Ski Math

The tiny dot in the middle of the frame is my son hiking up from a yard sale, in a gale, at the top of Pali Chair. FIVE minutes later he said, “Dad, I’m glad you’re as good a skier as me.” I’d kept my skis during the traverse! They have such short memories.

Our family ski experience is like my Pandemic Predictions => I got a lot wrong.

When I was shelling out for childcare/preschool, skiing struck me as a very expensive way to do a lot of driving, without much cardio.

Not interested.

A friend, with four kids (and a jet), made the observation… “you gotta be able to do something as a family.” Given his role, as the smartest guy I know, we decided to give it a try.

My wife didn’t believe me when I said, in advance, “We’re making a million dollar decision here.”

Frankly, I took it easy on her. The math is daunting…

But wait, there’s more.

Add-in the inflationary effect of surrounding yourself with the largest spenders in our society.

And… have a look around the parking area, with the smell of legal weed wafting across the empty beer cans… Is this an environment where I’d like to leave my teenaged kid unsupervised?

Still… “you gotta be able to do something as a family”.

$175,000 worth of opportunity cost later, I can ski any run, with any member of my family. This makes me happy during a time of year I used to dread.

Total immersion (5 million vertical feet, in three seasons) let me achieve my goal quickly… Something outside, at a high level, with any member of my family.

Unexpectedly worth it… but only after I figured out our family’s cash burn.

I cope with the “demographic” by focusing my energy on seeking to ski like an instructor, with the fitness of a ski patroller. These goals provide structure for my athletic year.

Like much of my outdoor life, my participation is conditional and always one major crash away from ending.

Stay variable.

Immunity and Disclosure

Closing Weekend 2021

A lesson I learned in Private Equity was:

Concession for concession

If I’m going to give something away then I should get something in return.

Because the public sector has different incentives than the private sector, it is possible for corporations to gain valuable concessions in exchange for not much in return.

Name an industry with corporate immunity for losses associated with their product.

The first one that usually comes to mind is guns. Here’s a link to a summary of the law – The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms.

In Colorado we have the Ski Safety Act (link to the law) that grants immunity to ski operators from the inherent risks of skiing. This act provides a huge incentive for resort operators to expand their Colorado operations. Colorado skiing is better because of this act, and I like to ski.

Backcountry Skiing

If you die in an avalanche in Colorado then the CAIC will do their very best to find out as much as possible about your death. They will publish their findings so the community can learn from the price you paid.

It’s a valuable public service, done on a limited budget ($1.6 million of public money in 2020). The accident reports give us a chance to make individual learning, collective. The reports also enable the public to make informed decisions about how they participate in backcountry skiing.

We have the accident investigation infrastructure, outside the resorts, and it doesn’t cost much. The $1.6 million of public money buys much more than accident investigation.

Investments in Public Safety

When I arrived in Boulder, the junction of North Broadway and Highway 36 was governed by a single stop sign. A cyclist turning left (on to to Hwy 36) needed to cross high speed traffic.

This intersection was the scene of fatal accidents and, eventually, the stop sign was replaced by a traffic light.

Before the light was put in, only the locals knew it was a dangerous location. The highway traffic comes around a corner and would catch unsuspecting cyclists while they tried to clip back into their pedals. I worked at a training camp where an out-of-state participant was killed at this intersection, when he turned back early from a group ride.

Colorado counties have the information they need to make informed investments in their road safety infrastructure.

With our in-bounds terrain, the counties and the public are largely skiing blind.

As a community, we’ve made a choice to accept the inherent risks of skiing.

I support this choice.

By taking personal responsibility for the risks of skiing, we save the ski operators tens of millions of dollars. A large multiple of the value of these savings is enjoyed by the owners of the resorts. The cost of better information would be a tiny fraction of gain in capital value

Improved disclosure, while preserving corporate immunity, would provide a positive incentive for the ski operators to improve their “dangerous intersections.”

Colorado can handle the truth

Here’s a link to the ski safety code – It is common sense stuff. The code fails to nudge skiers away from death and permanent injury.

From reading about fatal accidents, I learned some things I’ve passed to my kids:

  1. Trees kill
  2. Look where you want to go
  3. Hit things with your legs
  4. We don’t know why the rope is there
  5. Bar down

With better information, we can improve Colorado for those who follow us.

Let’s iterate towards better.

Backcountry Travel

Christmas Moose, not taking chances this year.

Lots of articles about the pandemic nudging newbies into the backcountry. With that in mind, I thought I’d share a handful of thoughts that should be front and center of your mind.

Here’s a weird stat – attending an avalanche safety course is correlated with avalanche fatalities. In Colorado, we even had a course get swept.

I have a theory – it may be because the techniques taught don’t work very well.

Avoidance is the only safe strategy for avalanche terrain – at my last avy class, we carefully dug four pits on the same slope. Each pit gave a different snapshot of the slope. None agreed – hands down the best lesson of the course.

Don’t trust a pit.

Do know your slope angle. Caltopo.Com is a great research tool => check “slope angle shading” as a “Map Overlay”.

The lake in the middle of this shot was the site of a fatal avalanche. Two guys dug a pit to see if conditions were OK. The slope went and one skier was killed when the debris broke the ice on top of the lake and he went in.

Even if you are not on a slope, you can get killed from above. I was reminded of that because I read every single accident report on the CAIC’s website.

Such a great site – it’s a shame we don’t see the lives saved and accidents avoided. The CAIC team do very good work.

Some of these reports are tough reading. Snowmobilers doing everything right last season near Vail. Two fathers killed while their wives/babies were waiting in a backcountry hut near Aspen. I read the reports and bear witness to the survivors.

A Better Place To Learn

One of the best developments of the last few years is resorts opening their terrain to uphill skiing. Lots of positive impact from this:

  • You can travel light and choose your effort => typically, with a backcountry setup and avy gear, the slope chooses your effort.
  • You benefit from the resort’s avy control and grooming.
  • There’s usually a parking lot below you and other skiers around you.
  • You can follow your uphill effort with a couple hours of lift-assisted turns – making turns after a long climb is a different type of fitness. It reminds me of running off the bike.

The last point is fundamental. It will take forever to learn your turns in the backcountry. There isn’t enough opportunity to make turns.

If you want to become proficient then 100 days on snow, split 50/50 between alpine/uphill, focus on tress/steeps/bumps on the resort. Two seasons of that protocol, with a year-round strength program, and you’ll be decent. Four seasons and you could be skiing like an instructor.

Maybe you don’t want to be a great skier. It does take a lot of time!

What follows will help you enjoy yourself and avoid unforced errors.


In the backcountry, if you get wet and lose your ability to move then you will find yourself in a survival situation.

My family thinks I’m an absolute nut about shelter from the wind and not getting damp. That’s because they’ve never found themselves in an unplanned survival situation!

Shovel, puffy in a dry bag, sil-tarp, headlamp, spare batteries => don’t die because you left a few pounds at home.

I once had to start a fire on top of my stove to keep myself from freezing. I was trying to ski from Silverthorne to Winter Park and found myself at the bottom of a snowy valley. Day light was running short and I came to a river swollen with spring run off. Running the risk of getting soaked, solo, seemed stupid so I went to Plan B. The ability to hunker down, light a fire and sleep turned a potential survival situation into a moderately entertaining adventure. I retraced my steps in the morning.

Don’t want to carry safety gear? Easy, skin at the resort.

Buy a middle of the road, lightweight touring setup then ski it at the resort. This was the best decision I made at the start of my backcountry career. My setup didn’t do anything “just right” but it let me figure things out.

Many resorts will allow you to practice in lower-stakes, but realistic, backcountry conditions by skinning up through the trees before the lifts start spinning.

Microspikes – I use them year-round on steep dirt and snow.

Navigation & Communication

iPhone, Garmin watch, inReach communicator, Earthmate app, OpenSnow app, OpenSummit app, CAIC app, googling trip reports, downloading photos/tracks in advance. All useful.

A skill that might save you a night out, or worse…

  • using GPS, find yourself on a map
  • figure out where you’d like to go
  • lay down a waypoint
  • navigate to the waypoint

Learn it before you need it because…

On a changing slope, in the trees, when the clouds roll in… it can be impossible to get your bearings and, if you’re like me, then you can burn a lot of energy resisting the reality that you’re lost!

The circle in the middle was my track before I stopped, relaxed, had something to eat/drink, got my Navi-gear out and decided to self-rescue (from a route I’d done a half dozen times before). I thought I was following another skier until I realized it was my own track! Humbling.

In Vail, we lost a well loved ski instructor because he decided to ski home via the side-country. A navigation app OR a shovel OR a set of skins probably would have saved his life.

He got lost, got cold, sat down and died => an easily avoidable tragedy.

It can happen to any of us.