Lessons From A (Snowboard) Legend

Craig Kelly Memorial at Baldface Lodge, BC, Canada. PHOTO: Chris Wellhausen

I met Craig Kelly in Alaska in April of 1998.  I was snowboarding there with a group from Burton Snowboards back in the hey day of the uproar.  The days were extra long – sundown at 10pm – and we were spending our time up at the Alyeska resort.  We got snowed in – a consistent wet heavy dump for nearly 4 days.

The resort had shut down access to the mountain – and helicopters weren’t running – so it meant that for most of us, we were piddling time at the hotel bar talking nonsense,  hanging in the hot tub, throwing donuts in the parking lot, or just plain being silly.

Craig was good friends with friend of mine, and we got to talking.  He was incredibly intelligent, charming, and if you were spiritually aware in any kind of way – you could get a whiff of his spirituality. I think anyone who spent as much time in the backcountry and traveling some of the most remote and beautiful places in the world as he did, is bound to have a strong connection to the rhythm of the universe and mother nature.

One day – a few of us took a ride into Seward and on the way there Craig would gaze up at the mountains.  He would see lines, places to explore, find opportunities to play.  From inside the car his finger would just point and then run down the glass of the window as if drawing the line he would pick and run through the trees.  He was in his own world for that moment.  This wasn’t some ‘dude’ who just liked to ride…this was a guy in where the soul of the sport action permeated his entire being.

I found out on our way into Seward that he practiced Yoga.  He alluded to it in a way where you could tell that it (yoga) had begun to have an effect on him.  I think it’s hard NOT to be spiritual when you are surrounded by the beauty that he was most of the time, but his practice, the yoga practice, was helping to draw him into what he would do next in his life.  He had said that he started practicing as a way to deal with an injury he had sustained…and as most of us come to the practice – from an injury, looking for another method to heal, strengthen, help, or just improve – we find that with dedication it transforms us – and allows us to truly follow our heart.

My family is from Ecuador and he had mentioned that he wanted to drive through South America to surf and just immerse himself in the culture. He did that…he pursued his dream and shortly after returning would pursue his vision to be a backcountry guide in British Columbia. 

When he passed away I was floored.  I knew, however, he had found peace in exactly what he had chosen.  He chose a path that felt authentic and true to him – he walked away from the hype of the industry and stayed pure to what he loved.  He became a transmitter of  mountain knowledge and know-how to others.  A guru of the backcountry if you will.

I heard him say once and I can’t quite exactly remember how it went – but it was something like, “Some people say when they get on the mountain they get lost or they lose themselves, when I am on the mountain…I feel like I’ve found myself, that I’ve stepped into myself.”

That’s what we are doing every time we step on that mat – we are tapping into ourselves as opposed to checking out.  Yoga was happening to him before he even started an asana practice…it happens in those moments where are so tapped into your pure self that all concepts of time and space disappear.

We are found in the moment we are lost in…completely in sync with everything around us.

Not running against, not running away from, but observing and creating.

In 2003 I went to the Transworld Snowboarding Conference in Banff,  and they paid tribute to Craig Kelly.  His wife was there, and his baby daughter, she was probably around the same age as my daughter now.  It was a powerful tribute..and there was a picture of Craig in savasana along side a river bed on his South American road trip.

I won’t ever forget it.

Craig was a teacher and a beacon for many.  His resolve is something that I admire tremendously. I am forever inspired to find that courage to remain true to myself every day.