"Kids these days don't know what dirtbags are," laughs Jim Conway, who at age 41 has never worked a winter in his life. Best known as a top Valdez heli-guide, Conway is a Boomer who exemplifies Gen X success. The one-time hippie ski bum is now a pro athlete and construction engineer living a '90s dream life. Most notable is this: Conway is fully sponsored as a freeskier and mountain biker in arenas generally populated by 20-somethings. He jibs for photographers, points it at high speeds down big Alaskan spines for film crews, and rips downhill in bike races. Even better: In building his life around snow and mountains, Conway has figured out how to have it all. He's handsome, successful, and hip. Athletically ultrabuff. Soulful, educated, and cyber- smart. Did we mention he's happily married? He is a millennial Renaissance mountain man.
The incurable snow junkie
It all started with a basic obsession with skiing. In the late '70s-Conway fondly remembers them as the dirtbag years-he was on the seven-year plan at Montana State University in Bozeman and working odd jobs. "The most I ever paid for rent in Bozeman was $175 a month," Conway recalls. "And if I paid more than two dollars for a pair of pants, that was extravagant." But the Bozeman years were well spent-telemarking, learning about snow safety, and venturing into the backcountry with schoolmate Doug Coombs. After graduation, and until only four years ago, Conway financed his ski habit working as a construction engineer in the off-season, overseeing projects as ambitious as the Lone Peak Tram at Big Sky. "That job almost ruined me for construction because it was like extreme engineering. If I go back to construction, I want to build more of that impossible type stuff." But that's a big if. Life is pretty plush these days in Salt Lake City, where Conway, his wife, Suzanne Wheaton, and their black lab, Endo, live in a pretty brick house in the 'burbs. And when he's not traveling, Conway romps six days a week at Snowbird, Alta, or in the Wasatch backcountry, alternating between Alpine skiing, telemarking, and snowboarding.
And smart, too
At last year's International Snow Science Workshop in Bend, Oregon, Conway's presentation on Alaskan-style sluff management was a showstopper. "Just because you're into safety doesn't mean you have to be mellow," says the man whose résumé of steep skiing descents reads like a novella. "But I don't really think of myself as an extremist. I'm more like a fun hog." His goal now-in addition to skiing big steeps and skiing them fast-is to foster the ski community's knowledge of snow safety. "Why do something when there's a potential hazard when you can just wait until the hazard is minimal? The mountains aren't going anywhere."
Living the life
Neither is Conway. On a twinkling blue powder day in Utah, he scratches his chin in mock perplexity, wondering whether to ride Snowbird's Tram on his snowboard, ski Alta on his telemark-fitted fat skis, or speed hike 1,800 feet up Little Cottonwood Canyon's Flagstaff to ski Toledo Chute. "The reason I've been fortunate enough to have this lifestyle is because I always believed it was possible," says Conway. "I don't know where my income is going to be coming from in the future, but I'm pretty much going to be skiing like this until I die. I mean, jeez, it couldn't get any better than this."