By Ashley Peterson
Although this is not my typical article exploring 14ers or taking you along on my state highpoints journey, I decided to stay on brand with a recreation focus and write about a small business in Gunnison that features some of my favorite people, who also spend much of their spare time outdoors. Andy Sovick moved to the Gunnison Valley in 2005 and went on to found Beacon Guidebooks in 2013. Due to the company’s growing popularity, his wife, Gail, has taken up a role with the business.
Beacon Guidebooks publishes backcountry ski guidebooks (or ski atlases as he likes to call them), as well as in-depth maps with labeled routes and data content on the Rakkup app, designed to provide information to backcountry skiers and climbers. Currently, most of Beacon’s books are written for Colorado or Washington, but the Beacon Guidebooks team has goals for expansion and projects in other states and countries, such as Argentina, in the works.
Andy didn’t set out to be a publisher; he studied the Humanities in college and grew up shredding the slopes of Colorado. While doing so, he recognized the need for a good guide to Crested Butte’s best backcountry lines. When he wrote and published this first guidebook book in 2013, writing on the side while working construction full-time, he didn’t realize the snowball effect he had just set in motion.
In 2014, Andy published a ski atlas for the Silverton area and subsequently received a phone call from a mountain guide in Seattle that asked him if he would publish a book that the guide himself had just written. Andy was taken aback, he didn’t consider himself a publisher, he wasn’t even sure exactly what that entailed at the time.
Yet Andy had always been an entrepreneur at heart, bouncing around big ideas in his brain, and he saw that guidebook publishing could be a niche well-suited for his talents and interests. So, he quit his job in construction and set off on a new career as a publisher.
Although he doesn’t write the books anymore, Andy continues to facilitate the creation and publishing of his own brand of backcountry ski atlases and is involved every step of the way. Nowadays, guides and recreationists who have been skiing in an area for so long that they know it better than the back of their own gloved hand approach Andy with their book ideas, and he helps make them a reality. Andy provides the template and a task list, then once they’ve completed the content editing together, the pages are sent to graphic designers and eventually off to the printers in Denver.
Once the books are printed, Beacon maintains a couple of different sales channels. They sell wholesale to brick-and-mortar stores like the Alpineer in CB and All Sports Replay here in Gunnison, and also to big recreation retail chains like REI. They also sell directly through their website and on the online giant Amazon, but their wholesale business makes up the bulk of their total sales. Most of their customers are on the younger side, between the ages of 22 and 36, but Beacon has a book in print for everyone.
Take their Light Tours guide, which has become a huge seller. The book is intended for novice backcountry skiers just getting their footing in a discipline that can often proves difficult to enter safely. Many adventurers that are beginners to the world of backcountry skiing buy the requisite gear and then head out to the resort to gain experience safely, but that can quickly get old. For these folks, the Light Tours guide can serve as the gateway beyond the resort and into the great outdoors.
The Light Tours atlas is full of easily accessible tours, making it well-suited for the many new backcountry skiers who are aiming to avoid avalanche terrain. Historically, there is limited information on routes geared for entry-level skiers because many guidebooks like to target the “big and bad” lines. Instead of sticking with this trend, Light Tours has laid out specific routes intended to promote safety and fun so newcomers can learn the tricks on easier slopes until they’re comfortable enough to try riskier terrain.
Speaking of steeper, sketchier slopes, Beacon has published an incredibly informative Search and Rescue book written by Alexis Alloway, an avalanche safety instructor. This book is widely used by SAR teams, ski patrols, and guide organizations; but regular people with some knowledge of wilderness rescue buy it too as a reference book that is lightweight enough to operate as an effective field guide. It is currently sold throughout the U.S, Europe and Canada! This is a really useful tool and is small enough to take in your pack in case of any emergency.
On the topic of risky business, when I asked what the hardest part of owning Beacon Guidebooks is, Gail said that for her, it’s the risk associated with the many upfront costs of book publishing, coupled with the uncertainty of book sales. Spoken like a true dirtbag, Andy proclaimed that the risk is part of what gets him up in the morning. It’s not difficult to see that their opposing viewpoints on risk cultivate a healthy balance that ensures the business continues to thrive in an uncertain world.
Luckily for them, their business doesn’t really have any direct competitors. There are other guidebook makers, but they make more traditional books, not the atlases complete with the easy-to-understand visuals Beacon has become renowned for. Other companies produce chapter books that consumers typically read before they hit the trail; Beacon makes atlases that accompany you on your backcountry journey.
Beacon’s books are small enough to fit in your pack, are typically spiralbound for easy maneuvering, and have incredible drone photos of each mountain face complete with clearly labeled run lines. Andy’s style is incredibly user-friendly, and a key reason that Beacon Guidebooks has cultivated a loyal customer base.
Along with the guidebooks, each area also has a waterproof pocket-sized map that can be purchased to form an area set. Books typically run between $25-$30 and maps go for around $20. The two products complement each other perfectly. The atlas provides route descriptions and more specific details, while the map shows a broader scale of the lay of the land to help users find their bearings.
From the Mt. Baker book
For Beacon Guidebooks, seasonality is a key factor in their business, as the bulk of their product line is predominantly used in the snowy months. Fall and winter are when most of their books sell best, but over the summer is when the creative process and labor really come together. Andy and Gail are also big river runners, and the pair have recently expanded into producing river guidebooks with the aim to keep books flying off the shelves year-round.
As more and more people find solace in adventure outdoors, the demand only increases for informative outdoor products like these. And there’s no shortage of work to be had: the duo currently have 20 projects lined up over the next 18 months! While Beacon Guidebooks is expanding the scope of its operations, the heart of the enterprise is still here in Colorado, and Andy and Gail reside locally in Gunnison.
Ultimately, Beacon is a purpose-built company. The Sovicks are not looking to strike it rich; they just want to help get people outdoors in an adventurous and safe manner. I recommend them and their books to everyone, including to all our Top o’ the World readers.
Grab a book at All Sports Replay and say hey to Andy next time you’re out skiing in the backcountry, as he’s sure to be out there too!