Vail Daily column: Don’t get fat living at altitude

Tom Kelly

We celebrated my son’s third birthday earlier this year in July. I have taken Nash skiing on the magic carpet the past few years as he clearly wasn’t ready to ski down from the top. As Nash graduated from plastic skis to 70-centimeter Blizzard skis with rainbow colors and pictures of elephants plastered on the tips, his eagerness for skiing blossomed.

During the late fall months, he celebrated the heavy snowfall and shared time and again his enthusiasm to go skiing. Nash’s fondest memory and excitement from last year involved riding the kiddie gondola. With the debut of Beaver Creek’s “chondola” this year, I figured Nash would not only get a kick out of riding up to mid-mountain but also being ready and able to ski down Cinch. I was wrong with my estimation.


Last week we attempted to ski down from Spruce Saddle. After Nash’s excitement dissipated from riding up the gondola, fear set in as we started down Cinch. We didn’t make it 10 feet before the shaking and crying got the better of him. I held him up by the boot straps and assisted him down to the top of Latigo.

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It wasn’t going to happen; I needed to get him off the mountain to save it for another day. I gently picked him up and headed down Gold Dust.


As we gradually made it down the mountain, it dawned on me as it has many times over the years. Unnecessary weight on your body performing mountain activities is burdensome. Even though Nash weighs only 30 pounds or so, carrying him non-stop down to the bottom was enough additional awkward weight to at least remind me that even modest baggage can wear you out in a hurry.

When I was in college, I was compelled to lift heavy things and eat a lot of food. In Ohio, it’s a cultural rite of passage to graduate to husky status. Muscle or not, being heavy is celebrated. As a male, if you don’t weigh at least 200 pounds in the Midwest, you may get picked on for being too skinny.

I recall losing the final tug-o-war competition in the annual Greek Games at Ohio University; I overheard a barrel chested kid from another fraternity commenting on how I and another one of my fraternity brothers were too skinny and how we likely held the team back. Apparently, I was too skinny at 210 pounds regardless of a reputation for being wiry and able to pull heavy weights.

When I moved out here after college in 2003, I was 225 pounds and was reminded in a hurry how detrimental this was. I was under 190 pounds within eight weeks.


When it comes to high altitude recreation, it doesn’t make sense to be heavy. As the fitness industry promotes muscle weight gain for increasing metabolism and for looking better naked, it’s rarely advantageous when it comes down to locomotion in mountainous terrain.

Of course there are exceptions to this. For example, if you’re a tall male who is underweight at 150 pounds and can only lift 150 pounds one time, and I increase your bodyweight to 160 pounds with the additional strength to now lift 320 pounds, we clearly have built a bigger engine to carry a larger body. In this case, the strength gains outweigh the risk of additional bodyweight, pardon the pun.

On the other hand, if you’re a strong male that has wrung out the potential for strength increases and find yourself getting tired during mountain adventures, judiciously look at your bodyweight regardless of the composition of lean to fat ratio and assess if you can afford to drop a few pounds.


Think cycling. How many of you go out and buy a $10,000 road bike to save a few additional pounds from the $4,000 counterpart? Upon assessing these cyclists in the past, I find out that even though they have high levels of fitness, they could’ve saved $6,000 and just have easily lost 5 pounds, muscle or not, and still been further ahead with their fitness and bank account.

This season Nash better increase his skiing skills or I may have to drop a few pounds myself to afford carrying him down the mountain. In reality though, he told me yesterday that he wants to try again on the kiddie gondola. This is good, because I don’t care to lose much weight during this holiday season as there’s just too much good food and drink to be enjoyed.

Stay lean and hard out there!

Ryan Richards has a B.S. from Ohio University and is a certified strength and conditioning specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He is the personal trainer at the Sonnenalp Golf Club and the owner of R2HP, an athlete consulting and personal training company. Richards’ passion comes from overcoming childhood obesity and a T1-L3 spinal fusion. Contact him at or 970-401-0720.

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