At the Sun Valley Ski Resort in Idaho, nestled into one of the lodges whose name I didn’t commit to memory, there existed a plaque honoring a local legend who racked up what is presumably a record for vertical feet skied.

I say “presumably” because I barely read the plaque, an unfortunate habit of mine that has robbed me of untold nuggets of wisdom preserved in the bronze lettering of statues, memorials and historical markers along the side of the highway.

I only remembered the plaque because one of the first things you notice about skiing Sun Valley is how steep it is, and it occurred to me there must be some local vertical foot records.

A quick internet search tells me that the plaque drifting at the edges of my memory recognized a guy named Neal Holmes who racked up more than 8 million vertical feet in a season, including 102,220 feet in one day during the 1995-96 season.

Vertical feet is an amusing metric for alpine skiers. I keep an eye on my own totals while at the same time feeling a little foolish tracking something that’s gravity-assisted.

Proclaiming that you skied the height of Mount Everest does suggest you tallied a decent number of runs for your day, but it doesn’t ring with the same grandiosity as actually climbing Everest — or even running a 5K for that matter.

What I found most notable about that Holmes plaque is not the achievement itself — though that is an awful lot of skiing, and some of those days on the hill could not have been worth it — but that the vertical feet obsession predates by a comfortable margin the advent of the GPS watches, phone apps and fitness trackers that have turned every trip to the mailbox, let alone skiing, into a mix of competition and calculus.

In the world of alpine skiing, it’s hard not to be aware of your vertical footage at most major resorts today.

For a country that spent so many years lamenting our mathematical shortcomings, I sure do hear an awful lot of numbers being tossed around by skiers purportedly on vacation.

Now, it could be that the new-found interest in statistics reflects not an improved STEM education, but rather that your telephone does all the work for you — I’ll grant you that — but it still amazes me the savvy that now goes into fitness and recreation.

At Vail Resorts they’ve been tracking my skiing across three states and two countries. Apparently, on Feb. 5, 2018, I skied 28,159 vertical feet at Whistler. I didn’t make a note to tabulate this at the time, but somehow it’s still available at my fingertips.

Telluride will track your vertical feet, your distance skied and overlay your day skiing onto a 3D map of the mountain.

If you’ve got a cartographer in your life with an obsession for cataloging their daily travels, have I got the mountain for them.

There’s a point to be made about this obsession with stats being a dilution of recreation, but I’m not in a position to make it.

I, too, find the accounting of these totals fascinating even if I’m still not sure what any of it actually represents.

What I do know is that however much I ski in a day, it’s not getting me anywhere near Neal Holmes and his 102,220 foot total.

Two quick addendums to this story, or addenda, depending on your read of Latin in the modern vernacular.

The first is that Neal Holmes appears to have died shortly after his record setting vertical feet year at the age of 72.

The second is that the lodge, the name of which I can’t remember, that featured Holmes’ plaque burned down in 2018.

A conclusion could be drawn from these events regarding the impermanence of records, but I think it’s best understood that a first-rate ski bum racked up an impressive year on the hill awhile back and a few decades later a lodge burned down.


Tom Hesse is city editor at The Daily Sentinel.

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