Photo: Courtesy of First Decent

Brad Ludden adjusts the playlist on his iPhone, drops it back into his parka, and then slides off a small cornice at the top of Genghis Khan in China Bowl at Vail Resorts. Like a big-wave surfer on a 50-foot face, he slices down the long, steep slope, so buoyant on his skis that they seem barely to touch the snow.

Buoyancy comes naturally to Ludden. By 20, he was a -veteran pro kayaker with more than 50 first river descents in 30 countries to his name, a coveted Nike sponsorship, and an Outside magazine cover. When an invitation arrived to become a Vail athlete ambassador, he said he’d leave Montana on one condition: if Vail would help him launch a foundation he’d been noodling for two years. Vail accepted, and soon First Descents was offering its initial learn-to-kayak program for young adults with cancer.

“We would not have been able to affect so many lives over the past 10 years without Vail behind us,” says Ludden. “There is a very big awareness of the importance of community at Vail Resorts. The spirit of giving is real. There’s not a lot of disconnect between what they say and what they do.”

Vail Resorts? That mountain refuge of corporate chieftains; that publicly traded corporate behemoth with vast real estate holdings in Colorado, California, and the Caribbean; the largest employer on Colorado’s western slope, and the state’s fourth-largest company?

That’s the one. In the spirit of the incisive business credo, “doing well to do good,” in the past five years Vail Resorts has developed a company program, Echo, which defines environmental stewardship, philanthropy, and employee volunteerism as key corporate values.

“Giving is part of our DNA,” says Nicky DeFord, Vail Resorts’ Senior Manager of Charitable Giving, perhaps the only managerial position in the ski industry dedicated solely to philanthropy. “Youth development and environmental sustainability go to the core of who we are. For our product to be sustainable, we need a healthy environment. And for the communities we live in to thrive, we need to nurture young people who excel and become committed citizens.”

“Since many guests care about things like corporate social responsibility, it may help business to some degree,” DeFord says. “But the real reason for the program, as our CEO Rob Katz keeps repeating, is that it’s the right thing to do.”