SILVERTON – Under the mountain where an avalanche claimed her life two months ago, friends and family on Sunday afternoon remembered Olivia Buchanan’s love of the outdoors and ongoing search for adventure.
Her father, Evan Buchanan, told the 200-plus gathered on the deck and on the packed snow to the south of the Kendall Mountain Recreation Area warming hut how his daughter was willing to “share her passion with anyone willing to participate in the fun.”
He described her simply: “A 5-foot, 4-inch, 120-pound sparkplug of life.”
The thoughts were echoed many times as a couple dozen people shared their memories on a sunny day, the warmth turning snow to slush as Silverton begins its long path to spring and rebirth.
Olivia Buchanan, who was only 23 when she died, grew up in Durango, where she graduated from high school in 2010. She was living in Bozeman and had been attending Montana State when she died. But it was Silverton, where her parents wed, where she imagined herself some day. She spent a winter in Silverton studying about avalanches as an intern with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
“Mom, I’m a snow geek,” she proudly told her mother, Amy Buchanan.
How much did this woman love the outdoors?
She camped out in a truck with her boyfriend in the Big Sky, Montana, ski area parking lot during the winter of 2013-14. And not because she was destitute.
Olivia Buchanan fully embraced rock climbing and skiing, among other adventure sports. She talked passionately about snow science, said her friend Ryan Moomey, whom she met at the ski shop at Purgatory Resort.
“She was truly at home in these mountains,” Moomey said. He called her “one of the most beautiful, graceful skiers” he’d seen.
Buchanan was skiing above Silverton on Jan. 6 with Moomey when she triggered a slide at about 11,300 feet. The slide carried Buchanan several hundred feet into a grove of trees. Despite heroic rescue attempts by a helicopter crew and search-and-rescue members walking up the avalanche chute, she could not be revived and died from multiple traumatic injuries.
“Safety and decision-making was always her No. 1 priority,” Moomey said.
Evan Buchanan said Olivia’s heroes were climbers, skiers, mountaineers and rescuers, and he profusely thanked the rescuers, including Moomey, who attempted that day to save his daughter’s life. He said Olivia was passionate about avalanche safety, and that a foundation has been set up in her name to help other women afford to study snow science.
“We hope another young lady will follow in her footprints, take up her path,” he said.
Olivia Buchanan, in a mission statement quoted on a foundation card, said, “In the ever-increasing world of backcountry skiing, with more and more people dying every year, I want to learn how people make decisions, teach them how to make better decisions and save lives.”
Mark Gober, a Silverton-based forecaster with the CAIC who mentored Olivia Buchanan, said one could look at it as “horribly ironic” that a choice that day led to her death. But every decision she and Moomey made was discussed and analyzed.
“Sometimes, the mountains have other lessons to teach us,” Gober said. “I hope we can all move forward with Olivia’s mission statement. ... In spirit, she is (still with us), and we need to carry that legacy forward.”
Although there were somber moments, plenty of friends recalled silly and embarrassing incidents during their high school and college days.
Durango High School friend Delia Bolster, for instance, recalled the Interact Club mission they were both on in Juarez, Mexico. They drank tequila with the other youths on the trip, played spin the bottle with the empty in the parking lot, then were caught by chaperones.
“We got community service as punishment while doing community service,” Bolster laughed.
According to a display inside, next to where a video showed Buchanan in all manner of outdoor pursuits, her wisdom included this:
“Nothing is too scary while wearing a tutu.”
Friend Ian Ellis, dressed in a tutu at the memorial, said Buchanan stood atop peaks and desert pinnacles, ran rivers and skied “bottomless pow.”
“Olivia embodied the spirit of the Juans.”
Boyfriend Garrett Reigan said Buchanan was “always present, in the moment, always searching for the next adventure.”
“For me, Olivia was home,” whether they were on a ski slope or being blasted by wind inside a tent, Reigan said. “I’ve truly never felt more content with life, than when I was with her.”
As the ceremony ended, Amy and Evan Buchanan, with daughter Emma, a senior at Durango High, took Olivia’s ashes and walked toward a waiting helicopter provided by Telluride Helitrax.
Maybe some ceremonies would end this way, with the family taking the ashes and spreading them in the snow-covered mountains where Olivia felt so at home. But this one continued with a bluegrass band and a planned bonfire – full sparkplug mode.
John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column. firstname.lastname@example.org