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  • Writer's pictureJustine I.

Riley’s Gap Year: Adventures in Skiing and Wildland Firefighting

A Look into an Eighteen Year Old’s Travels, Odd Jobs, and Outdoorsmanship Over the Course of a Year

Fighting Fires: Alturas, California - Photo Credit: Riley Fotis


After high school, the goal for many people is to get into college or to start looking for potential careers. Practicality comes first, and one’s desire to travel, to explore, to answer the call of the wild often gets pushed to the side. This wasn’t the case for my friend, Riley, whose gap year before starting at the University of Pennsylvania in 2019 allowed him to invest fully into the outdoors. I sat down with him to talk about his eventful year, spending time skiing in Utah and fighting wildfires in California before road tripping home to the East Coast to settle down.

Around Thanksgiving, after traveling internationally for three months, Riley returned home to the States and moved to Alta, Utah, landing a job at a ski resort aptly titled “Alta,” where he worked the early morning and late evening shifts bussing tables. In between shifts, he spent his days skiing, which became an integral part of his life during his three-month stay.

“They gave me a room on the mountain so I’d get up, work, eat breakfast, and literally ski out the back door and then, I’d ski back when I’d come back to work,” he said.

Grizzly Gulch, Wasatch Mountains: Alta, Utah - Photo Credit: Riley Fotis

While staying at Alta, Riley spent time with extremely talented skiers, many of which went on to the professional circuit. This gave Riley the opportunity to get completely immersed into the skiing culture, sharpening his skills alongside people who grew up with the sport and had put it at the pinnacle of their lives. This meant that the bar for good skiing at the resort was extremely high, but it is also what created a community of fiercely passionate skiers who were invested in each other’s progress and unique skill. It was a world where the social culture was intertwined with how well people performed on the mountain, and the best skiers were the most recognized and respected for it. He recalls seeing people often standing at the bottom of the mountain when they weren’t skiing themselves, looking up and cheering as other locals soared out from behind dense trees and through fresh snow.

Wasatch Mountains: Alta, Utah - Photo Credit: Riley Fotis

Riley also picked up backcountry skiing, which involves hiking up a mountain oneself without the aid of a ski lift. To do this, skiers put special “skins” on the bottom of their skis that prevent them from sliding backwards. This allows them to walk up the mountain without having to take their skis on and off. The mountains chosen for backcountry skiing are typically not ones used for commercial skiing, and are much more secretive and remote. This means that the trails are more unique, often untouched by other skiers or resort employees who purposely build jumps and carve paths into the mountain. Instead, backcountry skiers get the experience of skiing down fresh snow on a more unique path, and since few people know about these hidden locations, they tend to have the entire mountain to themselves.

Backcountry skiing became one of Riley’s favorite outdoor ventures, as he was able to integrate his hobby with his love of mountain hiking, all while exploring gorgeous scenery. This made for an experience that was completely different from what he was used to at the lodge, and required much more expertise and understanding of the land.

“You’re going into terrain where there’s no ski patrol and no avalanche control, so if you go in the wrong place or you don’t do your homework, you could get caught in an avalanche,” he said.

Wasatch Mountains: Alta, Utah - Photo Credit: Riley Fotis

Riley did indeed do his homework, taking a class with the local avalanche center and reading books on the subject before approaching the mountain with friends. He advises readers to do the same if they are considering this type of skiing - it was worth it and even fun, he said. The class gave him the opportunity to practice with professionals, and to grow his knowledge base and confidence enough to continue backcountry skiing well after leaving Utah.

Mount Superior: Alta, Utah - Photo Credit: Riley Fotis

Not all of the people Riley met in Utah were completely wrapped up in skiing, and many of them began sharing stories about their wildland firefighting jobs they held during the skiing off-seasons. And with the season coming to a close and a new potential adventure budding at his fingertips, he was inspired to apply for the job himself. The road to actually landing a job was rocky, however, as Riley was rejected at first. In the winter he applied again, this time “barely getting a job” due to some unexpected understaffing. So Riley said goodbye to the mountain and followed his friends to Alturas, California, where he was hired by a Fuels Crew, specializing in removing flammable items around a fire that could potentially “fuel” it and cause it to spread. Fuels include shrubs, dry grass, and timber.

Fighting Fires: Alturas, California - Photo Credit: Riley Fotis

California in Spring and Summer 2019 could not have been any different from the winter chill of Alta, as the dry climate not only cast a heatwave over the entire state but also caused several large scale fires that year. As a new firefighter, Riley had to adapt quickly to the hard work of fighting persistent fires, as well as the long hours that came with it.

“Right at the beginning, everything was catching on fire so we kept getting called in,” he said. “Everyone was quite beat by the end.”

Fighting Fires: Alturas, California - Photo Credit: Riley Fotis

He found himself working sixteen-hour shifts for two-week periods at a time, with only two days off in between. Even with this exhausting schedule, the unpredictable nature of forest fires meant he was always on call and sometimes had to work shifts as long as 32 hours to ensure that fires were put out properly.

The job involved cutting down trees, bushes, and anything flammable on land in order to contain a fire, to create a barrier or “control line” that would stop fire from spreading. Many times, these fires occurred on mountains and Riley and his team would have to climb hundreds of feet in elevation through burning blazes to make sure everything was cut down and unable to burn.

Forest Fire: Alturas, California - Photo Credit: Riley Fotis

Sadly, all good trips must come to an end and as the season of Riley’s firefighting was coming to a close, so were his Summer adventures. It was August - It was time for college... but not before one last road trip back to his hometown of Washington D.C. Riley took his white Subaru Forester across the U.S., often sleeping in his car at truck stops and stopping at places like Arches National Park and Colorado Springs before coming home. One-stop he made was the Bonneville Salt Flats, a desert in Utah known for flat and wide-open spaces that are often used for drag racing.

“I figured out how fast my Subaru Forester would go, and then I figured out if I could do donuts in my Subaru Forester - which I couldn’t,” he said. “It made a lot of squeaky noises and it melted the little rear mud flap things a little bit. The car is fine now [but] I did not tell my parents that.”

Bonneville Salt Flats: Utah-Nevada Border - Photo Credit: Riley Fotis

Riley finally returned home in August, just in time to start pursuing a physics degree at the University of Pennsylvania. He now spends much of his time teaching himself how to play piano, cooking dinner for his roommates, and doing homework. He still spends time outdoors and skis at a local park near his house, even getting his picture in the news for skiing in Philadelphia on the first snow day of 2021, but he hasn’t traveled on a wider scale since returning home. Still, the memories stick with him as he navigates college life and decides on the next adventure.

“I knew I wanted to ski a lot so I did it. Then I met people and I knew I wanted to fight fires and I did it,” he said. “It's all been like the best years of my life. Now I’m trying to figure out what I want to do next.”


Pathloom Intern Justine Imburgio majors in Secondary Education and English at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. Look for more of Justine's writing in the Pathloom blog in the coming weeks!


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