Ski bum culture hits reality

By Heather Hansman

Nearly two decades ago, I moved to the mountains to be a ski bum, chasing snow. I was a stereotype—an East Coast kid pulled west by the promise of bigger adventures and higher mountain ranges. I was also part of a counterculture that rejected social norms in favor of 100-day ski seasons.

In ski towns in western Colorado in 2005, risk was everywhere, but in a way that felt exciting. I liked the brag of drinking too much, and I was too naïve to notice harder drugs. Climate change seemed theoretical, and no one I knew had died in the mountains yet.

Corporate entities were just starting to binge-buy resorts while I somehow thought that living in my car was cool and I could exist like that forever.

But myths are complicated things to keep alive, and I eventually left ski towns to work as a writer, already seeing the ski-bum dream changing. I saw friends struggling to build careers, families and community while still chasing the fragile dream that a powder day topped almost everything.

So recently, I went back to see what was going on, to try to track the evolution of what had been my own obsession. I looped through mountain towns across the West, from Aspen, Colorado to Victor, Idaho and Big Sky, Montana, to assess the current state of ski bums.

What I found was that everyone trying to build a life in those towns was struggling, from my old colleagues who had stuck around and wished they’d bought real estate to “lifties” fresh out of school.

“A lot of people here are living a fantasy I can’t obtain,” said Malachi Artice, a 20-something skier working multiple jobs in Jackson, Wyoming.

At the most basic level, the math just didn’t work. In most mountain towns, it’s now nearly impossible to work a single full-time service job, the kind that resort towns depend on, and afford rent. The pressure shows up in nearly everything, including abysmal mental health outcomes like anxiety and depression.

Ski towns have some of the highest suicide rates in the country, and social services haven’t expanded to meet demand. Racial gaps are also widening in an industry that often depends on undocumented immigrants to fill the poorly paid, but necessary, jobs it takes to keep a tourist town running.

On top of all that, abundant snowfall, the basis of a ski resort’s economy, is getting cooked by climate change.

And sure, you can argue skiing is superficial and unimportant, but ski towns—some of the most elite and economically unequal places in the country—are microcosms for the way our social fabric is splitting.

Ski towns face crucial, complicated questions: Can they build affordable housing and also preserve open space? What happens when healthcare workers or teachers won’t take jobs because they can’t find a way to live in the community they serve? Will a town willingly curb growth when that’s what supports the tax base?

There are no easy answers because the problems are entrenched in both that slow-moving nostalgia that stymies change, and in the downhill rush of capitalism, which gives power to whoever pays the most: The housing market always tilts toward high-end real estate instead of modestly priced homes for essential workers.

What we value shapes our lives, and so I think we must hold the ski industry to higher standards. If these rarefied places can find ways to support working as well as leisure-based communities, they could serve as lessons for change elsewhere.

During my tour, I saw necessary workers in the ski industry facing hard economic choices, but I also saw positive, community-scale change. In Alta, Utah, for instance, the arts nonprofit Alta Community Enrichment added mental health support when its employees reported an urgent need.

If ski-resort towns are going to survive, the lives of their workers need to matter, and that means caring about them—from affordable housing to accessible mental health support.

Heather Hansman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. She is the author of Powder Days: Ski Bums, Ski Towns and the Future of Chasing Snow, and lives in Durango, Colorado.

Robson Hatsukami Morgan, via Unsplash

This column was published in the following newspapers:

12/11/2023 Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Grand Junction CO
12/12/2023 Wenatchee World Wenatchee WA
12/12/2023 Craig Daily Press Craig co
12/11/2023 Steamboat Pilot Steamboat Springs CO
12/12/2023 Denver Post Denver CO
12/13/2023 Moscow-Pullmand Daily News Moscow-Pullman ID
12/13/2023 Vail Daily Vail CO
12/13/2023 Montrose Daily Press Montrose CO
12/14/2023 Forest Grove News Times Forest Grove OR
12/14/2023 Explore Big Sky Big Sky MT
12/14/2023 Wyoming Tribune Eagle Cheyenne WY
12/14/2023 Taos News Taos NM
12/13/2023 Durango Telegraph Durango CO
12/14/2023 Delta County Independent Delta CO
12/14/2023 Bozeman daily chronicle Bozeman MT
12/15/2023 Boulder Daily Camera Boulder CO
12/15/2023 Laramie Boomerang Laramie WY
12/15/2023 Summit Daily frisco co
12/16/2023 Sierra Nevada Ally Carson City NV
12/17/2023 Daily Interlake Kalispell MT
12/11/2023 Judith Basin Press Judith Basin County MT
12/15/2023 Greeley Tribune Greeley CO
12/15/2023 Park Record Park City UT
12/15/2023 Aspen Daily News Aspen CO
12/18/2023 Aspen Times Aspen CO
12/17/2023 KVNF Radio Paonia CO
12/17/2023 Sky-Hi News Granby CO
12/21/2023 Adventure Journal CA
12/18/2023 Sky-Hi News Granby CO
12/23/2023 Del Norte Triplicate Crescent City CA
12/22/2023 Tahoe Daily Tribune South Lake Tahoe CA
12/23/2023 Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City UT
12/23/2023 Whitefish pilot Whitefish MT
12/28/2023 Bandon Western World Bandon OR
12/22/2023 Cochise County Herald Review Cochise County AZ
01/03/2024 High Country Shopper Paonia CO
01/05/2024 Pagosa Springs Sun Pagosa Springs CO
12/17/2023 KSPN Radio Roaring Fork Valley/Pitkin County CO
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Chester
2 months ago

AirbNb & vrbo, contribute to the prospect of being able to rent your place out to vacationers at previously unheralded high rates. This has been a factor in this separation of ‘economic class’ in ski towns like Crested Butte, in beach communities, and for real estate in many other markets. I am a landlord who had utilized these services, but now refuses to do so. These services are too involved in rental rates and approval thereof, especially for returning tenants to whom I try to lock-in annually. I truly do not need these services approval of my rates. If I want to rent at a below-market rate to assure annual tenancy of tenants with which I have a trusting relationship, I will do so. These services seems to have a “it’s my football so we play by my rules” attitude.  On the other hand you have a free market. So what is the solution? Do municipalities and/or resorts need to construct ‘low-income’ housing for resort employees?

Bill
2 months ago

Very good column and a refresher of the challenges all the ski towns are facing. When I moved to Vail from Durango for a summer job 40 years ago, what I witnessed were people living in the ski towns as a lifestyle with a culture of like minded individuals….. 40 years later what I see is the intensity of getting it before it’s gone, whatever it be, powder, sales, real estate or non profits…. Get the money and keep moving forward. The ski companies and no longer personal representations of the owner and ceo they are money machines trying to figure out how and where to squeeze every dollar out of every potential area of each community for profit and stock value. When CEO’s donate tens of millions to mental health programs but don’t raise the wages of employees it’s a clear bait and switch and lack of values and ethics…. No end in sight except maybe for the small owner based ski areas that still are in it for the love of the sport the lifestyle and people.

steven cahn
2 months ago

I left Aspen after 29 years of living there and working there about the exact same time you came. I could see the writing on the wall it was time to move on. When I came in 1977 you could get a room in town for a little more than $100 and a ski pass was a little more than $200. Jobs were everywhere. In fact I had no more than $500 in my pocket when I got to town. I’m figured now you would need at least $10,000 and that would only be good for about 30 days. Sad, very sad.

Jerry
2 months ago

Mountain towns have always been tough places to live (and thrive). Do you think it was easy for Warren Miller and Klaus Obermeyer to get started, do you think it was clear sailing for Dan Bailey in Livingston to make a living as a fly fisherman. Chouinard lived in an old trash burner at one time. I was bumming in the 1970s – the complaints then are the same as now – low pay, high rents, living in trucks and couch surfing. It was easier to find workarounds because the resorts were less corporate but on the other hand many resorts now provide employee housing as I had in Jackson as far back as 1976.
With hindsight it is easy to feel romantic loss about the old days but carving out a lifestyle has always required a commitment and certain amount of toughness. Maybe you drive a quarter million dollar groomer or serve millionaires at private parties. You can still live the dream – maybe today it just looks a little different.

Alex
2 months ago

As someone who lives in a town near Mt Hood Meadows, this article makes some great points but I feel like you picked the absolute worst possible headline.

Max Mogren
2 months ago
Reply to  Alex

I would agree with you 100% but when the Jackson Hole Daily reprinted it they were able to come up with an even worse headline: “Ski bum culture does a face-plant in tourist town reality”.

I think a better headline would be “Institutionalized insanity further enslaves all Americans, including our beloved ski bums”

Tom Johnson
2 months ago

Did you find any communities that were working for the middle class, and if so, what were they doing to make it work?

In the 70s, Aspen got out of hand and Jackson was the respite of that model. Now, it’s lost.

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