It was the last leg of a simple journey, a route completed several times by Kip Rand, executive director of the Wallowa Avalanche Center, and friend Ben Vandenbos, who set out for a day of backcountry skiing on March 8. They planned a route that took them from Ice Lake to Mt. Joseph. Sometime around dusk, on the last leg of the route, the two men stood on a cornice, an outcropping of hardened snow, on a ridge of Mt. Joseph after a long day of exploring.
In an instant the cornice split and disappeared beneath Rand, leaving Vandenbos standing, watching in shock as his friend was carried by the treacherous snow on a 1,200-foot journey down the mountainside.
After skiing down to his friend, Vandenbos immediately applied first aid and CPR, but due to massive injuries and no means for a quick rescue, the 29-year-old Rand couldn’t be saved. He’s the fourth backcountry skiing fatality in the Wallowa Mountains since 2009.
Rand moved to Boise when he was 5 years old and grew up there with his parents, Tom and Barbara. He inherited his passion of the outdoors from his father. Kip Rand loved and lived the outdoors, pursuing rock climbing, rafting, kayaking and backcountry skiing with equal intensity. He participated in the youth ski development program at Bogus Basin Mountain Recreation Area and progressed to backcountry skiing at Pilot Peak, Mores Creek Summit and Copper Mountain. He climbed Borah Peak and Castle Peak before graduating from Boise High in 2005. He also liked the arts, participating in Idaho Shakespeare drama programs and playing the cello.
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He earned degrees in history and resource conservation from the University of Montana in Missoula. Those who knew him said his sharp mind easily could have propelled him to graduate school, but he was too busy living the outdoor dream to immerse himself in the scholar’s life. From 2006 to 2013, he spent his summers as a river guide all over the region.
Conlee Brown — owner of Wallowa Alpine Huts and Rand’s former employer — said he met the young man around 2010 at Row Adventures, a river outfitter based in Coeur d’Alene. It was there that Rand also met his longtime girlfriend Robin Davenport, also working for the outfitter. By his early 20s, Rand already was a veteran of traditional ski areas, but after talking with Brown, he became fascinated with the Wallowas and the backcountry skiing program Brown offered at his alpine huts.
“There is literally only a handful of people in the country doing what we’re doing in the Wallowas,” Brown said. “That’s what brought him to the area, working for me as one of the ski guides.”
Rand ended up working for Brown in the winters and with Brown at Row Adventures in the summer. While working for Wallowa Alpine Huts, Rand had worked part-time for Wallowa Avalanche Center as a forecaster by collecting snow data for use in avalanche warnings. In October 2015, when the Avalanche Center executive director position came open, he jumped on it. After seizing the reins, Rand quickly began giving the center a new sense of direction. Deputy director Julian Pridmore-Brown said Rand was well on the way toward turning the center into a sustainable entity when tragedy struck.
Brown, who has experienced eight similar tragedies over the years, doesn’t like calling the incident a freak accident.
“It was being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and nature dealt him a bad card,” Brown said. “That’s the worst part about it for us in this sport; despite our best efforts to manage risk, it’s never completely eliminated.”
Brown said he appreciated the way Rand threw himself into whatever he did and he wasn’t at all surprised by Rand’s success as a guide and Avalanche Center director.
“People were drawn to Kip because he had charisma. He knew how to relate and he knew how to communicate. In our job you need a lot of personality. As a guide, you’re in charge of 10 people, and charisma is the guide’s substance. I’ve had a lot of guys come up here that have the technical skills, but not the personality.”
According to Brown, Rand didn’t just look at the Wallowas as a resource to exploit for his own personal benefit as a guide. He also was a passionate advocate for the wilderness. Rand was known for his ability to explain ecology, Western history and Native American culture to his clients.
“Our occupation is our advocation,” Brown said. “We defend wilderness areas, we defend salmon in the rivers and we enjoy showing people these resources. We’re serving the resources by being stewards. It was a big part of who Kip was.”
As for Brown and the rest of the backcountry skiing community, although shaken by the tragedy, they refuse to cave in to despair. A March 13 celebration of Rand’s life at the Joseph Community Center drew more than 200 friends and acquaintances from as far away as Washington, D.C. They shared their experiences with Rand through stories and connections, which revived the spirits of many, including Rand’s family.
“We’re upset, we’re disappointed, but I know Kip would want us not to mope,” Brown said. “I just feel lucky and blessed that Kip found me.”
Chadd Cripe of the Idaho Statesman contributed to this report.
A memorial Fund for Kip Rand has been established at Community Bank (P.O. Box 817, Joseph, OR, 97846). The name of the account is “Kip Rand Memorial Fund” and proceeds will go to the Wallowa Avalanche Center.