The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Adventure

Can’t Keep a Good Dog Down

Animal athletes are as much a part of the GoPro Mountain Games as human competitors. In fact, it's fair to say that dock dogs—in which pooches spring down a runway and launch themselves into a pool to retreive a toy—garners the most spectators of the weekend.

And this past weekend, all eyes were on Avalanche, a 4-year-old Lab who jumped a personal best distance of 13 feet, ten inches, and brought home six medals around her scruffy neck. 

But even more impressive than Avi's GoPro performance is the story of how she got to Vail in the first place. 

Six months after Alisa Babler put her black lab, Alpine, to sleep, she was on the lookout for a new companion. Her search ended with an ad on Craigslist in October 2010. A couple was looking for a new home for their yellow lab, which they described as “too much dog” for them to handle. They warned Babler that the puppy had broken her elbow and had three pins put into her front left leg to repair the bones. Undeterred, Babler met them at a dog park, fell in love with Avi’s exuberance, and gave the Craigslist puppy with hardware in her leg a new home.

Soon, Babler noticed that even though she'd been injured, Avi was an athlete. “She jumps around constantly,” Babler says. "She would bounce up and down at the back door; the slobber marks on my window were higher than my head.”

A vet explained to Babler that by jumping off and landing on her hind legs, Avalanche could leap and land with no pressure on her bionic front leg.

That’s when Babler knew dock jumping would be great for Avalanche, who also loved to swim. The pair went to the local dog park in Chapfield, Colorado, and started practicing by throwing a canvas hunting dummy out into the water from the dock. “I didn’t even have to give her treats or try to encourage her to jump and fetch,” Babler says. “It’s what she wants to do. Just the act of jumping into the water after her toy and some praise from me was enough reward for her.”

For a year, Babler and Avalanche went to the park to practice every week. In September 2013, Babler entered Avi into the Broomfield Days Dock Dogs competition but didn’t come away with any laurels. Nine months later, however, Avalanche left the GoPro Mountain Games with a slew of medals around her neck.

Avi jumped at the Junior Bottom Level, and for it only being her second competition, Avalanche showed a lot of promise. Babler says that there will definitely be more Avalanche showings in future dock jumping contests.

But, as with many athletes, competition isn't always about winning. “We are in it for the fun, not to just win,” Babler says. “I’m spending time with my dog and making great memories.”

Check out our behind-the-scenes look at the Dock Dogs competition and the rest of the GoPro Mountain Games:

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The $1 Million Gear Shed

These days you can share almost everything, from couches to cars. But outdoor gear? The idea hadn’t really been explored until three entrepreneurs launched GearCommons last August.

Mike Brown and fellow Tufts graduate James Rogers wanted to bring gear to the people. Along with friend Joel Weber, they created GearCommons—a sharing network that helps gear owners find people who want to rent their tents, kayaks, and other equipment that otherwise might spend lots of time in storage.

The basic premise is simple. The GearCommons web portal lets users search for rentable gear by type and location. If you see a product you need, you can review its specs and history, as well as the owner’s. Users first connect and make payments online, but gear transactions and returns have to take place between neighbors, in person. That way, the company claims, users get to meet people with similar interests, building a real-life social network of outdoor enthusiasts. 

Brown realized the potential of a “sharing economy” when he started blogging for Shareable* at the beginning of 2013. A biomedical engineer by trade, Brown’s a zealous outdoorsman with startup aspirations. After using car-sharing company Zipcar’s services in college, he realized that shared technology could curb inefficient spending and material use. It could also make outdoor recreation possible for people who either couldn’t afford, or didn’t have room to store, their own gear.   

“We’re trying to build a community of people who will share gear and reduce their impact on the environment,” Brown says. “We think it’s kind of a waste to be buying equipment you know you’re only going to use once—for, say, a music festival or a one-week hiking trip.”

Musing about a world of shared gear is one thing. Actually creating a social network that connects people and gear nationwide is a whole other animal, requiring immense amounts of research and skill. But outdoor gear is a $120 billion industry, and the trio was determined to tap into it.

The company does have some major hurdles to overcome—chief among them is expanding its user base. A cursory look at the GearCommons website and social accounts shows that the enterprise is still in its early stages.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/gearcommons-site-tent_fe.jpg","size":"large"}%}

GearCommons has about $50,000 worth of gear in Boston, but activity is essentially confined so far to that locale—where Brown and his colleagues are based. Even then, site searches for essential gear show that only a few owners have gotten on board. A handful live in western states like Colorado and California, but no one offers gear yet in New Mexico (to our dismay). GearCommons has declined to say how many people have signed up for its services.

Still, some users say the slow extension westward isn’t indicative of the company’s value. “I think the startup has a really great idea. I know that when they are big enough, they could go nationwide—maybe even worldwide,” says member Neil Suttora, a unicyclist and Northeastern University student. Suttora put a tent, unicycle, and sleeping pad on the site after a mutual friend introduced him to Brown a year ago. But he hasn’t found renters for any of his listings yet. 

Some transactions have gone down, Brown says, although the company won’t say just how many. The other obvious obstacle has to do with liability. No one wants to rent out their personal gear if it’s going to come back damaged—or not come back at all. To address these concerns, Brown and his colleagues allow owners to apply security deposits to their gear up front. Renters pay the security deposit at the start and get their money back when they return equipment (in good condition) to its owners. 

Though other businesses in the sharing economy have run into a mess of regulatory hurdles and lawsuits, Brown says that “there’s really not much in the way legally of an idea like this spreading.” Not yet, anyway. 

{%{"quote":"“We have a vision for what we’re calling the Million-Dollar Gear Closet. By joining GearCommons, you’ll have access to a $1 million in outdoor gear from your peers. We’re not there yet, but I don’t think it will take long to reach that goal.”"}%}

Despite a slow start, some business professionals see potential in GearCommons—or, at least, in the idea behind it. 

Perry Klebahn, a consulting professor in Stanford’s engineering school who helps young entrepreneurs get their startups off the ground, predicts GearCommons can carve out its own niche. “Any sort of manufacturer who’s not taking note of what GearCommons is doing and figuring out how they can be involved with the company, or figuring out how they can be involved with reuse of their own products, is nuts,” he says.

But Klebahn isn’t sure creating a new social platform was the way to go. “I might have started on somebody else’s platform, like eBay, and created a store within eBay to prototype the idea,” he explains. “I’m not convinced why the consumer wants another thing in their life.” Instead of immediately opening GearCommons up to all interested parties, says Klebahn, the team should have developed a stronger base of users in Boston before presenting their product nationally. 

Growing pains aside, other big names are seeing great potential in GearCommons as well. The team, which came in second in this year’s Tufts $100,000 Business Plan Competition, has already been in talks with companies like Patagonia about affiliate programs. GearCommons expects to mine user data to benefit such outfitters and gear developers. 

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/gearcommons-team_fe.jpg","align":"left","size":"medium","caption":"Two founding members of GearCommons, and an athletic banana."}%}

“If you rate a tent highly, we can then suggest that you go buy it. And so that is kind of like a sharing economy–retail hybrid,” Brown says, adding that there might be discounts on items found through GearCommons. “You know, we’re not trying to keep people from buying outdoor gear. We just want them to make more efficient use of it.” 

Over the next few months, Brown thinks that continuing in earnest with social media campaigns and hosting campus and community events is the way to go. However, the team is considering starting a GearCommons community-rep program that would build brand recognition and get word out in person in key locations—in the ethos of the peer-to-peer model. 

This short-term plan doesn’t reflect the team’s long-term vision, however: understanding your potential isn’t the same thing as realizing it. One hurdle will be staying levelheaded. Though many startups explode over a period of months, GearCommons hasn’t so far done that. The company is barely off the ground, and Brown is already thinking big. 

“Over the next several years, we hope to see GearCommons get people outside in every context,” Brown says, mentioning GearCommons-sponsored travel packages, sport lessons, and the like. “We just happen to be starting with access to gear.” 

“We have a vision for what we’re calling the Million-Dollar Gear Closet,” he explains. “By joining GearCommons, you’ll have access to a $1 million in outdoor gear from your peers. We’re not there yet—but, once the word gets out, I don’t think it will take long to reach that goal.”

*Outside previously reported that Brown wrote for Social Solutions Collective, not Shareable, though the link has always been to Brown's Shareable pieces. 

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What Does Vail's Takeover in Park City Mean for Skiers?

It’s rare that the blanched, distended underbelly of the corporate ski industry gets exposed to the skiing public, but that’s exactly what’s been happening for the past three seasons in the mountains above Park City, Utah. If you don’t read Bloomberg or own a major piece of Vail Resorts, you might not have been paying attention. Here’s an easily digestible overview.

Unlike most big ski areas in North America, Park City Mountain Resort—the ski area whose runs flow directly into the town of Park City—operates almost entirely on private land. PCMR owns the land at the base. A company named Talisker Corporation owns much of the rest: the important stuff with the lifts, snowfall, and the inclines that make for fun with gravity.

Until recently, Talisker also operated Canyons ski resort—the second of the three greater Park City area resorts that sits just to the northwest of PCMR. That was the status quo until March 2011 when, in Ivy League MBA terms, "somebody effed up, yo."

That’s when PCMR failed to send in the paperwork and renew its sweetheart terms on the land it leased from Talisker. Sweetheart deal is no understated cliché here. The terms dated back to the 1970s and gave PCMR full use of the land—around 3,500 acres—for $150,000 a year. It was widely considered by industry insiders to be the best lease in the ski business.

Imagine if you had a rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan and the only thing you had to do to keep it was pay your pittance of rent on time and occasionally send in some paperwork saying you wanted to maintain the arrangement for the next 20 years. For reasons that remain unclear—the company says it was an honest mistake—PCMR was late to do that. Too late it turns out.

That’s when skiing showed its Gordon Gekko side. PCMR, understandably if a bit like a college student with a late term paper, attempted to cover up its misstep by post-dating the paperwork. Talisker, which isn’t really a ski resort operations company but long understood the value of the land PCMR was renting, promptly sold the operating lease of Canyons to Vail Resorts—the largest ski resort company in North America. 

{%{"quote":"Unless you like riding lifts and contouring more than skiing the fall line, you would never traverse the extent of the mega ski area in a day. It’s too spread out: one PCMR plus one Canyons does not a Chamonix make."}%}

Vail Resorts, by all accounts, overpaid for Canyons lease ($25 million plus a percentage of revenue), knowing that after some legal wrangling on behalf of Talisker it would soon be in control of both the PCMR property and Canyons, which when combined (one lift would do it) would result in a mega resort of 7,500 plus acres.

And that—after a judge decided against PCMR on May 21—is pretty much where we’re at now. Talisker has the right to lease the land it owns to Vail Resorts. And PCMR has a choice: Deploy a nuclear option and remove the lifts and disallow access from the private land it owns at the base. (The company's threatened to do exactly that.) Or sell its infrastructure and base-area operating rights to Vail Resorts.

It seems like a tale of a huge publicly-traded corporation beating up on a sleepy mom-and-pop operator, but despite the mudslinging to that effect, that’s not really the case. Talisker is the largest landowner and developer in Park City and more recently has invested heavily in luxury gated communities and five-star restaurants. And the money behind or at least associated with Powdr Corporation—the operating company that owns PCMR as well as a slew of other ski areas—also counts its dollars in the billions.

It’s hard to have much empathy for any of the players. And really we shouldn’t bother. It’s just business. And more importantly, the foundation of business in a free society: contract law. If this deal had gone down in Putin’s Russia, one of the players would have bought off the government at great expense. Here, the broken contract abides.

So what does it all mean for skiers? A lot if you’re a dedicated Vail Resorts Epic Pass buyer with a mind to ski Utah. Sometime in the next season or two—after the appeals have made the corporate lawyers rich and barring that bizarre but theoretically possible nuclear option—it’s almost certain that Vail Resorts will be operating a rebranded supersized Park City ski area that you’ll be able to ski on the insanely affordable Epic Pass.

The combined resorts will offer more than enough terrain and amenities to entice destination skiers for longer visits. Vail Resorts will do well off this deal. It doesn’t just get that corporation a foothold in the growing Utah market, it makes it the biggest player in the state.

But how does the new mega resort stack up for purists only interested in Utah’s famous steep-and-deep skiing? For that set, this is a much-ado-about-nothing deal. Canyons is an aptly named resort. The skiing lays out in a maze-like array of drainages and sub-peaks. There’s tremendous 45-degree north-facing terrain in the jumble as well as a handful of longer full-throttle groomers worthy of downhill speeds, but most of the shots are short of vertical drop and it takes a lot of time to move from canyon to canyon.

{%{"quote":"The fact that Canyons and PCMR are the subject of such heated debate speaks to the changing dynamics of the ski business where broad-ranging season pass deals outweigh the sale of individual lift tickets."}%}

That’s why most advanced skiers head to the Ninety-Nine 90 lift and stay there, just as they congregate at the McKonkey’s or Jupiter Bowls on the Park City side. Adding the multi-summit PCMR terrain to Canyons means upwards of 14 drainages and nearly as many summits and lesser peaks over those 7,500 acres. Unless you like riding lifts and contouring more than skiing the fall line, you would never traverse the extent of the mega ski area in a day. It’s too spread out: one PCMR plus one Canyons does not a Chamonix make.

The fact that Canyons and PCMR are the subject of such heated debate, however, speaks to the changing dynamics of the ski business where broad-ranging season pass deals now outweigh the sale of individual lift tickets. The idea is to lock in as many skiers as possible to your brand.

The controversy is also emblematic of the growing value of Utah as a ski destination. Vail Resorts’ holdings in Colorado alone see more skier visits than the entire Beehive State, but Utah skiing has grown steadily since before the 2002 Olympic Games, largely due to ample snowfall and perhaps the easiest access in the sport. Those seven Wasatch resorts are—no hype—within 45 minutes of Salt Lake’s airport. As comparison, try to get to a major destination resort from Denver International along the ever-busier I-70 corridor on a weekend in less than three-hours. (Bring lunch.)

Then there's Ski Utah's One Wasatch concept. Their goal is to connect the seven resorts of the Wasatch Front with lifts and runs, letting skiers access 18,000 acres and 100 chairlifts with just one pass. That idea has raised the ire of backcountry skiers and environmentalists, but connecting Canyons with PCMR is not something anyone would bother fighting. As for the tram basing out of a combined PCMR/Canyons resort, which was proposed back in 2012 and would have linked to Solitude, why would Vail Resorts send its skiers to another mountain? The short answer is they won't. The so-called Ski Link idea has been officially "tabled" by Canyons, and it's no longer a proposal. Phew.

As a publicly-traded, for-profit business, Vail Resorts has to act in its own best interests and the best interests of its shareholders. And that speaks to the other oft-vocalized concern about Vail Resorts moving to town. In Colorado, Vail pulled out of the trade association Colorado Ski Country years ago. The undisputed leader in the season pass war, their strategy is to brand, promote, and ultimately sell the Epic Pass. It’s difficult to see how pushing the One Wasatch agenda helps that cause.

For now, the matter goes back to the courts for an appeal process that is expected to take up to a year. All sides have promised that PCMR will be operational during the legal battle. That would be hugely beneficial to the players it’s easy to empathize with: the lifties, fry cooks, ski patrollers, shop technicians, and waiters who call the great town of Park City home and probably like being employed—when it’s not a powder day anyway. In Outside’s role as an observer of the ski industry and a supporter of the skiing public, we’d like to see that promise kept—as the contract lawyers bluff, hold, and finally lay their cards on the table.

More Outside Coverage of the Wasatch Legal Wrangling: 

 

 


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