Obituary: Arne Backstrom
The life and tragic death of a up-and-coming freeskiing pioneer
As most in the ski industry know by now, Arne Backstrom, one of the fastest rising athletes in the sport, died June 3 in a fall while skiing 5,752-meter (18,871-foot) Nevado Pisco in the Peruvian Cordillera Blanca. He was 29 years old.
Backstrom was skiing with fellow Squaw Valley locals and elite ski mountaineers Kip Garre and Dave Rosenbarger when the accident occurred, on the mountain's precipitous south face. The trio had traveled to Peru with the intention of filming a descent of 19,682-foot Artesonraju's pyramid-shaped southeast face later in their trip. They were skiing Pisco as an acclimatization objective, after which they planned to meet Idaho ski mountaineer Jamie Laidlaw and continue with the expedition.
A full accident report, as released by the team in Peru and first seen by Arne's family, can be found below.
ESPN.com published a feature story on the Backstrom family one month before Arne's accident. Due to the collective subject matter, not all of the quotes or facts relating to Arne's character made it into the story.
Yet his talent was as rare as his persona was kind and thoughtful, which is why we are including more here.
Arne was born in Seattle and was the second of Steve and Betsy Backstrom's three children, sandwiched between his older sister Ingrid, 31, and younger brother Ralph, 27. He lived one year in Alaska before returning to Seattle and learning to ski at Crystal Mountain. He moved to Squaw Valley, Calif., in August of 2006.
Ingrid, in an interview earlier this spring, said: "Arne, whenever he skis, it's like, how is he doing that? He can ski down an entire mogul field and make it look like he's skiing smooth pow."
"Even among really good skiers," said his college roommate, Colin Prince, "it's sort of obvious he's in some tiny sliver of the population."
Arne, a chemistry major at Whitman College, also was blessed with an engineer's mind. He kept power tools in his closet during college and was, in Ingrid's words, "able to take apart anything and put it back together. He could pick a deadbolt and take apart all our cars."
Arne once solved a 4x4x4 Rubik's cube (most are 3x3x3) on the drive home from Whistler. Another time, he morphed a burly Tecnica race boot with a superlight Dynafit mountaineering boot and used the finished product to ski a 2,000-foot couloir in Yosemite.
Prince cited Arne's talent on two wheels, well known around Tahoe. "He's won cross-country races on a 40-pound downhill bike with seven pounds of travel."
"He could unicycle after half a day," Ingrid said. "It was insane -- whatever he touched, he was the best at."
In an April interview, Arne told of how he bought his first pair of crampons and ice ax in Chamonix in 2009, and spent hours poring over Anselme Baud's guidebook to technical ski lines around the valley. "That was basically the first time I got into real ski mountaineering," he said, noting that it quickly became his passion. Within a month he'd knocked off some of the most famous lines in France, including the Mallory Couloir on the north face of the Aguille.
At home, Arne was known for hucking big cliffs but also as a pensive, thoughtful member of the Backstrom family, one who loved to roast and drink coffee and sit around reading a good book, just like his siblings and parents.
According to family friend Kevin Quinn, a memorial service is tentatively scheduled for Saturday, June 12, in his hometown of Seattle, pending the logistics of returning his body from Peru.
At 9:45 a.m. on June 3rd Arne Backstrom was killed while skiing Pisco (5752 m) in the Llanganuco Valley of the Cordillera Blanca, Peru. With him were Kip Garre and Dave Rosenbarger. The team arrived in Peru on the 28th of May for a month long ski mountaineering expedition. On June 1st the team established a base camp at 4650 m in the Llanganuco Valley with intentions of climbing and skiing Pisco as apart of their acclimatization process. At 4:45 a.m. on June 3rd Arne, Kip, and Dave started their climb from base camp under clear skies and calm winds. They ascended the Standard Route via the Huandoy/Pisco Col and SW Slopes with no difficulties. The team made the summit at 9:00 am and began their descent at 9:25.
Snow conditions off of the summit were consistent and ideal for skiing. An inch of warmed, soft snow overlay a firm base. Approximately 150 m below the summit the team stopped at a ramp leading to Pisco's S Face, a 400m 50-55 degree slope of snow and rock. The S Face was a feature that the team had observed and discussed during the two days prior to their climb. At 9:45 a.m., after some discussion, Arne decided to descend the ramp to assess the snow conditions of the face. He made a few turns down the 40-degree ramp in soft conditions before encountering hard snow or ice. Arne attempted to traverse onto the S Face to what appeared to be softer snow. Conditions on the face remained firm and the team noticed Arne accelerate. His downhill ski released causing Arne to fall out of Kip and Dave's sight.
Not able to see Arne or the entire S Face, Kip and Dave tried to make verbal contact with no success. Realizing self-arrest was highly unlikely, Kip and Dave descended the route of their ascent knowing it would be the safest, fastest way to reach Arne. At 9:55 Kip and Dave encountered a guide and client just below the Huandoy/Pisco Col and informed them of the accident. At this point Kip and Dave roped up and began to traverse/skin, maintaining a high route under Pisco's S Face through heavily glaciated and crevassed terrain. At approximately 10:55 a.m. they found Arne beneath the face. Upon thorough examination Arne had neither a radial nor a carotid pulse and had sustained head trauma despite wearing a helmet.
Unable to move Arne back through the glaciated terrain, Kip and Dave were forced to descend in search of help. At 11:30 a.m. Kip and Dave reached two guides who had been informed of the accident and were coming to assist in the rescue. All unnecessary equipment was left behind and the rescue party walked roped up back to Arne and reached him at 12:15 p.m. An improvised litter was created using a rope and skis. The four person rescue party began moving Arne back towards the trail leading to base camp at 1:15 p.m. Due to soft snow and complicated terrain, progress was slow. Wanting to avoid any further accidents from serac and rock fall from the face above, the decision was made after two hours of work to leave Arne in a safe location and return the following morning with additional help.
At approximately 4:15 p.m., with the use of a satellite phone, the team contacted a friend in the United States to help with coordination of a rescue and to notify members of Arne's family.
The following day, with the help of several local porters and guides Arne was brought down to a refuge located adjacent to the team's base camp. Currently formalities are being taken care of to return Arne back to his family in the United States.
We want to apologize for the factual nature of this report. All of us here, as well as thousands of friends and family members around the world are deeply saddened by this unfortunate event. Our foremost concern, however, is that all of the facts surrounding the accident are understood.
Our thoughts and sympathy are with the Backstrom family.
--As released by Kevin Quinn