He made his mark in Alaska. Now a new book looks at the life and death of legendary snowboarder Craig Kelly.

Alaska often serves as a proving ground for adventure athletes, and that’s true, too, for big mountain snowboarders.

Still, it took pioneers like Craig Kelly to get people to even take snowboarding seriously as a sport at all.

Kelly, who died in 2003, is the subject of a new book called “The Darkest White: A Mountain Legend and the Avalanche That Took Him.”

Longtime snowboarder and snowboard magazine editor Eric Blehm wrote the book to honor Kelly and his legacy, and to better understand how he died.

As Blehm puts it, Kelly was the first real professional snowboarder and one of its best ambassadors.


[Sign up for Alaska Public Media’s daily newsletter to get our top stories delivered to your inbox.]

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Eric Blehm: People in the media would would talk to Craig, and everybody wanted him to be the spokesperson for the sport, because he could actually, you know, answer in complete sentences, let’s just be honest. I mean, he was just the guy who knew how to kind of merge the gap between the snowboarding world at the time and the skiers who just thought we were a bunch of misfits, skaters, surfer dudes that infiltrated the mountains. And all of a sudden here was Craig Kelly, who was this very literate, cerebral guy who had walked away from a degree in chemical engineering to try and make it as a pro snowboarder in a sport that didn’t even exist. I mean, that was Craig Kelly. And, you know, we all owe him a debt of gratitude, because he paved the way for a lot of what you see today.

Casey Grove: Back in the day, there were places — and there still are — but there were many places that didn’t even allow snowboarding, right?

EB: Oh yeah, it was, I mean, 1988, Time Magazine named snowboarding the worst new sport of 1988, you know, that it was about raging hormones and mostly guys that were just, you know, infiltrating the slopes. And it was, only very few resorts allowed snowboarding in, you know, even like the late ’80s, for sure, and even into the early ’90s. And he, again, being like kind of a spokesperson and this person who could, he could walk the walk and talk the talk with snowboarders, but also with, you know, ski resort managers and ski patrol, which allowed snowboarding to grow. Because it could have gone another direction. It could have continued to be this, very much, a renegade sport. And he brought it in to help bring it into the mainstream.

CG: And I guess with Craig, he’s sort of known for progressing the sport. But when he was in Alaska, was there that same kind of progression, in terms of riding big mountains and sort of pushing the sport to new boundaries?

EB: Yeah, oh, for sure. And I mean, Craig would go out with filmers, and that would bring this big mountain riding, you know, to the rest of the world. And I think that what Craig did was he brought this level of professionalism into that as well. One thing that Craig did, when he rode, he was so smooth. He made it look so effortless, and so, top to bottom on a line, it was just beautiful to watch. And you compound that with steep terrain and long, you know, untouched powder in Alaska, and it was just like a dance. He was, you know, he was dancing with the mountain. And there were a lot of riders that could get down the mountain, but few could get down as as beautifully and gracefully as Craig could. I think because he made it look so simple, he attracted a lot of people to go up and check out Alaska. It was kind of like the North Shore of Hawaii, you know, when the big winter swells show up, and they start surfing pipeline and it starts working, or you know, Waimea Bay. Alaska was that spot for snowboarding.

CG: Yeah. I feel like we should talk about his death, too. And for writing this book, you took a real close look at the avalanche that that killed him. I wonder if you could tell me about that.

EB: Yeah, well, it ultimately was a fairly controversial avalanche. There were seven people killed that day. And he was in the middle of his training. The first snowboarder, by the way, to be accepted into the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides, on a splitboard. He was 36 years old, and these guiding organizations had never allowed snowboarders to become guides.

And it was a pretty tricky snow year. There had been an early rain crust in November, and then just all these different elements kept building up to made it a very tricky, kind of a low probability, high consequence year. That means, you know, there’s a low probability for an avalanche, but if it’s gonna go, it’s gonna go really big. And this group was caught in this massive slide. And I really wanted to honor Craig and all those who were killed that day, because there were a lot of questions like, you know, 13 people were taken in this slide and buried out of, you know, a group of 21. And to have that many people taken when you’re being led by, in this case, there was a lead guide and an assistant guide, both trained, certified guides. How does this happen? And that was one of the questions I had for all these years. And that’s, you know, ultimately why I wrote this book to answer those questions.

And also just because Craig was, I felt, kind of being forgotten. Fifteen years after Craig passed away, I was at a lift line in Utah, and I had a sticker on my board that a lot of people put on their boards after Craig died. I did, (it said), “Craig Kelly is my co pilot.” And there was this 20-something-year-old kid, I’m in the lift line next to him, and he looked down at my board and saw that sticker and he just, with all sincerity, said, “Who’s Craig Kelly?” And I couldn’t believe it. For me, he was the Michael Jordan of snowboarding. He was everybody’s hero. It’d be like going to a pickup basketball game somewhere and wearing a Michael Jordan jersey and somebody asking you, “Who’s Michael Jordan?”

a portrait of a man outside

Casey Grove is host of Alaska News Nightly, a general assignment reporter and an editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach him atcgrove@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Caseyhere

Previous articleAlaska has a new nonprofit newsroom in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough
Next articleMeet the local cook competing in ‘The Great American Recipe’ on PBS | Hometown, Alaska