The Legacy of Theo Meiners

Theodore Gregory Meiners, better known as Theo or Teddy, was a skiing enthusiast and loved every aspect of the sport, from the ice injected World Cup to deep Chugach powder.

His Story

theo_youngeryearsTheo learned to ski as a teen at Arctic Valley Ski Area in Alaska’s Chugach Range. His mother, Joyce, would take Theo and his brother Mike to ski at night, where they would steal spoons from the cafeteria to mark race courses in the snow. Theo always said, “It didn’t matter what time of day it was, there was always training to be done.” This is where his skiing obsession began. Alaska always spoke to him, and would ultimately draw him back.

After Alaska, the family moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado allowing Theo and Mike to be in the mountains while their father, Colonel Theodore J. Meiners, was stationed in Korea. Theo’s sisters, Penny Jo and Lori, didn’t share the enthusiasm for skiing like their brothers, but were always supportive of their adventures. In Colorado the Meiners brothers were able to pursue their growing passion for skiing.

theo_youngeryears2Theo graduated from Wide Field High School in 1971 and enrolled for one semester of college. “Life could teach me more than school,” he told his parents as he left for Europe. He planned a one-month visit that lasted twelve. Among the places he stayed were Zermatt, Switzerland, Spain, and Morocco. After returning to the U.S. in 1972, he moved to Aspen, Colorado with his brother Mike, where he worked as a dishwasher and served at Galena Street East. The Meiners brothers became a notorious pair in Aspen and were skiing Highlands Bowl before it was open to the public. Their understanding and respect for avalanches became apparent after they carved a cross into one of the trees at the bottom of the bowl, stowing avalanche rescue gear and other provisions. Theo soon became a ski instructor at Aspen Highlands.

Theo left his name on a cliff on Maroon Bells, two peaks in the Elk Range, where he survived a harrowing ski trip in the mid 1970s. An excerpt from professional skier Chris Davenport’s website says:

“The Maroon Bells are two of Colorado’s steepest, loosest, and most dangerous summits, but when covered with compact spring snow, they are actually safer and more fun to climb. Rex and I had both been on the North Face of North Maroon before, and I had in fact summited three times, yet neither of us had made the coveted ski descent. This face is the scene of many epics and tragedies, mostly due to its complex nature. The route up the face zigzags around massive cliff bands, where a fall would send you for a huge, unintentional huck. In fact the largest cliff at the bottom of the route is aptly named “Miner’s Ski Jump” after legendary skier Theo Meiners cartwheeled over it back in the early seventies, yet lived to ski another day. Hearing him tell this story is riveting and frightening. Such a sick line – I can’t get it out of my mind. I would be gripped.”

theo_jacksonraceTheo moved to Jackson Hole in 1978 to teach skiing under a true ski meister, Olympian Pepi Stiegler. The Olympian became an influential figure in his life. Theo was a dedicated member of the Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA) and obsessed with the technical aspects of making the perfect turn. He advanced through the organization’s hierarchy to become a regional representative, as well as a regional instructor for certifications. Theo was a successful ski instructor for 35 years, worked with PSIA as a professional examiner for 30 years, had 25 years of experience teaching Steep Skiing Camps, and years of experience coaching children and adults in ski racing in Aspen, Jackson Hole, Chile, and Alaska. Theo loved ski competitions, and in the 1980s he traveled the Masters’ Circuit. His favorite event was downhill racing. Always a coach and teacher, he started summer ski camps at Red Lodge, Montana. He convinced many devoted ski enthusiasts to keep skiing into the summer, saying, “Skiing is never over; you just take longer breaks between runs.”

Over the years, while skiing in Jackson Hole, Theo built his instructor and avalanche experience and became a trainer of other teachers. He also began guiding in the backcountry with Jackson Hole Mountain Guides. Despite his professional credentials, he loved ducking the out-of-bounds ropes, and was tapped to become a member of the underground Jackson Hole Air Force, the first Ski Corp employee to be so recognized.

Theo was always exploring and in 1980 he discovered Arch Couloir, an out-of-bounds run on the side of the Jackson Hole Ski Resort leading into Grand Teton National Park’s Granite Canyon. The run went under a natural bridge carved out of sedimentary rock. “You’ve got to see it to believe it,” he told friends. As his mountain sense matured, he and the late Jimmy Zell became the 12th and 13th people to ski the 13,770 foot Grand Teton peak in 1988. In the summer of 1994 he went to El Colorado, Chile to be a ski patroller. He pioneered the “Granite Canyon” of El Colorado, naming the face Santa Teresita after Chile’s first saint, Sister Teresa of Jesus. He continued to return there over the course of several years.

While Theo was known for his skiing capabilities and qualifications, he also fought wild land fires in the summers. He worked on the 1988 Yellowstone fire and assembled a fire camp worker crew. Growing up in a military household, he understood the radio calls, and always knew where his crew needed to be next.

theo_skiingIn 1994, Theo was asked to be a snow-safety worker with avalanche forecaster Jim Kanzler at the World Extreme Ski Championships held in Valdez, Alaska. The next year, he judged the event, and afterwards, took up residence in a snow cave behind the Tsaina Lodge, home of Valdez Heli Ski Guides. He began working for extreme skier Doug Coombs and his wife Emily, who had started this operation on Thompson Pass. From 1996-2000 he worked as the couple’s Logistics Manager, and in 2001, moved on to start his own company, the Alaska Rendezvous Heli-Ski Guides, after buying 27 acres 45 miles north of Valdez. He remodeled an already existing and abandoned lodge known as Old Serendipity, and built an eight-room hotel over later years.

Theo became much more active in avalanche education over time. In 2006 he was part of an audience at a snow-science lecture held in Walk Festival Hall at the Teton Village Resort, and reportedly stood up to challenge the speaker’s presentation. The speaker had suggested not fighting when caught in an avalanche flow. Theo didn’t agree. “Don’t go Gumby!” became Meiners’ catchphrase, as he advocated continued struggle instead, including the “log roll” to move to the side of the flow of snow. In 2008 he co-authored a paper with snow scientists Karl Birkeland of Montana and Perry Bartelt of Switzerland titled “Avalanche Survival Strategies for Different Parts of a Flowing Avalanche” which was presented at the 2010 International Snow and Science Workshop in Squaw Valley, California. It was with this paper, and the outpouring support he received, that encouraged Theo to continue his research. In 2012, at this biannual gathering of avalanche professionals, he delivered a paper that introduced a new vernacular for probe searches in the event of an avalanche. He was also invited to chair a lecture session on avalanche safety.

Theo’s avalanche skills were honed from investigating snow pack in the Alaska and Teton mountain ranges. At one point Theo had been appointed as the National Ski Patrol Regional Avalanche Advisor for the Northern Intermountain Division. At the time of his death, he was also working with some of the leading snow scientists in North America and Switzerland trying to understand the dynamics of an avalanche, the flow of its snow, and working to develop successful survival techniques.

Theo was dedicated to the Alaskan lifestyle and opening the doorway for others to fulfill their Alaska heli-ski dreams. His focus on backcountry safety, his love and passion for skiing, and his ability to bring total strangers into the wilderness and make them a part of the Rendezvous family he created, are just a few of the many reasons that he will be remembered and missed.

His Foundation

The Theo Meiners Snow Safety Foundation (TMSSF) is a Wyoming nonprofit created to further Theo Meiners’ commitment to avalanche education, safety and study. An exemplary guide passionate about skiing back country and big mountains, Theo’s devout adherence to avalanche education and protocol kept many snow recreationists safe and his enthusiasm resonated with thousands of others. Learn more »

Theoisms

Theo had wisdom. Below are some of our personal favorite “Theoisms”.

“Everyone Comes Home.”

“Pursuit of Happiness and the wish that Happiness should not be a quick moment, like a big laugh after a joke or a smile at a compliment, it is a state of being, and we all have the right to this pursuit! Work where you want and do what you love friends and find happiness.”

“We only know what we don’t know. We are all students of the mountains. Go out every day with three questions in your mind.”

“Follow the light on the path we all started on long ago.”

“Rich in experience and surrounded by flowers.”

“The dragon appears in many forms.”

“Before the storm, changes come sudden and with out notice, look up in the sky.”

“Change is painful but like a screaming entombed caterpillar, growing in the dark confinement, dreaming of the future and her escape on new velvet shimmering wings to freedom.”

“He is back Old Man winter watching us all from the summits, looking into the green valley giving us all fair warning soon the world will be covered in the snows of winter, prepare get ready, because tomorrow we RIDE.”

“In the first part of Life, you spend your time learning the hard way, primal instinctive lesson. In the next phase of Life is cognitive learning, the next stage you realize that through teaching you continue to grow and learn, every day you teach is another day of grace, to coach is to encourage, to guide is to be an example in your words, deeds and actions. It is a spiritual existence grounded by a human experience.”

“Team work the common denominator is two, the pitcher the catcher, the center the quarter back, we rode in together we will ride out together no on gets left behind the nucleus of great teams is two.”

Theo, “Say now.”
Me, “now.”
Theo, “its already passed. Ski in the near future.”

“Have a good plan and execute it completely.”

“What you focus on determines on what you miss.”

“Skiing doesn’t end. We just take breaks between runs.”

“Tonight we party, TOMORROW WE RIDE!”

“Skiing powder is a life time adventure, you can’t get glory in just one run.”

“No right or wrong only right and lefts.”

“Never stop training never stop learning.”

“In the beginning, like the end, and all times in between, there were signs and they were colored in their meaning. The signs of the white flag were not for surrender but truce. The appreciation and acceptance of a true life based on family and the perpetual story of the story of life, first family than community and than humanity, but most of all the people must learn tolerance, love and truce. I love my friends and family.”

Press

A Tribute to Doug Coombs

Written by Theo Meiners, Guide/Logistic and operations manager for Doug and Emily

I work in the Chugach and have for the last twelve seasons on Thompson pass, out side Valdez, Alaska. I learned to ski here in the Chugach as a child and I feel I’m apart of this environment, just like the other animals that survive in this wild free place, Alaska. I live on instinct, intuition and experience, but most of all on the will to survive all my circumstances.

The snow storm that day smashed into the Chugach with a vengence, it was very strong, and the will to work has to be stronger. The other companies on the pass were down not a rotor turned accept for my team. The White Light Team, a term coined years ago when I worked for Doug and Em the Coombs. Doug was the most in tuned spirit I have ever met and he was so sensitive to everything around him, so aware and alive. His Biological clock was set to the atmospheric pressure, snow pack, mountains and the people and on this day the barometer was at 28.7 and falling. The snow was unreal, velvet, knee deep, blower, as we negotiated our first run in total white out .I thought back to the day of VHSG rein on the pass and how D.C. energy would drain away as the barometer fell and he would sleep only like Doug could sleep “face down” .This is how he could recharge his energy and be ready for high pressure and clear days. The skiing was tricky with the potential for a large Avalanche ever present .In a white out without visibility this is a very serious and dangerous situation to Guide in, but that’s what I do I’m a guide. The day went on and on each run was more difficult and stress full .Finally on the fifth run “Avalanche” class 2 plus ,ripping down smashing old track ,obliterating everything with a giant wind blast .The radios came alive ,crackling “get head counts” ,”go to safe area” , ‘stay tight” “get Down’ word went out to gather at the bottom for a council .All the guides and guest were safe .”Pull, were out, that’s my job to make the calls, were done head for the barn. Twenty lifts over a hundred guided runs that is enough for today were out. Always walk away from the last bet if you want to be a winner at the end of the day.

When all the groups were back at base and the ship was wrapped ,a junior guide walked into the Billy club with a fax, he was trembling and he tried to speak, stuttering out that he did not want to be the one to tell me this news. I looked into his eyes welling up with tears. I hate these moments before bad news breaks that second just hung there and I asked to see the fax. Gut Check, Oh God No, not Doug and Chad.

I have never felt so disconnected before. No matter how many times I tell myself this bad news I still feel this emotion of grief ,pain and sorrow .Why I did not get to tell Doug that I loved him and that he was apart of my life and that he made it richer and guided me. So I will tell all of you about my admiration for Doug. He was my friend, ski partner; we started together so long ago. I was the first instructor he hired for his steep camps in Jackson Hole and I also guided and did management work for Doug and Em years later at VHSG. I watched like everyone in those early years as Doug created his style of Big Mountain Ski guiding. Doug life defined adventure he dared to look over the edge to find a way. His vision guide him and he was strong with incredible positive energy.DC was always able to adjust to avoid imbalances his tall, strong stance gave him a natural advantage, fluid motion ,great vision, and his feet could feel the snow and he could do anything on skis. So what happened that day in La Grav?

Why was my legendary friend gone? I remember so many times in the Chugach were he would ski up to the edge of a very steep run and crane his neck kind of telescoping over the edge with his big smile.

I can only imagine that last moment after Chad fell .Doug tried to reach over the edge of existence in an unselfish act. The edge is a rarified zone of chaos, with no order certain only the end of time as we perceive. Doug was trying to get to Chad before he reached the point of no return. Doug like Chad slipped in a mortal moment and passed into the void. That night was terrible the storm pounded the Rendezvous and a hard night be fell us. The guides stayed up all night in the blizzard holding vigil around a blazing bonfire telling stories of the Coomba and his glory as he opened the Chugach and named those great peaks. I tried to keep up, but had to be alone to think about Doug and Emily. I fell into deep thought brought on by the feeling of grief sorrow and confusion and just being disconnected with La Grave. To try to eulogies a person as great as Doug is very difficult .he brought meaning, respect and creative energy to an aspect of the sport of skiing that few at the time new existed. Steep powder skiing on big Mt. His direct impact on the skier’s consciousness is difficult to measure as his work is still going on. You can recognize his personal achievements like twice World Extreme Champion, that’s easy or his positive attitude, charisma and humble character ,but really his greatness is his influence on the world perception of what is possible and his insatiable yearning for higher ground. This evaluation is difficult like trying to interpret the meaning from the words of a popular song. Were does the music go after the song is played?

Doug Coombs was a skiing marvel in the Chugach, his calm ability to face extreme exposure pioneering a mountain range as big as the Alps. He brought us to new levels, as well as new skiing forms .He said” Higher ground follow me”. Doug was the chosen one the point of the spear. The guide that had a vision on what had never been done and it was a lot of fun skiing with Doug, every day, every run an adventure. The Chugach was his magic Kingdom and he was King, not like Elvis or Henry the 8, But more like Arthur and his nights of Camelot. In those days we built systems and models around Doug’s style. Doug ability to charm and lead us all on to higher ground of serious adventure was a wonder. Guides wanted to be like Him and all the guest wanted his attention, his charisma, grace and calm was what every one wanted in the Chugach from 1990 to 2000. D.C. had a grip like no other guide he was extraordinary and dedicated to educating the ski world on steep skiing. He changed the perception on what is acceptable risk for skiing powder with the people. We all loved Doug and Em and we all worked so hard to keep it together in those years. The pass changed when Doug and Emily sold VHSG and now it will change again in his passing. It is hard to believe it will never return Camelot on Thompson pass. In the sprits life there is no ending just new beginnings .In 2007 on Thompson pass there is a renasonce.Through out the seasons to come we will follow the traditions that Doug/ Emily and their original guides built and we will succeed in establishing this dream of Doug Coombs. On April 10, 2006 I finally over came a apportion of my doubt and called Emily in La Grave she spoke to me. I told her I was lost and confessed in her strength and courage she told me. “Not to lose my focus and to carry on Guide”

Thank you Mr. and Mrs. Coombs ,Emily and David Douglas Coombs for giving us all a chance to work ,play, live and Love the man, your man the Chosen one “Coomba” his life was a gift to us all. Doug is now an influential spirit amongst us an energy, excited and living in memory. His calling to be in the mountains of his dreams is now our dream. To the once and future King, Doug Coombs my friend I miss you.

Remembering Theo Meiners
Powder Magazine – September 28, 2012

Heli Ski Pioneer Dies in Fall
Powder Magazine – September 21, 2012

Theo Meiners: 1953-2012
Outer Local – September 21, 2012

Final words from Alaska heli-skiing icon Theo Meiners
Backcountry Access – September 24, 2012

Theo Meiners
Backcountry Access – September 24, 2012

In memory of Theo Meiners 1953-2012
Avalanche.org – December 2012

Teacher. Coach. Guide. Remembering Theo Meiners
The Instructors Edge, Fall 2012

Remembering Theo Meiners
ESPN, September 2012