The Life of a Legend

Leif Borgeson, the snow safety director at Arapahoe Basin, and the Chuck Norris of snow science, passed away recently. Calling him a legend isn’t an overstatement.

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Here’s what the newspaper said:

Leif Borgeson, the snow safety director at Arapahoe Basin, passed away of a heart attack while hiking Highlands bowl in Aspen on Tuesday, February 8. He had just turned 50. He left behind his wife, Denise, and two sons. He had been immersed in nearly every aspect of the ski industry.

That’s all true, but news reports tend to leave things out.

They didn’t say that Leif was hiking Highlands with his 17-year-old son, Ian, and that Ian must have been the first one there when his father collapsed. Or that the next week, Ian came in second at the Crested Butte stop of the Junior Freeskiing Tour, even though competing was the furthest thing from his mind. 

No one mentioned that over a thousand people showed up for his memorial and that the room was packed with people wearing typical Leif attire: Carhartts, Hawaiian shirts, visors, and bug-eyed sunglasses. People came from every corner of the ski world: resort owners, avalanche forecasters, and the kind of grizzled old guys who have runs named after them. “It’s a shame it takes something like this to get all of these people in the same room,” Tim Finnegan, the Basin’s director of mountain operations said.

After the memorial, most of those people, the pockets of their Hawaiian shirts jammed with soggy tissues, went back to A-Basin to drink whiskey, tell stories, and blow shit up, because that’s how Leif did it, and how he probably would have wanted it done.

The newspaper didn’t talk about that Tuesday night. How, after they heard the news, all the ski patrollers went to patrol director Tony C’s house, together, because they didn’t want to deal with it alone. Because they’re a family like that, in a way that few other groups of co-workers are.

They didn’t mention how the next morning the whole staff toughed it out, put goggles over their bloodshot eyes, and opened the mountain, because Leif would have been f-ing pissed if they hadn’t—even though Tony C’s voice cracked when he said, “I’m barely holding it together.”

The reports said that he’ll be missed by skiers all over, which is true. But it’s hard to fill the gaps a person leaves behind. It’s even harder when their life was woven into the fabric of so many communities, or if they were the kind of person that people, without exaggeration, called a superhero.

Leif was all of those things. A touchstone for daily decisions at the Basin, he called the shots about what terrain to control and open. He meshed his on-snow work with academia, publishing and presenting multiple papers on snow science, particularly wet slab instability. He’d worked as a hotshot firefighter, a paramedic, and a patroller on three continents.

it was rare to see him come across a problem that stumped him. Once, when he decided that cutting the Montezuma cornice was too tricky, he commissioned a special saw. It was 12 feet long and looked like the kind of thing Tim Burton would fantasize about. But it worked.

It might be easy to glorify his accomplishments, but that’s not really fair either. He wasn’t perfect, because, obviously, no one is. He could be abrasive, and was pretty good at getting under your skin, usually when you were right on the edge of screwing something up. “What is THAT?” he’d bark at a sloppily-tied knot, or a crooked fence.

He rarely stopped moving. Several people at the memorial said it was like he’d managed to pack a couple of lifetimes into one.

Even though it might sound contrived, it’s not a stretch to call him a legend. Because that’s what a legend is: someone who seems larger than life, and the collection of stories they build that makes them that way.

Leif had a well documented coffee dependence, and would burn through a pot on his own before anyone else showed up in the morning. But I haven’t seen it mentioned that the coffee pot at patrol headquarters shattered on its own that Tuesday afternoon. Sometimes, it’s hard to believe the things that are real are true.