Ski season is upon us!
Not long after he was run off Mount Hood, Rick “Oz” Oswald set out to hitch-hike from Oregon to Jackson Hole. Or maybe it was Utah. Accounts vary in legends, and Oz, who died in an avalanche last month on the mountain he worked and skied for 35 years, was definitely legendary.
This was back in 1981. Oz was young then, but he was already a pretty well-known character. He used to work as a liftie at Mt. Hood Meadows before he got caught ducking the rope at Vista Ridge to sample some powder out-of-bounds in White River Canyon. His buddy dove behind a snowbank to hide when the sheriff came, but Oz wasn’t about to hide or apologize for skiing powder on public land. His mouth earned him a night in jail, and once he was locked up he made a point of taking his ski boots off in the cell to air out his sock-free feet. The jailer grudgingly agreed that there isn’t a law against taking off your ski boots in jail - although there should be.
Free from jail but banished from Hood, Oz hit the highway in search of powder and wilderness - the more remote the better. On his way out of Oregon he met Robert “Gus” Gustafson and Shelly Hummel, a couple trying to start up a ski area at Mt. Bailey near Diamond Lake in the Oregon Cascades. The more they told him about Mt. Bailey, the better it sounded to Oz: 25 feet of snow a year, 40, 45, even 50-degree slopes on a North face deep with untouched powder, 27 chutes to choose from, perfect tree lines, and very few rules other than the basic principles of safety and self-reliance. He decided to go check it out.
“I called Mt. Hood Meadows for an employment reference and they told me ‘Absolutely not! Do not hire him, he is bad news,’” recalls Shelly Hummel. But Shelly and Gus kind of liked the guy. They were misfits too, fishing Alaska in the summers to support their skiing and bar-hopping lifestyle. So they went with their instincts instead, and told Oz, “You’re here until we don’t need you, and then bye.”
Oz ended up staying at Mt. Bailey for 35 years, guiding powderhounds to some of the best snow days of their lives. His first year there he met Tami, the woman who would become his wife, and they raised their son Ryan at the resort. Gus’s dream of building a lift-serviced ski area never came true, but over the years Oz and his workmates built Mt. Bailey into a must-experience cat-ski powder destination famous for endless steeps, bottomless snow, and the irascible, larger-than-life character who ran the show, with his imposing mustache, his hilariously foul mouth, his gruff reality checks, his contagious laugh and his unrepeatable jokes.
Along with all of the dirty stories and post-skiing drinking bouts, Oz and his team also compiled a solid reputation for safety, especially considering the remote and extreme environment in which they worked. But as anyone familiar with the backcountry knows, there is no such thing as guaranteed security in steep mountains deep with snow. On March 22, 2016, Oz was cutting a slope on a steep trail named the Magnificent Seven (named for seven Japanese tourists from the 1980s who spoke no English but loved Mt. Bailey immensely) when it let go and carried him downhill at top speed. A large, burly man renowned for his ox-like strength, Oz had stomped onto the snow to release the avalanche and make the run safe for his clients as he had done so many times before. Except this time he was somehow swept away with the slide. He plummeted downhill fast, struck a tree hard and suffered serious internal injuries. He was life-flighted to a hospital in Klamath Falls, and subsequently flown to another hospital in Bend, suffering a heart attack in transit. By the time he got to Bend his condition was terminal. He died in St. Charles Hospital in Bend. He was 57.
The Oz tributes started flooding in as soon as his death was announced. Friends and family, skiers and snowboarders from all over the world wrote to celebrate an original character who lived for mountains. Cat Ski Mt. Bailey set up a Facebook page and a crowd-funding site in his honor, and best wishes and donations immediately began flowing in. Public memorials have been scheduled for Wednesday, April 13 at the Capitol in Bend, and Saturday, April 16 at Diamond Lake, the resort that many people will always associate with Oz.
The photograph below of Oz and a crew of elated clients was captured by Grant Myrdal at Mt. Bailey one week before the avalanche, with more than four feet of fresh snow. “It was the most amazing day ever,” says Grant. “It was beyond ridiculous. And Oz was hilarious. He was just spooling off jokes all day long. But he also kept his operation tight. He was always watching out for the herd.”
That's Oz in the back with the big smile, the big mustache, the orange jacket and the cold beer in his right hand.
Oz started skiing early, by some accounts as early as age two. His father was on the ski patrol at Kissing Ridge Resort near Buffalo, New York, and he used to buy Oz and his brother one lift ticket to share between them. One brother would use the ticket to board the lift at the base, then drop it down to the other brother halfway up the hill—thus planting the seed for Oz’s lifelong preference for fun over rules.
Oz followed his dad into patrolling and developed enough skills to be invited to a national competition for ski patrollers at Squaw Valley. Not only did he win the competition, he also got to experience serious steeps and real tree lines for the first time. He decided to move out West for adventure, and eventually found his way to Mt. Hood Meadows.
Oz's short career as a lift operator at Meadows ended in banishment, but not before he met the hard-core mountain chargers Mike Kluvers, Mark Moreland and Paul “Mouse” Cherachanko who would become some of his closest friends.
In spite of his lousy work reference from Meadows, Oz’s positive qualities soon revealed themselves at Mt. Bailey and Diamond Lake. One time he rescued his boss Gus from a serious snow machine accident. Another time he helped Shelly Hummel to safety after she got caught in an avalanche and got her teeth knocked out (they later named the run Toothless in her honor). He and Tami and their son Ryan lived in an employee housing section of the resort affectionately known as “the ghetto,” and he served as the resort’s EMT, lead ski guide, and snow-cat mechanic. He was famous for his ability to ad-lib repairs for cats and snowmobiles, and for calmly riding behind the cat holding a tow rope, straight up the steeps with his big woolly mustache frozen into a sheet of ice. Those attributes more than compensated for his unorthodox approach to marketing, human resources, and guest services. He never owned a cell phone, hated computers, mocked helmets, and refused to censor himself with employees, guests, or anyone.
“One of the first things Oz told me when he hired me was, If you fuck up, I’m gonna tell you you fucked up,” recalled Mark Moreland, who guided with Oz in the 1980s. “And he definitely did.”
The same went for paying customers. “If he thought for a second you were doing something unsafe he would just unleash on you,” said Deek Heykamp, co-owner of the Next Adventure Outdoor gear shops in Portland and a frequent Mt. Bailey visitor. “He was gruff, but he also had this laugh that was just absolutely contagious. He would keep us in stitches the whole day. Every trip I went on I came home two jokes that I could never repeat, ever.”
Oz loved to tell jokes, and the constant flow of newcomers to his place of work provided a steady supply of new material. The content of his stories made him much more suitable to Alpha-lead a pack of male skiers than women, but he was also well-liked by female clients. Photographer Randy Boverman remembers skiing with his wife Kelly at Mt. Bailey and watching Oz lead her through the transition from a skier who feared powder to a skier who loved powder, whooping a little louder with each turn through the untracked snow.
“He didn’t suffer fools. If you did something stupid he would laugh at you,” says Boverman. “But Oz had a great heart.”
“Oz had another side to him that not everybody saw, but we saw it,” says Shelly Hummel. “He was an amazing husband and a great father.”
Most of the Pacific Northwest’s top ski mountaineers have traveled over to experience Mt. Bailey at one time or another, and quite a few became regulars. Asit Rathod, who has summited Hood hundreds of times and skied Bailey with Oz more than a dozen times, remembers him as “a great guy and a great leader. He definitely took charge and put the risk on himself. And he ended his life doing what he loved doing, cutting the slope to make it safe for everyone behind him.”
Free-ride coach and Dad Sherpa Ben McKinley grew up in Medford itching to ski Mt. Bailey and finally got his chance in college. Unfortunately the rain had crusted up the snow and ruined conditions for him and his dad, but Oz gave them a free trip the following year. “It was everything you dream of, 40 inches of bottomless dry snow and super-steep,” McKinley recalls. “Oz had this gravely deep voice and he was always cracking jokes and telling dirty stories, but he definitely knew his stuff. And he could ski any terrain.”
Mark Moreland, a Meadows powderhound who worked with Oz at Mt. Bailey 3 years full time and 5 years part time, said, “I love that they’re calling him a legend now because that’s really what he was. It’s terrible what happened to Oz, but he’d been at it for so many years, I don’t know, I just always had a bad feeling that something was going to happen out there. We were all aware that when you play that game long enough, eventually something’s going to happen. You get so much snow there, and no matter how careful you are sometimes it just sneaks up on you.”
Another former Bailey guide, commercial fisherman Donny Hassler, skied and worked with Oz for years and competed with him in a national powder skiing contest in Jackson Hole. “Oz used to say that there aren’t any avalanche experts,” Hassler said. “They’re all dead. We had a great safety record, but everybody knew that it could happen at any time.”
“You can be the most perfect guide in the world, but you’re playing a game of roulette,” says Shelly Hummel. “When your number’s up and the snow gods call you, there’s nothing you can do about it. At least this way he got to go out in glory.”
Friends of Oz have established a crowdfunding site to help his wife Tami and their son Ryan, who also guided at Bailey and was with his father the day he died. Here is the crowdfunding pitch:
"We want to honor Oz by helping him keep his promise to Tami. Every winter his job was to take us skiing. At the end of the day, in the bar, he divvied up the gratuities that skiers and boarders left for the guides and cat-driver. He may have been a little buzzed but his math was always excellent. Just like a fisherman or a hunter or any other guy who brings it home, Oz brought the tip-dough home to Tami throughout the winter. We want to make sure that doesn't stop. Please leave a tip for Oz—whether it's in return for a funny joke, a chuckle you get from a testimonial, or just for the appreciation of a killer face shot pic. All proceeds go straight to his wife Tami, just like if he rolled in after a day of awesome skiing with some cash in his pocket."
Feel free to add to the Legend of Oz by contributing your own “Oz Flashes” as Shelly Hummel calls them. The comments section below is open for stories, jokes, tall tales, clarifications, and whatever else you care to contribute.
Ben Jacklet is the editor of Shred Hood.