It’s 7:30 a.m. and Joel Bettner begins calling members of the CU-Boulder Freestyle Ski Team (CUFST) to confirm they’ve left Boulder on time to beat the ski traffic. As students pick up, Bettner becomes slightly disappointed as he realizes many will arrive late at Berthoud Pass for the backcountry education day he has planned. Moments later, his upbeat, magnetic persona returns, as he’s just happy to be on his way to the mountains. In Bettner’s mind, he gets to share a ski experience with CU students while positively impacting their lives.
Bettner grew up in Lewisburg, Pa., and started skiing at five years old, however, growing up in the sticks of the Appalachian Mountains, he primarily mountain biked. By high school, he had fallen in love with skiing and would go on to ski race at Bucknell University. Bettner graduated with a degree in civil and environmental engineering, and then earned his master’s in mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
After working in the solar engineering field, Bettner says he decided it was time for a change.
“Although I really enjoyed the academics, I found that the work environment and the application of my knowledge wasn’t up my alley,” said Bettner.
From having worked as a heli-ski guide in Alaska, to skiing almost all of the volcanoes in the Pacific Northwest, Bettner realized he had a plethora of knowledge to offer. In 2007 Bettner started the CUFTS backcountry and big mountain program.
A typical coaching day can involve many different training exercises. Bettner expects to see team members training in the gym during pre-season as well as on their off days from the mountain. During the winter, Bettner’s job ranges from classroom avalanche education to on-mountain instruction and guiding.
While Bettner has many other hobbies, for example, mixed martial arts (he’s a fourth-degree black belt), math problems, mountaineering and, more recently, speed flying, he’s truly dedicated to skiing.
“I like the outdoors, but skiing has a special place in my heart,” said Bettner. “I feel very free and I feel there are not a lot of people telling me what to do. I like being able to make decisions and live with the consequences.”
“Of course, it’s also very exhilarating.”
Further, for Bettner, being a coach extends beyond teaching safety and technique.
“I really enjoy working and being with people,” said Bettner. “And, I really feel that I connect best with other people when I am out in the mountains and skiing.”
“The personality and relationships that you can develop through skiing are the most valuable part of it.”
Bettner takes it upon himself, whether he’s coaching or around friends to be the person everyone wants to emulate. He holds an even higher standard for himself than he does of his piers and skiers.
Andrew Lussie, 31, a professional photographer, says the first time they met exemplifies Bettner’s personality.
“I had been caught in an avalanche and narrowly escaped unscathed,” said Lussie. “I was so shaken up that I couldn’t leave the parking lot at Berthoud Pass. I happened to meet Joel in the parking lot, and he sat with me and we talked for a couple of hours, despite him having a meeting he needed to get to. Joel is a very compassionate and selfless person.”
Lussie says that Bettner has made such an impression on his life that he occasionally finds himself asking, “What would Joel do?”.
Jeffery Rowe, 19, a CUFST team member, said Bettner is not only a phenomenal coach and skier, but also has a contagious personality even on the worst of days.
“He’s just a very charismatic person who has a way of pushing you out of your comfort zone, while still being safe,” said Rowe. “During all of my experiences with Joel I have learned a lot and he’s been a great influence.”
Although Bettner prides himself on having hucked 75-foot cliffs, skiing the steepest of couloirs and bottomless days, he wants people to take more away from skiing than ‘shredding the gnarr’. Bettner says that those fortunate enough to ski, are presented with an opportunity to learn more about oneself and the surrounding people.