Kurt Damschroder knew about angles.
His comfort with geometry made his detailed artwork appear lifelike. It was the foundation upon which he helped build a thriving interior and exhibit design business. He had a reputation around Park City for his ability to blunt the figurative angles during disagreements, so cooler heads could prevail. And he became just as recognized for his ability over the past 35 years to use his skis to defy the vertical angles of Utah’s backcountry.
“He was truly a beautiful, beautiful man inside and out,” his girlfriend of nearly five years, Denise Begue, said. “He had this wonderful sophistication and the type of high-design values and accuracy and precision about his work. And [it was] balanced out by this beautiful, like, adolescent sense of humor.”
But the angle of a slope under the peak known as Square Top just outside the Park City Mountain Resort boundaries fooled Damschroder last weekend, leading to his death.
Much steeper than it appeared, it was susceptible to slipping. And that’s what it did last Saturday under the weight of a new snowfall and the touch of Damschroder’s ski. The 57-year-old died after an avalanche buried him in three to four feet of snow.
Damschroder’s niece, Quinn Graves, visited the area with a ski patrol escort Tuesday to get a better idea of what happened.
“It looked like [the slope] got flat pretty quickly,” Graves told The Salt Lake Tribune. “From the bottom, looking up, it was a complete optical illusion. He went out and didn’t even take a turn, that’s how fast it broke.”
The Utah Avalanche Center had issued a warning Jan. 29 — which Damschroder and his partner had read — that with close to a foot of new snowfall atop an unstable base, the avalanche danger was “considerable” to “high.” It recommended skiers and snowboarders avoid the backcountry or stick to slopes with a steepness of less than 30 degrees. The apron of the slope on which Damschroder was killed sits at a 37-degree angle.
Damschroder was the second person to die in an avalanche in Utah’s mountains this year. The other fatality, which happened Jan. 8, also occurred near The Canyons’ Ninety-Nine 90 lift. That slide took the life of a 31-year-old snowboarder, who was not carrying backcountry equipment, in an out-of-bounds area called Dutch Draw.
Since the 1999-2000 season, nine people have died in those two areas, according to the Utah Avalanche Center. PCMR has temporarily closed the gates providing access to those “side country” areas, according to a press release. It is conferring with the United States Forest Service about how best to avoid further fatalities. The groups met Thursday and have another meeting scheduled for Tuesday.
Damschroder and his skiing partner both were carrying a probe, beacon and shovel. His partner was able to locate him and perform CPR for about 40 minutes before becoming exhausted. He was asked to leave the area by PCMR Ski Patrol and the Summit County Sheriff’s Office so they could begin rescue efforts. But with darkness encroaching and the area threatening to release more avalanches — they later triggered three larger slides in the area using explosives dropped by helicopter — they postponed recovery until the following day.
Damschroder had been skiing the backcountry in and around Park City since moving to the area in 1987 from the ski town of Petoskey, Mich., where he had been on his high school’s ski racing team. In fact, he moved to Utah explicitly for the skiing after graduating with a degree in industrial design from the University of Michigan.
At 6-foot-4, he was an imposing figure, but that was offset by his mischievous sense of humor. Combined with his eagerness for adventure, it made him something of “an icon” in the local backcountry ski community, his family said.
“He was just an integral part of that entire group, especially of that skier community,” Begue said. “He was just one of the, like, the founding fathers. You know, just this icon.
“He’s the one that everybody looks to and talks about. He got a lot of attention and admiration and it was worthy.”
In addition to skiing, Damschroder sought adventure camping in the desert or biking. For a time, he kept a sailboat harbored near San Francisco and he would resurface surfboards to ride behind it.
“He was always finding a creative route to do something fun and cool,” said his younger sister, Susie Graves-Henneman, who followed Damschroder out to Park City, where she is a high school physical ed and health teacher.
In his work as the vice president of design at Salt Lake City’s Atmosphere Studios, Damschroder was also creative and precise, his coworkers said. During more than 20 years with that company, he helped design the hall of fame for the University of Utah’s football program and the interior of the Utes’ ski team facility. He even worked building movie sets and the displays at the U.S. Olympic Museum retail store.
“Real art makes you want to keep looking,” Christine McCallum, a managing partner at Atmosphere, wrote in an email to the Tribune. “Kurt knew how to use shapes and lines so that your eyes wanted to keep traveling around the creation.”
Damschroder created more traditional art as well. He painted with such precision that some of his work, such as a portrait of a weather-worn man looking out over a field or another of an old truck, could almost be mistaken as photographs. Sometimes he exhibited his work through a traveling art show he helped create called Whose Art.
His meticulous nature complimented his adventurous spirit, friends and family said. He was spontaneous, but not reckless. He calculated the angles before making a decision.
Begue said Damschroder checked at least five websites to gauge conditions and dangers every time he headed into the backcountry. And Tom Jennings, the founder of Atmosphere Studios and a decades-long friend of Damschroder, said he had no doubt Damschroder put serious consideration in before deciding to ski that fatal line.
“Kurt was an expert skier, a master risk calculator and a man who knew the value of his own life,” Jennings wrote in an email to the Tribune. “This accident could have happened to anyone who skis outside the bounds, which so many of us do. He was not reckless, not overly risky, and not seeking danger.
“He loved the mountain, and his death should be a reminder to all of us: This can happen to any one at any time, no matter how careful or prepared you are.”
Damschroder’s family said a celebration of life will take place once it is safe. In lieu of flowers, it asks that donations be made to the Utah Avalanche Center or Summit County Search and Rescue.