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Ski Resort Life

Who You Calling a Bum?

Ski towns are changing. So are the skiers who live in them.

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I don’t care what my friend Andrew says, he’s a ski bum.

He’ll remind you that he works at least 50 hours per week as an executive chef and pulls in enough to cover a mortgage in tony North Lake Tahoe. He’ll say he hasn’t scored the $10 dinner/drink deal at the Hacienda in years and hasn’t called in “sick” on a powder day in even longer.

But here’s the thing. Andrew is the new type of ski bum—the white-collar ski bum. First off, he meets the three key criteria for being any kind of ski bum: He lives in a ski town, logs at least 60 days a season, and has made a significant financial sacrifice to do so. (Like me, Andrew snowboards, but the distinction between a ski bum and a board bum is minor, if there’s any difference at all.)

What Andrew doesn’t have is a wardrobe that consists of a sponsored friend’s hand-me-downs, and a distain
for regular employment. And ski towns everywhere seem to be filling up with Andrews, as that old-school archetype—the part-time liftie or bartender—seems to be going the way of the double chair.

The truth is, in the early ’90s, when Andrew and I were constantly inventing new ways to ride Squaw without paying, we looked up to guys who framed houses eight months out of the year so they could scrape through winter without working. We knew people who tuned skis, made sandwiches, and pulled drafts so they could get first tracks every morning. But as much as I admired them, I didn’t have the balls to commit to that lifestyle and ended up spending the next 15 years in New York and other big cities working as an editor. Andrew stuck it out.
You see, a lot has changed in that span, namely ski towns themselves. Sure, Andrew and I got older—we both turned 41 this year—but even for a 22-year-old aspiring ski bum today there are fewer opportunities to live that life. I remember a time when there wasn’t much to do in a ski town other than drink and ski, and that was perfect for the old-school ski bum’s regimen.

I had friends who couldn’t get fired
no matter how many times they called
in sick 10 minutes before their shift started—coincidentally, after a big dump. But a lot of that loyalty to the
bum life is crumbling, as resorts and mountain businesses go corporate, run lean staffs, and enforce tighter schedules.

But more important, mountain towns have presented the aspiring ski bum with more options for racking up ski days while also making a living. Ski towns are getting more urban and attracting a more diverse population. These days, it feels like you can do just about any job in a ski town—launch a small-batch whiskey or a website, work at an IT operation or a graphic-design shop—and be confident there’s enough of a business base, local and otherwise, to sustain the career. Some smart ski bums are adapting by reinventing themselves while others are just flipping the ski-bum timeline on its head: Find a career first, then move to the mountains.

And that’s exactly what Andrew
did. He left Tahoe to work under a few big-name mentors in San Francisco. And instead of heading straight back to Squaw, he ascended the ranks in some of the city’s most reputable restaurants. Then he scored the top job at one of Tahoe’s best restaurants. And because he mostly works evenings, he still uses the hell out of his season pass. Like all white-collar ski bums, Andrew took a big pay cut to live in the mountains, but that trade-off is becoming less severe.

I’ve met plenty of people who
aren’t happy about this change—and sometimes I wonder myself. Some of my buddies say the transformation in ski towns is no less unfortunate than the gentrification of city neighborhoods. (Been to Brooklyn lately?) Money moves in, locals are forced to move out.

But I say ski towns are just evolving into more diverse, healthier communities. In fact, I’ve met so many of these new
ski bums lately I’ve started wondering if it’s finally time for me to make the move back to Squaw. While some may mourn the death of ski towns, I think they’re just getting more livable.