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The Mountain Town Goodbye: A Tribute to Kelsey Hewitt

Kelsey was an inspirational source of light to many; she genuinely loved her life. Hewitt family photo.

"We take a great risk every time we go out our front door." – Mark Twain

The first time I met Randy and Elise Hewitt, they were at my house clearing the possessions out of what had been their daughter’s room. About 24 hours earlier, 25-year-old Kelsey Hewitt had been enjoying one of the best powder days of her life at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. With each powder lap, her decision to move away from her home in Oregon to start a new chapter seemed more and more validated. But unfortunately, late in the morning and under waves of powder exaltation, Kelsey began the final run of her life.

In the snow-choked woods of Sundance Ridge, awash in life’s greatest ecstasy, Kelsey fell into a tree well — and died.

Now standing before me just a day later, her parents were wearing a grief that was still too young to fully bear. Slowly, Randy and Elise undertook the heavy work of packing up the life of their little girl into cardboard boxes. Bit by bit, they loaded Kelsey’s car with her things, and before darkness had fallen, they’d begun their long, somber drive back west towards Oregon.

A Universal Experience

totally stoked Kelsey on the summit ridge at Silverton Mountain in 2011. Scott Anderson photo.

I was one of the unfortunate ones who didn’t get to know Kelsey very well. Having only lived under the same roof for a month, she and I hadn’t gotten to bond as people do during a late-night conversation, or on an extended river trip or ski tour. But as I watched her parents slowly reclaim her possessions, I couldn’t help but feel that I did know her. Whether it was the Paco Pad, the dry bags, the ammo can or the Melanzana hoodie, her possessions were a reflection of my own, and by extension, an echo of my own life.

It could have been my parents cleaning out my room.

Each one of us is on an individual path, but the lifestyle that we live in the mountains ties us all together. Even though I didn’t know Kelsey as an intimate friend, transcendentally — through her lifestyle and our shared experiences — I knew her very well.


Randy, Kelsey, Braden and Elise and the family pup break during a hike up Mt. Washington with the Sisters towering in the distance. Hewitt family photo. 

A few weeks after Kelsey’s passing, I reached out to Randy and Elise to learn more about their daughter’s life, and also to address the cold reality beyond the cliché of someone “dying doing what they loved” — and that being okay.

During her short time on Earth, Kelsey was nothing if not tenacious. At age 12, she and her father undertook a rigorous climb up the flank of Mount St. Helens. A total sufferfest, the hike ascended 5,000 vertical feet in only five miles, including a final mile of frustrating ‘one step up, half a step back’ scree hiking. In her final bid for the summit ridge, where other hikers were shouting and having mental breakdowns, Kelsey turned to her father and said “Let’s finish this!” and then blazed up the rest of the scree, passing every other group in sight.

Her first summer home from college, Kelsey decided she wanted to become a raft guide. She was 19 years old, 5’3" and 115 pounds of pure determination. Had she asked, anyone would have told her that she was too small and too inexperienced to get a job as a rafting guide. But she didn’t ask. While most aspiring river guides leverage connections to get a job in the industry, Kelsey instead drove the two and a half hours from Portland to the Deschutes River, marched into a river outfitter, and talked her way into a job.

The girl had fire in her spirit.

On the road to yet another river, Kelsey works on her group's rig. Like most river rat ski bums, Kelsey was constantly on the go season to season. Sarah Hammond photo.

When I met Kelsey Hewitt, her life was in transition. A former top student at CU Boulder and a highly successful guide in her twenties, Kelsey lived by the cycles of the mountain lifestyle, infamous for seasonal stints of employment complimented by homelessness, travel, and long stretches of artful dirtbaggery.

But as it is for almost every twenty-something who commits to semi-poverty to live in the big hills, she had become restless and unsure about her path. Deciding finally on putting down roots in Jackson Hole, Kelsey aspired to find a new purpose that would put to use the intelligence and work ethic that she’d cultivated throughout her life.

She lived that way because it made her happy.

“She set the bar very, very high for herself. Basically, in her mind, I’m not sure if she ever reached the bar,” Elise Hewitt told me during a Skype call. “Whether we’re talking about her studies or her physical accomplishments, she always thought she could do better.”

And at some point, that drive pushed her to dream beyond a rotation of seasonal ski bum and river guide jobs.

Kelsey puts the beat down on some clients while surfing a hole in her home state of Oregon. David Arnold photo.

“She knew that what she was doing was temporary. What she didn’t know was how long to let it run,” Randy explained. “So rattling around in the back of her mind was the stress of wondering how many more of these summer job/winter job kind of things she could go through before she needed to just settle down and focus on something.”

RELATED: The Life and Death of Malia Hatfull

Yet even though Kelsey was on the cusp of change and the tectonics of her world were indeed shifting, both Randy and Elise understand that their daughter’s life was, at all moments, an expression of joy and passion. “She lived that way because it made her happy,” Elise said.

Making Decisions

Randy and Kelsey SUP it up on the Colorado River during some down time in the Grand Canyon. Hewitt family photo. 

The circumstances of Kelsey’s death were of course tragic, but the truth of the matter is that she did nothing wrong. Most people live day-to-day trying to make what they consider “good decisions” in the hopes that this prudence will in some way save them from an untimely passing.

Many like to think that by making conservative decisions, they can stave off the potential for injury and death, but Kelsey’s accident shakes this paradigm of thinking to its core.

It's real hard when a 25-year-old dies because that’s not in our control, but we’re supposed to control everything.

Kelsey, for the most part, was doing everything right. She was skiing inbounds, wearing a helmet, and was accompanied by loyal, trusted people. But that still wasn’t enough. As terrible as it is to admit to ourselves, in life, and specifically in action sports, sometimes bad things just happen.

“It was just bad luck. I mean, she and her old boyfriend practiced escaping from tree wells,” Elise said. “He showed her how to get out of her bindings, get down on the bottom, swim back up — they practiced this kind of stuff.”

Far from being a novice, Kelsey’s dad taught her how to ski when she was just three years old. During her formative years in high school and college, she was a highly competitive ski racer who also could be counted on to go bell-to-bell anytime there was powder on the ground. She was a badass.

Skiing from the ripe old age of three, Kelsey was an expert on the hill. Here, Randy teaches a wee Kelsey the ways of the mountain folk. Hewitt family photo.

But the random quality of Kelsey’s death has made it an especially hard pill to swallow.

“One of the things it’s going to take me the longest to accept is that this was just a random fluke accident. It wasn’t a bad decision,” Randy lamented. “She wasn’t skiing in an out-of-bounds avalanche-prone area. We might have been able to fault her for that, but that’s not what she was doing. She was taking risks that many other skiers were taking that same day.”

“How my daughter could be gone forever — and just because of a random, bad luck occurrence — is really hard to accept,” he continued. “You never know when there will be someone to look out for you and when there’s not gonna be someone there. I wasn’t there for Kelsey. I try not to beat myself up because, at the end of the day, you can’t protect people.”

The Love That Kills

Kelsey drops some powder pitches in the San Juan Mountains of Southwest Colorado. Scott Anderson photo. 

At the end of the day, one of the greatest underlying sources of woe in all of this is that Kelsey’s life was taken by one of her greatest loves: snow. The reality that this elemental force could be responsible for so much pain and also so much happiness is bewildering. Yet below the surface, the elemental and physical power of snow is what attracts people to it. But because of that attraction, a high price is occasionally paid.

This awareness, however, brings little peace to the Hewitts. Both Randy and Elise have been involved in snow sports and the ski industry for most of their lives, and to them — and in particular, to Randy — the manner of Kelsey’s passing amounts to the betrayal of an old, life-long friend.

It’s not a terrorist, a drunk driver or a grizzly bear — it’s snow!

“I’m perplexed. I’m disappointed. She came into this world on a snowy day. We released her ashes on a beautiful snowy day. She spent her whole life enjoying snow,” Randy said. “And yet snow took her away. I’m disappointed that the snow could do that. I don’t know how long it’s gonna take before I’ll be able to just go freeskiing and enjoy it without wondering how the beautiful snow could take my daughter away.”

Part of the problem of losing someone under such circumstances, Randy asserted, is that there isn't anything to hold accountable — leaving an immense hole of unanswered questions where normally there would be closure and a narrative of responsibility.

“It’s not a terrorist, a drunk driver or a grizzly bear — it’s snow!” Randy cried.

Losing Control

Kelsey and her mother Elise share a moment at Ledges Camp in the GC. Mindy Breyer photo.

Kelsey had a necklace that she never took off, a small silver heart given to her by her grandparents. The day after her passing, Randy and Elise visited their daughter in the mortuary to say a final goodbye. Upon finding the necklace with the remains of her daughter, Elise clasped the heart around her neck, letting it fall near her own heart, where she plans to keep it for the rest of her life.

“We just don’t know why. We don’t get to write the script. This wasn’t the script that I would have written,” Elise said. “We don’t get to write the script, but we do get to play the part.”

RELATED: Between Two Walls – The Story of a Grand Canyon Evacuation

One of the reasons why Kelsey’s death is so tragic is because our Western culture perpetuates the notion that people are supposed to be in control of their lives. We’re taught from an early age to take an active role in shaping the path that we walk and the destinies we try to fulfill. We’re taught to write our own story, to paint our own picture, but the truth is, we’re not always in control.

“We do the best we can, but our society — we’re totally based on ‘We are in control,’ ” Elise iterated. “You don’t like your life? Make it better. You don’t like how things are? Change it. But that’s just our society. And it's real hard when a 25-year-old dies because that’s not in our control, but we’re supposed to control everything.”

Growth in Suffering

Kelsey's smile outshines the rainbow as she chases down her very own pot of gold. Scott Anderson photo.

Moving forward, Randy, Elise and Kelsey’s brother Braden have found the journey to healing an emotional one. But they understand that there is no way around the pain, and that the anguish rendered by this tragedy is — whether they like it or not — a part of life. As Kelsey would insist on rising to a challenge, gutting the meat of a river rapid, so too has her family committed to the process, diving into the grief, and in so doing honoring the memory of their beloved daughter.

“Our culture focuses on the tragedy, the pain, the loss — and the unfairness,” Elise emphasized. “But there can be growth in suffering, and joy in the memories and gratitude for all the years we had. And that’s where we are trying to live.”

About The Author

stash member Sam Morse

TGR Editor-at-Large. author of The Ski Town Fairytale and creative behind The Bumion. Lover of steep-and-deep lines, long trails—and hot springs waiting in the distance.

Snow is beautiful and snow is powerful. Love the snow. Respect the snow.

This one is truly heartfelt and beautiful Sam. Thank you for giving us a glimpse into Kelsey’s life - it breaks my heart that the world lost such a bright light but I’m smiling reading about her. I agree that it’s far better to read about the person and who they were instead of just the faceless report of their passing.

OUTSTANDING write-up, and a fantastic perspective given from many different angles.  Myself or any of my friends could have been Kelsey on any given weekend.  We can never really know when our number is up, but we should never be afraid of it, either.

To echo the others here, this is a compelling and compassionate tribute to a young lady who, quite obviously, radiated the essence of life and joy. Well done on that, mate. Heart felt condolences to Kelsey’s family.

What a beautiful tribute Sam.  Thank you for taking the time to learn about Kelsey and pen this piece, and thanks to TGR for publishing it so prominently.  As Kelsey’s uncle I knew first-hand the tenacity of her personality and the infectious nature of her smile and laugh.  That is quite a rare combination.  She will indeed be missed by everyone who crossed her path.

Thanks Sam.  That was well written.  I have a 12 year old daughter that has been skiing since 4 and just the whole thing is so heavy to even try to contemplate.  I do think it answers a question that anyone who follows TGR would have in so far as you do want to know what that person was like and who they are b/c it could have been any of us.  Her parents are rock stars in my mind.  In a world of too much organized crap and over-parenting, here you have a dad and his 12 year old charging a steep alpine ascent.  Once I read that part of the story I have to be honest that I felt a little better b/c I could tell what kind of people raised her and how epic her short life was.

Correction for author: third picture down, the mountains are actually North and Middle Sister (the one on the left being North, this is how they look when viewed from the West), not Mt. Washington.

That being said, as a woman who is about 10 years older than Kelsey, but was born and raised and has lived all my life in the shadows of the Three Sisters, Mt. Washington, Jefferson and Mt. Bachelor, this story hits close to home. Not only has my life been very similar to Kelsey’s (except, I have still never transitioned away from the mountain lifestyle - I work year-round as a lift mechanic), but I dance close to the same fate all the time while skiing inbounds. What a tragedy to hear about another death such as this in the skiing community. I never knew Kelsey, but I feel as though I do, and I see a lot of who she was in myself. I am so sorry for her family and lived ones’ loss.

Thank you for this very well-written article.

Beautiful piece. I did not know Kelsey but I have seen many beautiful souls move to Jackson in pursuit of the great life this has. Very touching and emotional perspective. Thank you for honoring her life.

I thought I was all cried out but reading your beautiful article opened the floodgates again. Kelsey was our cherished granddaughter; she was everything you said and more. We will miss her every remaining moment of our lives. Thank you, Sam, for describing her as she really was, and allowing so many people to have a glimpse of the joy she brought to so many.

This is a lovely and honorable memoriam of a life well lived.  I hope Kelsey’s family knows how many of us in the mountain community send them love and strength.

Thoughts to the family and everyone who knew her. She seems like she was a special person. I don’t know her, or the author, but this was a very touching article.

Thank you Sam, this is a really nice piece with lots of angles and emotions. I cannot imaging how her family must feel and how they’ll move forward but I sure can feel the amazing impact Kelsey had on her world. I imagine lots of that passion was nurtured at home.  What a loss, I wish I had known her; such a go-getter and so loved.