Redefining What It Means to Be a Professional Skier

Posted by Anneka Williams on

From skiing big lines to focusing on impact-oriented entrepreneurialism, Thor Reztlaff is redefining what it means to be a professional skier. Along the way, he shares what keeps him grounded and how he views skiing as a way to cultivate creativity. 

A closeup image of Thor carrying his skis and backpack up a grassy slope.

At age 19, Thor Retzlaff found himself stranded in Wallowa County, Oregon, staying with his college roommate’s mom and waiting for his spring break to end. While waiting tables at a local restaurant, Thor overheard a conversation between strangers about using falcons to protect crops. His curiosity piqued, Thor was on the doorstep the next day asking for a job. For the next three years, Thor spent his college summers living in an RV on a 500 acre blueberry farm working 7 days a week with falcons. This involved literally flying the birds off his arm, hand-feeding the falcons, and even sleeping in the same room as them. It was about as intimate a relationship as it can get with falcons. 

Thor with a falcon on his shoulder during his summer using the birds to protect crops.

“I like to think of this moment as my coming into manhood,” Thor explains, “I learned how to watch nature. And I ultimately walked away with a deeper understanding of how we as humans can better collaborate with natural systems rather than exploit them.” 

“At around the same time I was flying falcons, I also became obsessed with the concept of entrepreneurship, or in other words, how people can make ideas a reality. More specifically, I found that media and purposeful storytelling could ignite social impact,” explains Thor. Rather than look for an existing organization to grow this interest with, he decided to co-found a production media company along with his older brother Stein Retzlaff, and best friends Erich Roepke and Taylor Zehren. Intrepid – focused on ‘adventures with purpose’ – was launched at the end of Thor’s college career. Traveling to far flung places like Svalbard, Norway and Antarctica fueled Thor’s craving for adventure, and documenting stories of different people along the way allowed him to use storytelling in a way that had a tangible impact on the communities he was interacting with. A critical point in Thor’s professional journey occurred when Erich and Stein – two members of the Intrepid team – noted the backcountry waste management issues at Everest Base Camp. 

“It was on Mount Everest that our team came face to face with the 26,000 pounds of mismanaged human waste that ends up in these open pits every climbing season,” Thor reflects. 

A solution-oriented creative at heart, identifying human waste management as a massive problem catalyzed Thor and his team to found his next company. Do Good Shit is a non-profit focused on good stewardship in the outdoors – reducing the harmful impacts of human waste on the environment and finding more appropriate human waste management solutions in sensitive environments. Thor dove wholeheartedly into launching Do Good Shit, which included a “toilet tour” in 2019 where Taylor and Thor road-tripped around the West Coast of the U.S. taking apart toilets to learn how they work (and mostly how they don’t). 

“Taking apart toilets covered in human feces is one of the most humbling things ever,” Thor reminisces, a big grin spreading across his face. 

While diving deep into waste management (literally), Thor learned more about the process of waste separation, which prevents the formation of smelly sludge that is difficult to manage. His curiosity once again piqued and seeing no time to waste, Thor co-founded Wasted*, a benefit corporation building the circular sanitation economy. “We are reimagining the portable sanitation industry by introducing source separation technology that enables us to upcycle the nutrients in our waste streams,” he explains. Thor is currently running Wasted* out of Burlington, Vermont and recently won LaunchVT’s Demo Night which recognizes promising new start-ups. 

Thor winning a check from LaunchVT’s Demo Night for his promising new start-up, Wasted*.

Amidst the chaos of managing and growing three start-up organizations, Thor grounds himself in authenticity: “Balancing everything is a matter of maintaining your internal compass. We’re not here to do fake sh*t. You have to ask: what makes you come alive?”

For Thor, the answer to that question is skiing. Originally from Truckee, CA Thor describes skiing as the “lifeblood of [his] family.” As he grew up, his skiing evolved from racing, to park skiing, to backcountry expeditions – now his primary focus.

“So much of my creativity, endurance, and ambition to go do things is the result of being on skis,” Thor explains. “Skiing is who I am.” 

Thor hitting a jump on his Renoun Citadel 106 skis with big ice waterfalls in the background.

It’s not always easy to know what being your authentic self looks like. A touchstone for Thor in keeping himself grounded in his own authenticity is discomfort:

“Climbing a mountain, sleeping outside in the cold, getting uncomfortable…going into the depths of inconvenience is a way to open yourself up to why sh*t matters to you.”

Thor originally connected with Renoun when he tuned a friend’s pair of Renoun skis. Photos from this random ski tuning evening ended up in the right hands and Thor was picked up by Renoun in Spring 2021. “[Renoun has] enabled me to be a professional skier of sorts,” Thor says. 

A collage of Thor tuning Renoun skis and skiing down from the summit of Mt. Hood.

We often think of professional skiers as the sponsored athletes receiving free gear and landing support for big, publicized expeditions. But for Thor, being a professional skier is more integrated with his entrepreneurial side. “Picture a Venn diagram,” he explains. “One circle represents the professional / entrepreneurial side of my life. The other circle represents skiing and the creativity it generates and fun it brings to my life.”

A venn diagram with professional on one side, skier on the other, and Thor in the middle.

Thor’s roles as professional and athlete are not mutually exclusive, but rather, synergistically dependent on one another.  Skiing serves as a source of creativity, inspiration, and sense of self that motivates Thor to be a courageous, hard-working entrepreneur. On the flip side, being a professional helps Thor channel what he learns from ski adventures into businesses that work to catalyze positive change. 

“If I don’t go out and do an outrageous ski adventure 3-4 times per year, pursuing entrepreneurial endeavors becomes difficult.,” Thor declares, “And it’s through my skiing adventures that I’ve found a way to maintain a sustainable balance in my life. One of the best parts about your passion being your purpose, and your purpose being your passion, is finding issues that I can’t help but want to figure out. I’m fortunate to have founded various organizations that enable me to address some of these problems.”  

Thor doing a backflip while skiing in the mossy Vermont woods.

At 26, Thor has already founded three organizations and tackled some big mountain adventures, including ski descents of Corcovado (Chile), Yanapaccha  (Peru), the Atomfjella (Svalbard), and a ski trip in Antarctica, among many others. The skiing stoke and creative entrepreneurialism that drive Thor’s particular alchemy of passions is redefining what it means to be a professional skier. But while Thor has already carved out space for himself as an entrepreneur and a skier, he’s also just getting started. His curiosity will no doubt lead to even more spontaneous and exciting adventures of all kinds ahead. For now, though, he’s excited to grow Wasted* from Burlington, Vermont and to explore all the backcountry adventures the Northeast has to offer. You can find him on Instagram: @thorretzlaff. 

Thor bootpacking out along a snow-covered ridgeline with his skis on his backpack.

Author Bio

Anneka Williams is a writer, climate scientist, and type-two fun connoisseur from Vermont’s Mad River Valley.