Profile: Eric Phillips

By Dawne Belloise

Although he’s never skied as a participant in the Grand Traverse, Eric Phillips is certainly familiar with the event as both a photographer and a member of search and rescue teams. In 2022, he was hired to help film a movie about the iconic annual event that sees pairs of skiers set out across the wild terrain of Crested Butte’s backcountry, over Star Pass headed to Aspen in the deep winter snow. As part of the event safety team, Eric heads into the backcountry on the Aspen side five days before the event to set up the race course and radio communications. He recently joined up with the CB Search and Rescue Team. As a professional photographer, he’s learned to bring more battery packs and heat packs to keep those camera batteries warm for the entirety of the event.

Eric grew up in the greater Chicago suburbs with his twin sister, Carrie Phillips, who also lives in the valley. As twins, Eric recalls that they shared everything from birthdays to friends so that by middle school, they grew tired of being around each other constantly and started to drift apart. “My parents tried to have separate events for us, especially on our birthdays. In high school, we had a lot of classes together and we started to get really close again. Knowing that someone has the same lived experiences that you have your whole life is really cool,” he admits.

In high school, Eric spent his time on skateboards and BMX bikes. “Mountain biking is very different than what it looks like here in CB,” he says of his suburbs. He also achieved Eagle Scout status as a Boy Scout. “I’d spend my summers working as a small boat sailing instructor and eventually the camp ranger for a Boy Scout camp in Wisconsin where I had gone as an 11-year-old kid. By the time I was 13, I was allowed to work there,” which he did until he was 21. Eric had also done some backpacking trips in New Mexico with the Boy Scouts when he was 14 and 17. “I loved hiking in the mountains and the outdoors, and it was a big spark for me to explore the outdoors more.”

After graduation in 2014, Eric’s family packed up and left the suburbs to move to the family cabin on Silver Lake, Wisconsin. He laughs about having a hallway for a bedroom which his sister had to walk through to get to her bedroom. With his love of teaching in the outdoors, 18-year-old Eric got a job as a snowboard instructor at a ski resort five minutes from the family cabin. “I started snowboarding when I was 11. The resort was a 200-foot repurposed garbage dump hill called Wilmont,” which is now owned by Vail Resorts. From there, Eric enrolled at Gateway Technical College for his general education requirements, choosing Environmental Science as his major, “Because I thought it was the best of the options available at that college.” 

After his first year, he transferred to the University of Wisconsin in Green Bay as a sophomore. He was a snowboard instructor at Granite Peak in Wausau, Wisconsin, and in 2015 he received his level 1 instruction certification from the American Association of Snowboard Instructors (AASI). The resort was about 90 miles from his college so every Friday he’d head out to teach snowboarding for the weekend and then make that long trip back to college on Sunday night. “I realized then that I cared more about instructing and learning about instructing snowboarding than I did about the college courses I was taking. That’s when I knew I needed to make a change about what I was doing because I didn’t want to be stuck in Wisconsin or a lab all day.”

Eric decided to take a semester off, intending to enroll in the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), but he discovered that he could get college credit for those types of courses at Western Colorado University (WCU). “I had no idea where Gunnison or WCU was,” but he applied immediately, signing up for a Recreation and Outdoor Education curriculum. “I remember I Googled Gunnison and wondered if there was a ski area close by,” then he saw Crested Butte on the map. “I was thinking, man, I hope it’s a good ski area.” 

Eric’s parents dropped him off at WCU for the winter of 2015/16. “The first day at Western, we were all a bunch of transfer students playing ultimate frisbee and we were all out of breath and had to chop the field size in half,” he laughs at the change in elevation. “But I felt like I had found my people. I climbed Mt. Princeton the first week I was here. In Wisconsin, I was at the top of the outdoor totem pole as the most outdoorsy person in all of my friend groups. Moving to Gunnison, I was at the bottom of the pole. I had so much to learn, and I was so excited.” 

Eric’s new friends decided to drive over Kebler Pass to Paonia that first week. “I remember driving through downtown Crested Butte and thinking it was really cool but I didn’t see the mountain because it was snowing hard that day.” He was hired as a snowboard instructor for CBMR but couldn’t ride until he went through training, which started December 15. Eric’s first day with the trainer and first run was a rope drop on Crystal. “I had my mind blown at so much snow, hucking myself off the cat track, and the instructor came over and said I had to calm down because I was too loose jumping off stuff. But I was losing my mind! I had never skied powder and it was my first ever run riding out west. I didn’t know what to do with myself in powder,” he grins at the memory.

Things were going really well for Eric at WCU and he joined the Western Mountain Rescue Team there. “It’s a collegiate club that WCU has. It’s also the only nationally accredited collegiate search and rescue team in the U.S. I started to learn many things about the mountains and outdoors and I was so stoked to learn.” 

Cleverly, Eric stacked all his classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays so he could teach snowboarding the other five days of the week. He did a ton of hiking and camping, bought his first real mountain bike and started exploring the area. He also bought his first splitboard that year. “It opened up a whole new world. I was learning how to climb the mountains and ride down. I felt like I was living my childhood dream because I had always watched tons of snowboard movies and I thought it was so unattainable and suddenly I was doing it.” He graduated from Western in 2018.

Eric was completely smitten with the valley’s mountains and viewscapes and wanted to capture those images in photos. His iPhone camera just wasn’t cutting it so he bought his first DSLR camera. “I went headfirst into photography. I was taking hundreds of photos every day.” He had stopped teaching snowboarding when Vail Resorts bought the ski area. “I wasn’t making enough money so I switched to serving food at various restaurants in town and focused on photography.”

He then landed a job as photographer for the WCU marketing department. He was sent out to photograph the area for the college’s social media accounts and school events for recruitment and marketing. After graduation, Eric thought he might do mountain guiding or continue pursuing photography. “I ended up going out on a limb to pursue photography,” and was hired to shoot for Travel Crested Butte. “It was an incredible experience and I got to take tons of photos of CB.” 

Eric moved from Gunnison to live with his girlfriend Morgan Tilton in CB just before COVID hit and CBMR closed down the resort. His photography for Travel CB resumed in the summer of 2020. “I eventually left Travel CB to pursue my own photography business, Phillips Photo, in the spring of 2021. I had absolutely no clients and decided to go freelance.” He began shooting properties for real estate agency LIV Sotheby’s, and for other various clients throughout the valley. “It’s definitely been a grind for these past three years but I do make enough to survive and still live in CB. I have a bunch of local clients that I do various photo and video work for.” 

Eric wanted to give back to the community and decided that joining the Gunnison County Planning Commission would be a good way to contribute. The board regulates affordable housing and land use in Gunnison County. “Everyone was talking about housing issues and affordable housing within the valley and I wanted to get involved to try to make a difference.” He was appointed in December 2023 as a one-year alternate and absolutely loved it. “After that first year they asked me to reapply for the full-time three-year position.” Eric appreciates the concerns of people in the valley, “There are a lot of concerned citizens and I try to listen to everybody’s opinion.”

 As for Eric’s housing, his girlfriend was recently able to buy a condo and he hopes to continue volunteering and get more politically involved “to help shape the future of the valley.” His plans for photography are to establish a guiding service in the valley, “So I can show people how to take photos responsibly without trampling the wildflowers and without harming the environment. I have some things in the works and hopefully I can start guiding this year,” he says. 

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