7 million feet for a lost friend
VAIL, Colorado – Dealing with grief comes differently to different people, and it is never easy.
For Vail snowboarder Shawn Cypher, dealing with grief this year meant living out the season on Vail Mountain that his late friend Jasper McGrath didn’t have the chance to experience – riding from first to last chair every day.
Jasper “Jaz” McGrath was killed by an avalanche in January of last year near Miller Cliffs, about a half mile west of Belle’s Camp in Blue Sky Basin just outside Vail’s ski-area boundary. A Minnesota native, McGrath was spending his second season here. He didn’t have a ski pass, but he loved the slopes of Vail. That’s why he hiked up the mountain by himself on Jan. 11, 2010 – the last day he was seen alive – in search of powder. He was 19 years old.
An avid hiker in the summer, Shawn Cypher has spent a lot of time trekking up Vail Mountain himself. And he has spent a lot of time thinking about Jaz McGrath while doing it.
“I remember myself at 19 and how much I had in front of me,” said Cypher, who is now 31. “It sucks that it was cut short for him … But he inspired me. He was the inspiration for my entire season. I had the opportunity to be on Vail Mountain every hour it was in operation, and I took it.”
And what a season it has been. You may recognize Cypher by his EpicMix name, “Shawn C.” Vail Resorts’ new EpicMix social app/stat tracker is just wrapping up its first season tallying the amount of vertical feet skied by its users. Cypher dominated the leaderboard for most of this season and will end the year as Vail’s leader and the top snowboarder. He’s also accomplished the difficult feat of riding 7 million vertical feet in a five-month season, an achievement reserved for only the most prolific skiers on the planet.
The lifties and skiers he rides with say he did it by maintaining a steadfast commitment to his first-to-last quest.
“I see him on the first gondola pretty much every morning. He’s there 20 to 30 minutes ahead of time,” says gondola worker Jon Galida. “He’s always there, and he’s always stoked and ready to ride.”
Gondola scanner Joey Caristi says he looks forward to scanning Cypher’s pass every morning.
“Every morning he’s there with his bright green jacket, carrying a little sandwich with him,” Caristi said. “He’s always got a smile on his face.”
And by being on the first chair every morning, Cypher joined an elite club, getting to know other EpicMix leaderboard members like Cesar Hermosillo, who stands at No. 4 on the leaderboard for Vail Mountain.
He and Cypher had friends in common, but didn’t get to know each other until riding the first chair together this season.
“I said, ‘Hey, aren’t you No. 1 on Epic Mix? Nice to meet you, I’m No. 4,” Hermosillo said of their first meeting.
If you were skeptical of their accomplishments, the crew wasn’t hard to find this season. All you had to do was show up to the gondola building at 8:15 a.m.
Hermosillo, a tree skier by choice, says he would keep up with Cypher on the groomer days.
“I’d ski with Shawn when I was trying to stack vert,” he said with a smile earlier this week while riding the first gondola out that day.
“Cesar’s a no-friends-on-a-powder-day kind of guy,” Cypher responded.
Working this season was something Cypher was not going to be able to fit into his ambitious riding goals, and he was aware of that fact going into this season. That’s why he calculated the expenses down to the penny, and made sure he had enough saved up before the season began.
“Once you remove money from the equation, it’s really not hard to live your life in the way that you want to live,” said Cypher, who works hard at his window washing company in the summer.
And for him, not only does that mean being on the first chair, but last chair as well.
“On most days, he’s in one of the last gondola cars up,” Galida said.
And if he’s not, that means he hasn’t timed it quite right.
“A lot of times I would end the day over at Chair 26, and I would always see him speed by right at 4 o’clock on his way down to that last gondola chair,” said Caristi.
Cypher says he tried to get to the gondola a few minutes after 4 p.m. every day, and the lifties there would usually let him on for that final ride.
“They’ll let you load until about 4:05,” Cypher said.
He hasn’t wavered from that standard of consistency on the hill all season, averaging between 40,000 to 50,000 vertical feet per day – a pretty standard number for a fast skier who’s on the lifts all day.
And the consistent schedule extends off the hill, as well. Cypher makes sure he has a good dinner and a good stretch every night. But that’s not before stopping by the Altitude Club for an apres ski mug of beer.
“And that’s all part of honoring Jaz and his lifestyle,” Cypher said. “He was all about riding all day and then hanging out with friends afterward and keeping the good vibe from the hill alive. I estimate I’ve drank 150 free mugs of beer this season, hanging out with friends at the Altitude Club after a long day of riding. Jaz would have been impressed.”
Altitude Club bartender Joey Brown stands by that estimation. He says Cypher joined the bar’s mug club back in November before the ski season started, and has missed just a few days since then. The mug club offers patrons one free beer per day, and Cypher has taken full advantage. Brown says he’s usually one of the first people in after he starts his shift at 4 p.m.
“It’s always a pleasure to come in to work and be greeted by Shawn soon after,” said Brown. “He’s a good dude, and I think it’s pretty good what’s he’s doing for his buddy. I know it can be hard to lose a friend.”
But despite the clockwork-like consistency of Cypher’s first-to-last-chair life, he says EpicMix helped him change up his routine and enjoy some new experiences along the way.
“I found myself riding a little differently than I otherwise might have, riding different chairs and going different places,” Cypher said. “One morning, on the first chair I met this woman who was 81 years old, still skiing every day. She grew up in Austria during World War II and shared some really incredible stories. Me getting myself out here got me in those situations where I could meet people like that enhanced my life in other ways besides snowboarding. It’s a good community here.”
Jaz McGrath’s older brother, Joe, couldn’t agree more. He works at the Lionshead Ski School Shop, the same place Jaz worked his first year out here.
“I’m always meeting people who say I knew your brother or I rode with your brother, he was awesome,” McGrath said on Friday. “It’s really cool.”
He said Cypher was one of those people.
“I talked to Shawn at the beginning of the season and he told me about what he was doing for Jaz,” McGrath said. “I thought it sounded amazing but pretty hard to do. I wasn’t sure if he’d go through with it. I can’t believe he did it. I’m really proud of him. I think of Jaz every time I’m out on the hill like Shawn does. … I was really touched by what he did for Jaz this season.”
Support Local Journalism
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
User Legend: Moderator Trusted User