I’ve always admired the way Joe Johnson lives in true appreciation of both his career and daily life. Like most of us, he’s found himself in an incredible place thanks to a ton of hard work and a few lucky breaks. Unlike most of us, however, that luck was the difference between life and death on October 30, 2010 - seven years ago today - just as Joe was finding his place in the ski industry.
Gregg: Joe, take me back to that moment seven years ago. Where were you and what happened?
Joe: Seven years ago today I woke up in the ICU at Intermountain Medical Center. My head and part of my face were wrapped and swollen. My arm was wrapped in a half cast and secured to my chest. I was hooked up to too many machines to count and I had a catheter in. Man, those things are the worst! At that moment, I had no idea what had happened.
Thirty six hours earlier I had been rock climbing on a beautiful fall day in Big Cottonwood Canyon when I took a 30-foot fall to flat. I was life flighted out of Big Cottonwood Canyon and immediately taken into two emergency surgeries. The first was to fix my face, the right side of which had taken serious impact. The surgeons conducted a facial peel, cutting me from ear to ear and peeling my face down to insert 10 small plates to fix the broken bones. Think John Travolta in the movie “Face Off” and you’re not that far from what happened! They then pieced my right elbow back together using three screws and a wire.
Gregg: What was going through your mind?
Joe: I don’t remember my first thought. But as my mind cleared and I started to be able to piece things together the thoughts came rapid fire. How am I going to pay for this? Will I ever look the same? Will there be serious side effects from my injuries? Will this affect my ability to do my job? And then at some point in that first day when talking with the Dr. I asked what now seems like a stupid question – will I be able to ski this winter?
Gregg: Do you remember what the doctor said in reply? What was the general prognosis overall in terms of doing what you’d always loved to do?
Joe: While I don’t remember the Dr. exact response I do remember him laughing and saying something along the lines of, “That’s the last thing you should be thinking about.” When it came to my prognosis, it was surprisingly positive.
Long story, short – I’m one lucky son of a bitch. I had taken a big fall and somehow came out of it without any of the “major” injuries – broken leg(s), broken back, broken neck, brain trauma – that often accompany a fall of that magnitude. And while I had a long road to recovery ahead of me including 9 months of swelling in my face and plenty of physical therapy, the Dr. assured me that I’d have no problems getting back to doing the things that I love.
Gregg: Talk a bit more about those things you love. What did that mean to you to know you’d have no problem getting back to a healthy, active lifestyle?
Joe: I’m still not sure how I did it, but I managed to grow up in the country, with an older brother, playing more sports than you can shake a stick at without ever having a serious injury. I mean I didn’t even have a broken bone until I broke a bone in my hand during a basketball game my junior year of high school. So to hear that I would have no problem returning to my healthy, active lifestyle was quite the relief.
I count myself lucky to have been raised by parents who fostered and encouraged my love for the outdoors and being outside. But I do have a confession to make – I didn’t start alpine skiing until I was 10. My parents started me off on Nordic skis. From the time I could dribble, basketball consumed my life. During the winter you were more likely to find me shoveling off the court behind our house to do shooting drills than you were to find me skiing. I’ve never raced. I’ve never competed. I’ve never worked in a ski shop. I think I took two “lessons” from a family friend so I’m not even sure if that counts? Hell, before I moved to Utah I think the most days I’d ever skied in a season was 20 . . . maybe. Compared to most people I’m lucky enough to work with in the ski industry I’m a full on newbie.
Gregg: Crazy, I didn’t realize you started so late. When did the love of skiing really kick in?
Joe: I’ve always liked skiing, but skiing hasn’t always been a big part of my life. And when I look back, the transition didn’t really start happening until after college. Sure, I got a trip in here or there and a few days in at the local resorts but when I was pinching pennies in college it was hard to justify forking over money for gear and lift tickets.
My first job out of college was in the marketing/pr department of the Spokane Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau. Working in tourism marketing allowed me to work with Ski the Inland Northwest, the local resort marketing organization (think Ski Utah). And that’s when it really clicked for me. These people were truly doing it right. They got to pair their passions – skiing and marketing. They got to go skiing and call it work – it blew my mind! From that point on it’s been all downhill, literally and figuratively. And it all really started when I packed up and moved to Utah.
Joe’s skills have improved…slightly. Photo: Weston Shirey
Gregg: What year was this that you moved to Utah? Did you you already have a gig lined up or did you know that’s where you wanted to be and just go for it?
Joe: During the summer of 2009, the economy was starting to rebound from the great recession but was by no means in an ideal position. So, like any smart person, I quit my stable job with benefits and went on a month long backpacking trip through Europe with some friends. Before I left I e-mailed two resorts in Utah and two resorts in Colorado. I talked about the experience I had and said that I was looking to get my foot in the door of the ski industry. Then I hopped on plane. The next time I checked my e-mail I was in Florence, Italy and I remember having responses from both resorts in Utah and one in Colorado. There were more e-mails and phone interviews as the communication continued after I returned to the U.S. When it all shook out Solitude Mountain Resort’s director of marketing, Nick Como, offered me a season marketing gig without ever meeting me in person. I took the offer and moved to Utah the fall of 2009.
Gregg: How’d that go? Was your gig at Solitude all you’d hoped for back when you wrote those emails? Were you pretty sure ski was where you wanted to be long term?
Joe: That first winter at Solitude was a winter full of learning. Being in a two person marketing department with my boss, director of marketing, Nick Como, allowed me to have my hands in pretty much everything. From taking the reigns of Solitude’s social media to e-newsletters, media events, advertising, marketing plan development – you name it, and chances are I got the chance to be a part of it.
I learned that a Kia Spectra is not a mountain worthy vehicle (duh) which in turn led to me learning that hitchhiking is one of the best ways to get to work in Big Cottonwood Canyon. I learned that one cannot eat too many breakfast burritos, particularly when they’re free and you have no money. I learned how to use a camera and more importantly how to take ski photos. I learned that I did not know how to ski compared to everyone else and then did everything I could to change that. But most importantly I learned that despite the highs and lows of the winter that I was 100% sure the ski industry was where I wanted to be.
Gregg: We’re getting close to the timeline of the accident, right? Within about a year? Where were you when it happened?
Joe: I finished off that winter at Solitude. And after completely depleting my bank account in an effort to make it home, you know, since I didn’t have a job, I got a call from Canyons Resort director of public relations, Libby Dowd, saying I should apply for an open marketing role. Next thing I know I was moving back down to Utah and starting my new job at the marketing coordinator with Canyons Resort.
But yes, within the year I had my climbing accident.
Climber seriously injured in Big Cottonwood Canyon fall – http://fwix.com/a/44_70d0d53a3c
— SLC Local News (@Saltlakelocal) October 31, 2010
Gregg: You alluded to concern over being able to do your job once you woke up in the hospital. How did Canyons respond to your accident?
Joe: At the time of my accident I hadn’t been working for Canyons for that long. Hell, I think my insurance had only kicked in a few months prior so I was definitely worried about what was going to happen and how it might affect my job. My boss at the time was Jim Powell, the director of marketing for Canyons Resort. He came and visited me in the hospital and assured myself and my mom that everything was going to be ok. He then went the next step and set me up in the Silverado Lodge for my first week out of the hospital. At the time I was living in a pretty dingy basement apartment with some sketchy steps that would have been tough to navigate. From that first visit in the hospital to the lodging and helping me navigate days off, vacation, etc. over the following weeks, Jim and the Canyons Resort team was amazing.
Gregg: Did anything in your outlook on life or work change after your accident?
Joe: Honestly, I don’t think my accident changed my outlook on life, work or the balance between the two. In fact, I think it reinforced the career decisions and lifestyle decisions that I’d made up to that point. The mountains and the outdoors have always been my escape for recreation, fun, excitement and challenge. And by working in the ski industry and the greater outdoor industry, they’ve also become my place of work. I think that by happening in the mountains my accident served more as a reminder, increasing my awe and respect for the mountains and the skills required to recreate in them.
Gregg: While you stayed in the mountain and ski industry, you’ve since moved away from the resort side to retail/gear with Salomon. Why the change and how did that play into your career goals and direction?
Joe: Moving away from resort side of the ski industry was one of the harder professional decisions I’ve ever had to make. In addition to working with clients like Tordrillo Mountain Lodge and Salomon, I’d had the privilege of managing the marketing for Alta Ski Area for the previous four years. If you know Alta and the people who people who call that place home, you know why it was such a hard decision. And while there were a few things outside my control that impacted my decision, the biggest reason for the change was looking for a new challenge. When the opportunity to manage the freeski and outdoor marketing for one of the top outdoor companies in the world presents itself, you don’t say no. In the end, the marketing plan development, budget management and global collaboration at a high level is exactly the experience that I’ll need to continue to progress in my career.
Gregg; Speaking of Alta, talk about your time there working for a brand with that kind of history and value.
Joe: After four years, I’m a proud graduate of the University of Alta. But seriously, I couldn’t have asked for a more fun and professionally rewarding four years. Forget that I had an office in the legendary Buckhorn building at the base of the Wildcat Chair. Note: Mike Rogge (of Powder Magazine fame) once said I had the “best office in the industry.” The best, and most rewarding part of that job, was having the opportunity to tell the story of Alta and the people who call that place home. From fun content projects like the “On The Lift With” series to marketing campaigns like the “Un-Campaign” and “Snow and . . “, it was a dream to be able to work with the team to help promote one of the most iconic ski destinations in the world. Much love to Connie Marshall and Onno Wieringa for welcoming me to the team, giving me the opportunity to learn, grow and create and for being an example of grace and professionalism.
Joe’s involvement with On the Lift With came full circle when he was featured.
Gregg: As you look at the resort side with new eyes, what do you see? Anything you would do differently if you were back at a mountain again?
Joe: When I look at the resort side I see an industry and consumers that are changing rapidly, much more rapidly than most resorts are, or are willing to do. There are very few resorts that are adapting at the rate needed, but those that have been able to are capitalizing. From infrastructure and facilities to technology and marketing, I feel like the resorts that are winning are those ones that are making changes not because “it’s about time” or “because we need to keep up with the other resorts”, but because they know their consumer and their research and data is driving their decision making.
Gregg: Reversed, is there anything from the resort side you learned that you think has served you well from your time with Salomon?
Joe: I think working on the resort side of things gave me a great look and great insight into the different types of skiers, their buying/purchasing habits and what they’re looking for in gear. Naturally, this knowledge and first-hand experience comes into play when creating marketing plans around different products and initiatives. Example – our marketing mix for our XDR line of skis is going to be vastly different than the marketing mix for our MTN line of products. Just like the marketing mix for an Alta or Bridger Bowl is going to be different than for a Vail or Deer Valley.
Gregg: Where do you see yourself in 5 years? Is climbing the ladder your goal? Is lifestyle more important?
Joe: Of course climbing the ladder is my goal. I think if anyone in my situation tells you it’s not then they’re probably in the wrong line of work. That being said, I think the difference is WHAT ladder you’re climbing. I always want to be climbing the learning ladder. I never want to be that person, or get to that point, where I feel it’s ok to stop learning or depend on others to do the learning for me. There are already too many of those people in the workforce. The more you learn, the more you’re able to lead. And when I look five years down the road I think that’s the ladder I really want to climb – the leading ladder. From strategy to departments to teams, the idea of developing as a leader is something that keeps me going.
— Weston Shirey (@WestonShirey) March 19, 2017
Gregg: Where does lifestyle play into that?
Joe: If you’ve learned anything about me from this Q&A it’s obvious that lifestyle is vitally important. That will never change. When I left my first job at the Spokane Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau, I swore to myself that I’d never work somewhere again that required me to wear slacks and a collared shirt every day. Trivial – maybe? And this is obviously a small piece of the “lifestyle” puzzle, but I think it rings true. Along those same lines, I never want to make a job decision based solely on dollar bills. Doing something I love for a company that I’m passionate about in a place that allows me the opportunity to do the things that I love will always be at the forefront when making future employment decisions.
Gregg: What’s next?
Joe: As for what’s next – I honestly don’t see myself wanting to leave the ski/outdoor industry. It’s creative, it’s fun, it’s challenging, it’s competitive. But if I was forced to think of a different industry that would be appealing I’d probably pinpoint the beer industry, particularly the craft brew side of things.
Gregg: When I look at your life and follow your adventures, I get the feeling that you truly appreciate how lucky you are to have a great job, a great lifestyle, and, of course, a life to be living.
Joe: My hope is that it’s not just you seeing that, Gregg. My hope is that everybody I interact with sees that. Because I do truly appreciate everything that I have. And while I have been lucky along the way, you can bet your ass I’m going to keep working hard to ensure that I get stay where I’m at, continue to grow and when the opportunity comes, help others get to where they want to be.
Gregg: Seven years on, how often do you think about that day? And how much does it influence your attitude?
Joe: Honestly, I think about that day a lot. And as weird as it sounds, I think about it most when I’m doing the things that I love – skiing, trail running, mountain biking, etc. If you break it down to its most simple form – It’s something that’s a constant reminder to be grateful and thankful.
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