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Avalanche claims Lincoln’s Ian Forgays

LINCOLN’S IAN FORGAYS plows through backcountry snow in an image that appeared on the cover of Vermont Sports in February/March of 2016. The magazine named Forgays Athlete of the Year in 2016. Photo by Brian Mohr/EmberPhoto

He was such a genuine character, a loyal friend, a total goofball, and a hilarious ‘Unky Ian’ to our kids. He was just incredibly stoked to ski. He was truly dedicated to the ski bum lifestyle… and so much more.
— Brian Mohr

Ian Forgays was a backcountry skier: “Skiin’ Ian” as he was known and “Lincoln Lynx.” He wasn’t the type of guy you would see on chairlifts, unless it was the Single Chair at Mad River Glen where he worked as a part-time liftie, manning the summit station.
You might catch glimpses of him between the trees, a yellow or red jacket charging down a drainage off the spine of the Greens, a plume of powder shooting up behind like white smoke.
That white smoke was an elixir.
It was what Forgays, 54, was after when he set out from his home in Lincoln, Vt. for the White Mountains on Monday, Feb. 1.
Forgays knew the Whites almost as well as he knew the Greens. Born and raised in Vermont, he had hiked the Long Trail three times, skied the Catamount Trail and rode the Cross Vermont “XVT” bike packing route — 300 miles of off-road riding covering the length of the state from Massachusetts to Canada.
Forgays often adventured to the Whites, the Chic Chocs and other high alpine terrain around the Northeast with friends. He was a frequent ski “model” — if you can call the wild-haired guy with a goofy smile and a willingness to charge anything, a model — for Moretown photographers Brian Mohr and Emily Johnson. Their adventures and photos of Forgays made it into Powder and Backcountry Magazines, as well as the Addison Independent’s sister publications VT Ski + Ride and Vermont Sports, where Forgays was named an Athlete of the Year in January 2016 and appeared on the magazine’s cover the next issue.
The backdrops were the deep untracked woods, the ridgelines and ravines, the abandoned ski areas and snowed-in riverbeds of northern New England.
Ammonoosuc Ravine was one such ravine Forgays loved to ski. On Sunday night, Jan. 31, he texted friends telling them that on Monday he “might ski Monroe Brook depending on how the Ammo looks.”

HEADING INTO AMMO
In the definitive guidebook, “Best Backcountry Skiing in the Northeast,” David Goodman describes Ammonoosuc Ravine, located on the western slope of Mt. Washington: “When it is fully covered, Ammo offers one of the longest skiable descents in the White Mountains — nearly 3,000 vertical feet of continuous skiing. The top of the ravine can be a mile-long snowfield that funnels into the Ammonoosuc River…. The Ammo slopes have a sustained 30-degree pitch, getting steeper at the bottom.”
On Monday, Feb. 1, the weather at Mt. Washington was fair and the avalanche danger was rated low. Temperatures ranged from 8 degrees to 15 degrees. Winds were unusually light with the highest gusts hitting 25 mph. The week before, it had been a different story. For three days, winds had been gusting well over 100 mph, hitting a high of 157.
But conditions that day looked fine. According to the accident report filed by Frank Carus, the lead snow ranger and head of the Mt. Washington Avalanche Center, they included “a mix of snow surfaces ranging from ice to rimed snow to firm wind slabs, all of which are commonplace in the wind-raked high alpine areas and steep ravines.”
The snowpack was not deep. Only 3.4 inches had fallen on the summit between Jan. 23 and 29 and the Hermit Lake snowplot measured 8 inches. Another storm would set in on Tuesday, with heavy snow falling and winds gusting again back over 100 mph at the summit.

A FINE DAY TO SKI
Forgays was well equipped, carrying an avalanche transponder, probe, crampons, shovel, ice axe, extra goggles, extra gloves, food and a cell phone. By 9 a.m. he had reached treeline on Mount Monroe, and by 11 a.m. he was near the summit of Mount Washington, having skinned 3,800 vertical feet and covering nearly 5 miles.
From a point above treeline, he texted a photo to Brian Mohr, who was camping in Costa Rica at the time. “Miss you, bud,” he wrote. Forgays sent a few other selfies and texts to friends and then began his descent. At some point, he triggered a small avalanche.
As snow ranger Carus wrote:
“It is likely that Forgays triggered one of these (wind) pockets and was carried into the bowl-like depression where the snow was stopped by an overhanging cliff that was angled upslope. The debris pile here was deep, but fairly narrow, fanning out from a 10-foot strip to about 25 feet wide by 40 feet long.
The report continues:
“Finding a triggerable slab in mostly safe avalanche conditions is rare but not unheard of. Accurately assessing snow and terrain and avoiding trouble throughout a lifetime of playing in the mountains is a tremendous challenge for anyone, even for the most experienced, like Forgays. Most of the time, we survive to ski another day. Other times, simple bad luck catches up to us when our margin for error disappears.”
On Feb. 1, bad luck caught Skiin’ Ian. The small slide into the terrain trap formed by the cliff was enough to bury Forgays. Tuesday’s blizzard sent more snow tumbling down the ravine.

THE SEARCH
Forgays was well known in Vermont’s backcountry skiing community and when he didn’t respond to calls on Tuesday, friends began to worry. By that evening, they had alerted New Hampshire Fish & Game (NHFG) that Forgays was missing.
Using cell phone telemetry from towers in Littleton and Jackson, search and rescue personnel were able to confirm that Forgays was somewhere in the vicinity of Mount Monroe. They began looking for his car in parking lots on both the east and west sides of Mt. Washington. Snow and high winds had filled in on Tuesday, making search conditions difficult and covering any tracks.
The Ammonoosuc Ravine Trailhead was unplowed and, with weather moving in, it was not checked until Wednesday morning. At 9:45 a.m., Forgays’ car was discovered. Teams from NHFG, the U.S. Forest Service and Mountain Rescue Services moved into the area.
By analyzing photos and texts that Forgays had sent, the search was narrowed to three drainages that feed into the Ammonoosuc River. The accident report stated:
“Open water and thinly bridged stream crossings, combined with elevated avalanche danger, forced teams to travel through dense brush along stream banks. Deep snow created ‘spruce traps,’ hindering rescuers’ travel, even wearing skis and snowshoes.”
As the report states:
“At 4:25 p.m., a beacon signal was acquired by a searcher with a dog and Recco receiver in the uppermost flat area beneath the largest continuous WNW-facing slope of the Ammonoosuc, at around 3,950 feet of elevation. Pinpoint search techniques with an avalanche transceiver located a beacon signal 3.8 meters (12’6”) beneath the debris, which had piled up against the face of an overhanging rock buttress.”
Eight people took turns digging for over an hour and 35 minutes, zeroing in on signals emitted from the avalanche beacon Forgays was wearing, a beacon with about 200 hours of battery life. It was after dark when, 13 feet down, they found Forgays, dead from asphyxiation. His was the first avalanche fatality on Mt. Washington in two years. Since 1849, when records began to be kept, only 16 avalanche deaths have been documented on the mountain — the tallest in New England at 6,288 feet.

LIVING LARGE
Ian was one of four children who Donald Forgays and his wife, Janet Wakefield, raised in Burlington. Both parents were psychologists and Donald Forgays was a professor at the University of Vermont, where he helped develop doctoral programs. A scholarship in his name still stands.
“Ian and his younger brother Donal were these little towheads who learned to ski in Tyrolean leather boots that my parents brought back from Austria,” Ian’s oldest sister, Janice Forgays, remembers. She and her sister Gabrielle were the eldest.
The Forgays boys started out skiing at cross-country centers around the state. At 16, when he was a student at Champlain Valley Union High School, Ian got a season pass to Bolton Valley. Later, it would be Smuggler’s Notch, then Sugarbush. “He really ‘heroed out’ at Sugarbush, and then discovered Mad River,” Janice remembers. “He knew how to ski bumps like the rest of us know how to walk and he skied so hard he’d often break skis and you’d see him on a mismatched pair.”
Forgays left nearly 30 pairs of skis at his Lincoln home, as well as a bulletin board that had every single lift ticket he ever bought.
All four Forgays children studied psychology at UVM. “Ian could have been an Olympic skier,” Janice said. “But he just wanted to play in the mountains every day.” He bought his house in Lincoln in 2006 and had a landscape business that was successful enough to let him ski most of the winter and fill in part-time on lift operations at Mad River. In 1998, Forgays launched a TV show, “Ian’s Action Hour,” with Vermont public access television.
“He wanted to show people what you could do outdoors and encourage them to get out there,” Janice said. “And he’d intersperse video and photos with hilarious commentary. It became a cult classic. Ian, if nothing else, was always funny.”
Ian Forgays showed up at his sister’s wedding at Shelburne Farms “dressed for the occasion: blue blazer and white shirt but wearing cargo shorts and he had braided his goatee,” Janice remembers with a laugh.
Wherever Forgays went, he usually had a posse. “He usually went with friends but if he skied alone, it was because it was hard to find people who could keep up with him and who had the time. He also knew the risks in what he did and didn’t want to expose others to them,” Janice said.
Photographer Brian Mohr was one of Forgays’  frequent ski buddies. “Having spent considerable time in the mountains with Ian over the last 20 years (he loved to ski in front of the camera) we can almost envision how it all went down,” Mohr wrote in an email shortly after hearing the news. “He was such a genuine character, a loyal friend, a total goofball, and a hilarious ‘Unky Ian’ to our kids. He was just incredibly stoked to ski. He was truly dedicated to the ski bum lifestyle… and so much more.”
Ry Young, Mad River Glen’s communications director, remembers Forgays well. “On nice days, he’d be sitting out in front of the summit shack soaking up the sun like an alligator.” But his best memory is of the first time he met Forgays. “We were mountain biking in Waterbury and kept hearing these whoops and yells. We got closer and this guy goes flying by, shirtless, wearing regular shorts and I am not sure if he even had shoes on. That was Ian.”
Tara Geraghty-Moats, the recent World Cup winner for women’s Nordic Combined and a long-time Mad River Glen skier, posted a moving tribute on Facebook: “Thanks Lincoln Lynx for instilling in everyone around you your love for nature, beer, skiing, racing, duct tape, mirror lenses, flat brims, hard work, Bob Marley, going fast, going way too fast, hucking it, sending it and living it. You were an amazing role model in all the worst and best ways. If there were more people like you in the world, it would be a better place…”
Forgays’ death sent shockwaves through the backcountry community and sympathy was abundant.

A SEASON OF AVALANCHES
Over the past 10 winters, an average of 27 people have died each year in avalanches in the U.S. Since the start of this ski season, 22 people have been killed by avalanches. The first week in February, 10 people died in eight separate avalanches around the U.S. The majority were backcountry skiers.
 “We’re seeing 300 to 400 percent more traffic at Mt. Washington this year,” noted Carus.
While avalanche danger may have been far higher in those instances than it was when Ian Forgays set out to ski Ammonoosuc, it is something that is always present.
As the Mt. Washington incident report concluded:
“In this case, when Ian Forgays triggered a small wind slab, a partner may have saved his life … but given the terrible terrain trap below, maybe not… Forgays was prepared and knowledgeable about the mountain and its ski conditions. But, it is important to remember that even the most experienced skiers with all the correct preparations and equipment risk more when skiing alone.”
As David Goodman said later when he heard the news: “When we go into the backcountry, we’re motivated by the love of high and wild places. But forces much bigger than us are at play when we venture out.”
Goodman paused and then added. “It’s very tragic, humbling and sobering to see those forces at work. There but for the grace of God go I.”
—————
Contributions to help the Mt. Washington Avalanche Center  may be made in Ian Forgays’ name online at https://fotr.betterworld.org/campaigns/skiin-ian-forgays-memorial-fund.
Read a longer version of this story and more from Lisa Lynn at vtskiandride.com.

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