Vail Valley remembers 18-year-old killed by large avalanche in Switzerland’s Bernese Alps

Emily Franciose was an only child with a big, extended family. At least, depending on your definition of the word. For the daughter of two fiercely loving, free-thinking parents, the first three entries in the dictionary just won’t do. No, you’ve got to skip to the fourth and fifth, past the entries about a common ancestry or common household, to capture the totality of what it truly means to be family.

4: a group of people united by certain convictions or a common affiliation

5: a group of things related by common characteristics

Or, as the old adage goes: Treat your friends like family and your family like friends.

On the ceiling above her bed at her home in West Vail, Emily taped a whole album’s worth of photos, falling asleep each night surrounded by those she loved most.

That extended family — spanning two continents and multiple generations — has been grieving for weeks now after the 18-year-old Vail Valley local was swept away by a large avalanche in Switzerland’s Bernese Alps on March 21. An expert skier with extensive backcountry experience, Emily was skiing with classmates and staff from Ecole d’Humanité, the boarding school she’d chosen for her final year of high school, when the slide broke on the Gstelliwang slope near Bern. Estimated at 2,000 feet wide, the avalanche carried her and another classmate into the churn. Rescuers were able to locate the body of Emily’s classmate, a British student, but have yet to find her body, which was buried under 50 feet of snow.

A memorial is slated for Sunday, June 4, from 10 a.m. to noon at Vail Mountain School. A large crowd is expected and guests are asked to park in the Vail Village parking structure where they can board shuttles provided by the town of Vail. More details about the memorial will be available closer to the event.

Emily Franciose, 18, was set to graduate from high school this spring. After spending her first 12 years of schooling at Vail Mountain School, she opted to do her senior year at Ecole d’Humanité, an international boarding school in Switzerland.
Franciose family/Courtesy photo

‘She cared about the underdog’

That she’d opted on Switzerland and a whole new cast and backdrop for her senior year after attending Vail Mountain School since kindergarten is telling of who Emily was and how she approached her life.

An old soul. A free thinker. An adult in a teenager’s body. A go-getter. A chameleon.

Talk to enough people, and you hear a lot of the same things. Emily was precocious and headstrong, sure, but she was also a friend to anyone who needed one, regardless of what anyone else thought. She couldn’t help but be kind. Giving back was in her DNA.

The daughter of a trauma surgeon and a cardiac perfusionist who’d moved to Vail to live the mountain lifestyle, Emily never had a babysitter growing up. Reg and Sue Franciose, who became parents in their 40s, took her everywhere — black tie events and symphony performances, charity events for Pink Vail and the Salvation Army, or to PHQ at Vail where her dad worked as the medical director for the ski patrol. In a den of alpha personalities, she fit right in with the patrollers, part babysitting charge, part mascot, and helped with the day-end sweep of the mountain.

“She was the type of kid that if there was a kid in the playground that was sitting by themselves, she would go over and incorporate them into her world,” Sue said. “She went out of her way to kind of root for the underdog or to find the kid that was struggling, or find the kid that needed help.”

Reg and Sue Franciose, who became parents in their 40s, took Emily everywhere — black tie events and symphony performances, charity events for Pink Vail and the Salvation Army, or to PHQ at Vail where her dad worked as the medical director for the ski patrol.
Franciose family/Courtesy photo

“She was an extraordinarily unique human being in all of the most positive ways,” said Ron Davis, a longtime family friend. “She didn’t have a mean bone in her body. She was kind, considerate, and compassionate. She cared about the underdog.”

Gabrielle Starr, a science teacher and the greenhouse director at VMS who coaches students on the telemark team, said Emily had friends everywhere she looked.

“One of the things that I think most impresses me about Emily is just her ability to connect with people of all ages,” Starr said. “She always babysat, so she had lower school kids that she was really close with. She also had her friends and her peers that she was close with, but she also connected really well with the adults in the building — and outside the building. She is the type of student and person that just makes connections with anyone she’s around.”

She also lived for adventure, trying to wring the most out of each day on her skis, mountain bike, paddleboard or the family’s commercial raft. Her default setting was perpetual motion, always chasing new experiences — whether it was catching a big show at Red Rocks or traveling abroad with her parents and friends, often without an itinerary, just a starting point.

And yet, despite being just 18, Emily had an acute awareness of her place in the world — and how she could bend the status quo to make it better.

“If there was something that she thought was important, she would just go for it,” said Sue. “When she saw a need or saw something that she could make a difference, she just did it. She didn’t conform easily. Like she didn’t do it because everyone else was doing it. She did the right thing when no one was looking.”

Courtesy image

Emily’s Hut

One day, likely sooner than later, there will be a backcountry hut with Emily’s name on it in the mountains surrounding the valley where she grew up. It’s a project she would’ve relished — a big idea that needs a lot of people to make it happen.

Sue doesn’t know whether the hut will be part of one of the existing networks of backcountry huts in Eagle and Summit counties or a standalone structure accessed on private land, but she’s certain that Emily’s Hut will happen.

It will happen just like the Salvation Army holiday toy drives that she and Emily helped organize, making multiple trips back and forth to Denver to spend $15,000 to $20,000 in grant funds to buy toys for as many as 400 local families.

The hut will happen just like the fundraiser that Sue helped run for Jack’s Place, the cancer caring house named after Dr. Jack Eck, one of Vail’s pioneers who was the first medical director for the ski patrol before passing on the precious thread to Reg.

It will happen just like the patches that members of Vail Ski Patrol have already started creating for patrollers and other on-mountain staff to wear on their jackets. The patches depict Emily’s likeness and read “WE PATROL FOR EMILY” and “WE SKI FOR EMILY.”

There is also a t-shirt in the works with a logo showing Emily that reads: “Reach out eagerly and without fear —always remembered — always cherished — always loved.”

Yes, Emily’s Hut will happen because too many people loved Emily Franciose for it not to happen. Between Vail Mountain School, Vail Health Hospital, Vail Ski Patrol, and all the other circles connected to the Franciose family, Sue said getting enough people engaged to raise the funds and navigate the logistics of creating something from nothing feels inevitable.

“She always saw the bigger picture,” Sue said of her daughter. “She saw that it doesn’t take a lot to make an impact. And sitting around and waiting for someone else to do it, ain’t going to happen. Yeah, she was a go-getter. It’s one of those things where if you would give her a challenge or if you would say this is impossible or it’s too big, it just gave her more encouragement to do it, to prove you wrong.”

Davis, who Emily called Uncle Ron and who would show up at VMS for grandparents’ days because Emily didn’t have any, certainly knows as much. The former director of the Vail Valley Medical Center who now oversees two large nonprofits that help youth, Guardian Scholars and My Future Pathways, Davis still laughs about the time a young Emily asked him for advice to sell Girl Scout cookies.

“We just sat there and kind of play acted so she could learn how to sell. And then she was determined to win the prize. And I think she sold more cookies, twice as many cookies as anybody else,” Davis said.  “She had to get more supply because she sold more than they gave her. At the base of Lionshead, she just went there and set up a little stand, the way somebody would set up a lemonade stand. And she was fearless in just commandeering people.”

Emily Franciose grew up on the river with her parents, Reg and Sue.
Franciose family/Courtesy photo

‘Privileges come with obligations’

Giving back, and being a valued member of your community, it’s just what you do — especially if you’re fortunate enough to do so. At least that’s how Reg and Sue always saw it.

Reg said he told his daughter from a very early age that “privileges come with obligations.”

“We are usually granted privileges in whatever arena because of something you provide in exchange for those privileges,” said Reg, a general surgeon who earlier this month had four vertebrae fused together to help correct his posture and alleviate pain after so many years of leaning over the operating table.

“Reg has probably operated on more cancer patients and other types of people than you’d ever know,” Davis said. “And he was the head of the ski patrol and all of that other kind of stuff. None of her privilege ever went to her head. She was Emily. That’s the best way of saying it — she was Emily. The old soul, the wise person, the thoughtful person, the enthusiastic person, the energetic person.”

That her parents both chose medical careers helping others rubbed off on her. Sue said she and Emily’s trips to Europe and other parts of the world were never fancy affairs. Some of them were service trips to third-world countries to help build things. Others, they’d pick an airport somewhere in Europe, rent a car, and go. The accommodations were never five-star hotels. 

“She was an only child in a privileged area, and I don’t mean necessarily Vail, but in the United States as a whole,” Sue said. “When you see the other parts of the world, you can have one or two responses. You can be like, ‘Wow you know, I got it pretty good.’ But she took it a step further like, ‘Wow, that’s wonderful.’ And I think it humbled her in a way that the world’s bigger than this. And I want to be in the bigger part of it.”

Emily Francioise easily moved between cliques and age groups, and was always looking for fun.
Franciose family/Courtesy photo

‘She was ready to fly’

Something bigger is certainly what Emily had in mind after staying up all night researching Ecole d’Humanité before pitching the idea to her parents.

“She wanted a bigger canvas,” Sue said. “She has always been an adventurous kid. She’s not afraid to be on her own and try something new. And she was ready to fly. We love VMS, we love the community here, but she was ready to move on. Earlier than I expected.”

Reg said shock was his initial reaction to his daughter wanting to travel halfway around the world for her senior year of high school.

“I really wondered, are you just trying to get away from us because we’re domineering or are you really seeking out ways to spread your wings?” he said.

It was clear that it was the latter when he and Sue traveled to Switzerland to retrieve Emily’s possessions.

“It seems like after we met the people she was living with there and the whole environment there, it was really not a place to get away to, it was a place to go to,” he said. “She really came into her own there. Clearly, from her writings in her journal, and applications to schools. She underwent a rather profound metamorphosis.”

Reg said the school his daughter had chosen was just like her: unconventional.

“I don’t know how to explain the school,” he said. “It’s not prep school. It’s more like Harry Potter school. Every one of those kids is at least one, if not two standard deviations from the mean. It really was something.”

One of the possessions that Reg got from Emily’s classmates was a Spotify playlist that she’d shared, and the kids loved, called “Reg in the 80’s” adorned with a photo of her father working in an operating room in a third-world country on a mission trip. Emily’s inspiration was the music she envisioned her father listening to on a boombox while performing surgery — nearly six hours of Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Led Zeppelin, Grateful Dead, Willie Nelson, Elton John, U2, R.E.M., Van Morrison and Fleetwod Mac.

An old soul, indeed.

A straight-A student, Emily had applied to colleges that all had one thing in common: access to skiing and the outdoors. Dartmouth and the University of Colorado Boulder were her top two choices, Sue said.

Emily was fascinated by photography and cinematography, but she also loved math and science.

“One minute it’s science-oriented things, and then the next minute she was talking about working for Outward Bound and doing their filming or Warren Miller and doing their filming or working for Patagonia and being on the film crew in the middle of nowhere,” Sue said.

What’s hard to reconcile for everyone who loved her is that the thing she loved doing the most is also the thing that took her life. At Ecole d’Humanité, skiing in the backcountry was part of the curriculum, and it’s where Emily thrived.

“It’s a paradox you can’t reconcile,” Reg said. “Just not really understandable. I’ll spend years trying to sort this out. It’s hard to wrap your head around. Really hard. But she grew up doing this. She loved it. She was experienced.”

“I’ve been to a lot of services or memorials, celebrations, whatever, where everyone’s like, they died doing what they loved,” Sue said. “And I’m thinking, well, yeah, but they died. Well, I can honestly say I’m in that position. And I get it now. As sad as it is that she physically will not be here, it’s a gift as a parent for me to know that she really did get so much out of this life. And she was the best version of herself possible. And she did die doing what she loved. And as hard as that is for me to try to accept, there is a part that realizes what a gift to live your life the way you wanted to without conforming to the rules, having an impact on others that’s obvious in this community and over there, making a difference in the world, and going out on your own terms.”

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