Detailed Accident Report

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Date: 2005-02-14
Submitted By: WWAN
Place: Northeastern ridge of Mount Mansfield
State: VT
Country: USA
Fatalities: 1
Summary: 1 Skier caught, carried, and killed


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Extreme Skier Dies in Rush of Powder

By Candace Page

Free Press Staff Writer

Alec Stall patted his skiing buddy, photographer Chris James, on the behind and gestured down a steep, snow-filled chute high above Smugglers Notch.

"Get down there and get ready," Stall said. "I am going to make some great turns."

It was 3 p.m. Monday. Soon the winter light would fade. Stall had spent the day doing what he loved most -- seeking out dangerous terrain with his best friends and a video camera.

He was a "meathead" -- one of a happy crew of passionate off-trail skiers featured in the extreme-skiing movies of Burlington-based Meathead Films.

Like his friends, Stall delighted in carving turns down gullies steeper than a child's playground slide, sailing off overhangs and landing in powder. The Meatheads were out to show the world the mountains of the East can rival the West for thrills.

"The draw is I like to get scared," Stall once told an interviewer. "It's about taking the sport to a new level -- about skiing where people wouldn't have thought possible 10 years ago."

Already Stall, 23, had been featured in three of Meathead's four films. They captured his smooth, flowing descents perfected during a lifetime of Vermont skiing. Although his family lived in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., they had a vacation home in Quechee. By 10, Stall was skiing on the freestyle mogul team at Killington.

No surprise -- at college time he chose the University of Vermont, where he could both ski and study. There he met James and Geoff McDonald, the friends who started Meathead as undergraduates. By junior year, the growing band of buddies had put skiing and moviemaking together.

On a powder day, classes finished a poor second to the mountain.

Stall graduated in May, moved to Stowe and set out to live his dream of skiing all winter, with the Meatheads as often as possible.

"Most of the time he wore ski clothes to work -- he wanted to be ready to get on the hill as soon as he could," said Bobbie Roehm of Skiershop in Stowe, where Stall worked part time. "His smile and his eyes lit up when he talked about skiing."

A day on the mountain Meathead's latest film, "Epoch," premiered Saturday night in Poughkeepsie. Stall was featured, skiing down the highest mountains in five northeastern states. His parents threw a party for 150 people to celebrate.

Monday, the friends set out to shoot footage for their next, untitled film, Project '05.

Stall was eager to show James and McDonald a set of remote chutes off the northeastern ridge of Mount Mansfield, far from the ski area. He had learned of the place from an older backcountry skier and skied them once himself. He had been talking to his buddies about the chutes for three years.

Stall's roommate in Stowe, Kristian Geissler, was the fourth man in the party.

The four rode the gondola to the top of Stowe Mountain Resort about 9:30 and began the 2 1/2-hour slog across the ridge. Last week's belated snow had added inches to the unusually thin cover on the mountain. Branches of the scrubby trees slapped them in the face.

In the afternoon, the four friends dropped off the ridge and out of the wind.

They found the top of the first chute, a narrow strip of snow between the cliffs that plunge into the notch.

Chutes -- snow-filled gullies -- are favorite terrain of extreme skiers, with their steep pitches and tree-free descents. Some chutes are so steep that a skier who turns sharply can knock his shoulder or hip against the slope behind him.

The Meatheads live to ski risky terrain and cultivate an image as happy-go-lucky, hard-drinking college guys. Beneath the image, they weigh their risks carefully and try to ski smart. They carried avalanche beacons, probes and shovels; they wore helmets and bindings that freed their heels on their alpine skis.

They tested the snow in the gully, jumping up and down on the slope, then cutting across it on their skis to see if the snow would slide. The snow was fine. Geissler and Stall skied down; McDonald and James recorded their descent.

River of snow

The friends felt reassured by their success on the first chute. The second chute was shorter -- about 150 yards, 10 to 30 feet wide, and less exposed. It ended on a cliff, below which a rough river of ice shot down the mountain through the trees. Again, they tested the snow. It appeared stable.

The plan was this: James would climb down one side of the chute to shoot stills. Higher up the chute, McDonald would shoot video. Stall would ski down the unbroken snow at the center of the chute. Geissler would follow.

"Ski slow," McDonald urged. "It makes better film."

Stall turned to James and gave him a pat. Get down there and get ready, he said, I'm going to make some great turns.

"He came down slow, making beautiful turns -- some of the best he's ever made," McDonald said.

Close to the bottom, something went wrong. Stall may have caught a ski tip in a crust of snow.

He fell, perhaps 30 feet from the cliff edge.

Above him, a slab of snow loosened. It exploded down the chute, a river of snow swelling as it came.

"I saw this huge rush of snow coming down in a cloud," James said. "The cloud lasted 3 or 4 seconds, and he was gone. It happened in the blink of an eye."

The snow river swept Stall over the edge of the cliff and dropped him down the mountain, out of sight.

His stunned friends called to him as they scrambled to find another way off the cliffs. The bottom of the notch was not far below, and they reached the road, Vermont 108, before they found Stall. James headed toward Stowe Mountain Resort to find help.

His friends headed back up the mountain, first climbing in the wrong place, returning to the road, then climbing a different route.

As the afternoon light began to fail, they found Stall where the mountain had thrown him. He was dead of injuries suffered in the fall.

'Respect the mountain'

His friends called him Thumper.

"He was always hopping around from place to place getting people going, trying to make moves on the ladies," James said Tuesday.

Stall was the guy in the crowd who lightened a bad day on the mountain with jokes, often on himself. He came to a Meatheads' 2003 Halloween party in a fancily wrapped cardboard box disguised as "God's gift to women."

A September 2004 story about the Meatheads in Skiing magazine described Stall as a "sweet-faced, impeccably polite 22-year-old for whom silence is anathema."

"If you were going to get into a conversation with him, be prepared to spend some time," McDonald said.

For this year, Stall was living to ski. When January brought a snow drought, he hopped on a plane to Jackson Hole in the Rockies. He planned a trip to Colorado to compete in freestyle ski events.

Stall had worked as a carpenter all summer and fall to finance his dream of a winter of nonstop skiing. Someday, he told his friends, he would start his own construction company.

But not yet. Not while there were still fresh challenges, new steeps to ski. He knew the risks; he'd seen his friends injure themselves badly.

"You put it all on the line," he once said of extreme skiing.

"You have got to have a lot of respect for the mountain. Sometimes they get the best of you," McDonald said Tuesday, as he helped Stall's family pack up his belongings. Services for Stall will be held Thursday in Poughkeepsie.

The friends do not know what will become of their filmmaking. Alec, they said, would want them to keep skiing.

"His spirit will always be up there in the mountains with us," James said.

Contact Candace Page at 660-1865 or e-mail

Chris Haviland

Hinesburg, VT