Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Ketchum loses one of its own

Bald Mountain avalanche claims the life of 54-year-old Tim Michael


By TREVON MILLIARD
Express Staff Writer

Tim Michael enjoys a laugh with his son, Jake, 10. Photo by

A female skier walks over the bridge at Bald Mountain's River Run base on Friday afternoon, heading to the parking lot.

"You can see it in everyone's faces," she says.

The fear that he's someone they knew.

She, a local, says it's the same fear restraining her from giving her name or commenting on the avalanche that took her instructor away for the search effort.

An ambulance carted away the unidentified man over that same bridge she's walking on. That was only a couple of minutes ago, but the word has already spread: A man was buried in an avalanche, and when the Sun Valley Ski Patrol brought him down, he was unresponsive to CPR.

For a sunny day, Bald Mountain is a little quieter than usual.

Former Ketchum resident Sean Michael was 700 miles away in the San Francisco Bay Area but shared the woman's fear. That night, he read online that the avalanche victim was pronounced dead at 3:31 p.m. at St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center. Blaine County Coroner Russ Mikel later described the cause of death as "traumatic asphyxiation."

The victim turned out to be a local but was closer to Sean than he had imagined. It was his brother, 54-year-old Tim Michael, a resident of Lower Board Ranch, west of Ketchum.

"There's two things he loved unequivocally," Sean said. "Skiing and his family. He died doing what he loved. Still, not much of a consolation."

The coroner's office released Michael's identity Saturday afternoon, but details of the incident have flowed at a trickle since the avalanche. The Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center released a preliminary report Saturday confirming witnesses' reports that Michael was skiing down an ungroomed area near the bottom of Fire Trail run on Seattle Ridge. The report stated that an avalanche released about 100 feet above Michael, breaking 2 to 3 feet deep and 40 feet wide.

"He was carried down into a dense stand of small trees just above a groomed run, and was fully buried 5 to 6 feet deep," the report stated.

An e-mail from Sun Valley Resort stated that the ski patrol responded at 2:31 p.m. Patrollers pinpointed Michael's avalanche beacon and dug him out at 2:46 p.m. They began CPR and put Michael on the Roundhouse Gondola to be transported to the base of River Run, where an ambulance waited.

After a few days of silence, Sun Valley Resort answered the looming question on Tuesday morning of whether Michael was skiing in an open or closed area. Resort spokesman Jack Sibbach said Michael was skiing "inbounds." Janet Kellam, avalanche center director, had confirmed that in a Saturday afternoon phone interview.

"He didn't duck a rope," Kellam said, adding, "Witnesses saw him in the center of the slope with the avalanche coming down from above."

Kellam and avalanche forecaster Chris Lundy were on the mountain surveying for avalanche danger when they got the call about the avalanche. Lundy said they headed down to the area but weren't in time for the rescue effort. He said they did conduct an investigation following the rescue. However, the report will be released by Sun Valley Resort.

Kellam did say that even though Michael was skiing inbounds, it appears "almost certain" that he triggered the avalanche.

Michael's childhood friends Rob and Ricky Wendt said he was on the mountain that day with his wife, Susie, and 10-year-old son, Jake, and had separated from them for a few moments.

Ricky Wendt described the accident as a "fluke," seeing that Michael was a very "responsible" skier.

"I've been here for a month," Rob Wendt said, "and the first thing that Tim got me when I arrived was the latest book on avalanche safety."

Regardless, they said Michael's departure would be this world's loss.

"This was one of the good people," Ricky Wendt said, "the restorer of what little faith I have in humanity."

Rob Wendt described Michael as a compassionate individual, proved by the fact that "many of his friends are people that don't have any friends."

Ricky Wendt laughed in agreement.

"I think a lot more people knew Tim than he ever knew," he said.

Michael had lived in Ketchum for about 35 years, meeting his wife in 1982 and marrying in 1996. His friends and family said Michael never asked for much, just the simple things—an old Volvo, a little dirt bike, nothing fancy. Ricky Wendt said Michael's family would ask him every year what he wanted for Christmas. His answer? "Snow."

Friend John Majors said Michael and his wife lived in a trailer before building their house on west Warm Springs Road. Longtime boss Rex Garner helped Michael build his house and said their relationship was based on much more than business, even though Michael was an "Energizer rabbit."

"I was kind of like his father, or brother," said 70-year-old Garner, "or probably both."

Ricky Wendt said the fact that Garner thinks of Michael as family speaks to how likeable he was. Ricky described Garner as a conservative man from small town Sugar City, and "at one time Tim had a ponytail to his waist."

"Tim can have a ponytail and have a redneck call him his brother," Ricky Wendt said.

Garner said he handed over the house-painting business to Michael after retiring four years ago but still kept in touch. He said the two skied and fished together, and often helped each other around their houses. Like many of Michael's friends, Garner described him as "just a good guy."

"He is one of the kindest, gentlest people I've ever met in my life," Majors said.

Majors said Michael's other defining quality was his "purist" attraction to the outdoors, never needing the newest equipment but just the "passion." And, all of his friends said, that passion was overshadowed by only one other—for Susie and Jake.

"Whether at Susie's side in the garden, or with Jake scrambling up rock faces, the great outdoors centered him," Susie Michael wrote in his obituary.

Ricky Wendt said those who knew him would remember him as one thing.

"More than anything, a friend," he said.

Trevon Milliard: tmilliard@mtexpress.com

Celebration of Tim Michael's life

Tim Michael's wife, Susie, has said that everyone is welcome to a celebration of Tim Michael's life on Friday, Jan. 29, at 2:30 p.m. at Lower Board Ranch. The gathering will be held about a half mile past Penny Lake on the left side of the road.

Friends are encouraged to donate to the Bald Mountain Rescue Fund/Michael Family at P.O. Box 370, Ketchum, ID 83340, or to an education fund for Michael's son, Jake, at US Bank.




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