Memento -- Kevin O'Meara
If you ran into big-mountain skier Kevin O'Meara last winter at one of the Freeride World Tour (FWT) stops, there's a good chance he was wearing a beat-up fedora. The hat is covered in pins and has feathers stuck in the band; it looks like the kind of thing your grandfather would wear, if your grandfather listened to the Squirrel Nut Zippers and had a soft spot for fly-fishing.
It's not really his fault, though, because it's not his hat.
It's ski mountaineer Kip Garre's hat -- the one he used to wear to Burning Man. Garre wore a lot of hats. Literally, because he was pretty bald, and figuratively. He was a heli guide, an athlete, a mountaineer and a party starter. Shane McConkey called him the best skier he'd ever seen.
When Garre passed away in 2011, in an avalanche on Split Mountain in California's Eastern Sierra, it devastated the ski community who knew him not only as a badass skier and climber, but as a selfless, big-hearted, always-stoked friend. (Garre had been skiing that day with his girlfriend, Allison Kreutzen, who also perished in the slide.) Garre's fedora ended up with his tight-knit group of Lake Tahoe, Calif., buddies, who started passing it around.
O'Meara and Garre, like a lot of Squaw Valley skiers, met while they were working night jobs at the Resort at Squaw Creek, but they became friends on the hill. O'Meara was new in town, skiing alone one day, when Garre, who was already well-known, skied up and told him to follow. "He was the guy that had been around and then took me out and showed me around," O'Meara says. "There are a few lines I only know because of Kip."
Last winter, after O'Meara qualified for the FWT, a local bar threw him a fundraising party. Tour athletes don't get paid much, if anything, to ski at the events, so the town came out to The Slot to support him.
One friend, Scott Panerella, couldn't make it to the party, but he dropped off something else to help O'Meara out at the competitions: Garre's hat. "He told me to take it and not to worry about it too much, but to have it with me," O'Meara says. "I was kind of nervous that something would happen to it. It just reminds everyone of the good spirit he was, full of positive energy."
When he skis, O'Meara's helmet is covered with stickers for lost friends: Shane McConkey and CR Johnson, the Tahoe crew that Squaw skiers carry with them when they ride. But the hat is different. It's positive; it's a reason to be easy and light. "Wearers are known to unconsciously yell, 'Get fired up!' which is one of Kip's favorite phrases," O'Meara says.
O'Meara, who is also a ski builder at Praxis, has had a ski career peppered with injuries, including a broken back. Last season was rough on him too: He broke his ankle at the Courmayeur, Italy, stop of the FWT, ending his season. It was a huge bummer, particularly because he came into the season strong, sitting in fourth place. But he says he's trying to stay upbeat about it.
That's what Garre would have done. "He was always such a positive person. He was always stoked about what you were doing and what you were doing together," O'Meara says.
This winter, O'Meara's focused on requalifying and supporting the other Praxis skiers on tour, perpetual podium-toppers Drew Tabke and Lars Chickering-Ayers. He says he also wants to step back a little and ski for fun, like Garre did.
O'Meara says he was thinking about bringing the hat back to Burning Man, for Garre, but he's decided that the best thing to do is pass it on. It doesn't feel like it's his to keep. He's going to put it back into rotation so another skier can get fired up.
"It's a loaner. It was a good feeling for me, but someone else should have it," he says. "You're going to see it around."