Kathy's pack

“It’s the end of times,” she says with a shrug of resignation, “I swear, the end of times.”

For the last several years, my mother-in-law has looked upon world events – natural and human-caused – as a sure sign of the impending apocalypse. And while I’m not quite ready to hitch a ride with the four horsemen, I agree that’s it’s not especially the best of times, either.

For the last several months, it seems we’ve been bombarded with news of killer natural disasters, from earthquakes and tsunamis to hurricanes, tornadoes and floods. Then there’s the manmade disasters such as $4-plus gallons of gas, a sagging economy and tainted tomatoes, not to mention the local travesties of late frosts, closing mini golf courses and army ant infestations. All that, and I still haven’t gotten my economic stimulus check. And then, as if things weren’t bad enough, we awoke Sunday morning to find that Tim Russert has gone off to that giant news bureau in the sky.

But Russert isn’t the only one to have departed our company as of late. Although it didn’t make national news, Durango also lost one of its colorful local personalities recently. Last month, avalanche guru and outdoor survivalist Kathy Fritch passed away from ovarian cancer at the age of 74.

Of course, anyone who has taken an avalanche-awareness class in the last few decades, caught a powder night at Hesperus or is worth his or her weight in Ruschblocks, knows Kathy and her husband, Don. Kathy – whose don’t-leave-home-without-it survival kit, “Kathy’s Pack,” is sure to live on in infamy – and Don were not only lifetime members of the National Ski Patrol but instructors at the Silverton Avalanche School and founders of the Hesperus Avalanche School.

I was first introduced to Kathy on a frosty January morning in Silverton – her avalanche slide show almost as chilling as the cold, hard seats in the Miner’s Theatre that day. As the first female ski patroller at Purgatory, a patroller at Jackson’s Snow King and Idaho’s Grand Targhee, and a member of search and rescue, she had seen – and done – it all. Not only had she survived avalanches and helped save lives, she had somehow managed to raise four children and keep Don, with a penchant for jokes and mischief, on task. In fact, I’m pretty sure she could fight off a grizzly with her bare hands, rig a cozy snow cave from pine boughs and twine, put a mean coat of wax on her three-pins and still put a warm dinner in the enamelware. In other words, Kathy was what’s known as a good, old fashioned butt kicker. Reality TV had nothing on her – she was the original “Survivor.” All this and a good Minnesota girl, to boot.

Anyway, when Kathy got down to business, you sat up straight and listened. In fact, even after my first avalanche course was over, and I stood at the foot of a favorite backcountry run, her voice still echoing in my head: “Terrain trap!” Envisioning the headline: “Couple dies in slide immediately after finishing avalanche course – Too stupid to have proper safety equipment,” we high-tailed it back to Durango and put down the big bucks for beacons and probes. Even years later, Kathy kept us honest with the occasional Deer Creek drive-by and finger wagging, “You’re standing in a run-out zone” she’d scold from her passing Subaru. To this day, you’ll never find me in the backcountry without the requisite peanut M&Ms, plastic bags (for cold feet), Leatherman and extra ski pole basket (still haven’t had the time to craft homemade down booties, but someday). And you’ll never find me looking at a dazzling virgin powder field in that same reckless, twentysomething way again. If there’s one thing Kathy taught, it was that the mountains are akin to a sleeping giant. Benevolent when undisturbed but capable of great harm and suffering when disrespected.

I last saw Kathy over the winter at her home away from home for so many years, Hesperus. My 4-year-old son, Baxter, and I were taking a hot chocolate break between midway-station runs when the Fritchs stopped in for Frito pie and a little downhome, Quonset hut hospitality. Kathy, an avid dog lover, had just adopted a new pup and we swapped training tips and tales of the epic winter. True to form, Kathy was unphased by the huge snowfall, as any bona fide veteran of the mountains should be. In fact, as we talked of the snow and her upcoming course, I detected that familiar twinkle in her eye. This was what she lived for. Self-reliance in nature was what it was all about – making your way in that great, big, wild world with nothing but the clothes on your back, the necessities in your pack and some honest to goodness ingenuity.

And end times or not, the world could use more people like that.

– Missy Votel



In this week's issue...

January 25, 2024
Bagging it

State plastic bag ban is in full effect, but enforcement varies

January 26, 2024
Paper chase

The Sneer is back – and no we’re not talking about Billy Idol’s comeback tour.

January 11, 2024
High and dry

New state climate report projects continued warming, declining streamflows