Become a Member

Get access to more than 30 brands, premium video, exclusive content, events, mapping, and more.

Already have an account? Sign In

Become a Member

Get access to more than 30 brands, premium video, exclusive content, events, mapping, and more.

Already have an account? Sign In


Ski Resort Life

What Lies Beneath


Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+ Sign up for Outside+ today.

I’M NOT A THIEF, ALTHOUGH I TOOK A SKI PATROLLER’S MEDICAL SHEARS, BRENDAN’S season pass, and Sheila’s codeine prescription without their consent. I’m not a sun-fearing albino, despite the SPF 30 zinc oxide face protection crème in my hand. I’m not a girl (not in this life, anyway). There’s a perfectly good reason why I’m spending an inordinate amount of timeobserving the ponytail scrunchie and undersize pink goggles before me.

I’m an anthropologist.

What else would you call someone who investigates people by studying their cultural remains? Well, given that that’s precisely the job description of an archeologist, you’d call him an archaeologist. Okay, but archaeology is a branch of anthropology, the science of mankind. And I’m getting at that bigger idea—the science of skierkind—via archaeological anthropology. To be specific, I scavenge below chairlifts for stuff skiers drop.

And we drop a lot.

One day in mid June, in the name of science, mind you, I spent almost seven hours combing beneath the cables at Telluride ski area. I found a disintegrating—but not fast enough—biomass of facial tissue. (Thanks to lift-maze “sniffle stations, tissues are both free and easy—a classic combo for abuse.) We can’t hold on to water bottles, either. Among the obvious garbage, I found film, cosmetics, keys, liquor, pharmaceuticals, Oakley sunglasses, and an ancient hat pin commemorating Grand Targhee’s Peaked Express snowcat ride. The artifacts reflected a diverse community: Men and women, locals and tourists, geezers and youths, dirtbags and luxury time-share owners—they all passed through here, many of them lacking the rudimentary motor skills needed to retain possession of their lip balm.

ChairliftTrashQuest 2005„¢, if you want to call it that, launched with minimal fanfare. No advance notice. No press. Had Telluride’s version of pirates (a bunch of old timers pushing metal detectors) caught wind of my plan, they would’ve tailed me and plundered the lift lines like those bad-apple Iraqis plundered their own museums. Don’t let the grandfatherly facades fool you: Those bastards get ruthless over a buried nickel.

I surreptitiously parked my townie bike at a Telluride B&B, forged west along the San Miguel River, and engaged the beige towers of Chair 8. They marched straight up the mountain, taking a line never intended for pedestrian use. I got up only by taking a serpentine approach and stabbing spastically at the steeps with a ski pole.

Several minutes of meandering through brush, firs, and Indian paintbrush elapsed with no sign of human incursion. Then, an unnaturally bright white caught my eye: a wrapper for HALLS DEFENSE SUPPLEMENT DROPS. Too bad the polluter absconded months earlier: I was dying to know how “defense supplement drops differ from “cough drops. It was one of those imponderables, like “X-treme! breath freshener, which I found a hundred yards uphill.

After fording a couple of creeks I never knew existed, I came upon a Juicy Fruit—size rectangle of coated paper stamped with a UPC symbol. Over the course of the day, I came across dozens, perhaps a hundred, of identical slips. These were lift-ticket stubs, good for a free pass should one lose the original. Each urged its buyer to DETACH AND KEEP IN SAFE PLACE. Given one exceedingly simple task, the ticket holders summarily failed. That’s a bit scary. If these slappers represent the aptitude and brainpower of America, we’re a colony of China in a decade.

IT’S MY THEORY THAT SCIENCE CAN GATHER SYSTEMATIC information about contemporary societies from patterns in modern trash. Okay, I stole that from the University of Arizona’s Garbage Project. Since 1973, this world-renowned anthropological study has sifted through Tucson’s dumpsters to evaluate human consumption. The point is, academia supports the principle of extracting knowledge by plunging into rubbish. (I feel so validated.)

Consider the lip balms. I retrieved only the nine newest-looking, and left countless others behind for my chapped marmot friends. Someone in the year 5065 who knew nothing of our sport could deduce from all the beeswax/cocoa butter/petrolatum formulations that skiers play in a dry, cold, sunny, and windy arena, and that we enjoy upper-class incomes, or else we’d be a little more careful with our $4.99 Banana Boat Sport Sunscreen Sticks.

AFTER 1,055 FEET OF VERTICAL, CHAIR 8 FEEDS INTO CHAIR 9, arguably Telluride’s most popular lift. A packed-on-powder-days triple rising 2,125 feet to the front side’s apex, it guaranteed edifying flotsam and jetsam.

Right off the bat, there was delicious irony—a name-brand gum wrapper mocking a nearby black, plastic disk: It is hard to stay Carefree after losing one’s pole basket.

The detritus began to tell stories. The Men’s Medium who dropped one Auclair mitten near Chair 9’s start—and then, a thousand feet later, the other—was having a shitty day, man. Perhaps he was hung over after sleeping with the tart who dropped, in close succession, a lubricated condom and a saucy peach lip gloss from Origins. The little strumpet can’t seem to keep her zippers zipped.

Indeed, ChairliftTrashQuest 2005„¢, if you want to call it that, was incredibly enlightening (for instance, gum: not nearly as biodegradable as we think). But what about personally enriching? The University of Arizona’s Garbage Project discovered a diamond ring amid a mass of potato peels. I went into this thinking I might stumble on a C-note or a Rastafarian’s entire February stash. I did not. Still, this was a ski mountain in Colorado. Halfway up Chair 9, I uncovered two lighters and four gray film canister lids. Film canisters, along with Ziploc bags, hold skiers’ favorite narcotic. This area bore further investigation. I slowed my pace and peered closely at the ground…

Whoa, isn’t that a glass pipe? It was: a yellow, blue, and purple model known as a chillum. The chillum is meant to be held between the fingers in a fist, with the smoker inhaling through the hole formed by the thumb. Only dedicated stoners care for this rigamarole, and dedicated stoners often misplace valuables. Maybe I should open up that neatly folded square of aluminum foil…

Bingo! …But not Eureka! or Hallelujah! or any other exclamation of major discovery. Oh, there was weed inside, all right, but it was moldy and black and unworthy even of the preposterous chillum. So was the stash I found a half-hour later in a glass jar with a rusted tin top.

What kind of a freak skis with his pot in a glass jar? We drop an astonishingly diverse array of crap off our chairlifts. Maybe Michael Jackson’s plastic surgeon dropped a nose down there. Toward the top of Chair 9 I extracted an inexplicable, 8-by-12-inch black flag emblazoned with a pirate diagram and the slogan BLACKBEARD LIVES! But I never came across any greenbacks. Due to prevailing winds, any fumbled bills must have blown into Kansas by now. The only dead presidents I found were shiny and metallic: a Washington, two FDRs, and a Lincoln.

In other words, 46 measly cents. But I wasn’t complaining. After all, no one gets into anthropology for the money.

Editor’s note: The staff at Skiing would like to point out that groveling around, Gollum-like, beneath a chairlift in June looking for jars of pot is utterly pathetic. In the name of science, however, we are looking forward to the author’s anthropology exhibition.