Hot Dogs — The Invisible Force That Shaped My Life
Sometimes, it’s the things in life you’d least expect that teach you the most.
It feels crazy to say this out loud, but hot dogs have played a big part in teaching me where I come from, what I love to do, and the fragility of life.
When I was a kid, I didn’t eat hot dogs. Looking back, I can’t explain why. I guess the truth is I was a picky eater, unimpressed by what Oscar Meyer had to offer me in my younger years.
But that all changed when I was around 12 years old, visiting my Grandma for the summer in Decorah, Iowa.
For those of you unfamiliar with Decorah, I can’t really blame you. Unless you have Norwegian-American heritage, it’s just another sleepy midwestern town. But to those Americans who descended from Norwegian immigrants, Decorah is one of the few places that has preserved elements of Norwegian folk culture in American life to the highest degree.
I’d say that’s especially the case when it comes to food — including, you guessed it, hot dogs.
The Norwegian-American hot dog is something that we grew up calling “varmapulsa” — a run-of-the-mill hot dog wrapped in homemade potato pancake called “lefse.” And nobody does “varmapulsa” better than Decorah — specifically the Oneota Country Club, for anyone interested in a great sausage in Northeast Iowa.
I admit, it’s a bit laughable that I had to move all the way to Norway to discover that my exotic “varmapulsa” is actually called “varme pølser” in Norwegian… directly translated: hot sausages or hot dogs.
By the time I turned fourteen, I had nearly caught up on all the hot dogs that I missed out on as a kid when a different type of hot dog entered my life: hotdogging, the name given to the first-ever style of freeride skiing in North America.
During those early teenage years, I fell deeply in love with snowboarding and skiing: not just the sport itself, but also the ritual of going to and from the mountain. An essential part of my family’s ritual was stopping by a roadside diner in Empire, Colorado for some greasy food and a milkshake.
This particular diner, Lewis Sweet Shop, is one of my favorite places in Colorado — for its bizarrely decorated interior, food that gave you exactly what you needed after a long day of skiing, and the continuous loop of retro Warren Miller films from the 1980s playing on the TV in the corner.
These movies were full of a neon-colored, free-wheeling type of free skiing, long gone from today’s ski style, that endlessly entertained my friends and me while we ate our hot dogs and sky-high milkshakes.
I’m from Fort Collins, Colorado — a small city in Northern Colorado, roughly an hour’s drive north of Denver — so driving to the ski resort for a day trip usually meant at least 2.5 hours on the road each way. The long trip home meant that taking the stop at the Sweet Shop was more than just a meal. It was a necessary break to spice up an otherwise tiring drive with a carload of teenagers, while also waiting for traffic to thin out.
Because of this long distance to the bigger ski resorts further south, many of the serious skiers in Northern Colorado often look to the backcountry skiing zones that are both closer to home and accessed with highways that have much less traffic. The crown jewel in the Northern Colorado backcountry scene is Cameron Pass.
Cameron Pass is unique in many ways: it is easily accessible from a relatively big and well maintained highway, has the only volunteer backcountry ski patrol in the world, and has some of the world’s most dangerous avalanche conditions.
That last point is something my family and I learned the absolute hardest way in 2007 when a family friend, Mark, died after being buried in an avalanche on Hot Dog Bowl — an alpine bowl on the east side of Cameron Pass above Zimmerman Lake.
It was early season, and the snowpack was somewhat unstable, as is the norm in Colorado during the colder parts of winter. 2007 was still before the age of the smartphone, so the group of three had to find their way to the summit only with the help of their map and compass. After breaking through the tree line, they realized they were accidentally below a part of the mountain they had planned to avoid — due to the avalanche hazards they suspected might be present there.
To save time and avoid coming out of the trees on the wrong part of the mountain again, they decided to traverse below the dangerous face, one by one, instead of entering back into the forest. The first made it safely across on a splitboard, the next on skis, leaving Mark as the last man to cross with snowshoes and his snowboard on his back.
As he crossed, a 3 foot/1 meter deep slab-avalanche triggered on the face above him. He was caught and eventually buried by the slide. His partners rushed into action and managed to locate him quickly, but as they dug through the snow, they discovered that Mark was upside down and that their search-probe had hit one of his snowshoes. The extra digging to free him from the snow meant his head was buried for nearly 30 minutes.
For reference to those who are unfamiliar with the dangers of avalanche burial, 15 minutes is the standard window of survival before oxygen deprivation and suffocation become your largest mortal threat.
Mark was remarkably still alive after 30 minutes of burial — but in a coma. His partners worked to stabilize his condition, and then he was airlifted to the hospital in Fort Collins. After three days there, it was clear that the damage caused by the oxygen deprivation would not be something he would recover from. Mark passed away in the company of his parents, fiancé, and close friends.
Long before I ever set foot in the backcountry myself, Mark’s loss on Hot Dog Bowl taught me about the real chance of the worst possible outcome of a sport I was actively falling in love with. That even as an experienced backcountry snowboarder, making the “wrong” decision is not always something that you do consciously. That backtracking to make the “right” decision after finding yourself in a risky position is much easier done from the sidelines or after the fact than in the moment. And most importantly, that your tragic loss of life is not your own — it will be carried by those closest to you, rippling out to those closest to them, and on and on.
I took a lot of grief for not eating hot dogs as a kid. I used to just eat the empty buns. But with what hot dogs mean to me now, I don’t judge myself for hesitating to love them without question.
I still enjoy grilling up some “varme pølser” on my porch in Bergen. I’d like to think that the hotdoggers of the past might be satisfied by my level of freeriding. And I’ll never forget the look on my parents’ faces after seeing Mark in the hospital, days after his accident on Hot Dog Bowl.
Reflecting on these memories from 15 years ago, I’m baffled by their collision in my life today.
To be able to work and live in Bergen, Norway, launching a product designed to be a defense against oxygen deprivation after avalanche burial feels overwhelmingly full circle. I couldn’t be more excited to be joining a team at Safeback, working every day to build products that can save the lives of backcountry skiers and snowboarders.
Please note: I have changed the name of our family friend, out of respect for him and his family.