Pro Snowmobiler Recounts Aspen X Games Tragedy In New Book

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Photo: Colten Moore snowmobile jump X-Games
Colten Moore practicing a freestyle snowmobile trick

This story first aired on May 3, 2016.

Caleb Moore didn't die on impact. He actually walked away from his snowmobile accident at the 2013 X Games in Aspen, which gave his family hope that he would survive.

Photo: Colten Moore Catching the Sky book cover

In fact, Caleb's younger brother Colten, also a professional snowmobiler, went on to compete that same night. But Caleb died from his injuries a week later in a Grand Junction hospital.

Colten tells the story in a new book, "Catching the Sky," co-written with journalist Keith O'Brien, an NPR contributor and former Boston Globe reporter. The book also explains why the Moore brothers were drawn to extreme sports, like other risk takers in history, and why Colten continues to ride after Caleb's death.

Colten Moore and Keith O'Brien spoke with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner.

Read an excerpt:

THE STORM moved in at nightfall, spitting snow from the sky. I wasn’t concerned about it and, of course, neither was my brother. Caleb never worried about anything: not what people thought of him; not the back flips he was about to do on a quarter-ton snowmobile three stories up in the air on national television; and certainly not a little storm closing in on the mountain. By Colorado standards, the storm was nothing—just a little snow, with some ice and low visibility later, maybe. But who cared? This was Aspen, ESPN’s Winter X Games, our one chance every year to prove we were the most talented freestyle snowmobilers alive—the best at flipping the machines. Of course, there would be snow. There was supposed to be snow. And, anyway, it just added to the ambiance—the whole feeling that this was big, that there was magic in the cold winter night. The snow, falling from the heavens, seemed to sparkle in the lights on the mountain.

            I looked at Caleb, sitting atop his black and red, two-cylinder snowmobile emblazoned with a gold star and his beloved No. 31. He looked ready—his usual self—and that put me at ease. His practice runs in recent days had been shaky at times. In the weeks before we arrived in Aspen, Caleb had crashed all too often as he honed his tricks for the competition—uncharacteristic tumbles that left his body bruised and his back aching. And while Caleb didn’t seem to dwell on his mistakes, I certainly did, rolling them over in my mind. But then, that was me—the younger brother, always stewing in silence. Did I have it what it took? Could I really do this? We were from panhandle of Texas, where hills are hard to find and snowstorms about as likely as a stampede of dinosaurs. Did we really belong on this mountain with Canadians and Minnesotans, guys who had been riding sleds all their lives? In recent years, I had worried about that a lot. And so, yes, I had noted Caleb’s crashes in the days before Aspen. I could see my brother was pushing himself, pushing the edge of what was possible, anything to win his first gold medal at the X Games.

But that afternoon in our final practice runs on the course in Aspen, Caleb had been perfect, nailing down his 75-second routine of flips and jumps. He was dialed in and he knew it, flashing his country-boy smile to the cameras and predicting a big night. “It’s going to happen,” he said as the sun went down and the cold began to set in.

Now everything was in place: the riders, the television trucks, the crowd. Fifteen thousand people had gathered on the mountain to watch. A million more viewing at home. And ESPN’s broadcast was ready from Aspen, about to go live to the world. “We’re at two minutes right now,” a producer informed us, standing in the snow at the start of the course.

“Two minutes,” he said again.

A hush fell over the riders. Even the producer wouldn’t speak much anymore, flashing hand signals instead to let us know that it was time.

One minute to go.

Thirty seconds.

Five, four, three, two, one …

Caleb straddled his sled and revved his engine, pulling on the throttle. He was alone on the course—the first of eight finalists to go for the night.

THE ANNOUNCERS were almost giddy as the competition got started. “The infamous Moore brothers,” the play-by-play man called us on television, as ESPN’s cameras panned to my brother wearing his goggles and helmet. “Caleb has been throwing down in practice,” the T.V. commentator added. “He’s got the big tricks. But I’m really hoping he can smooth out that run.”

            My brother looked square into the camera as he pulled away, stood up on his sled, popped a wheelie in the snow, and acknowledged the crowd with a raised fist and a flick of his finger—classic Caleb, always the showman. Then he turned, hit the throttle, kicked up a cloud of snow, and peeled off toward the first ramp, whipping through the flurries falling from the sky. He landed his first jump just fine, flying some ninety feet through the air, as he let go of the handlebars, held on momentarily with his feet, and then grabbed the bars once again. But it wasn’t exactly perfect. The nose of his sled came in a little high, causing it to slam into the snow as the back treads touched down again—a fact the announcers pointed out to everyone watching at home. He had stomped out the landing, but still. “A little tentative start there for Caleb Moore.”

            Tentative was the last thing Caleb ever was—on that day or any other. The word most people used to describe him was fearless. He’d first proven it racing and jumping ATVs on backcountry dirt racks in rural Texas and, later, on this very mountain in Aspen, on a snowmobile. But there was certainly reason to be tentative—for Caleb, for me, for all of us—if you let your mind go there. We’d all been injured riding, snapping bones and suffering countless concussions. No one could say exactly how many. It’s not like we always went to a doctor. Even if my parents demanded that we go get checked out at a hospital, we’d ignore them at times, especially Caleb, once he turned eighteen. He wanted nothing to do with doctors, nurses, or paramedics—anyone who might keep him from riding, from being free. Once, while practicing for an ATV freestyle show in Amarillo, the engine on his four-wheeler bogged out and died—in midair—two stories up. He jumped off the floating hunk of metal and slammed down onto the hard floor of the empty arena, injuring his back. For months afterwards, Caleb ached, struggling to walk or sit at times. Chiropractors became his best friends. But he refused to see a doctor, fearing he’d be told to stay off the machines. It was only later we learned that he had cracked a bone in his back that day in Amarillo—a serious injury that would have sidelined just about anyone, in any sport. Not Caleb, though. He rode like that for months. “I’m fine,” he’d say, rubbing his lower back. “I’ve got this.”

Part of the toughness was practical. If we didn’t ride, we didn’t get paid. This was our job. And it wasn’t like we had extra money sitting around at home to finance a few weeks of doing nothing, with our father working as a truck driver and our mother employed as a school librarian. You simply couldn’t let the injuries get to you—physically or mentally. Or that was it. You were done. No more riding for you. Still, we struggled at times to come to terms with the risks we were taking in flight—especially when we saw, with our own eyes, how even a simple mistake, something so small, could ruin a life, destroy entire families in an instant and set into motion a horrifying chain of events. There’s your friend, under-rotating his quad in the air and slamming into the ground. There’s his blood in the dirt—too much of it—and people screaming, lots of screaming. There’s the medical helicopter landing in the pasture by your house. And there’s your mother—our mother—at the kitchen window, shaking with fear, refusing to come outside, unwilling to face what we had done.

She hadn’t chosen this: our sport, our lives. The only way she got through it was by praying—and that she did all the time. At home. When we were on the road. And certainly before the X Games, our biggest event of the year. Just before the snow started falling outside that night in Aspen, our mother gathered everyone around inside our trailer. We held hands. We fell silent. And, with our heads bowed, she began to pray.

“God, please watch over these riders, all the riders, and keep them safe. Help them have successful runs,” she said. And then, she added one final wish. “I’m just going to come right out and say it, God. I’m asking for your favor. We want our boys to win.”


            Caleb and I began to pack up, grab our things. It was time to ride. My mother always liked to hug us one last time. She needed that moment of closeness between mother and son, before we left. But being up first, Caleb felt pressed for time. And amid the flurry of well-wishers and back-slappers, people seeing us off, my brother slipped out the door of the trailer, crunching across the snow in his riding boots. It would be a minute before my mother realized he was gone, too late to say goodbye. 

Reprinted from Catching the Sky by Colten Moore with Keith O'Brien with permission of 37 INK / ATRIA Books, a division of Simon and Schuster. Copyright (c) Colten Moore and Keith O'Brien.