Teens ski 90,000 vertical feet in one day — and raise more than $9,000 for St. Jude

Kayla Anderson was inspired by Inspiration4 commander Jared Isaacman to do something bigger than herself.

diamond pattern

  •  5 min

Kayla and Carter skiing

Support St. Jude

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.”

Kayla and Carter skiing

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.

58,000. 60,000.

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.

“They saw a personal video from Lindsey Vonn that this (attempt) was insane,” Kayla’s dad Matt, an Air Force colonel and a pilot, said. “Even the non-skiers were like wait, what’s she doing? I gotta pay attention now.”

That video fired up Kayla and Carter even more.

“It was like, alright, there’s no turning back now if Lindsey Vonn knows about this,” Kayla said.

At 2:22 p.m., Kayla and Carter hit their goal: 70,000 vertical feet.

But the slopes were open for another hour and a half.

Could they go for 90,000?

Why not?

They kept skiing. As closing time for the ski resort neared, Kayla and Carter got into the lift one last time.

Kayla and Carter in ski lift

“It was by the minute, the second,” Kayla said. “We really cut it close.”

When they reached the bottom, they got to see the grand total on Kayla’s ski app.

90,450 vertical feet.

That’s like skiing from the top of Mt. Everest three times — with 3,354 feet still to go.

“We not only beat our goal in the vertical feet, but we also beat our fundraising goal,” Kayla said.

That’s $9,750 for the kids of St. Jude.

Jared Isaacman himself donated $1,000. Isaacman already has committed to giving $100 million to St. Jude as part of the $200 million fundraising initiative with the Inspiration4 space mission.

Kayla was proud of her effort, not just for her class project but for the money she raised for St. Jude.

Cancer has affected several people she loves. Three of her four grandparents are cancer survivors. One of her elementary school teachers had cancer. And her mentor’s husband has brain cancer. 

“So it’s pretty close to my heart,” she said.

Carter’s legs were shot by the end of the day, but he, too, was proud of the effort.

“I thought, ‘$7,000 is a lot of money for two kids skiing all day,’” he said. “But the amount of support we had was amazing. And I think Kayla’s dad did a great job supporting us and helping us reach that goal.”

Kayla hasn’t turned in her pre-calculus assignment yet. It isn’t due for another month.

But she and Carter already have another goal.

During their senior year, they want to hit 100,000 vertical feet.

It’ll take some slick math and maybe a golden ticket — a way to get into the ski resort a little early. Kayla estimates they’ll need 30 to 45 more minutes of skiing time to hit that number. Even with better ski conditions alone, Carter said, they could get maybe one or two more runs in.

Both teens were selected to participate in the St. Jude Leadership Society, a national-level leadership development opportunity for high school students who share a commitment to give back to the country and community through service and leadership.

But for now, though, Kayla’s just relishing her big accomplishment with Carter.

“It was a lot of fun to represent St. Jude during the big ski day,” she said.

Donate Now

diamond pattern