For weeks, like many people in the valley—perhaps even a little more than some—Chad Martin prayed for snow.
Snow and playing in it, especially on snowmobiles, had proven a restorative family outing. It was while heading back to Seattle from a snowmobiling trip in Yellowstone that his mom, Lesley, and dad, George, decided to move to the Wood River Valley more than a dozen years ago. And when their only child, Chad, decided to be closer after college, he came out and taught kids to ski.
On Tuesday, as a gentle snow began to fall while the 43-year-old and some friends headed out near Smiley Creek on a recovery mission, he looked at the snow with disdain and the Sawtooth Mountains as traitors.
He looked at the familiar area of Frenchman’s Creek and tried to imagine how happy his parents had been days earlier, out with friends enjoying a ride on their winter sleds, his mom loving their camaraderie and adventure, and his dad, as always, going along to please his wife of 40 years and taking all the pictures.
Looking from the parts and pieces of broken snowmobiles and downed trees to a benign-looking layer of snow in a wide valley, Chad Martin tried to find the good in the tarnished beauty. All he could think of was how he and his father had renewed their relationship in those mountains, their last outing to Alturas Lake last month for a family ride, and how grateful he was that a cold kept him out of the snow so they could watch the Seattle Seahawks win the Super Bowl together.
Things were finally starting to feel good again after years of professional and personal drought.
“I hate to say it like this, but we all were really blossoming,” Chad said. “We just were starting to get back to enjoying life, and each other.”
The men had taken up hunting together, adding that to the seasonal bonding. The sense of being robbed of time while doing nothing wrong was simply unfathomable.
“They knew what they were doing—they were 30-year veterans,” Chad said Wednesday. “My mom is feeling guilty that they shouldn’t have gone out there because of the snow conditions, but I saw where they were and I know how they chose their path carefully. They were not reckless.”
Authorities said that while conditions were right for an avalanche, the group was well prepared and were in a relatively safe area.
However, it happened. Lesley Martin, 70, survived being encased in snow for more than an hour and a half, and while her body is physically healing, her son said the reality of losing the love of her life is only just setting in.
“We did everything together,” she said, from raising Chad and building their dream houses complete with the ability to snowmobile out the back door, to running the ranches they built in Bellevue and Fairfield. In their life together, it was often she who came up with the ideas, and he who accommodated her, accompanying her to cutting-horse competitions and, more recently, to festivals where she sold handmade jewelry.
“He was my best friend,” she said. “He wasn’t the best athlete, but he did everything I wanted to do. Except jumping out of the airplane. He always wondered why anyone would jump out of a perfectly good airplane.”
The Camas Prairie in winter can be lonely and brutal, and for the Martins, who were used to cooperation in the big city, small-town politics didn’t always mix well with their plans. And as the couple began to age and wonder if they wanted to keep up with 40 acres and all that entailed, the economy tanked. The couple began downsizing and eventually moved back to Bellevue.
Hallmark Properties owner Deborah Hall hired George Martin as marketing director in 2012.
“He challenged me every day,” she said. “He dragged me kicking and screaming into the video world, but he was a genius when it came to marketing, so I let him do it.”
She said the elder Martin had “a wonderful eye—he had a way of making things look better than they did in real life.”
As an example of his cutting-edge desires and restoration of his financial health, Martin recently got a drone for taking aerial photos and was experimenting with it. He helped out Hailey Ice and its efforts to develop a more permanent rink at the rodeo grounds by floating it above and providing them with engaging promo shots.
The newfound ability to float above the canvas was being felt in his personal life as well. The stressors were lessening and the Martins were beginning to live life again as they came to live it here; the clan had begun to get closer than ever.
“He loved the valley, he loved his son. He loved the people he was working with which was real special and he loved his photography,” Lesley Martin said. “He was really starting to enjoy the life up here again after being stressed for so long.”
The last time Chad spoke with his father was Saturday night, when the younger man failed to call from Jackson Hole to say he made it all right. Over there, avalanches had gotten him and his students kicked off the mountain and closed a few passes. The caution was in the air.
When Chad got a call from his mother’s cell number Sunday and heard a friend’s voice on the phone, he suspected the worst.
Standing out in the expanse where his father died, Chad said he found relief in a conversation they had had a month earlier.
“We said that if something was to happen, that we didn’t want to have any regrets because we’re out doing what we love,” he said. “He wasn’t the healthiest person, and this was better than wasting away in some hospital. It’s ironic how we were bitching about not enough snow.”
He said that while he disagrees with the avalanche investigators that the snowmobilers caused the slide, “that’s what they believe and if it is saves another life, keeps someone safe, that’s fine.”
Chad said he has been swarmed with good will and love in the past few days, something his mom can’t fully comprehend the magnitude of.
“This wouldn’t happen in Seattle, and my mom has no idea how much support is out there for us. There is a special bond with people, even just close acquaintances want to come around. Everyone is here for the same thing, and everyone is affected when something like this happens.”
At Martin’s old office at Hallmark, Hall said staring out of hers to an empty one across the way was too heartbreaking, so they turned on Martin’s light.
“Whatever he put his lens on, you knew it was a place you wanted to be,” Hall said. “We have lost an extreme talent and I lost a very good friend.”
They put a special spotlight on his prized drone.