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Alaska heli-skiing legend Dean Cummings, left, goes over some last-minute tips with clients who have gone to great lengths to reach the pinnacle of their sport.
Alaska heli-skiing legend Dean Cummings, left, goes over some last-minute tips with clients who have gone to great lengths to reach the pinnacle of their sport.
By David O. Williams 
For love or for money? Rewards of the ski world far outweigh the risks of working in the real world
By David O. Williams

February 8, 2009 — CORDOVA, Alaska - It’s amazing what grown men and women will do for powder turns.

When I was 20 I worked for five bucks an hour on the grounds crew at Winter Park ski area in Colorado, 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.

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 four grand to send me heli-skiing in the Chugach Mountains of Alaska, thereby bringing me full circle in my lifelong quest to at all costs avoid the perils of the real world and embrace the risks and rewards of being a ski bum.

There are many ways to fully immerse oneself in the sanctioned insanity of the ski world – patroller, instructor, groomer, guide, product rep, athlete, race coach – but I chose the biggest scam of them all: “ski journalist” – a term as oxymoronic as “military intelligence.”

My mom, in a moment of candor, will tell you my “career” path cost me countless Pulitzers and a shot at writing for The New York Times (she was unimpressed when my byline finally graced the pages of the Old Gray Lady during the Kobe Bryant debacle), but I submit that such things were not meant to be. Thank God.

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 that magical season in preparation for my “trip of a lifetime” to Alaska – many of them powder days most city dwellers only dream of.

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 imminently 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 when I asked him how the natives feel about heli-skiers: “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.”

I guess I’d fall into the latter category, although I daresay I was one of the few people in heli camp that season legitimately writing off my trip as a business expense (see what I mean about the ultimate ski-town scam?).

But 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.

“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.’

“But 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.

The risks

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.

And yet 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-seasons 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. 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 bucks 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 (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, because it can dramatically curtail your ability to do what you moved to the mountains for in the first place

“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 last season his Points North pass expired and he skipped a heli trip to the Bugaboos to let his wife vacation in Costa Rica. But he said he still 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 …

The rewards

All of the risks of being a ski bum – catastrophic injury, financial ruin, broken relationships, drug and alcohol dependency, social irrelevancy – can all 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 hurdling 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.’ No, 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 and 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 (a fairly typical ratio for most ski-town bars) told me that year on the condition of anonymity. She was a soft-good 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, British Columbia, 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 forever forsaken pursuing piles of dosh in the land of suits and tall buildings, skiing is a labor of love.



Comment on article  3 Comments on "For love or for money? Rewards of the ski world far outweigh the risks of working in the real world"


Reid — February 9, 2009

Dave, you lucky bastard, skiing in Alaska, the zenith of skiers existence. You got to write it off and you're wife sent you. Looks like you're karma meter is full. Great Story!


David O. — February 9, 2009

Yeah, it was amazing. Check out the story I did in the Real Travel section (Chasing the Bluebird). Anyone interested (with some liquidity) should consider heading up this year. H20 in Valdez (Dean Cummings) sent me a major discount offer because the heli biz is getting hit like the rest of the economy (maybe harder) and I also highly recommend Points North (book through our friend and occasional RV blogger Chris Anthony at Alaska is the zenith but can be a bit crazed. Folks may want to consider Wasatch Powderbird Guides at Snowbird or Ruby Mountain in Nevada (or even some Canadian heli companies) for a little more civilized and slightly less insane experience. Also check out my story on Utah and Nevada options in Real Travel.


Channing — February 9, 2009

Hey - Great read - LOL

The "ski world" reminds me of the "college world". Both are the opposites of the "real world". I'm on my second tour of duty in Crested Butte. We call it the "rubber band effect". Everyone around here comes after college (skis as much as possible - avoids real world ) then leaves to go get "real jobs" and then returns to town 1-5 years later swearing off that other world in favor of one thing: skiing powder.
At 41, with two kids and a new wife that lets me dawn patrol any day of the week I feel like I am still in college - actually I'm working on a post graduate degree - a masters in Lifestyle Management.
Lifestyle Management



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