stunned friends in the Skagit Valley town where Kelly grew up said that the man died the same way he lived -- "strapped in."
     "From the very beginning to the end, Craig was awesome. A genius," said longtime friend Dan Donnelly, a former professional rider who toured the world with Kelly.
     Already a national-level BMX rider, Kelly took up snowboarding in 1981, when the sport was barely known and considered a scourge by many skiers. After a friend introduced him to the "snurfer," Kelly and friends headed for Mount Baker, where skiers gawked at them as they took turns on the rudimentary board.
     He and a circle of friends became the Mount Baker Hard Core, a posse of snowboarders who went to the mountain every weekend.
     "He was one of the first to bring a snowboard up to Mount Baker and showed it to Duncan Howat, our general manager," said Gwyn Howat, spokeswoman at Mount Baker Ski area.
     "We're one of the first to allow snowboarding in North America, so he's very much a forerunner in the sport. He was one of the first, if not the first, to really make it successfully as a snowboard athlete."
     Now, about 70 percent of season pass holders at Mount Baker are snowboarders.
     "He was one up on most of his friends because we were just partying and having fun," said Carter Turk, one of Kelly's longtime friends and early riding companions. "But he was more focused. He envisioned snowboarding as a bigger thing, and it paid off for him."
     After graduating from Mount Vernon High School in 1983, Kelly went to the University of Washington, where he was an honor student. Just shy of earning his degree, Kelly left to become a pro snowboarder.
     He was sponsored by industry leader Burton Snowboards, which gave him his own signature board, and became close to the company's founder, Jake Burton.
     In a statement, Burton said, "I can't think of a bigger loss to the sport and to all of us personally."
     Friends say that Kelly's finesse propelled him to the top and his regimented training helped him master everything in snowboarding from giant slalom to throwing tricks in the pipeline in freestyle.
     Quiet, focused and intense, Kelly visualized his future, then methodically set goals to make it happen.
     "His theory was if you could jump off something and keep your mind quiet, you could land it," said Kirsti McGuire, another longtime friend. "He was into this kind of Zen thing."
     Kelly toured the world, even snowboarding in Iran. He starred in big-air films, including some of the Warren Miller series, and, more recently, the 1999 IMAX movie, "Extreme." He also ran a snowboarding school in the early 1990s with his then-wife, Kelly Jo Kelly.
     He built a home in Glacier, at the foot of Mount Baker, and tried new things such as surfing. He'd ride waves on the coast of Washington even in the coldest winter days, and one friend said he spent three years surfing in Chile.
     But Kelly turned away from his successful career as a pro snowboarder for his pure love of the mountains.
     "After he did all that, he found the backcountry and cared about the soul of snowboarding more than the actual fame," said Dresser, the magazine editor.
     Jeff Galbraith, editor and publisher of Bellingham-based "Frequency: the snowboarder's journal," credits Kelly with advancing the sport more than any other person except Jake Burton.
     "He was just flawless," said Galbraith, who used to snowboard with Kelly in the early days on Mount Baker. "He'd take things that others would struggle to get down and turn them into artistry."
     Once Kelly was ready to leave the competitive world, Galbraith said he "turned a little more introspective and pulled back from the media."
     Nearly three years ago, Kelly wrote about his feelings for backcountry boarding in Transworld Snowboarding magazine.
     "What you do once you're beyond the confines of your local lift service can be as limitless as the mountains themselves," he wrote. "While I will always have the utmost respect for the superhuman out-of-bounds freestyle and extreme stunts that seem to continually progress beyond our imaginable limits, my highest appreciation goes out to the simple rider who's out there just for the experience."
     Though he continued developing and testing products for Burton Snowboards, he began spending more time in British Columbia and working toward his backcountry guide certification. Kelly had already passed the highest level of certification with the Canadian Avalanche Association and he had passed the first two parts of the test for the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides.
     The third and final part of the test was coming soon, said Pensiero, the partner who owns Baldface Lodge.
     "He was not in a position to be taking any risks," said Pensiero. "He was in love with his girlfriend and daughter and he was going places."
     Kelly knew the dangers of mountain terrain well. On each venture into the backcountry, he took a backpack with a shovel and transceiver in case of avalanche, friends said.
     Kelly's friends now take solace in knowing that he lived out his dreams.
     "He was someone you kind of envied and looked up to because he played all of his cards right and worked hard," said Turk. ". . . The guy lived the life of like 30 people all in one."

     P-I reporter Kristin Dizon can be reached at 206-448-8118 or P-I reporter John Iwasaki and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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