Former ski bum is now lawyer, Search and Rescue volunteer
JACKSON, Wyo. (AP) — Chris Leigh was a college kid with his sights set on skiing big mountains when he rolled into Jackson Hole in 1978.
He started calling Jackson home in 1980, after getting his undergraduate degree in criminal justice and psychology from the University of New Haven in Connecticut, his home state. He spent the next few years on the slopes and in the shops.
“I worked at the old Wildernest Sports,” Leigh said. “I also worked at Jackson Hole Ski and Sports.”
He was also a ski host at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.
“I got paid $2 every two weeks,” Leigh said. “Things were different back then.”
He lived for winters, but he worked construction in the summers to make ends meet.
“Dump trucks, cement mixers,” Leigh said.
Eventually he headed to Laramie to study law at the University of Wyoming.
“It got to the point where I needed to do something,” Leigh said. “I got into the Air Force at the same time I got into law school. The Air Force was a six-year commitment, and law school was three.”
He’d be able to ski a lot more in law school than if he enlisted, and that was the deciding factor.
He returned to Jackson after obtained his Juris Doctor and opened his own practice, Christopher Leigh, Attorney at Law.
Twenty-nine years later Leigh, 59, is still working in criminal justice. He’s one of a few criminal defense lawyers in Jackson, often seen at the Teton County Courthouse representing those accused of a crime.
“I’ve had anywhere from public intoxication to aggravated vehicular homicide cases,” Leigh said. “We represent the worst of the worst.”
During his career he has argued cases in front of the Wyoming Supreme Court, and he fills in for judges every so often.
Criminal defense is an important job, he said, but his second job — volunteer with Teton County Search and Rescue — is just as vital.
When he’s not in the courtroom Leigh is in the backcountry with other volunteers guiding unfortunate or unlucky thrill seekers back to safety. Other times it’s a recovery mission.
“It’s hard to describe when you’re trying to save somebody and they don’t make it,” Leigh said.
He’s been a volunteer since 2010. He’s now also a board member and membership adviser.
“I regret not having put in earlier,” Leigh said.
Leigh dedicates anywhere from 10 to 20 hours a week, be it in field missions or training.
“We have to completely rely on each other,” he said. “None of us could do what we do without each other. We strive for perfection, and we execute perfection. There’s no room for error.”
Rescues can be frustrating, but most are rewarding, Leigh said, making it worth the trouble of trying to balance two jobs and a family.
“I get huge support from my wife,” Leigh said. “The 2 a.m. calls, it’s like, ‘See ya later.’”
Leigh has been married to Mari Auman for 23 years. They met during a ski boot fitting.
“I asked her out to go make some turns,” Leigh said with a smile.
The two still ski together. In the summers they take off for long rides on their tandem bicycle.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Leigh said. “You get going downhill and nobody’s going to catch you.”
Leigh and Auman, who’s recently retired after a 34-year career at the Teton County School District, live with two rescued pets — a dog, Ruby, and cat, Dot. The couple takes Ruby on rounds at the Senior Center of Jackson Hole for compassion visits.
To maintain a happy home life while juggling a busy career and volunteer duties, Leigh sometimes has to cut back on his Search and Rescue commitments. Other times, however, understanding judges make it easier for him to reschedule his court dates.
“Teton County Search and Rescue provides critical search and rescue services, so we are happy to accommodate Chris Leigh, a valued member of our legal community, when he is called out on a rescue or when he is training,” Teton County Circuit Court Judge James Radda said. “The court has gotten busier over the years, but not so busy that we don’t recognize the value of individuals like Chris who provide essential volunteer services to our community.”
When Leigh started practicing law there were about 35 attorneys in town. That number has since more than doubled, he said, but a loyal client base keeps him in business.
“It’s critical work,” Leigh said.
Leigh plans to retire in “another year or two” but he doesn’t plan on leaving Jackson Hole anytime soon.
“It’s the lifestyle,” Leigh said, “and friends.”
Information from: Jackson Hole (Wyo.) News And Guide, http://www.jhnewsandguide.com