It started out as a math problem for school.
An idea for a pre-calculus project about how to use math in the real world.
Kayla Anderson, a 16-year-old from Colorado Springs who’s been skiing since before she was in elementary school, is always calculating her vertical feet.
“If I get down (the mountain) in three minutes and 30 seconds, and there’s a six-and-a-half minute lift line, then in around 10 minutes I can get one — 2,100 vertical feet.”
That’s one full trip down and back up the mountain.
But just how many trips could she manage in one day?
Kayla and her high school friend Carter Gonzalez, 17, who offered to make the attempt with her, did the math. If they got on the lift right at 8:30 a.m. and skied all day, how far could they go? Kayla estimated their speed and lift time. But there was no way to predict the weather or slope conditions.
What exactly was mathematically possible?
They decided to shoot for 70,000 vertical feet — or more than 30 trips up and down the mountain. March 10 would be the big day.
“Mentally, I’m always doing this anyway,” Kayla said. “So then I was like, oh my gosh, this would be so fun, and it’s also an excuse to get an insane amount of vertical feet.”
A week before the ski attempt, Kayla watched an interview her dad, Colonel Matt Anderson, chief operating officer at the Space Force Association, did with Jared Isaacman at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
Isaacman, a 38-year-old billionaire tech entrepreneur and adventurer, will command the world’s first all-civilian mission to space called Inspiration4. Kayla listened as her dad talked to Isaacman about how the historic space mission will benefit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
“He said the quote: If you have something big to do in this world, then you’ve gotta make it greater than yourself,” Kayla said.
She decided to do the same thing: “We just made it greater than myself by raising money for St. Jude.”
So they set up an online fundraising page.
On the big day, Kayla and Carter woke to, well, less than ideal conditions. They’d hoped for sunny, blue skies with temps in the 40s and a groomed run. What they got was five inches of fresh powder and temps in the 20s — with a wind chill that felt like single digits.
Not to mention whiteout conditions at times and extreme wind that threatened to blow Kayla’s 102-pound frame off course.
Their legs burned from the start with all that fresh snow. Their skis went slower. Kayla had to stay in full tuck position the whole run. It got so cold the mask she wore because of COVID-19 restrictions froze.
The teenagers stuffed the pockets of their ski pants and jackets with beef jerky, protein bars, gummy worms and fruit snacks. And they limited their water intake so there’d be no need for bathroom breaks. Carter had one bottle. Kayla just had sips.
“The lift was our recovery, the only recovery we had,” Carter said. “At least we had that.”
Other than those six-and-a-half minutes, they never stopped.
Their legs twitched even when they weren’t flying down the slopes. Kayla’s top speed was 67 mph.
It also wasn’t a closed course so they had to dodge other skiers, too.
As the morning turned to afternoon, Kayla tried to keep her hands from freezing as she sent text messages in her family’s group chat to keep them posted.
Their backs and legs were on fire.
They focused on each run. The time.
45,000 feet. 50,000.
“We would say: ‘This is for kids’ cancer. Let’s go,’ ” Kayla said.
They were set to hit the mark early. And Kayla’s dad was at the bottom of the lift, waiting for their last run.
“When he got on the lift with us, that’s when he showed us the video from Lindsey Vonn,” Kayla said.
Kayla first met the American Alpine skier — a four-time World Cup champion and Olympic gold medalist — in sixth grade while Vonn was training in Germany. She’s a big fan.
A local newspaper reporter in Vail, Colorado, had heard about Kayla and Carter’s attempt, and reached out to Vonn to see if she’d send an encouraging message. She did.
And when Kayla’s dad posted it on social media, that’s when people really started paying attention.