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November 2008

For Love or Money

Does the ski bum still exist? The answer is yes and we've tracked down some of these elusive animals to prove it.

Written by David O. Williams | 0 comment

It’s amazing what grown men and women will do for powder turns.

When I was 20, I worked for $5 an hour on the grounds crew at Winter Park, rising at the crack of dawn in sub-zero temps to schlep snow and park cars. If I was lucky, the bosses would throw me a bone and let me ski a few runs in the afternoon.

I’ve been a ski bum ever since my days at Winter Park. Of the many paths one can take—patroller, instructor, groomer, guide, product rep, athlete, race coach—I chose the biggest scam of them all: “ski journalist,” a term as oxymoronic as “military intelligence.” My mom will tell you my career path cost me countless Pulitzers and a shot at writing for The New York Times. (When I was finally published by the Times, during the Kobe Bryant debacle at Cordillera, my mom was unimpressed.) I submit that such things were not meant to be. Thank God.

When I turned 40, in 2005—a father of two at the time and a nearly 15-year resident of the Vail Valley—my wife scraped together $4,000 to send me heli-skiing in the Chugach Mountains of Alaska, thereby bringing me full circle in my lifelong quest to avoid all costs the perils of the real world and embrace the risks and rewards of being a ski bum.

Yes, skiing is what really matters. The soulless, flesh-eating denizens of the media capital of the world would (and frequently do) pay small fortunes for just one week of my life. I skied 50 days at 14 different resorts in three different states as preparation for my “trip of a lifetime” to Alaska, many of them powder days most city dwellers only dream of. Eat your heart out, Times scribes.

So when I was grounded for five relentlessly-raining days in heli camp and forced to ponder the burning question of our time—What motivates the modern ski bum?—I knew I was both eminently qualified and in the right place to find all the answers.

Besides being the pinnacle of any skiing career, the heli camps of the Chugach are populated by wise snow-sporting souls who have all either pried enough cash from the tight fists ruling their home ski towns to be able to pay their own way, or they’ve figured out how to get someone else to pick up the check.

As one guide who shall remain anonymous told me, “Some people in town don’t like us because they think we’re just a bunch of rich kids up here playing with helicopters, but we’re really just a bunch of poor kids bringing rich people up here to pay for our habit.”

The point is that in Alaska, and anywhere else in the ski world, the hopes, dreams and fantasies of the cubicle-bound masses pay for the lavish though largely non-liquid lifestyles of a few lucky bastards like us.

It all comes down to how you manage to live the life you want. “If I had money, I’d just spend it going skiing or traveling,” says C.J. Ware, a 38-year-old heli-guide for Points North Heli-Adventures in Cordova and a former ski patroller at Snowmass. In the off-season he’s a designer/draftsman in a residential design firm in Tahoe City, Calif., and has also pounded a lot of nails across the West to pad his ski fund.

“I can’t tell you how many times I rode a lift with a guy who says, ‘God, so you’re here all season; you ski every day? Oh, I wish I could do what you do.’ And I say, ‘Well, why don’t you?’ And he says, ‘Oh, I’ve got the job and the family and the two houses and the kids.’

“Those families come to a big resort and spend more in a week than I probably make in a season, and yet I live right there and I ski every day,” Ware says.


If you’re a heli-guide in Alaska, you’ve reached the absolute zenith of your profession. There are guys lined up a dozen deep at every resort in the country—hell, the world for that matter—ready, willing and able to take your job. Those who get the job often put in many years to earn their shot. And for the butt-puckering privilege of leading sometimes shaky clients onto 50-degree runs that plummet 4,000 vertical feet into the maw of a crevasse-creased glacier, you are paid the rather paltry sum of about $600 a week.

Will Paden, 38, says he’s proud to be a professional ski bum (with quotes around “professional”). An avalanche forecaster for Squaw Valley, Calif., and a patroller for 16 years, Paden was also a builder in the off-season, until recently hooking on with a new company that builds avalanche airbags called the AVI Vest.

“The first years were a struggle, just making minimum wage, entry level ski patrolling wage and entry level construction wage. But now that I’ve been doing it for a little while I’m starting to make a little bit better money in both jobs,” Paden says. “I was taught to follow your passion and get good at what you’re doing and there will be a niche for you and you’ll find a way to make money.”

That niche is often a multi-faceted one in the ski world, and not just in Alaska. I’ve known other “ski journalists” who got their real estate licenses, bar tenders who ran ski shops (or vice versa), developers who taught skiing, and forest rangers who cut firewood. You do what you have to, no matter how many advanced degrees you have, if you want to live the life.

Take, for example, a friend of mine in Vail who works odd jobs but owns a half-a-million-dollar home and hawks lift tickets for $10 an hour just to get the ski pass. He started in the pass office at $9 an hour seven years ago, but the SWAG (Stuff We All Get) and skiing keeps him coming back.

Or Jim Fitlow, 38, of Park City, Utah, a ski racing coach for 12 years whose last job in the industry was heading up the race department at The Canyons. He bailed and started a bathtub refinishing business that was successful enough to allow him to buy a gold pass to Points North Heliskiing (four weeks a year for 10 years for $25,000).

Capitalizing on the development boom in ski towns is a risky business in its own right, though, as Fitlow knows. “In another year things will be stable enough business-wise where I can go back to enjoying everything that I moved to a ski town for,” Fitlow told me that season in Alaska. “At that point I can go skiing every morning and head to the office in the afternoon. Fortunately, because of what I’ve been doing, I was able to make that [heli-pass] purchase decision, where if I was still a coach I wouldn’t be up here.”

Fitlow told me earlier this year that his Points North pass expired last season, and he skipped a heli trip to the Bugaboos to let his wife vacation in Costa Rica. But he gets plenty of powder days in: “It is still a lifestyle, but now I can afford it.”

And then there’s Jim Tompkins, 42, of Oahu, Hawaii, a Vail ski instructor for nearly 20 years who I met and skied with for the first time in Cordova. He also teaches kiteboarding in Hawaii and dabbles in development.

“I’m pretty much a professional bum in general—a very lucky professional bum,” says Tompkins. “I’ve risked to some degree my net worth. . .but I’ve gained a great life. I’ve really had a good life.”

Which brings us to. . .


All of the risks of being a ski bum—catastrophic injury, financial ruin, broken relationships, drug and alcohol dependency, social irrelevancy—can be considered bennies if viewed through the proper prism of perception. For instance, you can’t be buried under hundreds of tons of cement-like snow unless you’re dancing down the most daring line of your life, blower snow choking you with every perfect turn. Nor can you properly pickle your liver in the tradition of most ski-town exiles unless your life resembles the never-ending, hard-charging frat party from hell that it is.

For the most part, though, the majority of veteran ski bums find the right balance between all the various elements constantly threatening to send them hurtling headlong into the abyss. They manage to maximize the rewards and minimize the risks.

“You never look back and say, ‘You remember that one day of work that was so good, that one day framing that we just killed it? Best day of my life.’ It doesn’t work that way,” Ware says. “But there’s plenty of people out there [in the real world] just making gobs of money doing what they love to do. It’s just following your path. Those people pay our bills, and somebody’s got to pay our way.”

Perhaps it’s the blurring of the lines between the ski world and the real world in recent years—lawyers who coach racing, realtors who race mountain bikes—that makes the perks of a straight-up ski-town lifestyle stand in such stark contrast to the hum-drum existence found in flatter, more muted settings.

“It’s almost like a secret you don’t want to let out too much,” one of the few women in heli-camp told me on the condition of anonymity. She was a softgoods rep from Mammoth, Calif. “I’ll never get rich doing what I do, but there are some great, great perks.”

Not the least of which is heli-skiing in Alaska. But the bennies extend to traveling the globe at cost in search of the perfect turns; working outside in epic settings; free skiing and a network of great friends with couches to crash on throughout the ski world; staying healthy with relative ease because of the physical demands of the lifestyle; an off-season in which to travel and relax after an intense winter; and above all, powder.

You can even reach the very heights of your sport and still be humbled by all it offers. “The reason almost all of us, especially big-mountain skiers, are doing this is because we put the work in to make it happen, but it’s definitely not the kind of job you go into expecting to make millions,” says Dan Treadway, 31, a professional skier and contractor from Whistler, who was waiting out the rain in Cordova for a Warren Miller film shoot high in the Chugach. “It’s just a lifestyle that we’re affording to do to see different places in the world and travel and be able to ski the mountains that we ski. It’s just the thrill of the job for sure.”

I think that’s safe to say for just about any form of employment in the ski world. It’s hard, often low-paying, intense work. But for most of us who have forsaken the pursuit of piles of dough in the land of suits and tall buildings, skiing is a labor of love. Who needs money?