Carbondale’s Van Horn nearly clinches North American uphill record
Aspen Times Column
Carbondale resident Sean Van Horn fell a mere 800 feet shy of breaking the North American record for most feet skied uphill in a 24-hour period on Sunday and Monday.
The record stands at 61,200 feet, which equates to between 39 and 40 laps up Aspen’s Buttermilk Ski Area. Van Horn uphilled 60,400 feet between 11 a.m. Sunday and 11 a.m. Monday.
His performance earned him the record for the best ascent numbers at 9,900 feet above sea level at the top of Buttermilk and the second-place title.
The event, “24 Hours Of Vert For Aspen Strong,” raised funds for a local organization promoting mental health awareness and resource sharing from Parachute to Aspen. Van Horn’s GoFundMe page had raised $8,209 as of Tuesday morning.
“Although Sean fell a few hundred feet short of the record, the example he is setting for strong men throughout our area is an invaluable gift to our valley,” said Rodney O’Byrne, communications director for Aspen Strong. “I hope the exposure this event has brought to national outdoor brands encourages them to join this conversation so important in saving the lives of the athletes who live and survive in our mountains.”
Van Horn struggled with depression, addictive behavior and an eating disorder in his younger years.
After hopping on his bicycle in his teens, he discovered the world of endurance sports, which helped him combat his mental health issues. When a back injury derailed a professional cycling career, he said he was left to confront the reality that athletics alone are not fully adequate.
“While endurance sports can be a saving grace, it’s not enough when you’re talking about mental health issues,” Van Horn said before his record attempt. “You have to deal with the underlying issues.”
Now, at age 32, Van Horn wants to spread the message that it’s OK to seek help to deal with mental maladies, especially in the Roaring Fork Valley, which suffers from a suicide rate that mental health professionals find disturbing.
“It’s important that, as a society, we do our best to support people struggling with these issues,” Van Horn said. “Talking about these things openly and honestly helps people realize that a lot of people struggle with this. It’s OK. There’s nothing wrong with them. They just need a little help to overcome those issues.”
O’Byrne emphasized the importance of reaching at-risk individuals in the valley’s seemingly healthy, outdoorsy community.
“We’re looking at hitting people from the bottom up, or from the top down,” he said. “The bottom up are people that are totally lost and don’t really know that mental health is even a thing, or they have such shame and stigma around it that it’s this old school way of thinking that there’s something wrong with you.”
In preparation for Sunday’s uphilling extravaganza, Van Horn completed the Power of Four endurance ski race and performed back-to-back days of 40,000-feet verticals.
Friends and family (including his wife, Kylee Van Horn, a professional dietitian) were present at the bottom of Buttermilk’s Tiehack area to administer food and water and speed up his transitions. Friends took turns accompanying him for a lap or two to offer emotional support.
Although he did not beat the standing record, Van Horn considers his performance a triumph.
“While I did fail to achieve my goal of breaking the North American record for vertical by a few hundred feet, I can’t help but feel that this effort was a huge success,” Van Horn wrote on his Facebook page afterward. “Creating this event has allowed me to be open and honest about my struggles with mental health issues in a way that I haven’t been comfortable doing before. The feedback I have gotten has been nothing short of remarkable.”
Kylee added, “I felt like he went through all of the human emotions that we all experience throughout our lives, but in one 24-hour period. It was difficult in the low points seeing someone you care about going through so much pain.”
She described how her husband ran into a mental and physical roadblock about halfway through the event, requiring him to take a break and relax with breathing exercises.
With support and rejuvenation, “it was incredible to be able to see him bounce back from that and then have this extreme high around 3 in the morning,” Kylee said.
“He went from an extreme low to an extreme high. It was almost a metaphor for the whole purpose of the event, to promote mental health resources — we all go through those highs and lows ourselves, and when we’re at those lows being able to reach out and ask for help,” she said.
In addition to Van Horn’s integral team of 15, both he and his wife were astounded by the outpouring of community support.
“It brought together the community in a way I did not realize,” Kylee said. “There are so many people that offered up support, even people we didn’t know. I was blown away by the community support.”
Donations to Aspen Strong can still be made at GoFundMe.com/24-hours-of-vert-for-aspen-strong.
Justin Patrick is a freelance writer living in Carbondale.
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