Stephen Butts Dies in Canadian Avalanche
by Seth Cagin
Jan 20, 2005 | 1690 views | 0 0 comments | 15 15 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A twenty-year tradition among friends took a tragic turn on Tuesday with the death of Stephen M. Butts in an avalanche in the Selkirk Mountains near Revelstoke, British Columbia. The founder and principal owner of Telluride Properties, Butts was 49. His colleague, Steve Cieciuch, a broker at Telluride Properties, seriously injured a leg in the accident.

A memorial service for Butts will be held at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 23, at the top of the gondola outside on the ridge. There will be a reception following the services for family and friends at La Piazza in the Mountain Village.

Butts and Cieciuch were helicopter skiing with a large group of friends from Telluride and Aspen, where Butts lived in the 1990s before relocating to Telluride.

With Butts at the time of the accident were Telluride Mayor John Pryor, Telluride residents Rich Cieciuch, Tim Hild, Steve Hilbert, Stuart Brown and Kevin Croke; Steve Hilbert's brother Otto Hilbert; and seven men from Aspen.

What started as a traditional January trip among a group of Aspen men to the Revelstoke backcountry grew to include the Telluride contingent after Butts moved to Telluride. This year's trip was Butts's twelfth.

Royal Canadian Mounted Police Sergeant Art Kleinsmith says the avalanche began "in an open area" above the skiers and swept through the trees where they were skiing. The slope angle was about 25 degrees, considered at minimal risk level for avalanches. Butts was wearing an Avalung, a breathing apparatus that did not activate. Avalanche experts plan to go in to investigate the scene when weather permits; the snowpack has been destabilized by unusually heavy rains.

According to Pryor, reached by telephone Thursday from Colona, British Columbia, where the party was awaiting a flight home, the accident occurred on a run called Subaru Trees.

Avalanche conditions at the time were rated as extreme by the Canadian Avalanche Association. The decision to ski, Pryor explained, is not made by guests at the lodge operated by Selkirk Tangiers Helicopter Skiing. Instead, it is made by guides, who study the snow and weather conditions.

"Many years you don't ski all six days you're there," Pryor said. "This year we didn't ski on Sunday."

Though there were questions on Tuesday about whether or not to ski, the decision was reached by the guides to ski a run in the trees. "But we were told it was dangerous and that we needed to be careful," Pryor said.

Pryor was in the first group of skiers to descend the run. Butts and Steve Cieciuch went next. While a group of skiers awaiting their turn to ski witnessed the avalanche from above, Pryor saw it from below.

"The slide literally went over the back of my skis as I went into the woods," Pryor said. The slide was about twenty yards wide.

Pryor said he believes the slide was triggered by Butts and Cieciuch while they were on a traverse, propagating a slide above them.

"Cieciuch was able to swim in the slide and keep his head up," Pryor said. "Butts was dragged under through stands of small trees and he broke his neck."

Within 15 or 20 seconds, after the snow settled, the surviving skiers quickly determined that Butts was missing, and they paired up, switching their transceivers to receive.

"I had a signal immediately," Pryor said. Pryor and his partner quickly located Butts, finding a hand sticking out of the snow. They dug him out in less than five minutes and began to administer first aid.

"But there was nothing there," Pryor said. "He was like a rag doll."

Another helicopter was on the scene within ten minutes, with a defibrillator. But the equipment sensed no electrical signal.

Pryor later learned from the coroner that Butts had died of a fractured spine, and likely died immediately.

"Honestly," Pryor said, "he died with his best friends, skiing his favorite run, while helicopter skiing, which is one of the greatest thrills in life."

But, Pryor added, for him and for the others on the trip, the accident is all the more awful coming only a few years after the death of former Mountain

Village mayor Andy Hanley, who was an annual participant in the same heli-skiing group. The commemorative Hanley Ice Rink in the Telluride Town Park Pavilion opened this fall.

The men from Aspen flew home from British Columbia on Wednesday. Steve Cieciuch went with them, and underwent surgery on Wednesday night. The Telluride men remained in British Columbia until Friday, waiting for the local coroner to complete his investigation of the accident, so they could bring Butts's remains home with them.
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