Derek Frei, Software Engineer on Backcountry Skiing

Last July, I packed my skis to the top of Mount Timpanogos to ski down the permanent snowfield, mostly for the novelty of skiing in the heat of the summer. After making it to the top of the mountain with my brother, I had to hike across a narrow ridge that dropped off thousands of feet on both sides. I ran into a herd of mountain goats that did not seem to like my company. Shortly afterwards, I realized that I had to descend a small cliff of about 15 feet, and it was the type of cliff where you would not want to fall because you would keep falling for a very long time. It ended up being fine, but it certainly made me pause to examine my mortality for a few brief moments.

Hi, my name is Derek Frei, and I am an software engineer currently living in Lehi, UT, where I work as a back-end software engineer for a mid-sized software-as-a-service company. I am a lover of the outdoors and the arts. I grew up near Seattle, Washington, and I spent my childhood exploring the Olympic National Park, Mt. Rainier, and the Cascade mountains with my dad and friends. I graduated from the University of Washington in electrical engineering in 2011, and moved to Utah for a job opportunity in 2015. I am married and have two daughters, ages 5 and 1. My decision to go into technology started with biology in high school, then shifted to chemistry, electronics, computer hardware, and ultimately software development. If something seems like magic, I like to dig in and see what is behind the curtain.

Outside of work, I pursue several different recreational activities, including hiking, skiing, and the violin. The greater Salt Lake City area has some of the most accessible outdoor recreation in the world. I can get out of the house at 5am, summit an 11,000-foot peak, and still make it into the office for my 10am stand up meeting.

Picture by Joel Pavek

Some of my earliest memories are of me on my dad’s shoulders in Olympic National Park in Washington State. I feel at peace in the outdoors, and I also enjoy mild rushes of adrenaline. Standing on top of a mountain that I have just climbed under my own power, and then skiing back down it, are the best feelings I have experienced anywhere.

My interest in skiing began about four years ago when I had the time and the money to try it out for the first time. I have since discovered backcountry skiing, which combines the best elements of hiking (excellent conversation with friends, peace and quiet in the backcountry) with the best skiing conditions imaginable (untracked powder, huge ski lines, spectacular views). I still like to ski in-bounds with friends at my favourite Utah resorts (Brighton, Solitude, Alta, Snowbird), all of which are about 40 minutes from my house.

Being in the outdoors helps me feel anchored. Work can be stressful. Family life with two young children can be demanding. But the outdoors reminds me of the beauty that exists in the world as a gift for all. Ascending peaks makes me feel simultaneously powerful and humble. Skiing down is a cherry on top of that.

I think it allows me to maintain a positive attitude about work even when things get hard, because I have regular reminders that there is so much more to life than the technical debt built into our product, or the aggressive commitments my team has made for our upcoming release. It also helps remind me that I matter as a human, other people matter, our planet matters, and beauty matters, beyond any economic output that any of us produce at our 9-to-5 jobs.

There is an affinity to the two at times. Both require a significant amount of sheer grit. For example, a lot of people do not have the patience to experiment with neural networks or web infrastructure technologies. Similarly, a lot of people lack the patience or fitness level to ski up 12,000-foot peaks. Both activities have significant rewards waiting at the end if you are willing to put in the effort.

Another similarity is that both activities require a willingness to throw oneself at things outside of your comfort zone. When I changed jobs last year, I had worked for a few years in embedded software (my school background is in electrical engineering), but not web development. My willingness to just throw myself into something new and be willing to choke and sputter a bit has been valuable to my career growth. Similarly, when hitting a new ski line, you have to have some level of confidence that even though you do not know exactly what you are getting into, you really do have the base skillset to descend successfully. And have a lot of fun doing it.

Besides my run in with some angry mountain goats, I have had few exciting (read dangerous) experiences while hiking and skiing. One time I hauled my skis up Mount Adams in Washington State with my dad and sister. We encountered a whiteout at the false summit. My sister disappeared into the fog with another group pushing for the actual summit. The temporary discomfort of being unable to see ended up being very worthwhile, though, because shortly afterwards I enjoyed a 7,000 foot descent down the second largest volcano in the Cascade Range.

My dream is to hike and ski all over the world. At this stage in my life that is a little hard, because I have a demanding job and two small children who need their dad. But I am pretty young still, and I live in a great place to be able to ski and hike on weekday mornings and on weekends without interfering with my other responsibilities. For any new skiers and hikers I would say: stay in good physical condition, keep your weight under control, make friends with similar interests, and take plenty of ski holidays!

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