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Avalanche Education with Beacon Guide Books Founder Andy Sovick on the Koolers Lifestyle Podcast #35

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00:00:00 Andy Sovick
It it, it often seems like my my favorite analogy is it’s like sex education. It’s like with teenagers, basically, do we? There’s a there’s a risk, there’s a danger. It’s uncomfortable to talk about. Do we talk about it, or do we pretend that it’s not there and see what happens and rolls out? There’s some we have. Like you said, we have people dying, friends and family, and those of us who have been playing the game for long enough. It gets closer and closer to us and we lose. While some of the best people in the world, yeah, it’s a big deal. And the hardest part of it is that every avalanche death is a preventable avalanche death.

00:00:45 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Welcome to the Kooler Lifestyle podcast. I’m your host, Matt Kuehlhorn, and I’m excited to have you join me as I interview community members and business leaders from the communities in which I live, work, and serve through my business Kooler Garage Doors, we’re going to bring you highlights on characters in our communities. Why? Because Community matters, and I want to know more about who is behind our business and leadership in order to understand and support the Community fabric that our relationships make up. And collectively, we can build stronger communities that support our lifestyles, our youth, and our health. Hello, ladies and gentlemen. This is the Kooler Lifestyle Podcast. I’m your host, Matt Kuehlhorn today. I’ve got my good good friend Andy Sovick with beacon guidebooks joining us. I’m so excited for our conversation. Andy, thanks for coming in today.

00:01:40 Andy Sovick
Yeah. Thanks for having me. A pleasure to be here with you, buddy.

00:01:42 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Yeah, man, and you’re beaming in from the the beautiful ice lab.

00:01:47 Andy Sovick
Yes, the ice lab at Western and beautiful snowy wintery Gunnison.

00:01:52 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Yeah, today is definitely pumping some snow. How long have you had your office up at the ice lab?

00:02:00 Andy Sovick
That’s, that’s a good question. I actually, I like to pride myself as the longest standing member of the ICE Lab, which is sometimes you know an achievement and sometimes it’s seen as like wow, you’re still at the ice lab. I’ve been here since since it started. I think it was 2015, right on maybe 16. Yeah, as soon when they started, basically they. They were opening it. It was part of the Business School. For those who aren’t familiar with the ice lab, it’s ice stands for innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship. And they were looking for businesses who were basically in the startup phase and who could use some help with the with the incubation as they called it. And that’s exactly what I fit into. And so I joined and it was basically just a coworking space where there was some extra help with like. You know, creating a business plan, strategic plan, just seeing what they could do to help as part of the Small Business Administration. Yeah, branches. So that’s how I got here. And so I run a company. I’ve been in just about every different dedicated office space in this place as we grow. So that’s awesome. Office space gets bigger and bigger, but I love it up here, great Internet, free kombucha.

00:03:19 Matthew Kuehlhorn
That’s awesome. Yeah. I’ll have to get somebody maybe David on and. Do I show around the podcast or the ICE lab specifically? But today we’re not here to talk about the ice lab. We’re here to talk about you, Andy.

00:03:33 Andy Sovick

00:03:36 Matthew Kuehlhorn
How about how about start kicking it off? Tell us where you grow up.

00:03:41 Andy Sovick
Yeah. So I grew up in Fort Collins, north of Denver. It was actually outside of Fort Collins, the kind of the countryside, if you will. And that was in the the 80s. My parents had moved there will be 10 years prior as back to the Landers as they like to call themselves. They were part of that whole movement in the 70s where it was, you know, get away from the, from the, the plastics and the, you know, the consumerism and all that stuff. And they were reading Mother Jones News and Mother Earth. And all that stuff. And so I I grew up in a pretty idyllic setting I’ll be at, not financially sound. We had an apple orchard and a big old garden and it was a it was a wonderful childhood. My sister and I grew up in a lot of, a lot of hiking, a lot of playing outdoors, a lot of cross country skiing up on Cameron pass surrounding areas and yeah, and then I, you know, we we grew up there. Moving a little bit. My dad was a contractor. My mom was a firefighter and a teacher. And I, you know, got into, you know, kind of the traditional thing, got way into soccer. I played obsessively in all my level of soccer and was a total music geek throughout high school. I think that might be my some of the stronger things that came out of childhood somewhere in oh. My my mid teens, like 15 years old or something like that. I became obsessed with the idea of becoming a a mountain man and a mountain enthusiast and all things mountain. I got into into trapping and and skiing and survivalism. I was reading all this revivalist books and experimenting with it up in the mountains with my friend and. I got way of the skiing, got a kayaking course, got into rock climbing, just wanted to do all the things and get out there and became pretty obsessed with that idea, which I think shapes my future pretty well.

00:05:52 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Yeah, I love it. What’s the story of how you ended up in Gunnis and Cresty Butte area? Yeah.

00:06:00 Andy Sovick
So obviously my attraction to the mountains never ended, and when I left high school I was immediately. Drawn to the Western slope, I went to Fort Lewis College, England, did four years there, graduated and met my soon to be wife, GAIL, my senior year of college. And she went off to Alaska and I went backpacking and ski bumming through the Rockies and we eventually came back together when she got a job at the Crested Butte Academy and it was a private ski Academy in Crest Butte in the mid 2000s. Yeah, yeah. So she got a job as art and Spanish teacher and I basically just followed her as boyfriend. She just was like, that sounds cool. Like ski town. You had the job. That’s great. You know, she, you know, a theme in our life has been she’s much more responsible and, you know, and smart. And she had a job. And all that stuff, and I was just into skiing. I just wanted to ski bum and play, and Chris abuse seemed like a great place for that. So I didn’t know much about the town honestly before we got here. Growing up in Fort Collins in the Front Range, Chris Abuse and Gunnison were pretty off the map, honestly. It would show up on like the news channels. And so it was a faraway place as far as I was concerned. And even living in Durango, it’s still a dead end road and kind of just. Even today, it’s still kind of in the middle of nowhere, honestly.

00:07:37 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Yeah, yeah.

00:07:39 Andy Sovick
So it was fairly new to me and typical story, you know, coming into the valley and realizing it’s where we were going to live. We fell in love immediately and it felt like home right away. We had a pretty quintessential experience where we dropped off of the Kepler pass coming into town on the IT was dirt Rd. time and. And there was so happened to be an album glow. I don’t think they called the album Glow concert, but it was a Thursday night concert series, July summer, Rainbow coming out of Mount Cressive Butte. We’re playing Frisbee with and a bunch of other people start playing Frisbee with us in the park. And there’s music and we were like, is this, does this happen every day here in this town? Like, this is crazy. So we fell in love with it right away. And that was in 2005. And I started working as a Carpenter right then. Like I said, my dad was a contractor. So I had the skills already having worked for him in the summers and it was a building boom at the time, O five through O eight, it was pretty heavy, so it was pretty easy to pick up the job.

00:08:42 Matthew Kuehlhorn
So yeah, yeah, I love it, man.

00:08:45 Andy Sovick
Thank you,

00:08:46 Luke Hylton
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00:09:25 Andy Sovick

00:09:26 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Beacon guidebooks for those that don’t know. I mean, I’ll explain it, but then I’d love for you to explain it to Andy because my understanding is that it’s a guidebook that is relatively niched out into Backcountry and off pieced ski areas. And I would relate it a little bit to. Some of the climbing books I’ve seen, although it’s more for mountain uphill access and downhill runs with a an intent around snow safety and safe access. Did I hit that about right? What would you add to that?

00:10:13 Andy Sovick
That sounds pretty good. And I mean or just to even back it up, it’s it’s just a publishing company. Really. And I didn’t know that when it started. I didn’t even know what a publishing company was. So but that’s that is what it is. We, we help authors who are experts in their field of knowledge and in their zone. We help them get their project to the deadline, to the finish line and then we the the publishing. What it means to publish is basically help the project management side of it and then help the printing, the processing, the distribution, shipping. Marketing, sales and all that side of it, warehousing, that’s that’s being a publisher. So honestly, at the time when I started the company, I didn’t know what a publisher was. I was just making books. Yeah. And so it’s like a Carpenter realizing he’s called a Carpenter and all he wanted to do was build houses. So there’s a name to it. But yeah, that’s that’s essentially what we do. We, we work with authors and experts. A lot of times it’s a professional mountain guide who’s been. Who is extremely familiar with their area and they’ve been teaching courses, avalanche courses, they’ve been showing people around the mountains, showing clients, and they have an extremely large breadth of knowledge and wisdom to share. And a lot of times they’re just looking at a guidebook as a way to kind of create a legacy out of their knowledge and wisdom. Sometimes they just want that resource for their own company. The resource being a photographic guidebook, map and app so that they can find, so they can show people the best way to get around the mountains. Yeah. And that’s that’s essentially what we do is we help them facilitate their product. If a mountain guide wants that product, they don’t want to be a publisher, they want to keep being a mountain guide. They need help getting this book finished. They don’t want to deal with. Warehousing thousands of books, they don’t want to deal with marketing it and events and selling ads, stuff like that. Maintaining a website, all the stuff that we do, yeah. So yeah, that’s our role.

00:12:26 Matthew Kuehlhorn
I like that. How did this start? Like what’s the why behind it?

00:12:35 Andy Sovick
You know, because you’re my friend and we’ve been talking about this since the since the day the idea was created. However, I’ll explain it to everybody else. I am. I’m an obsessive skier, Backcountry skier in the Crested Butte area. Before we moved to Crested Butte, I was way into it, and moving here, it felt like a whole new frontier place I had never explored before. And one of my favorite elements of Backcountry skiing is the exploration side of it, looking for places where no one’s been and looking just beyond the next rise and seeing what’s over there. Which is, of course, a risky activity. We deal with avalanches in a in one of the most severe ways. In Colorado, we have one of the most notoriously bad snowpacks when it comes to avalanches, meaning there’s other places like the the West Coast and Northern Mountains that have a more stable snowpack. In general, Avalanche deaths and accidents happen wherever there is snow in mountains, but Colorado has one of the highest rates. So anyway, it’s a risky activity. However, it’s one of my favorite activities, and I guess I just have a bit of a categorical organizational brain. And every time I ski before, where there was GPS, I just was writing it down, recording it and drawing it on our paper maps and taking photos. Whenever I was on a Ridge, I’d look over to the other Ridge across the valley and I’d say, well, I wonder what that’s like to ski. And I’d take a couple photos and I’d organize that. And so, after many years of skiing right here, I showing my photos to friends and using them for planning. I said this is a really excellent resource. There should be something like this for every area. There should be something like this for our area. I could use this for Crested Butte. And it wasn’t like a it was not an inventing of the wheel by any means. There’s been a ski Atlas and the Tetons. It’s just a photographic paper Atlas for a bunch of the ski zones at the back country ski zones near Jackson Hole Resort, and I had taken inspiration from that and a friend of mine made one just on the on the West side of the Tetons. He made a cool photographic ski Atlas for the targhee Backcountry on the West side of Tetons and I when he made that, it all clicked for me. His name is Brady Johnston and he’s a. He was a college friend and a. An amazing skier, super gold guy and an amazing businessman. And he made that and of course, you know, sold a couple 100 copies and was able to buy himself a pair of skis. So it wasn’t a huge business venture. And this is in the this is around 2010 and which wasn’t that long ago, but that country skiing was much less popular in 2010 than it is today. It’s been a rapid shift in demographics and population. So I made one for Crested Butte. Long story short, took a flight in an airplane, took a bunch of aerial photos and put it into a book. This was on the side as a side hustle and just a little fun project at the same time. We were buying and remodeling a house in Gunnison and we had a baby so I wasn’t sleeping anyway. So why not pick up a side project right? And printed one? Or 2000? I can’t exactly remember. And started selling them at local shops and made a little website and and that’s where it started.

00:16:08 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Yeah, yeah, I love it. What is? So you know, we mentioned a safety component and I think avalanches are unique in the sense that it’s equitable. A novice has risk, a really experienced Backcountry snow scientist has risks. And if we’ve. Been in this community long enough. We’ve had friends and loved ones that have had their lives taken by avalanches. With the popularity of off piece Backcountry and in some of the technologies and in potentially making it a little easier and perceptively safer, the guidebooks has that been a welcomed resource in the community? Have there been pushed back on? Oh my gosh. Don’t give this information out because this will bring more people into the danger zones. What’s been the reception that you’ve received over the years?

00:17:12 Andy Sovick
The reception has been everything. So it, and you touched on it pretty well in one way, we’re sharing back country ski zones, which has by large been a bit of a secret. To a lot of the back country ski community and a lot of times it feels like a secret. When you’re up on a mountain and there’s no one else out there and it’s Wednesday and you feel like you earned it because you did. It’s very uncomfortable when a bunch of other people come up who who you feel like didn’t hurt it come up the mountain. And a lot of us have to step back a little bit and see how it is we what what the privileges are that we were given that got us up into the mountain in the 1st place and to what level did we earn it. And and then also we have to recognize that it’s public land that we’re on. That information is usually good and knowledge is power and. It’s uncomfortable especially you know those of us who grew up in Colorado with the population was less than half of what it is right now. We’ve we’ve been I mean maybe we’re just accustomed numb to but people have been more and more people get in the back country every day. And my view on the sharing of the secrecy of it on the discomfort of more people coming into the back country is and this will be this will segue into the avalanche information side of what we do. It it often seems like my my favorite analogy is it’s like sex education. It’s like with teenagers, basically, do we? There’s a there’s a risk, there’s a danger. It’s uncomfortable to talk about. Do we talk about it, or do we pretend that it’s not there and see what happens and rolls out? There’s some we have, like you said, we have people dying, friends and family, and those of us who have been playing the game for long enough. It gets closer and closer to us and we lose while some of the best people in the world it’s a big deal and and the the the hardest part of it is is that every avalanche death is a preventable avalanche death. It’s inherently risky activity but it doesn’t have to be base jumping risky at all. Most of the accidents that we see the the recorded accidents and we we try to. Investigate what happened and what were the ingredients that went into that accident. It’s usually a a lapse in decision making by someone who had the tools to make the right decisions. It’s often times people who are experienced and have the training and have the tools and the knowledge and they made a bad decision and that really motivates us at at Beacon and in in the Avalanche community to figure out what it is we can do to to reduce that problem. Yeah. So back to the sex education analogy, do we we have some very important things to talk about it with terrain in Backcountry scheme, and we can either try to keep it a secret and just hope it plays out really well, or we can we realize we can have a captive audience with the guidebook and really talk about what needs to be talked about to help people make better decisions. So. What we do in in Beacon guidebooks is we focus much less on the guidance of going out there and getting out there, going to the trailhead and getting to the summit. We certainly pay some attention to that, but we keep things as brief as possible in our books. So very few sentences, very few words. The editing process with our authors is heavy. We spend a lot of time taking 5 paragraphs and blowing it down into two sentences. And what we spend more time on is visual cues and terrain analysis. Basically with avalanche education and avalanche, the recipe for an avalanche. So most people are familiar with the recipe for fire. To have fire, you need air, you need a spark and you need fuel. If you don’t have one of those ingredients, then you don’t have a fire. Same for avalanches. You need snowpack is one of the ingredients, weather is another ingredient, and then terrain. Now these two ingredients, snowpack and weather, those are dynamic. They’re changing constantly. They’re changing as we speak outside right now. Yeah, the one fixed element is terrain and you have to have the right type of terrain to have an avalanche and to have an avalanche accident. So Simply put, if it’s steep enough to slide, then you’ll then it will slide. If it was that simple, then we wouldn’t need to write a guidebook. But there’s a lot of complexities and intricacies to terrain. And one of my favorite ways to explain the terrain is instead of writing 5 pages about how this mountains would behave in an avalanche, we just take a picture. So at Beacon guidebooks, we take aerial photos of every single Backcountry ski run that we talk about. And that aerial photo demonstrates the subtleties, the complexities and intricacies of that terrain. And so if you’ve taken a level 1 Avalanche course, which? Hopefully you have. If you’re going into the back country, you’re often told that terrain is a big piece and that you need to understand your terrain. You need to wrap your head around it and understand how it relates to the snowpack. So if you have a very weak snowpack, meaning if there’s a really weak point underneath the snow that that might fail underneath a heavy slab of snow, then it’s important to know. What kind of terrain you should be traveling on or should not be traveling on that day? When that snow is is really bad or if the weather is warming really fast then that might heat up the snow so much that it actually starts to slide downhill and you need to understand the terrain once again. Just aspect aspect being the directional side of the of the terrain. Is it S facing, it’s South facing and you’re in the northern hemisphere, then it’s going to heat up faster than north facing. So every. Piece of terrain we demonstrate in the books talks about that aspect. It talks about that slope angle, and it talks about terrain traps. Terrain traps being places where the consequences are increased for a skier who’s caught in an avalanche. So if you are in an avalanche and you’re just on a big open slope on the glacier, that’s a lot different than you’re caught in an avalanche and you end up in a gully. The terrain trap, so. We talk about terrain traps and of course most importantly we talk about alternatives and what your, what your options are for getting up and down this mountain without getting into those increased consequence areas. And that’s the that’s the skinny of it. We’ve come up with so many tools since then to talk about terrain. There’s really cool classification systems that we’ve been working with. There’s, there’s we’ve learned a lot of ways to talk about it, we thought. One way was going to work really well and we realized that the the back country ski audience and community wasn’t resident. That wasn’t resonating with them. And so we found different ways. And so after we’re at 11 years now with this company and we’ve learned a lot and we’re still still making and innovating and finding better ways to explain the terrain side of the avalanche.

00:24:45 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Puzzle. Yeah, I love the innovation. And you know, I believe from what I’ve seen like the receptivity of listening to the community and. And tweaking things right to make sure that messages are landing with the right audience in the right way. Because you know humans have always found the risk whether it’s with sex education or avalanche or rock climbing or driving like there’s there’s some component of humanism that will kind of push the boundary and Backcountry skiing is is certainly one of those and there’s tons of variables and. I love the educational the you know, the informative perspective of your guidebooks. Also for anybody listening that hasn’t seen your guidebooks like you have amazing photos and an amazing design to the guidebooks. And I think it lays out information in a really entertaining, engaging and certainly useful way. So kudos to you and your team for for building that resource. Looking forward, Andy, what are we excited for? What’s coming down the chute?

00:25:56 Andy Sovick
Oh man the I mean just the steamroller of of Backcountry skiing has is is only picking up every year. COVID really created a a big influx in the back country and a lot of people turned to the outdoors and the outdoor industry in general. Backcountry skiing is part of that. People felt like their resorts were get a little bit too crowded of course regulations. I made them start looking beyond the gates and the ropes, and that really spiked our company a lot. And now what I’m doing is growing as fast as I possibly can. My wife GAIL has jumped onto the business a year and a half ago. She handles most of the administrative side of things, bookkeeping the website, basically just keeping things running so that I can keep making books, which is my favorite, making books and maps. Which is my favorite part of the of the puzzle. So she’s been an amazing resource. She’s really cleaned our whole system up and I owe a lot of our success to her now and our ability to grow. What I’m looking forward to is we have over a dozen products coming out in 2023 in the falls and we’re expanding beyond Colorado and Washington, which is where we’re mainly focused right now. So we have 9 zones covered. Throughout Colorado and six zones covered throughout Washington. And this next year we’re going to have products in California, Oregon, New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming and and another one in two more in Colorado as well. So that’s on top of our Avalanche rescue guidebook as well, which isn’t so much a photographic guidebook, but a informational resource and compendium of all the things you need to know if you’re part of a rescue team. And if if the worst case does happen, so medical searching, extraction, team management, patient management, mental health crises afterwards, all of those things are in this really cool field book that we’ve made as well. So we’re looking forward to all those all those things. What I really get excited about it and and I get geeky about it and it’s probably not worth a full podcast episode at all. Is the avalanche terrain exposure scale, which is a scale that we’ve been working with for six years now. But it’s going to be really taking off in the US this year with our partner Onyx Maps. And we’ve been figuring out a way to classify that avalanche terrain that we were talking about. Basically put it into some, put it, put each type of terrain into a box, into a category and that’s going to be. A5 point scale from zero to 40 being where I’m sitting in the office right now, which is not an avalanche terrain whatsoever. And four being extreme terrain. And if we can take every Backcountry run that we have in our guidebooks and beyond and we can put them into a category that really helps people make decisions for the day. Other in other words, if. The danger rating is considerable today, and you’ve learned that considerable danger means you should stay out of Level 3 avalanche terrain. Then that really helps you make a good decision for the day. Someone in your group hopefully will say, hey, it’s considerable danger today. We’ve all been taught in our level one class to stay out of Level 3 terrain, so that’s what we’re really excited about.

00:29:39 Matthew Kuehlhorn
I love that. Andy for listeners that want to learn more that want to get in touch, find the guidebook. Where are the resources for them to go? Oh.

00:29:54 Andy Sovick
There’s a visual right behind me.

00:29:56 Matthew Kuehlhorn

00:29:57 Andy Sovick
Beacon guidebooks beacon so it’s it’s quite easy to find. We have not only our whole ecom store is up on online but we have. Lots of information. All that, that stuff I just started talking about Eights, Avalanche train exposure, scale. We have a whole web page dedicated to that, lots of other resources, and it explains the why and our whole team. I couldn’t do it without our team of authors, our incredible graphic designer, our photographers and printing companies. We have a very incredible family of those people that helped get this to the finish line. I’m just one, one cog in the wheel.

00:30:37 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Yeah. I love it, man. I really appreciate. I mean, our friendship is awesome. You’re an incredible human. The resource that you’ve been developing over the years, I’ve been a part of just observing that journey. I think it’s incredible and so huge. Shout out to you and your team for providing this educational, informational resource. And you know, for the listeners, it is about making better decisions. And I think on a future podcast, maybe it’s you, Andy. Maybe we get a panel. But to talk about the decision making, like the psychology of a decision making is also an incredible component of traveling in the Backcountry in ways that you know are healthy and and safe, right. And I use safe with quotes around it because none of it’s truly safe, but through the decision making, through utilizing tools like this beacon guidebooks. It’s just better information can help make better decisions.

00:31:38 Andy Sovick
Yeah. And it’s it’s not just a way to cope with being in the back country and doing a risky activity. I’ll point out it’s, it’s having this practice of decision making in a risky situation translates to the rest of life. It’s a practice, and we’re businessmen. Do we take risks every day? And they sometimes they’re high risk, sometimes they’re lower risk and the more you practice. Making risks and understanding the consequences of them before you make them the better off you are. And this goes with once again, back to sex education, back to driving cars, back to substance use. Everything we do is risky. Nothing is safe. Living is risky and dangerous. And this is just one exercise to really help us hone those skills and teach our kids and our community and and hopefully we can all. Make better decisions, no matter what we’re doing.

00:32:33 Matthew Kuehlhorn
I love it, man. Can we find Beacon guidebooks in social?

00:32:36 Andy Sovick
Media. Oh yeah, we’re on Instagram and Facebook and once again just beacon guidebooks. Super easy to find and you can see our partners there as well. We published through we make guidebooks, we make maps, of course, we work with two different apps. One is called Rackup Rakkup and the other is Onex maps and Backcountry and. We’re pretty easy to find these days, so awesome.

00:33:03 Matthew Kuehlhorn
We’ll include your website, social links in our in our show notes. So listeners, if you’re interested, definitely check out the resource. Andy, thank you so much for joining us today. I really appreciate you, ma’am.

00:33:16 Andy Sovick
I appreciate you. Thanks for doing this and glad to be here. We’ll talk.

00:33:19 Matthew Kuehlhorn
To you soon.

00:33:21 Andy Sovick
All right.