Monday, November 28, 2022

How Chris Benchetler Turns Skiing into Art

An artistic shot created by Chris Benchetler in his 2019 film, Fire on the Mountain. | Screengrab from Fire on the Mountain.

The dozens of canvases cluttered in Chris Benchetler's art studio at his Mammoth Lakes home give an impression as if you had just walked inside a small temple where the walls were melting, oozing every possible mixture of color imaginable. The canvases are all sorts of different shapes and sizes; some are hanging up on the wall, tilted or upside down, while others are stashed away in the corner between boxes of paint and art supplies. A cool September breeze gently sways the pine trees visible from the studio's window. Between balancing time raising two young boys, working on several original art commissions, serving as Creative Director for Atomic Skis, supporting a wife battling cancer, and still finding time to go outside to ski, bike, or climb daily, going to the studio to make art is no small task for Benchetler. Yet, he still manages to find the time and show up every day.

"I view art—and skiing and rock climbing and all the things that I try to do on a daily basis—as a form of meditation. You're looking inward when your painting and you're really expressing yourself in that moment in that space and time."

Chris Benchetler’s Mammoth Lakes art studio. | Photo courtesy of Chris Benchetler Twitter

The inspiration behind Benchetler's art comes as the culmination of the 36 years he's spent on this planet, with a strong influence from nature, he told me. When I spoke with Benchetler on the phone one fresh autumn morning he was sitting in his backyard under a pine tree, taking a break from painting. The Mammoth Lakes, California, local is best known for his career as a professional skier and his line of Atomic Bent Chetler skis, which he helped create and continues to produce the renowned psychedelic artwork for. He's a master of his craft, having practiced it since the early days of his childhood.

Benchetler has been both a skier and an artist since before he could remember. He has a humble beginning on an alpine racing team as a young child and was always doodling and drawing on his school homework, he says. He entered local art competitions in elementary school, even recalling that once he won a stuffed animal as a prize at one of those contests. At 15, he was a professional skier who would soon appear at the X Games. By 22, he helped launch the first line of Atomic Bent Chetler skis, which have since become one of the most popular ski models on Earth. Now at 36, he's the director and star of several ski films and creator of a myriad of commissioned original works, from public murals to digital art. He's descended extremely technical big mountain lines in places like Alaska with an ease and style that's uniquely his own, often resembling something more of a big wave surfer than a freeride skier. He's also got a van that he once lived in, using it to travel around North America chasing powder. The side of it is painted with his own artwork.

Working with Atomic Skis, Benchetler helped create and launch the Bent Chetler ski in 2008 as his first professional art commission. Every year since, he and Atomic have showcased a fresh layer of signature-style graphics on the latest model of Bent Chetlers, summoning the imagination drawn from a life spent playing in the mountains. Just like with his skiing, his artistic style is uniquely his and is easily recognizable at first glance by almost anyone who skis or snowboards. The flow of creativity never seems to cease, and year after year he keeps bringing to the table new, mind-captivating designs for the Bent Chetler ski and his own artwork.

Chris Benchetler lays out a spin in the backcountry. | Photo courtesy of

When flowing down a mountain in fresh powder, pillars of white pouring over him as he maintains his speed, Benchetler says he feels a sense of connectedness. This is often where he gets the inspiration for his art, which gives viewers a perception of something flowing: something that is moving and breathing—that is alive. "From the soil to the trees to the plants—everything on this planet is connected," Benchetler told me. "Spending as much time as I do in the mountains has really helped me experience that firsthand."

Benchetler doesn't go out to ski a line because he thinks someone will like it. This same philosophy applies to his artwork. He does these things only to express himself as freely as possible—to push himself further, physically and mentally, without delegating any energy towards impressing an audience. This rids him of any self-imposed handicap, allowing him to express his vision purely.

Chris Benchetler creates his signature ‘Old Man Winter’. | Photo courtesy of Rolling Stone

Skiing and art provide the same emotions, Benchetler says. When he flows on the mountain, he takes that feeling of flow—that feeling of creative freedom—and applies it to the way he mixes his colors, strokes his paintbrush, and crafts one of his works. That feeling inspired by nature is used to express what is inside of himself in a blend of dripping color. You can physically see this palpable state of flow by looking at any one of his pieces, like the ones incorporating Old Man Winter that show an aged mountain spirit fused together with mountain scenery or ocean waves, with no clear distinction between where one subject ends and the other begins. At the time of our talk, Benchetler was working on several different paint pieces in his studio. Having dabbled with a little bit of everything he says, acrylic is his go-to and he's a big fan of watercolors. "Oils are great, too, but time-consuming."

As an artist, skier, human being—Benchetler believes it's important to never stop learning; to flow with the river of change rather than try and fight it. This mantra is exactly what led him to create his first ever Non-Fungible Token (NFT), or digital artwork, which Benchetler says is just another extension of the art world we live in. "To think back to when the internet was first being developed and all the photographers I worked with that were completely against going to digital cameras and all the cinematographers that didn't want to stop shooting with 16 millimeter, and then technology just happens. There's so much of Web3 that I do not understand, but it would be naive for me to think that it would not be part of our future."

Like the strong theme of community that surrounds the music of the Grateful Dead, which Benchetler has proclaimed his love for via his art and even a Grateful Dead-inspired ski film, Fire on the Mountain, his works are there to inspire whoever looks at them. By illustrating his own mind's eye depiction of the beauty surrounding the natural world, Benchetler believes he can incite in someone else that same sense of wonder. His art is there to encourage and captivate but also motivate.

On his website, there is a line of text that stands out. "When you tap into your mind, the right line always reveals itself…on the mountain and on the canvas." In a world that more and more seems to promote disconnectedness from mind and spirit, there are still those like Benchetler that give a visual snapshot of what tapping into your mind looks like—on the mountain and on the canvas. But there's a secret to this powerful statement. Tapping into your mind and finding your flow, feeling true creativity—it's not only possible by seasoned professionals or the spiritually inclined like Benchetler. Anybody can do it. You just have to be open enough to access it.

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Opinion: The Proposed Little Cottonwood Canyon, UT, Gondola System is a $500 Million Bandaid


Illustration of the proposed gondola. Credit:

A week ago, the Utah Department of Transportation declared the proposed Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola system as its favorite solution for the tedious traffic that gridlocks canyon travelers every winter. Most of these powder-hungry skiers and snowboarders are traveling to Snowbird and Alta, where the gondola will drop off passengers who board at the to-be-constructed La Caille Base Station at the mouth of the canyon. The project is a massive undertaking; once said and done, the half-a-billion-dollar investment will result in one of the world's longest, most advanced gondola systems, spanning over eight miles from the entrance of the canyon to world-class ski areas Snowbird and Alta. Once the current 45-day public review period ends, construction of the project can begin and will likely take several years. Click here for the Final EIS Summary Fact Sheet.

"[The gondola] is the most reliable mode of public transit in variable weather conditions and best meets the reliability goal of the project's purpose, while taking into consideration environmental impacts, public input, and overall life-cycle cost in comparison to the other four alternatives." - UDOT

To get the gondola rolling, they'll need to build A.) a giant parking garage and tram loading facility at the base of the canyon, B.) a gondola system with giant lift towers running the length of the canyon, and C.) receiving ports at Alta and Snowbird. Once that happens people won't have to drive up the canyon to get to Alta and Snowbird. But what about those who still want to go up the canyon but not all the way to the resorts?

The local backcountry skier is not served by the gondola unless they want to start touring out of the town of Alta. Even so, they'll still likely have to pay to use the gondola to get there. But isn't the point of going backcountry, at least for some, to avoid all the resort happenings and get out into the mountains on your own accord—on your own dime? The White Pine Trailhead or any of LCC's classic backcountry trails that access its legendary, ski-to-the-highway terrain which consists of several thousand-foot runs of steep backcountry skiing all land before the gondola's two drop-off points. How is a gondola going to serve any backcountry user wanting to go to any one of those popular zones other than by giving them an eyesore when they're skiing down and see a giant metal lift tower poking out of the surrounding scenery? And how about the quiet of the canyon that actually makes it a 'canyon', and not another parcel of man's development?

Little Cottonwood Canyon is gorgeous in the summertime; it's a great spot to hike or sit around and reflect—a refuge from the hustle and bustle of a valley of over 1 million just a couple miles away from it. I frequent the canyon and its accompanying creek. I spend time there in the summer to get out of the city and be in nature, even though civilization still encompasses me on all sides. It's a nice spot that keeps a certain spirit of nature alive, even if I'm pretending Salt Lake City isn't only a few minutes' drive down the highway. But with gondola towers poking out of the earth and stabbing several hundred feet into the sky, there will be no more pretending.

And what of the climbing, hiking, and even backcountry skiing areas that will be permanently altered by man's intrusion to obtrusively float himself through the sky and mountains to the ski area, where he'll likely still be waiting in line on a powder day? Local climbing advocacy group Salt Lake Climbers says that the gondola will "involve the destruction and/or removal of irreplaceable and historic world-class climbing resources," and that the machinery only serves some user groups and only in the wintertime. These climbers argue that the gondola would degrade the canyon's top-shelf climbing areas. I am a climber who often climbs in LCC and I can resonate with this sentiment. Also, some backcountry ski runs—no, every backcountry ski run that ends with a shot of the highway—will be changed forever. Where once a cool vibe and sound of a breeze could be heard there will be a noisy, tumultuous gondola system.

This map shows the bouldering impacts of the Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola alternative. | Photo courtesy of

So, if the gondola decreases the time it takes to get to the mountain, then that means more skiing for everyone and less time waiting around, right? I'm not convinced. According to Gondola Works, a group started by Snowbird that is in strong support of the gondola, it would take an estimated 30 minutes to get passengers from the proposed La Caille Base Station to Snowbird, and then a few minutes more to Alta. But did they mention the lines that will accumulate at the base station, and how much of a mess traffic will be down there, in the part of town where people actually live? Say it takes 30 minutes to wait in line to board the gondola, another 30 minutes to ride it, and then now with the extreme efficiency of people being able to get to the ski areas there are—oh!—more, even longer lines at the ski area's ticket offices and lifts. These are concerns I've yet to see UDOT publicly address. Also, I'm curious to see what portion of the project's funding the primary benefactors Alta and Snowbird will contribute, along with the taxpayer, because a 2021 estimate for the gondola forecasted the project would cost roughly $592 million, if not more. Where (who) will that cash be coming from?

UDOT estimates the total capital and maintenance cost estimates for each project through 2053 to be $724 million for the eight-mile-long gondola. However, many critics are skeptical of this estimation and insist that it could actually end up costing much more. This is because the estimate was made prior to the current rate of inflation and didn’t factor in the rising cost of construction materials like steel and concrete. As history has shown, large, unique, and complex construction projects, like one in a tight canyon and pristine nature area such as Little Cottonwood, can easily run significantly over budget. When things like cost overruns, delays, inflation, or earthquake mitigation are factored in, the cost of either proposed option could run upwards of $1 billion or more—expenses that traditionally affect the state’s taxpayers directly. And, with an expensive project like this and resorts spending big money to create gondola car receiving ports, it wouldn't come as a shocker if daily lift tickets and season pass prices went up at Snowbird and Alta. I think I can speak on behalf of the local community as well as skiers and snowboarders everywhere that no one wants pass prices to increase.

The proposed eight-mile route for the LCC gondola. | Photo courtesy of

Yet, all of that doesn't even mention the most important question of all, one that's even more important than the impact such a project would have on its environment and revenue gain—the one that asks how long would this project would last before the gondola itself becomes inefficient due to the rapidly growing population of the Salt Lake Valley. Just how long would it take for UDOT to get thrown back to the drawing board and have to spend another few hundred million? One can't help but wonder how long exactly this gondola would keep traffic at bay. 20 years? 15? 10? Is it worth spending a potential billion dollars to haphazardly patch up an issue that will eventually reopen as another problematic and costly wound in ‘x’ amount of years? Why isn’t UDOT thinking way ahead—I’m talking 50, 75, or 100 years down the line? Wouldn’t it be better to scrap the gondola that really only blesses two businesses—Snowbird and Alta—and look at the bigger picture instead?

What if, say, all of the ski areas in the Wasatch were connected into one big resort as they do over in the Alps with their several mountain, 200+ lift ski areas, where you can park at one resort or town on one side of a mountain range, like Park City, and then take chairlifts or ski runs to another resort altogether, like Alta and Snowbird? Tres Vallées in France is a prime example. Even though lifts in the place of a gondola wouldn't look much better in terms of disrupting the mountain's natural landscape, at least you could actually ski everything it intrudes upon and have it be controlled for avalanches. Plus, how many new jobs would be created for ski patrol, lifties, lodge personnel, and so forth when creating a 'mega ski area'? This idea seems like it'd do better for the population as a whole because there is another canyon right across the ridge with the same sort of traffic issues as Little Cottonwood, after all. Big Cottonwood Canyon is no better on a powder day—what's being done for it?

Tres Vallees trail map. | Photo courtesy of

I'm no economist nor engineer—I write and I ski—and I love these canyons and these ski areas just as much as any of you do. These mountains are my home—my livelihood. They will probably be the home and livelihoods of my children and grandchildren. I want to see my lineage live and ski in a positive environment that actually supports them to do so—that is actually sustainable for them to do so, in the long term. So I ask you; Snowbird, Alta, UDOT, the average citizen who visits and skis in this canyon: are you really willing to fork up an unholy amount of capital and change the entire geo-scape of this canyon for a short-term benefit rather than refocus on a long term solution that would keep the canyon more suitable for longer?

Opinion: the gondola is a band-aid and will look bad—physically, and on our part for not crafting something better that takes more into consideration the people that would ultimately be left to deal with this big, clunky thing. 

A common winter scene of cars and busses in gridlock in Little Cottonwood Canyon during the winter. | Photo courtesy of

Tuesday, July 19, 2022


Slowly yet oddly suddenly, the train rolled to a stop. As it sped down, bright dancing flashes of orange and yellow filled the windows. Tension rose in the cabin and murmurs grew into fast-paced talking from all directions. An intercom crackled. The talking among the passengers was now a loud, tumultuous moaning. They were told they were going to have to sit this one out. They couldn’t go anywhere but they were stirring in their seats. They were just sitting. Watching. The wildfire outside burned on both sides. It burned painfully fast and slow—it burned long.  You could hear it. Cackling. Burning. Wailing. The temperature outside was well over 100ºF as Spain and much of Europe endured the throws of the worst heatwave in God knows how long. It was getting hotter inside the train. My God, is the fire burning the train? Or are we all just sweating from fear? I can’t tell. The air was too stale. Too plastic. I was thirsty. The fire kept burning. We kept waiting. The children wouldn’t stop crying. Their mothers tried not to look out the window. Finally, the train started moving again and everybody cheered exhaustedly. We sailed through the smoke, the rusty glow of the blaze slowly fading through the thick gray smoke as we rolled further into darkness. 

Monday, May 16, 2022

A wise, crazy owl flies off into the moon


Image courtesy of

For Chris. 

There once lived an owl, too wise yet too crazy for his own good. Night by night, he soared the dark, wet air of the midnight forest, always keeping to himself. 

The darkness was his ally—his friend. He flew alone. 

On the night of the full moon, lightning flashed in the distance and a low-lying storm slithered in. 

It slowly draped the moon in its evil warmth. 

Every night, the owl scanned the ghostly forest from his secret perch. He watched and observed all. 

On this night, as the full moon's light was slowly swallowed by the advancing storm, the owl made not a sound, barely moving as he waited on his perch in a mangled tree. 

He was silent and sullen, even when he proceeded to drop from his branch and glide through the lull of the trees. 

As he flew, his feathers radiated rays of silver and white from the dying moonlight. He sailed directly towards the moon, his big luminous eyes fixed on it as he drew nearer.

He flew closer and closer to the moon until he got so far away that you could only see a dark speck steadily creeping towards the hidden horizon in the flash of a lightning strike. 

It wasn't before long until he flew right into the moon and could no longer be seen. He had made it, just as the storm clouds devoured the moon and they both departed into the night. 

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Where the Three Rivers Meet


Alex with a set of elk sheds. 

It could have been an old truck’s exhaust backfiring, we didn’t know. What it really sounded like was a gunshot, but we wouldn’t admit that. We only saw one other vehicle in the area on the way in. It was already dark when decided we’d spend the night at the rusty, abandoned windmill and cattle tank. We were on a piece of land we shouldn’t have been on and we knew it. There was something about this patch of earth that spooked us; perhaps it was its remoteness or its lawlessness. Maybe it was the ancient peoples who used to live here and their stories of angry spirits. Maybe it was the gunshot. Either way, we pretended to forget about it.

We camped where the three rivers met—where barren desert kissed lush, emerald mountains. We got in late the night before a big shed hunt. Alex was an avid shed hunter, having hiked all over these mountains and this desert in search of antlers. On a good day, he’d come back with a heavy, cumbersome load strapped to his pack. A good shed hunt could yield dozens of antlers or more. In this area, brown elk and mule deer antlers or “brownies,” as Alex called them, suggested that the animal had only recently dropped them, as they do every spring.

Brownies were the real prize, especially from elk, as they looked the prettiest and sold for the most. But at this time of year in mid-July, the sun would have scorched almost every antler it’d come in contact with for a prolonged period of time, leaving most of them chalky and bone-dry. At the windmill we set up sleeping arrangements, drank some aged tequila, and fended off swarms of ardent moths—there was no campfire.

The next morning we woke up before dawn and this side of the mountains were still shaded from the rising sun behind them. A hasty breakfast and we started walking through sandy washes and desert shrubbery towards the mountains to our west. The flat earth gradually grew into rolling hills. The sun was soon on us and we could already feel its intensity early in the morning.

As the hills swelled larger the closer we got to the mountains, small junipers started springing up one by one until they got bigger and bigger and we were suddenly immersed in a forest. The shade was comforting and we clung to it, stopping and glassing with Alex’s binoculars from cool vantage points for anything that stuck out amongst the greenish-brown vegetation. We trudged forward, going higher and higher in elevation in the direction of the mountains. At the top of one sunny plateau, with desert below in one direction and mountains above in the other, I spotted the first elk shed of the day.

It was sitting in the shade between the trunks of two juniper trees. The moment my eyes scanned over an out-of-place tinge of white amongst the junipers was the moment my body came to a halt. I knew what it was.

Once we got to the top of the plateau, our luck increased dramatically. 

I shouted back towards Alex, who was zigzagging the hillside below the crest of the plateau. He hurried over and we were both elated—it was the first elk shed I had ever found. It was a small antler with about six tines; it was old and chalky with a coarse, dusty feel to it—not a brownie but a shed nonetheless. We shared smiles and high fives—the morning of grueling hiking had suddenly all become worth it. But we soon returned to mindfully sweeping the countryside for more of them, with no time to waste. Not more than five minutes had passed when I found another one.

This antler was precariously positioned in the upper portion of a stubby juniper tree, which looked more like a bush. The shed was at shoulder level as I eagerly went over and plucked it from the branches. It was also old and chalky like the last one but bigger.

A bull elk had been fiddling with the tree at some point, using the tree to rid itself of this annoying piece of bone that had outlived its purpose. The bull dislodged it in the tree branches and went elsewhere while the antler remained, frozen in time. Alex said he hadn’t found a shed stuck in a tree like that before and so we laughed. It was not long after that he had found a shed as well—a big, white eight-pointer that he immediately and quietly strapped to his pack. He carried on silently.

By lunchtime, our packs were already strapped tight with sheds—ten or so between the two of us. We found a nice, shaded spot beneath some juniper trees with a view of the desert floor below. We enjoyed sandwiches and a timeout from the heat. The sun was high in the sky and the temperature was likely in the triple digits already. We decided to start the long trek back to the car because we were over the heat and were already satisfied with our finds from the morning—me especially because I had found more sheds than Alex. But that moment of silent gloating was short-lived.

By lunchtime, each of us had already found several elk and deer sheds. 

We aimed towards a dry creekbed at the base of the plateau but quickly realized that we were up higher than we thought; the descent proved to be a steep, rocky mountainous mess that took much longer than expected. The rocks were small and loose and you had to be careful not to lose your balance and tumble down the steep decline. To make matters worse, Alex told me that this type of country is the type that black bears and mountain lions love and probably reside in, and that we should be on our toes.

We were miles away from the nearest road with no cell signal and backpacks full of sheds. At one point on the way down to the creekbed, Alex and I became separated. I yelled for him but heard nothing. Powerful, piercing sun rays beamed on me in the desert heat but I still couldn’t help but get the chills.

Nearing the creekbed, I heard his booming voice coming from up and to the right of where I had just come. I was washed with a wave of relief. I went over to him, where he was sitting below a large, dead juniper tree next to a bull elk skull that still had its antlers attached.

“Come look at this,” he said. The bull’s skull had a copper bullet lodged in its forehead. Someone had shot this elk but left its skull and antlers behind. “Probably a poacher,” Alex said, who had likely shot the animal and harvested its meat but not its horns so they wouldn’t have been spotted leaving the area with something as noticeable as a fresh set of elk antlers.

Alex with the deadhead. 

We carried on, following the dry creek as it snaked along the feet of towering plateaus, offering us much shade. It eventually dumped out into a flat basin where other creeks met it. Was this one of the three rivers that distinguish this area? I wondered.

It was here that Alex started finding shed after shed like he was in an orchard harvesting low-hanging fruits. He’d walk along, stop, bend over, pick one up, put it on his pack, keep walking, and repeat a similar process a hundred yards later. It hadn’t been long since I took delight in the notion that I had found more sheds than Alex, whose pack was now clearly heavier than mine.

The closer we got to the vehicle, the flatter the ground got and the more sheds we started finding. We crossed sandy washes and flat bushy areas and they were everywhere, with Alex and I picking them up off the ground left and right. We recovered sheds all the way up until the car and were pleasantly surprised that we hadn’t found them in the morning when we first set off.

“Not bad for a morning of hiking around in a pretty spot.”

It was early afternoon when we got back to my car; we were drenched in sweat, out of water, and thoroughly exhausted. But we were stoked with the day. Alex had found about eleven sheds and I had found nine, including a set, which is a pair of antlers from the same elk. Finding sets isn’t common as elk don’t usually shed their antlers at the same time, Alex told me, so we were both excited when I had found one. We snapped a couple of photos of our finds and enjoyed the desert scenery and far-off mountain views for a moment from the comfort of my car’s AC. “Not bad for a morning of hiking around in a pretty spot,” I told Alex. He agreed.

In this inhospitable land we had scoured that day, we saw signs of life and death everywhere. Sheds and animals bones were scattered like puzzle pieces across the desert floor while raptors, lizards, and insects carried on, business as usual. We didn’t know it at the time, but in this world—in their world—we belonged to them.

On the way out we passed by a petroglyph site. Ancient people had once lived in this seemingly uninhabitable land long ago and had left behind traces of their existence—stone inscriptions of their unique lives and culture for future onlookers like us to admire and ponder about later. Alex and I chatted about these things as we sailed back along the empty, dusty highway with weary grins on our faces and a trunk full of sheds.

Alex strolling off into the eternal. 

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Why is Avalanche Safety Gear So Expensive?


The BCA Tracker 4. | Photo courtesy of Backcountry Access

The gold standard of avalanche rescue gear is a beacon, a shovel, and a probe—three products you hope you never have to use outside of a beacon park. A standard-issue kit like this will almost always set you back at least a few hundred dollars—$333 is the cheapest one I found on, and that’s a bargain. Avalanche airbags are quickly becoming a recommended part of the standard backcountry quiver, too—but good luck finding one for under 500 bucks.

One Reddit user posted an interesting question about the pricing related to avalanche safety gear. In a Reddit forum titled “Why is avalanche gear so goddamn expensive?” they wrote:

“I’m not saying that I’m not ok with paying these prices, as I don’t want to make any compromises regarding anything that a person’s life could depend on, but still; are these prices justified? Or are manufacturers taking advantage of people not having a lot of options to pick from? It’s just that I’m having a hard time believing that a piece of aluminum with a hollow telescopic shaft is worth almost a hundred bucks.”

This question led me to want to find out why avalanche safety gear is priced the way it is. I mean, if a beacon, shovel, and probe are absolutely necessary for anybody wanting to make some turns in a place where avalanches kill, shouldn’t these things be more affordable to eager and frugal ski bums everywhere? After talking with Craig Hatton over the phone, the Vice President and General Manager of Backcountry Access (BCA), I found out why these essential, life-saving pieces of gear are priced the way they are. It really only came down to two things.

Supply and demand. Hatton told me that all backcountry gear is made with custom parts that are only manufactured in relatively small numbers—tens of thousands as opposed to millions for some consumer products. He said that it is those small numbers that make an avalanche shovel cost much more than a shovel you would find at a hardware store.

Hatton went on to describe just how much goes into making a beacon, even if the idea behind them is simple: a carriable device with a ‘search’ and ‘send’ function that can withstand the deadly rollercoaster ride of an avalanche and emit a radio signal in a specific pattern that makes it easy for rescuers to find that buried person with their own beacons. At least, that’s avalanche beacons in a nutshell. The more sophisticated the beacon—more advanced beacons having features for more experienced users such as a flagging function for multiple burials—the higher the price.

BCA has three key suppliers located all over the world for avalanche beacons. “The supply chains are really complicated,” Hatton told me. It starts with BCA supplying components to their factories around the world, with some factories sourcing components directly for BCA. These factories begin with a “bare board” (PCB) which is not yet functional because it does not have the required components in place. Once the factories obtain the PCBs, they then “populate” them into an “assembled bare board” (PCBA), which is functional. All electronics—from beacons to smartphones—have a PCBA. The factories populate the PCBs with components via high-tech machinery, turning them into functional PCBAs, before placing them into the back half of the beacon’s case. Once populated and assembled into half of the case, they are sent out for further assembly and “vigorous testing” in BCA’s headquarters in Boulder, Colorado, according to Hatton.

A BCA Tracker 3 beacon, shovel, and probe kit for sale online. | Photo courtesy of

The testing BCA does in Boulder is an incredibly important part of the beacon-making process. People’s lives literally depend on it. So you can imagine it isn’t cheap, either. Types of tests include a “Hard Drop Test,” where a beacon is dropped from about four to five feet in the air onto a hard surface. The Hard Drop Test checks that a beacon would still emit a working signal in the event that a skier or rider is caught in a slide and taken through trees, rocks, or other potential terrain hazards that could damage the device. BCA also performs a “battery life” test, which makes sure the beacon can emit a working signal for at least 200 hours while it’s switched on and in ‘send’ mode, along with a series of other “ETSI standards,” which are a complicated set of regulations put in place by ETSI and recognized internationally.

In the United States, the radio signal that an avalanche beacon emits must also fall within FCC certification standards (Yes, the FCC actually gets involved with your beacon because it’s emitting a radio frequency). If a beacon passes all these tests and is used correctly without abuse, it can theoretically last an entire lifetime, according to Hatton. He said that analog beacons developed in the early 2000s are still in use today, even though he doesn’t recommend anyone continue to use a technology that is now considered “outdated.”

Once they’re tested to make sure everything checks out, they go to the production floor for further validation. It is here that the other half of the case is closed, making the unit whole and ready for action. Every beacon is equipped with a harness and user manual before getting shipped out to BCA’s distribution center in Seattle. From there, they go to the dealers and then onto the bodies of living, skiing, souls.

BCA has three main competitors: Pieps/Black Diamond, an Austrian company—Mammut, a Swiss company—and Ortovox, a French company. While these brands have a stronger grip on the European backcountry skiing markets, Hatton says that BCA is the market leader for avalanche rescue gear in North America and that the market is really a conjunction of two separate markets: the backcountry skiing and snowboarding market, and the sled market. BCA’s market is split 60/40 between skiing and sledding, with the latter being less sensitive to higher-price-point products.

Hatton said that pricing is really driven by the component costs (many components, like antennae, are custom parts), shipping and taxes, VATs depending on where the factory is, and the price points that the market sets. When it comes to avalanche shovels, tooling costs and the cost of high grade, 7075-series aluminum have a large impact on pricing. An entry-level avalanche shovel will run you about $50, with a basic telescopic shaft and typically plastic handle, while a more sophisticated shovel with lower-weight aluminum, a metal handle, and a “hoe mode”—which allows the digger to quickly rearrange the shovel blade in a way that allows for speedier burial victim recovery by pulling snow instead of digging it—can reach prices up to $100.

He added that “price points are set by the market,” or what the market is willing to pay. The market is then handicapped by the price points that those brands set. For the last ten to fifteen years, avalanche beacon prices have stayed relatively static. They haven’t gone up very much and they certainly haven’t gone down. But now all of that may be changing due to massive supply chain constraints brought about by the pandemic.

“Demand in the market is stronger than ever,” Hatton said. “The challenge that brands are having—including BCA—is supply chain constraints.”

Virtually every market right now is experiencing supply chain restraints due to the pandemic. To put it in perspective, three major automobile factories are completely idle right now because they can’t get materials to build cars. Hatton said that BCA’s timelines for integrated circuit boards have gone from eighteen to twenty weeks, to now forty to fifty weeks, because of supply chain constraints and increasingly high demand due to the rapidly growing electric vehicle market.

“Imagine a [relatively small] company like ours competing for electronic components with a company like Ford, Chevy, or Tesla. It’s extremely challenging,” Hatton said.

Currently, Hatton says there’s no end in sight for these current constraints and that they will likely run into 2023 before the supply chain stabilizes. BCA is holding its current pricing for this upcoming winter, but Hatton expects that gear prices will likely go up by the following winter for most brands. He said that BCA will evaluate what the supply chain does at the end of this season and then adjust pricing if necessary.

As we wrapped up our talk, Hatton asked me to share in this article BCA’s intensive focus on education. He said that BCA is known for its stance on education and that it is “very vocal and adamant” about pushing out the message to people—especially new backcountry users. BCA has hundreds of education and how-to videos on its website and YouTube, and hosts in-person avalanche safety classes across North America every winter. Because if you don’t know how to use your expensive new gear in the event of an avalanche burial, the person under that mountain of snow may as well already be dead. This is why BCA creates an easy-to-use, intuitive user interface that most people can understand the first time they use any BCA beacon. So, when planning on getting into the backcountry—when thinking about what shiny new avalanche beacon to get or replace—just remember what Hatton told me:

“The best beacon on the market is the one you know how to use.”

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Mammoth Mountain, CA “Snow Farming:” A Dutiful Art on an Absolutely Massive Scale

This image—captured from an aerial point of view—shows resort snowcats farming snow. | Photo courtesy of pistenteam_andermatt

Give Michaelangelo some marble and you’ll probably get a sculpture. Give him some late-Spring snow and a snowcat and he might just be Mammoth Mountain’s Director of Slope Maintenance and the Unbound Terrain Parks, Scott Cherry.

Cherry organizes the resort crews that keep Mammoth and its terrain parks open long after other ski areas have already shut down and transitioned towards summer activities. This is because Mammoth is not like other ski areas. Most ski areas don’t consistently build terrain parks and maintain ski trails until the end of May.

Mammoth officially stopped spinning its lifts this season on Memorial Day, 2021 (May 31.) From the end of April until that fervent closing day, resort crews were giving every nail, tooth, and tear they had left in an effort to keep the mountain open and the runs skiable. They did a damn good job. Snowcats would push, pull, extract, and chisel snow off some slopes and onto others in a process that Mammoth refers to as “snow farming.” It’s like sculpting but in accordance with nature and on a very large scale with very large machinery. Even airborne tools—strapped onto airplanes—get used in the mountain’s unique snow farming system.

“The one thing we have on our side that’s a game-changer is SNOWsat, which is basically sonar with lidar mapping of our mountain,” Cherry said over the phone. “So they’ll fly a plane over our mountain, map it for us, and then upload it onto their system and create layers. Then they’ll upload that layering onto a tablet-sized screen inside the snowcats which will tell you within a half-an-inch of where your snow’s at. It’s like a fishfinder.”

A snowcat farms snow. | Photo courtesy of prinoth_pistenbully_pics

The technology described by Cherry is not controlled by him and his team but rather by PistenBully, who is contracted with Mammoth. With the use of lidar, cat drivers can see exactly where the snow is—and precisely how much of it is left—on a screen inside of the snowcat. Cherry, simultaneously, can look at another map on his computer screen that shows exactly where every cat has gone and moved snow, and what terrain features are still untouched.

“It’s an ongoing, developing technology. But it’s extremely accurate. It’s awesome,” Cherry said.

Six of Mammoth’s snowcats are equipped with this software. With digital maps uploaded to screens inside the cats, Cherry and his drivers work with that information in a way that mimics chess. They observe, contemplate, and strategize which slopes are still going to hold snow and for how long. Cherry and his team can forecast snow conditions weeks in advance so it becomes apparent which slopes aren’t going to make it. The slopes that are the next to go, Cherry and his team decide, are the ones that drivers will take snow from and redistribute towards those that will still provide decent Spring skiing. It’s challenging work, according to Cherry, and slopes with minimal snow get abandoned all the time—their organs getting transplanted to other, healthier parts of the mountain.

Which is when the magic happens. Snowcat operators will show up at 3 in the afternoon (when the snow is soft from the heat of the sun) and work until midnight before tapering mountain temperatures harden it into firm, fast skiing snow. They’ll follow the lidar maps on their screens and go to the exact pinpoint of snow that needs to get moved. They’ll farm that snow, push it out at night, and then groom it. But the way they farm it is where the process gets especially interesting.

The cut-away section of mountain next to the red lines shows snow farming in action. Cat drivers slice snow off the slope from top to bottom and move it where they want it. In this case, the snow will be moved down the hill in order to house Mammoth’s giant airbag jump. | Photo courtesy of Scott Cherry

Cherry describes the snow farming process as “typewriter-ing.” It starts with finding dirt. Snowcat operators grooming at night will relay to Cherry which slopes are hurting and which need more snow, and then Cherry will go out in a snowcat, typically the next morning, and farm snow for the drivers to shuffle around. He starts with a slope that has both moveable snow and dirt. This allows him to move the snow much more efficiently than if the snow was just sitting on more snow. Working from the top down, Cherry will go back in forth—like he’s driving his cat along the lines of a typewriter’s keyboard—gathering more snow and dirt as he descends each row. By the time he gets to the bottom, he may have a pile of farmed snow that’s 30-feet-high or higher.

“The better we are at farming the longer we’re able to hold onto our season,” Cherry said.

This blend of science and art—which allows one to move around snow as their mind sees fit—also comes into play with Mammoth’s Unbound terrain parks. Cherry said that it’s rare to see terrain parks open at ski areas this late into the Spring—let alone ones of Mammoth’s caliber with giant jumps and complex jib features. And, only a handful of ski areas still showcase 60 or 70-foot jumps every season.

With a background in building terrain parks, Cherry’s career eventually led him to Mammoth where he got to maximize his potential. When it comes to building a massive park or working with specifics for slopestyle events like Red Bull Recharged, Cherry and his crew will sometimes have to farm snow for 14 days before they can begin sculpting certain features. It takes lasting commitment and astute attention to detail to build Mammoth’s competition-grade features and terrain parks—which may not necessarily be noticeable at first glance when watching these competitions on YouTube.

“When you see those guys enjoy the product that you’ve spent every waking moment trying to get right, that makes it all worth it,” Cherry said.

Scott Cherry loves his job and it shows. How else would Mammoth swindle Mother Nature into staying open for skiing and riding until Memorial Day?