By Rob Story
I’m not sure Jack would want to be remembered as pixellated dots in a blog, but the photo in question does say a lot about Captain Jack Carey. The shot of the 2008-09 ski season’s final day appears on TellurideSkiResort.com, in CEO Dave Riley’s blog. The picture shows the first people in the lift line of Chair 7, the people who most wanted to catch fresh tracks, and there’s Jack, awake and in line before all of Telluride’s youngsters, standing tall, gray Santa-Claus beard tucked into his retro parka, goggles down, ready to rip.
Jack Carey was 64 when he died last summer. He was an ambassador for old school skiing and the embodiment of the Telluride outdoors lover. He skied hard, worked hard (he cleared timber from overgrown forests), and partied hard (he could always be found dancing in the VIP area of the Bluegrass Festival). His mountain-man bona fides earned him coverage in Bike, Couloir, Freeze, SKI, and Powder magazines. Ski runs have been named after him in Telluride and at Red Mountain in BC, Canada. He was in his element again, recreating outdoors, when he departed this mortal coil.
Carey was road biking with his wife, Monica, over 10,222-foot Lizard Head Pass July 17 when he was hit by a truck. The tragic accident was not the fault of the driver, but a split-second lapse in judgment, a tiny mistake in the long life of an extreme athlete who had survived decades of adventures and lived his time on earth to its full potential.
Carey grew up in New Hampshire where, as a child, he climbed up old logging roads before skiing down them in a tuck, hardly making a turn. He left skiing for a long while to play hoop, since he was an athletic 6’4”. He balled through high school, college and the Air Force. In the military, he was based near Kansas City, MO, where TWA’s huge flight attendant school was located, and Jack sometimes regaled listeners with tales of chasing budding stewardesses. (It was the ‘70s; they weren’t called flight attendants then, and almost none were male.)
He didn’t get back into skiing till he was in his late twenties, when he moved with a buddy to Steamboat Springs, Colorado. That’s where he also took up hang gliding. In 1974, however, a hang glider was killed in Steamboat, and local peaks were closed to the sport. So Captain Jack moved to the open skies of Telluride—where the thermals are huge, owing to the confluence of the nearby desert and the nation’s highest concentration of 14,000-foot peaks. Jack set a hang-gliding record in the ‘80s when he became the first to fly above 20,000 feet; indeed, he soared to 21,000 feet, close to the cruising altitude of transcontinental jets.
Telluride—which was a tiny, embryonic ski town when he moved here and still has less than 2,500 year-round residents—obviously has no traffic helicopter. But it does have a community radio station, and Jack periodically strapped a remote broadcasting unit to his back, launched off Gold Hill in his hang glider, and reported to an amused audience his descriptions of the mountains, the canyons and the forests. With his deep, enduring New Hampshire accent, rivers were always “rivahs.”
He stayed near Telluride the rest of his life. Despite a lack of steady instruction, much less a race heritage, Captain Jack became one of Telluride’s most hardcore skiers. On powder days, he showed up hours before lifts opened so he could snag the first chair. When he got face shots, it was a spectacular scene, because Jack wore a foot-long Gandalf beard for decades. The chin-puppet made him an icon. He appeared on the cover of SKI Magazine.
If you’re lucky, you’ll still hear him on KOTO. Jack recorded a station I.D. for KOTO where he sounds downright evangelical about life in Telluride. “Sky high in the Rockies!” he preaches in a way that makes listeners glad they live or visit here.
Captain Jack found a lot more than just great skiing and flying in Telluride—he also found love. It was here that he met and married his soulmate, Monica, and where he had the biggest surprise of his life: In the 1980s, a beautiful, lanky young girl showed up in town and became a ski patroller. It was Jill Curtis, the daughter he never knew he had fathered; she bore a striking resemblance to Jack not just physically, but also in her aptitude for skiing and the outdoors. All at once, the Captain had a family.
Jack’s skiing jones governed his work life. He busted ass in the summers, clearing timber so he could spend winter days on the slopes. He worked for Telluride Sports many years, raving about new gear to customers who couldn’t possibly miss a towering guy with a bald head and that beard. He became especially famous in British Columbia, where he’d go every winter to be a starter for International Free Skiing Association (IFSA) competitions, including the Fernie Freeskiing Challenges and Red Resort Canadian Freeskiing Championships. Competitors spoke of him being there, encouraging a good run even when the weather was positively nasty and the crowds had all gone home.
He regularly dusted skiers half his age. Former helicopter-skiing guide Brian O’Neill of Telluride tells of a story when Jack joined him and former World Extreme Skiing Championships winner Dean Cummings for a descent of Telluride’s gnarly Sheep Chute: “Captain was by far our senior, but he kept up with us all day as we did a variation on the climb—unintentionally, of course. At one point, we had to climb a tree and jump over onto a rock and snow face with ski boots on and skis on our backs. Captain was so in his element and energized, I was blown away. He was climbing and skiing with some of the world’s best, and it made him feel like he was 20 years old because he was on an adventure with his friends.”
On the final day of Telluride’s ski season, when everybody drinks too much and flouts rules, Jack joined a bunch of friends, including me, for an out-of-bounds powder run. We’d grabbed him at a slopeside bar where we’d all had a few, not expecting to go out of bounds. But Jack nailed the run, even though the uphill slog out crushed even the most fit of skiers.
Since 2002, Jack had become an avid poker player. He played in my Tuesday night game almost every week. As poker goes, Jack enjoyed a pretty good spring and early summer, winning often. Just days before he died, he sat next to me at our regular game. That Tuesday was a poor one for the Captain; I don’t believe he won a single hand. That’s how it goes sometimes when you compete. Anyway, Jack’s damages that night probably were less than $60, a tolerable deficit. Nothing like the hand the Captain was dealt three days later, a terrible, terrible loss from which Telluride will never really recover.