I walked into Skinny Skis today as the rumors gained solidity. I didn’t know where else to go. A friend, Chris Denny, happened in at the same time, for the same reason. Three shop employees converged. The news had just been confirmed. They embraced in a ring of grief, a shudder moving through them in unison.
Steve "Randosteve" "Randomeo" "Randobewan Skinobee" "Skeve" "Ex-Steve" "Stevester" "Stelvester Stallone” Romeo of Jackson, Wyoming, was caught yesterday in an avalanche below the south face of Ranger Peak in Grand Teton National Park. He was accompanied by fellow backcountry skier Chris Onufer. Neither survived. An obituary for Onufer will be forthcoming, but to try to lump two tributes into one seems unfair to both, so this one’s for Steve.
Steve, 40, was a skier. That seems an appropriate way to commemorate a man whose mantra, bumper sticker and molecular composition was “live to ski.” In Steve’s case, though, he meant it. He was one of those Jackson residents for whom there are two seasons: winter, and waiting for winter.
“In July, it would be this gorgeous day in the 80s, and Steve would be like, ‘C’mon, snow!’” recalled Julia “Rando Kitty” Heemstra. “He genuinely used to get reverse season affected disorder. When the snow started melting, he’d get bummed.”
Steve came to Jackson from the east, in 1993. He was from Connecticut, the baby of the family. He started out in Jackson as a lift operator at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and moved up through the ranks until he was the head liftie. In 1998, he began working at Moosely Seconds in Moose during the summers. He tried to get on Ski Patrol at the Village, but when that didn’t pan out, he began an employment at Skinny Skis that would continue for the rest of his life.
One of his friends from the early days recalled, “I was roommates with him when we first got here. Well, him and six other people. Steve was one of those guys, you thought, well, he’ll be here a season or two, and then he’ll go back to Massachusetts or wherever he’s from. And then it’s like Whoa. Dude. He got all fit and shit. At the beginning, he never would have gone into the backcountry. And then all of a sudden he’s Randosteve. The blog, and all that.”
The blog, and all that. TetonAT is, as the tagline reads, “Steve Romeo's Website Dedicated to Backcountry Skiing and Ski Mountaineering in Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park,” wherein Steve documented his adventures and whatever other ski-related events, videos, or observations happened to come onto his radar screens. But mostly his adventures.
The inspiration the site provided to a passionate and growing community is undeniable. Was undeniable. There are nearly 100 comments on it as I write this, all in praise of Steve, his life, and the pure stoke that he transmitted through that assemblage of 0s and 1s called TetonAT. What becomes of it going forward has yet to be determined, but what it provided was informative, influential and delivered with an enthusiasm that became infectious.
About that blog: When we were running Alpinist, our circulation director Andy Lienicke had a conversation one day with Steve. Steve was spinning his wheels, trying to figure out a way to make ends meet in Jackson, which really meant trying to figure out a way to cobble together enough money to keep going through the next ski season.
“Why don’t you start a blog?” Andy suggested, casually.
A couple of years ago, Andy, who moved to San Francisco in 2006, was back visiting when he ran into Steve.
“Thank you, thank you!” Steve gushed. Starting TetonAT had given him an outlet for both his prodigious enthusiasm and his perhaps equally broad affection for attention. It was, honestly, a perfect fit.
Steve loved the spotlight. No wallflower when it came to the public, he exhibited a magnetic attraction to its allure well before the blog gave him a forum. Conversations with friends lead, not inevitably, but often, to stories of Steve reveling in the limelight. “How many years at the avalanche awareness night would he just be up there with that big shit-eating grin of his, raffling off item after item…?” Laughter, from everyone listening. We’re all human, painted in colors of our particular composition. Steve’s colors shone most brightly when lit from the front.
But while the public persona on display so often in his videos, his trip reports, and at Skinny Skis might suggest he was an extrovert, “The flip side was, he was incredibly reclusive,” said Heemstra. “There were only a very few people in his inner circle. His reclusivity—that’s where he recharged. It balanced out the spotlight.”
And nowhere did he go more deeply into himself than with his skiing. The author of numerous new lines in the Tetons and beyond, he made countless outings on itineraries both classic and extreme. His passion for turning was the fundamental aspect of his being.
And boy, could he turn. “I’ve never seen someone ski as well as him,” said Heemstra. “He was an extraordinary skier, and he made beautiful turns. He prided himself on it. Perfect turns—they were his signature.”
We all love to ski. But Steve really loved to ski. And if the skiing didn’t go right, he could spiral.
“We were on Wister,” Zahan “Z” Billmoria recounted of one particular mission, “and Steve got that uneasy feeling he used to get often, more often than anyone I’ve known. He couldn’t really explain or justify it. Personally I felt the snowpack was right-side-up that day, and I was keen to carry on... but you have to respect your partners when they aren’t feeling it, so we pulled the plug.”
“By the time we got back to the car Steve was severely depressed,” Z continued. “He took it so seriously; he often let it become a matter of personal failure or success. He was like that: if a mission failed, he could be devastated."
The counter to that was the elation. "When the stars were lining up and you sent, there was no one who could match his positivity and excitement," said Z. "He was a driven guy, and succeeding was important to him."
In April, Romeo was scheduled to go to Baffin Island on a ski expedition with some big-name skiers. He was ecstatic. At Skinny Skis, Phil Leeds, one of the owners, remembered Romeo’s excitement as the trip approached. It was what Steve lived for. It affected everyone around him, even if that proximity was digital.
Z had skied a lot with Steve, and he knew that Steve never wanted to die in an avalanche.
“He was afraid of avalanches,” the friend said. “Terrified of them.”
“Steve talked to me about his fear of avalanches,” said Heemstra. “A lot. Year round. Even in the summer, we talked about it.”
But they were part of what he loved to do, and not even the fear could keep him away.
“The Tetons were special for Steve,” said Heemstra, “and the northern part of the range [where the avalanche occured] was his favorite part. The northern part was a sanctuary. It seems kind of perfect that….”
Her voice trailed off.
Ranger Peak was yesterday. Baffin was next. After that, who knew where Steve was headed.
But we all know that wherever he was going, it would have involved skiing.