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Popular Teachers’ Deaths in Avalanche Stun Campus

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On the Palos Verdes Peninsula campus of the exclusive Chadwick School, they were known as rugged heroes, men who had tamed the swiftest rivers and explored the most remote mountain valleys. Above all, they were protectors of the young people they guided on journeys to the outdoors.

And yet when Max Lyon and Karl Mueggler were killed this week, it was in a place they had skied through a dozen times, just five miles from their childhood homes in Logan, Utah.

Lyon, 38, and Mueggler, 29, were buried in an avalanche, along with their friend Keith Maas, as they slept in a tent near a peak known as Little Big Mountain about 70 miles north of Salt Lake City.

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Lyon and Mueggler were known as “dads” to many of the 700 students on the expansive campus of the private K-12 school. They were outdoors-lovers who had kayaked, mountaineered and skied in wildernesses from Alaska to Siberia to the Andes.

“If you were going to be out in the wilderness, these are the guys you’d pick to be with,” said Nat Reynolds, the headmaster at Chadwick, where Lyon and Mueggler were outdoors instructors.

Utah officials said the three men, who were on vacation, were the victims of sudden strong winds that built up a deadly snow mass over the mountain valley of Douglas firs and aspens where they had camped for the night about 8,500 feet above sea level.

“These skiers were exceptionally experienced, well-equipped to travel in this snowy back country,” Cache County Sheriff’s Capt. Robert DeGasser said. “All indications are that this was a tragic, unavoidable accident which not even the most experienced winter outdoorsman could have anticipated.”

Susan Lyon, Max Lyon’s sister-in-law, found it sadly ironic that he had died not long after completing a yearlong sabbatical that had taken him to dangerous peaks in Chile and isolated rivers in Siberia.

“Of all the places all three of the men had been in the world, and all the things they’ve done that your average person would view as dangerous, to be killed basically in their backyard . . . is really a shock to all the families,” she said.

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The three men left Logan and skied into the area early Saturday, officials said. They planned to camp Saturday and Sunday night and return from the back country Monday. Their relatives reported them missing Monday afternoon.

Members of the Cache County Backcountry Emergency Response Team found the victims under four to six feet of snow early Tuesday morning.

DeGasser called the three men among the most experienced mountaineers in northern Utah. Family members said Mueggler and Lyon had grown up with the Rocky Mountains as their playground.

“In general, Karl was very, very careful about avalanche conditions,” said Rosalie Mueggler, Karl’s mother. “He was very experienced and always checked the snow and tested it. There were a bunch of weird conditions that conspired against him.”

School officials said Chadwick planned to dedicate a special issue of the school newspaper, The Mainsheet, to the tragedy.

Lyon first arrived at the bucolic, tree-shrouded campus in 1990 to become director of the outdoors program. Mueggler, a part-time instructor in the outdoors program, was scheduled to become the assistant director this year.

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They worked with students who generally came from affluent backgrounds. A long time ago, actress Joan Crawford’s daughter Cristina attended Chadwick, and Ansel Adams set up the prep academy’s first darkroom.

All seventh- through 12th-graders are required to take at least one five-day wilderness trip every year. Lyon and Mueggler guided students on kayak trips to Baja California, rock-climbing trips to Joshua Tree, canoeing trips down the Colorado River and cross-country ski trips to Lake Tahoe.

Because January is a busy month for testing at Chadwick, Lyon and Mueggler had decided to take a month’s vacation before returning to lead a back-country snowboarding trip to Lake Tahoe.

One of the students scheduled to go on that trip was Mark Shwayder, 17, who admired Lyon as a teacher and as a companion. “Max was like a cool, older friend,” the junior said.

“He was so fun loving and liked to do the same things I like to do, kayaking, climbing and snowboarding,” he said.

Chris Patton, a junior, used to make weekly stops at Lyon’s house on campus to chat. “He loved life. I guess he shared that with everyone, and in exchange everyone loved him,” Patton said.

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Family members said that when they weren’t working, Lyon and Mueggler spent most of their time pursuing their passions: rivers in the summer, mountains in the winter.

“All over the West, wherever there were rivers, Karl had probably run them if they were runable,” Mueggler’s mother said.

When time came to organize a Thanksgiving dinner, Lyon, Mueggler and their friends celebrated with a roasted turkey on a beach in Baja California.

Such was his passion for the outdoors that Lyon helped organize a rock climb for his brother’s bachelor party. Susan Lyon recalls how her brother-in-law once dated a woman and openly questioned if it would work out because “she doesn’t rock climb. How can I pursue a relationship with someone who doesn’t rock climb?”

Lyon’s father, Thomas, is a Utah State University professor and editor of several books on the American wilderness.

“The family worshiped the outdoors,” Susan Lyon said. “They prized the American wilderness. That’s what Tom Lyon taught his kids. Max was doing a lot of what the family held closely as values.”

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Mueggler was raised with a similar reverence for nature.

“We were hiking with our parents since we were teeny, teeny kids,” said Mueggler’s sister, Laura McCabe, 30, herself a member of the 1994 U.S. Olympic cross-country skiing team. “We were always out. It’s part of our life. At least my brother died doing something he loves.”

Headmaster Reynolds said Chadwick students had been told about the pair’s death Tuesday afternoon at an assembly. Psychologists were on hand to counsel the middle and high school students who had been on several outdoor trips with them.

The school is planning a campus memorial service for the two instructors Jan. 24.

“When I heard that Max had died, the first thing that popped into my mind was a line from a poem about how the only question is how can we love the world enough,” Reynolds said. “And my sense with Max is that he knew the answer to that question.”

“Max was like the hub of the wheel here,” said Margaret Sullivan, co-director of the outdoors program. “He really cared about people and kids. His eyes and his thoughts were always on what’s best for the students.”

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