Before the Dawn
Ian Borgeson sits at a small kitchen table next to a window, picking at a bowl of cherries. It's early July in Summit Cove, aka "the Cove," a tight-knit community of A-frame houses and bygone ski charm nestled between Keystone and Breckenridge, Colo. Borgeson has lived in this house, surrounded by 13,000-foot peaks and alpine lakes, his entire life.
His first memory, he says, is of his father, Leif, towing him up and down the driveway outside the kitchen window on a pair of plastic skis. "I distinctly remember standing at the end of the driveway with those skis on," he says. He had barely turned 1.
As Borgeson, about to turn 20, looks out on the driveway now, half his face glows in the morning sun while the other half remains shadowed and dark. He is pensive and quiet. More than two years have passed since his father collapsed and died, just a few feet from him, on the side of a mountain. Borgeson is at a crossroads in his life, about to enter a phase he has been pursuing since he was a boy. And he is scared.
"Sometimes it's hard to sleep," he says. "Honestly, I'm just really, really nervous. To have something you've been thinking about for years, wanting to do, your goal, and then you get there? It's a crazy feeling to be doing what you want to do."
This winter, Borgeson will begin his career on the Freeride World Tour, the most elite big-mountain competition series in skiing, with events staged on precipitous rock faces in six countries. The tour begins Dec. 18 in Revelstoke, British Columbia, then hops to Italy, France, Austria, California and Switzerland. Borgeson will be the youngest American man on the tour, which has previously launched the careers of big-mountain skiers like Aurelien Ducroz, Griffin Post and Elyse Saugstad.
Few of the roughly 30 skiers on this year's tour bring a more small-town pedigree or a more devoted following from their home resort -- in Borgeson's case, Arapahoe Basin, a tiny ski area perched on the Continental Divide where his father was the snow-safety director and a longtime ski patrolman. And few are as motivated to succeed as the blond, chicken-legged rookie from the Cove.
Ever since his father died, Borgeson has focused every cell of his soul on maximizing his potential as a skier -- something he resisted while his father was alive. He has always possessed deep natural talent, but for much of his life he used it as a crutch. That frustrated his dad, who wondered why Ian was content to be good when he could be great.
Making the world tour was the first, and perhaps hardest, step in Borgeson's quest. He did so emphatically, dominating the U.S.'s most prestigious qualifying events in the spring in Taos, N.M., and Snowbird, Utah. Now comes the big show, on rugged peaks where practice runs are not allowed and experience often counts more than talent and luck combined.
Borgeson's road to the Freeride World Tour wound through the sport's freestyle development ranks like a drunken ant. Before finding his niche in big-mountain skiing, he dabbled in telemark, slopestyle and mogul competitions, at one point skiing on a team that included X Games superstar Bobby Brown and three future World Cup moguls competitors.
No matter his focus du jour, the one constant was Leif. They spent their weekends driving to competitions around Colorado when Ian was young, Ian never wanting for company his own age so long as he had his dad. "They were probably happiest when they were skiing together," says Ian's mother, Denise Schmidt.
Leif stood only 5-foot-5, but he was built like a jar of coins and was always the most intense man in the room. "Everyone describes him that way," Ian says, "and that's how I would describe him." Still, his sons melted him.
When Ian and his brother, Aidan, now 14, were little, Leif would get down on the floor and wrestle with them like a papa bear and his cubs. He rode bikes with them, jumped on the trampoline with them and taught them to keep their word. He was their hero -- a dad who threw avalanche bombs and patrolled the steeps at their local ski area. "I always looked up to how good he was at everything, especially skiing," Ian says. "I wanted to be a better skier because he was so good."
When Ian was 11, he and Leif entered an event called the Enduro, which requires teams of two to ski a steep 1,300-foot face at A-Basin for 10 hours straight. Ian beat his dad down the hill throughout the afternoon as they finished with 63 laps, four off the record held by pro skiers Chris Carson and Rex Wehrman. That day -- not any specific contest victory -- marked Ian's turning point as a skier: the first day he surpassed his father.
When Borgeson began traveling to freeskiing contests around the West with Team Summit, a following took root at A-Basin. As soon as results and video highlights were posted, a ski patrol dispatcher would announce over the patrol's radio frequency -- a la Paul Revere -- how "Borgy," aka Skiin' Ian, fared. That inevitably started a chain reaction of patrollers flocking to see for themselves.
"Leif wasn't a stand-on-the-pulpit-and-scream-about-his-kid kind of dad," says A-Basin ski patrol director Tony Cammarata, who shared an office with Leif. "You had to ask. But as soon as you asked, you'd see the twisted little smile on his face and he'd pull up a video and everyone would gather around and watch. The normal reaction was we'd just laugh and scratch our heads at what Ian could do."
Leif Eric Borgeson was born on New Year's Day 1961 with a zest for wild places and experiences. He was working as a hotshot firefighter when he met a Kansas farm girl named Denise Schmidt in Flagstaff, Ariz., in the early 1980s. They clicked as if it was meant to be. A few years later, they married. Denise picked out the rings and Leif's suit because he was fighting a fire in California. He got home two days before the wedding.
As a ski patrolman, he was known for his tireless devotion and timeless look. In 1990, he joined the A-Basin patrol, a rugged team of 35 who manage some of the highest terrain in North America. Cammarata, who still keeps Leif's radio on the desk in their office, marveled at Leif's ability to work 10-hour days on nothing but caffeine.
"Leif was a mentor for a lot of us, and somebody we all looked up to just because he worked so hard," Cammarata says. "He'd go out on winter days with just a visor and sunglasses. Everyone else would be in a beanie, balaclava and goggles, all bundled up. He just loved to be outside in the snow."
The day before he died, Leif drove with Ian to a slopestyle competition Ian had entered in Aspen. They got stuck on Vail Pass due to slick roads, and Leif threw on "The Dark Side of the Moon." It was the first time Ian had heard Pink Floyd. He smiles as he remembers the moment: sitting on a snowy road with his dad, rocking out.
Bad weather at Buttermilk, where the contest was taking place, canceled practice the next morning and left them with a free day. They headed across the valley to Aspen Highlands and its signature Highland Bowl, which offers 2,000-foot runs and tops out at 12,392 feet. Soon after arriving, they set off for the summit.
Sometimes I think I’m through it, then other times I’m like, I don’t know what to do right now.Ian Borgeson
Approximately 100 yards from the top, Ian and Leif stopped to rest and take in the Elk Mountains. Ian had been following his father until then. When they started again, he took the lead.
Only a few steps into his climb, he heard a noise behind him. He turned and saw his father face down in the snow, not moving. Other hikers surrounded Leif almost immediately and started pumping his chest, but the CPR was futile. Leif's family would later learn that three of his arteries were 70 to 90 percent blocked, a result of his body producing too much cholesterol. Fit as an Olympic wrestler and one month past his 50th birthday, Leif died of a massive heart attack. The last thing he saw was his son, hiking toward the summit.
Ian watched as the Highlands ski patrollers tried to save his dad's life that day. After 10 mind-numbing minutes, one of them grabbed him and said, "Let's go take a lap." They skied the bowl that he and his father had come to ski. The rest of the day is a blur.
"Sometimes I think I'm through it, then other times I'm like, I don't know what to do right now," Borgeson says. "I don't know if my dad would know if he were able to tell me. I'm not living in the past or anything. I'm not still in mourning. It doesn't mean I don't miss him."
In the months that followed, members of the A-Basin ski patrol tried to fill Leif's void. They offered to take Ian on hut trips and river trips; they made themselves accessible at all hours in case he needed them.
To heal their own hearts, Leif's co-workers established a new tradition. On the anniversary of his death, A-Basin's volunteer patrollers cover for the professional staff, allowing them to caravan to Aspen Highlands and hike the bowl -- "take the last run that Leif never got to take," Cammarata says. Highlands patrollers join them.
Borgeson still leans on his dad. Last winter while competing at Taos, he hiked Kachina Peak, a ridge similar to Highland Bowl. Near the summit, a hawk circled overhead. Borgeson couldn't help but think it was his dad, watching over him as he always had. Before dropping into his competition run at Taos, Borgeson asked his dad to help him clean his line. Ten minutes later, he stuck the jump, a high-speed 40-foot transfer into a rocky cirque, and won the competition.
Borgeson doesn't like to talk about himself when it comes to skiing, but his potential is rare. Reigning world champion Drew Tabke went out of his way to praise the rookie in a tour news release, saying he thinks Borgeson is going to "blow people's minds."
"Ian is the most naturally talented person that I've ever seen ski," says Drew Petersen, Borgeson's childhood friend and fellow big-mountain competitor. "I don't just think he can win an event. I think he can win the whole tour."
Such a feat is not on Borgeson's radar screen as he sits at his kitchen table. But in reflecting on the past two and a half years, and digesting a loss that he says has shaped him, he can't help but feel optimistic about the next phase of his life.
"It's like people say," he says, "it's always darkest right before the dawn."