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Image: Ryan Dearth

In the summer of 2016, longtime Breckenridge banker, businessman, and ski mountaineer Mike Schilling quit his job with Valdoro Development and set in motion a career change that left even his closest friends scratching their heads. Just a few months shy of 40, Schilling put himself through the police academy in Lakewood, then took a job as a deputy with the Summit County Sheriff’s Office, fulfilling a dream he’d held in check for a decade. The move came with a “significant, significant” pay cut for Schilling, who credits his interest in police work with playing the bad guy in local training exercises. But he says his only regret is that he didn’t do it sooner. Becoming a cop was such a satisfying raison d’être that, almost simultaneously, he stepped down as president of the Summit Foundation and retired from big-line skiing, after descending such iconic routes as the Landry Line on Pyramid Peak and the Otter Body on the Grand Teton. Here, Schilling explains what it took to follow his heart, why skiing a 14er trumped the Grand, and how Summit County rewards fighters.

"I’m from Illinois. When I was in college, I took a trip out to Telluride. That was the first time I saw the mountains, and I knew right away that I wanted to live my life in a mountain town. I was a skier in blue jeans and a Starter jacket when I got here in 1999, but I was super psyched on it. I skied the resort every day I could. It felt like I was living in Disney World.

When I decided to become a cop, I was totally sick of the business world. I had a great job and infinite flexibility—I could ski or ride my bike any time I wanted—but you’re always looking for the next deal, and finally everything just got dull. There were no more ups and downs, it was just a flatline or a down.

I didn’t just want to be a cop. I wanted to be a cop here, and only here, serving with others who have specifically chosen this community. 

I’ve been a deputy for a year now, and I still get a huge rush out of putting on my uniform and going to work. Every call spikes the heart rate. I was told in training that that should never go away.

I got into ski mountaineering around 2008. The Landry Line is the one I’m most proud of. It’s a more pure descent than the Otter Body because you’re on snow the whole time, and there are no rappels. And it’s a 4,000-foot sustained fall line, which is really rare.

The day before Teague Holmes and I did it in 2013, I spent three hours up in the Lake Chutes [at Breckenridge] on my littlest skis with the heaviest pack I could come up with—gallons of water in the pack to make it as hard as possible. I skied laps through the rockiest, iciest stuff just to get my legs under me, because on the Landry it’s over 60 degrees at the top, with cliffs under you. The first 500 feet is crucial.

I’ve stepped back from that stuff because I just think it’s risky. I’ve been really fortunate that I haven’t lost any close friends to avalanches. I’ve lost plenty of friends of friends or people I knew from a distance, but I’d say to myself, man, if I lost a friend in an avalanche, I’d reel it in more. Then I started thinking, why do I have to wait for one of my friends or partners to die to be done? Maybe I should just be done. I still love to be in the mountains as often as I can, but now that’s once a week instead of five or six days a week.

Summit will always be a challenging place to live. The reality is that some people will choose to stay, and some will decide the compromises are too great, and they’ll choose to go. And that’s fine. I don’t think it should be our community mission to make it so that everybody can be here all the time.

You have to be willing to be patient, work hard, contribute to the community, and fight for it. If you don’t want to fight for it, there are suburbs everywhere. But if you want to fight for it, this place rewards fighters."

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