About a year ago, I learned from a friend that Sven Brunso, a longtime pro skier who has appeared on more magazine covers than anyone, had lost his wife to suicide. I was aware that suicide rates in mountain towns are often two to three times the national average, but none of the stories I'd read about the crisis (as one psychologist later described it) allowed an intimate look at a family left behind. I emailed Sven, whom I'd never met, to see if he'd be open to talking about his experience since his wife, Beth, ended her life on Christmas Day 2016. I couldn't relate to his trauma, but I'd lost my aunt and best friend to suicide, so I had an idea of the devastation such an act leaves behind.
Sven replied later that day and said he'd be open to a phone call. We talked for an hour; at the end, he gave me his blessing to propose the story to an editor. I pitched it to SKI, a magazine that typically does not cover death in depth, but one with a broad enough reach that I thought it might make an impact beyond just the core skiing community. Three phone conversations with SKI's editor, Sam Berman, followed. Eventually she assigned the story.
In May, I joined photographer Liam Doran—a longtime friend of mine and Sven's who'd told me about Beth's death—on a three-day trip to visit and ski with Sven in Durango, where he and Beth settled after college. Sven and I had some long, hard talks during that trip, but throughout our time together his candor and grasp of reality amazed me. He saw huge value in being transparent about what happened and what he'd gone through since. The result was an 8-page feature in SKI's December issue, viewable on my writing page or here: http://devononeil.com/Stories/Sven_pdf_Ski.pdf (the PDF takes a minute to load). Sam published the piece at nearly twice its assigned length, which I was grateful for and which validated Sven's trust in us and candor in telling his story.
In a rare postscript to a story like this, Sven and I have become friends and even skied together on the Fourth of July. He retired from professional skiing this year, which I hope will lead to more adventures in the future.
Here are a few photos from our reporting trip:
Sven takes stock of Silverton, Colorado's Velocity Basin, home to the Gnar Couloir on 13,487-foot Storm Peak (middle right), our ski objective for the day.
The snow in the Gnar wasn't great, but it made for some interesting skiing. Liam shot this frame of me trying to survive the frozen crud before it softened up lower down.
Colorado's largest avalanche cycle on record happened two months before our trip, which meant there were plenty of sobering reminders throughout the San Juan range. This tunnel through one of the debris piles was actually minuscule relative to others.