|Raoul Wille -- big heart, big life
By Jay Cowan
I want to go out tonight, I want to find out what I got... “Badlands” by Bruce Springsteen
When Raoul Wille died on October 11th, 1998 on an expedition in Nepal, it felt a little too easy to say he had a full life. That made it seem too preordained, too much like destiny. A dangerous thing, perhaps, to live too full a life. Better to save a little room so no one thinks you’ve used all yours up. The happy fact was that our friend did have a full life. The sad fact was that, ending at 45, it was way too short.
|Raoul skiing the Little Annie area behind Aspen Mountain, 1968. Raoul was a talented nordic racer and all around mountain athlete. In this photo, he's skiing powder on fragile balsa wood core nordic racing skis designed for flat track kick-and-glide striding. Raoul and his crew of high school skiers would carry a spare ski as breakage was common.
With a name any dramatist would love, Raoul did his best to live up to its flamboyance. We usually called him Wille, or Will Severe if the occasion demanded it. Sometimes even uncool Raoul.
Whatever we called him, there is no other way to say it: Raoul was one of those truly larger-than-life characters, and if you knew him you knew he had a huge spirit and heart to complete the package.
Raoul had, and still has, more friends than anyone I know, from all over the world. Some he met in his travels, some stayed in his family’s apartments and lodge he ran, the Tyrolean. Some began as friends of friends who came for his first annual Fourth of July party in the mid-1980s and returned every year after that. Some were the kids and parents of kids he coached on the local nordic ski team. Some were just local scruff like me, who grew up with him, his art, his wildness, his generosity and his astonishingly even disposition -- somewhere between Zen master and Monty Python.
Everybody loved Raoul, and they got the affection back tenfold.
Thinking about Raoul I always remember the Left Bank tumult of the Tyrol apartments (different location than Tyrolean Lodge), an artist’s enclave such as used to flourish in Aspen with family Bohemians like the Burkees, the Dawsons, the Salters, the Soldners and certainly the Willes. Over the years the Tyrol has always been alive, vibrant and colorful, like a street fair full of bizarre art from all members of the family: Lou’s heroic sculptures growing organically around the place, Lynne’s baking enriching the scents of her flower gardens, golden pheasants strutting and screeching in cages along the street, and the big glass-fronted studio filled with works in progress gestating in a cool, blonde light.
Raoul always had strong family. Active, passionate, hard-working parents. His younger sister, Shauna, who shone in school, lives in Texas now with her family. Younger brothers Andre and Pierre are still in the valley, Andre teaching at Aspen High School and Pierre running the Tyrolean Lodge and apartments in Aspen.
The brothers quickly became bigger and gnarlier than Raoul, who was six-two, and smarter than all of us, too, which is always hard to take. They’ve also gone on to establish reputations as some of the top ski mountaineering endurance athletes in the country.
Raoul (left) and his brother in law John Doyle, on top of North Maroon Peak circa 1995. Though he didn't flaunt it, Raoul was an excellent mountaineer and backcountry skier. In all, the consummate mountain boy.
Raoul and his athletic brothers Pierre and Andre liked to joke around about being team "Q or "Quasimoto." This had varous origins, one being a reference to Quasimoto as in the hunchback of Nortre Dame, as Raoul tended to joke around about "Quasimodo" when he was younger, according to some of his highschool friends.
One of team Q's primary activities was and still is to build wild rock cairns (rock stacking) whenever and wherever possible. In this case, Pierre and Raoul had made major improvements to the summit cairn as pictured.
I first got to know Raoul in high school during the 1960s, protesting the Vietnam War and other issues, including underground nuclear blasts in nearby Rulison. Typically, on the way to that latter demonstration, a mattress caught fire in the van driven by John Morningstar that Raoul was riding in. He and Star both arrived singed and distracted. But his heart was there, and everywhere that life was going off. In the 1970s you could find him running a 25k cross-country ski race as fast as the best athletes in America. And also at the Red Rocks amphitheater for a concert by Jethro Tull, Raoul dressed up like a rock and roll savage, shouting, “I’m Led Tull, Jethro’s cousin from the mountains!” We had all just seen Led Zepplin a couple of weeks earlier and he still wasn’t over it.
After high school, Raoul spent a couple of tumultuous years at CU in Boulder rooming with Morningstar and racing for the cross-country ski team. After several bad bike accidents and other training mishaps, as well as protracted disagreements with the coaching staff, Raoul returned to Aspen. And for the next few years a core group of us skied hard, played harder, traveled, competed and worked enough to keep doing the rest.
Winters were marked by high speed downhill skiing assaults on Spar Gulch and road trips to gelande ski-jumping events in Jackson, Durango and Alta. Raoul could get good distance, but sometimes listed to the right. He broke both ankles gelande-ing the 40 meter hill in Aspen, the same jump that had broken both of his legs as a junior nordic jumper years earlier.
In 1975 Raoul and I traveled around the world with backpacks, stopping for two months in Nepal. We took a trek near the sacred mountain of Machapuchre and decided we wanted to do something longer. But first we used visas we had applied for months earlier to be amongst a handful of Americans allowed to stay in Kathmandu for the lavish coronation of King Birendra.
Later we ran into another Aspen schoolmate, Jonathan Wright, in the mountains that would soon claim him, 20 years before Raoul.
Then Wille and I took a month-long trek to the Everest base camp region, and we were hooked. The vast mountains, the deep mysteries, the openhearted people. During the next 20 years we returned multiple times, individually and also together again in 1986 with several other friends. The Himalayas were in our blood. If Raoul could have chosen, he would not have thought the words “Died on a Mountain in Nepal” a bad epitaph. He just would have liked them to be written fifty years hence.
During the 1970s a few of us also took up hang-gliding, with dangerous early delta-wings called Chandelles, made in Golden, Colorado. Wayne Inman, the craziest of us all, went over and took a one-hour course on how to fly them and came back and showed the rest of us. Brilliant.
Raoul’s first flight off of Aspen Mountain ended on the roof of the North of Nell. When some of us turned wrecked Chandelles into awnings, Raoul started paragliding. Eventually he became good friends with the airborne mountaineering crew at Dick Jackson’s Aspen Expeditions and went on to fly in places such as Chamonix and have several close calls with disaster. Jackson was with him when he died.
Over the last twenty years Raoul also rafted the Grand Canyon, visited Machu Pichu, organized the annual Silverboom Cross Country race and coached the local junior nordic team for years while running the Tyrolean Lodge for his parents. Busy times, plus women always loved Raoul and the feeling was mutual. He was married to the former Kim Doyle for years and they had a great son named Cody. Raoul also lived with other wonderful women over the years, the latest of whom was Sabra Van Dolsen.
I spent time with him here, in Nepal, the British Virgin Islands, Thailand, Montana and the Alps. We got certified to scuba dive in Tortola, and one day had to share a tank when one of us ran dry and we’d been too deep to surface without getting the bends. It wasn’t a near-death experience, just another day on the road with Raoul. He traveled widely with his wife or girlfriends, his son, parents and siblings. Raoul was bitten early and hard by the need to move and explore, to see new things or revisit favorite ones. He was always happy out there.
In truth, even in his hardest times, Raoul usually seemed happy. He had a knack for focusing triumphantly on now and letting the past go. He had a great capacity for forgiveness, and sometimes a great need for it. But with him it was never an issue. He had problems, he made mistakes like we all do. But one look at him, a few words, and no one could stay mad. Sometimes not even the women. I’ll never be able to summon an image of him to mind where he isn’t smiling -- arms folded, rocking on his heels, face full of that big sly grin, a little kid’s smirk flush with the conspiracy of a shared joke.
When Lou and Lynne Wille moved to their ranch on the Independence Pass road, Raoul assumed all the reins at the Tyrolean lodge and Tyrol apartments. It meant stepping up to a full schedule of quirky problem-solving and hard work that he not only excelled at but loved. He kept a ragtag group of local “orphans” employed on and off for years repairing the place as the Tyrol ascended into legend, the last bastion of its kind in Aspen.
What I’ll probably always remember about him the most, though, are the details. The stories he told and the way he used his hands to tell them -- fluid, darting, drawing in the air. The kind of music he loved -- the Stones, Edgar Winter, Jimi Hendrix. And his little dances, a sort of “Walk Like an Egyptian” thing, lips pursed, hands fore and aft, head thrust forward. Damn.
During the last couple of winters of his life, Raoul and I decided we needed to get going with some slightly more challenging skiing we’d been talking about. We weren’t getting any younger. Or as Raoul put it, “We won’t live forever.” We wanted to do more backcountry, more big mountains, more serious steeps and wild snow while we could. We still needed to go out and find out what we had, in the words of Mr. Springsteen. So we did, and I’ll always be glad for having that time with him. The winter before he died we spent remarkable days together on slopes from La Grave to St. Anton, Haystack Mountain to Midnight Mine, where I had to talk him out of skiing something that avalanched out from under us thirty seconds later.
Toward the end of the season we joined a local press day on Aspen Mountain and drafted Raoul’s best friend, fellow artist and uber-skier John Doyle to go with us. Our old schoolmate and former champion ski racer Andy Mill was the host for the event and we got a “first tracks” bucket with him, the only one Raoul or I had ever been on. With classic Wille timing, it was one of the best powder days of the year. Eighteen inches on most exposures and we rampaged around like the teenagers we’d once all been together. We gang ravaged virgin runs, got silly for cameras and were rudely late to the hosted lunch, but at least showed up with the host in tow. Raoul, not part of the working press, checked in as a guest, had a beautiful comp breakfast, was the focus of kind words in a speech from Andy about old friends, and then won the only door prize, tickets to a band he loved.
The guy was magic, lightning in a bottle, and we all still miss him terribly.
All along the watchtower
Princes kept the view
While all the women came and went
Their footservants, too
Outside in the cold distance
A wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching
And the wind began to howl...
“All Along the Watchtower”
by Bob Dylan via Jimi Hendrix