Opinion » Alta States

Alta States

For the sheer love of life

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He doesn’t live at Whistler. But in many ways, he still considers this place his spiritual home. “I live as close to Whistler as I possibly can while still being connected to my office in Vancouver,” says Al Safrata, the long-time president of Marmot Canada. “And to me, that has to be one of the best working deals in the country.”

No question. From his sea-view residence just outside of Horseshoe Bay, Safrata finds himself a little more than an hour’s drive away from the lifts at Creekside. And given that Al deals in the outdoor sporting apparel business — with a particular emphasis on multi-purpose high-performance gear — he can easily justify such mountain excursions as “research and development”. Which he does on a regular basis. “I can work from home for most of the morning, jump in my car and get to Whistler in time for a full afternoon of skiing,” says the 51-year-old self-described “funhog”. And then he laughs — an infectious laugh that is extremely hard to resist. “So why not do it?”

“Look,” he adds, “I still consider myself something of a ski bum. I’m a Snoweater through and through. Many years ago I made a choice to get involved in this business so that I could still have fun playing in the mountains. I’d be crazy not to take advantage of my situation.”

Indeed. But, says Safrata, it goes even further than that. “Life is just too short to bury yourself in a job you despise. For me, it’s all about valuing my day-to-day experiences. In other words, I’d rather count the number of smiles I have in a day than the number of dollars I make…”

And he pretty much lives by that tenet. “My goal is to appreciate every moment to its fullest,” he says. “And if that means taking some time off work to head off for a hike into the backcountry with friends, then so be it. It’s OK to switch it up from time-to-time — to get unstuck from routine and do something creative for a change.” He laughs again. “After all, that’s what keeps us excited about waking up in the morning. Don’t you think?”

Safrata grew up in Toronto. His family belonged to Collingwood’s prestigious Craigleith Ski Club — one of the great ski racing powerhouses of Southern Ontario in the 1960s and ’70s. Not surprisingly, Al and his younger brother Rob were right in the thick of it.

Along with the Podborskis and the Vogrins and the Warlls (and a host of other Craigleith families), the Safrata brothers dominated the junior ski-racing scene in the province during those years. And Al was, arguably, one of the most naturally talented in the group. “I don’t know exactly how or why,” muses Al. “But I grew up skiing surrounded by a great group of people. And I truly mean great.” While he didn’t pursue the sport as far as did his national-team alumnus brother or his World Cup champion friend, Steve Pod, he believes those early ski-racing years had a profound influence on the rest of his life.

“You know, being a ski-racer guy is a pretty cool way of life. Travelling the world. Seeing beautiful mountains. Visiting legendary resorts. The outdoors, majestic peaks, fresh air — I realized quite early on just how lucky I was to be involved with such a sport.” Another chuckle. “In fact, it sort of spoiled me for any other kind of life…”

A quick smile dances across his face. “You see — skiing makes me ‘vibrate’,” he explains. “You know what I mean? It holds an essence of fun for me that is so pure and so simple that it is virtually impossible for me to resist it. As we get older, it gets harder and harder for us to get in touch with that essence. You just have to look at kids to realize it — they just don’t carry all that baggage that we do. That’s why I love skiing so much. It allows me to be a kid all over again. It helps me to realize just how unimportant most of my BUSYness issues really are…”

Safrata likes to use an amusement park metaphor to illustrate his point. “The mountains provide me with my own personal roller-coaster ride,” he explains. “And it’s the only roller-coaster ride I know that I can totally control myself. To max out on the G-forces, to grit my teeth against the weather, to groove on the beauty of my surroundings — it’s all part of the ride. I’m going fast, almost like low-level flying. I’m banking off this, and jumping off that. Veering off the piste to check out a little powder here. Or simply putting my skis on edge and feeling the power of a perfectly carved turn there. And nobody else can tell me how to do it. I’m fully in charge of my own ride.”

He pauses for a moment to catch his breath. His eyes are shining now — almost as if he’s riding that roller coaster while we speak. It’s abundantly clear that Al is in his element here. And his near-missionary zeal is both disarming and compelling. “I continue to marvel at how much fun this snow-sliding thing really is,” he says. “And I continue to marvel at seeing all these other people enjoying themselves. Young, old, male, female — it doesn’t matter. There’s no prejudice on this roller coaster ride. Everybody gets to have fun…”

And he’s not afraid to put his money where his mouth is. “The mountains in wintertime don’t suffer fools,” he says. “So if you want to stay safe, you’ve got to know how to play on the right side of the ‘smart line.’” That’s why Safrata has devoted hundreds of volunteer hours raising awareness for the Canadian Avalanche Association. Just last week, for example, he hosted a comedy night “fun-raiser” at the GLC. “It was the culmination of a three-week publicity campaign in Whistler,” he explains. “And while we did raise over $3,000, it was way more about getting the word out about all the good things this organization does for mountain travellers. I mean, these guys kick ass!”

Safrata comes by his interest in the snow sciences honestly. Trained to become an engineer — “I completed my university years with a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics” — Al debated with himself long and hard before deciding to turn his back on his Southern Ontario roots (and expectations) in order to take a job as a sales representative for Garmont ski boots on the West Coast. “I love mountains,” he says. “Always have. Always will. Training on Kokanee Glacier as a kid, then coming out to Whistler for summer camp — I was always drawn by that special energy that the mountains exude. For me, there really was no contest when the time came to decide how I wanted to make my living. I just couldn’t imagine grinding away as an engineer for the rest of my life.”

Many years later — and many jobs later, too — Safrata now finds himself pretty much where he wants to be. “I’m in the fun business,” he says. “I get paid to play — to share my passion for the outdoors and the mountains with all sorts of people. And I see it as a one of my responsibilities to make sure that these people — my clients and customers and employees — get to experience that fun on a regular basis.” He pauses again. Laughs. “Why? Because unless I make a point of encouraging them to get outside and play, most of them just won’t find the time in their day to do it.”

He says that’s the biggest difference from his early days in the business. “It used to be that there was a lot more contact at the point of sports,” he says. “There was a lot more time spent having fun outdoors with your clients. Now it’s a lot more about dollars and cents.”

It’s a state of affairs that Al believes is totally counter-productive. “I’m constantly working on nurturing and celebrating the experiential side of the business,” he explains. “And that means getting outdoors with people and actually using the products we sell. On the one hand, it’s great for my soul, because I get to know people on a whole other level. On the other, it’s great for my product knowledge because I get to see first-hand what works and what doesn’t.” He laughs. “It’s a pretty simple equation for me — if I’m supposed to be selling outdoor fun, I better make sure I’m an expert at it.”

Although it might sound counter-intuitive at first, Safrata believes that therein lies the secret to his financial success. “I’ve discovered over the years that I can make a lot more money doing it this way than sitting at my computer and just concentrating on numbers…”

And even if that weren’t the case, he says, he’d still be way ahead of the game. “I truly believe that if I can share my daily smiles with family, friends and customers I will be much more satisfied than if I go grubbing for dollars. And to me, that’s the only bottom line that counts!”

For more information on the CAA and its affiliates, check out www.avalanche.ca.