It’s been one of the most enduring archetypes in mountain sports: that great wintry countercultural hero, who will work any job and live in squalor so long as they can ski 100-plus days a season. But now, after decades of inspiring people everywhere to chase their powder dreams, the ski bum has at last been extinguished by… well, that’s the question. Was it the crazy cost of mountain-town housing? The corporatization of the ski industry? No, wait! Of course—it was the Man. Or, just maybe, has the ski bum actually survived it all and taken on a surprising new form?
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Michael Roberts: From Outside Magazine, this is the Outside Podcast.
Paddy O’Connell: Mike, I got a joke for ya.
Michael: Uh, ok.
Paddy: It's a skiing joke. You’re absolutely going to love it. I love it. If you don’t love it, I’m tearing up our friendship contract.
Paddy: How many ski patrollers does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Michael: I don't know, Paddy. How many?
Paddy: Four. One rookie to actually screw it in. And 3 old crusty bastards to talk about how great the old lightbulb was.
Michael: Yeah, it’s alright.
Paddy: My name is Paddy O'Connell. Most people call me PaddyO. I'm a former ski patroller and the reason I find that joke so funny is that it's true.
Ever since I abandoned my Midwestern life and moved to the mountains when I was 23-years-old, I have been inundated with tales of how the glory days of skiing had come and gone. And how the wintry counterculture hero, the ski bum, a person who will work any type of deadend job and live in squalor so long as they can ski 100 or more days a season, had been choked out of existence by, well, by ‘the man’ I guess.
When I was 23, I never gave it much sand though. My pals and I figured it was just high altitude cynicism. Weren't we living the ski bum dream life? During the day, we made snow and ran ski lifts on the resort, and then at night, delivered pizza before heading to our bar-backing and bouncing gigs. Hell, I even sold fancy lady underpants in a fancy lady boutique I had no business working in just so I could make some extra cash. We worked any and every job so we could pay the rent at our crappy little apartments and, most importantly, so we could ski our Goddamn asses off. It was a grind. And it was awesome.
But now that I am in my late 30s– ew, gross–and I've traded working on the mountain for telling stories about mountain folks, I am concerned that the old crusties prophesized something I couldn't see in my 20s. Skiing today is facing real and big existential problems. And it seems like everything I read, everything I hear, is making me ponder a question I don't want to ask, a question that I am too afraid to answer:
Is the ski bum life coming to an end for all of us?
Today, we are going to attempt to answer this massively important existential question with the help of some experts.
Heather Hansman: My name is Heather Hansman. I am 37 years old. I am a lefty. I'm a Capricorn. And I am a writer. I'm a journalist , I'm a skier. That's a big one too.
Paddy: That's a huge one. One of the most stoked skiers that I know. Plus like a semi-professional dirt bag.
Heather: I also feel like I'm getting older in that dirtbag world, and sometimes I feel a little conflicted about that part of the identity. Is that good? Is that something to be proud of? Or is that something that I should have grown out of at some point, but I think I'm still proud of it. Figuring out ways to get by and sort of like slime-balling the system. I think I'm still proud of that part.
Paddy: You're like a very fancy journalist now!
Heather: Paddy, I'm sitting in my closet in my studio apartment right now.
Paddy: Before my friend Heather became an award-winning writer, before she worked for magazines like Powder, Skiing, SKI, Outside, and Backpacker, she was a wet-behind-the-ears, new to town ticket checker at Beaver Creek Ski Resort, in Colorado. Heather moved from the East Coast to the Rockies right after she graduated from college in 2005, to try her hand at the ski bum dream. And she really hasn't stopped since.
This made her well suited to write a book that explores whether or not the ski bum is disappearing faster than ranch dressing on 50 cent wing night. So she did. Her new book is called Powder Days: Ski Bums, Ski Towns, and The Future of Chasing Snow. It came out in November.
Heather: You know, this book is about skiing and sort of like the history of ski culture and then kind of what it looks like now. But I think the subtext of it is also selfishly Heather trying to figure out her life.
I think the way I usually frame it is about the idea of living the dream that I think is a big part of the skiing mythology and then why it's not actually dreamy.
Paddy: This is an important point to make: the ski bum life has never been what we imagined when watching a Warren Miller ski flick. But still, Warren told us to move to the mountains, because, as he famously says in so many of his films:
Warren Miller: "If you don't do it this year, you'll be one year older when you do."
Paddy: Good ol' Warren himself, the father of modern ski bum movie making, knew the truth. The skiing life is the most magical life ever. It's full of fun and laughter and great times and great people. It is also full of not-so-easy thangs. I mean, Warren lived in an 8 foot by 4 foot tear drop trailer in the Sun Valley parking lot in the 1940s. With a roommate! He and his buddy Ward Baker sqoooooze themselves into that tin can on wheels and slept in sub zero weather and ate frozen rabbits for dinner.
And yet, for the ski bum, that is the epitome of living the dream. That's the standard. No, it doesn't make sense. Even the label itself, despite the connotations of laziness, is a badge of honor.
Heather: It's somebody who prioritizes skiing. Over everything else. In the kind of like, pyramid of needs of things that you had, you would have to put together your life skiing comes at the top.
I think there is some level of emotional dedication or sacrifice or, single-mindedness, that is part of it.
Heather: Living the dream is this idea that you, all you have to do is ski.
Paddy: Heather spent the winter of 2018/2019 on the road, skiing with and interviewing new and old ski bum friends doing their best to build and maintain a life in ski towns all over the Mountain West. She then combined that reporting with her previous decade of writing about skiing and the ski town experience from her 20s.
Powder Days reads like a 260-plus page personal essay. It's equal parts heartbreakingly nostalgic and melancholy, hopeful but brutally honest. Because the fact is, the ski bum is in trouble, but so are all skiers.
Heather: Whatever pathway you come to skiing through, I think there's something to be worried about right now.
It's impossible to ignore climate change. by 2035 places that are snowy right now could just not be snowy.
It's impossible to ignore the way people are kind of struggling to actually make a living in the places that they live. That's wages, that's affordable housing and available housing.
And then there's just the elitism and exclusivity.
Deep-seated economic inequality and the way that skiing as a sport, as an economy is structured. It's most available to people who have a ton of money and free time. And it depends on sort of like low paying service jobs to keep the engine of the ski row going.
You know, like the archetype of a ski bum is like a physically capable of white man. Skiing as a sport and as a culture and a community, hasn't done a ton to change that framework
I think it would be really hard to just show up and go skiing and high five and go home at the end of the day and not think about this stuff. Like, I don't think anyone who like is really that I can think of who loves skiing and who's involved in it isn't in some level thinking about some way that it's changing or getting harder,
Paddy: Let me backup what Heather is saying here with a bit of data. I live down valley from Aspen, one of the oldest ski resorts in the US. Since it opened in 1946, Aspen's average temperature has warmed by 3 degrees, resulting in 30 days of lost winter since 1980.
In Pitkin County, where Aspen resides, a family of two needs an annual income of more than $70,000 just to make ends meet. Even though Aspen has had an affordable housing authority since the 1970s, increased cost of living and idle wages makes home ownership more difficult than skiing icy moguls the size of VW Bugs.
And nationally, skiing just can't seem to close the inequity gap. There's roughly 15 million skiers in the US. More than half earn an annual income over $100,000, and 87% are white. Black skiers make up just 2% of the skiing market and Native Americans, who, oh by the way, are the rightful owners of the land most ski resorts occupy, make up a meager percentage of skiers who aren't Caucasian, Black, Asian, or Hispanic.
All of which makes you wonder, with all these glaring problems, maybe we shouldn't be investigating if ski bumming still has a pulse, but rather asking if ski bumming is worthy of being saved or protected in the first place?
Heather: Oh man, is it? This is honestly something that I like I wrestle with.
The reason why I think it's worth saving is because it's like the best, most fun thing I know. I go back to like the idea of gravity a lot, and I feel like there's not any other activity or sport or saying that I know of where you're immune to gravity in the same way.
I think that's something that has benefited my life and I want that to be something that anybody can access.
If this had just been like Heather goes out and goes skiing and talks to rad people ra ra ra, I think that would have been… There would have been an emptiness in that for me. Like looking at it and be like, I see your ugly parts, but like you're still mine.
Paddy: If something that was deeply flawed, couldn't be also deeply loved. Let me tell ya. I would be completely fucked
Heather: Wouldn't we all? Turns out I am skiing.
A lot of things are shitty right now. And I do think there's value in like joy
Paddy: Why are skiers so in love with the idea of ski bumming?
Heather: I think on any level that like far out on the spectrum, obsessive person is sort of it's the same with climbing or surfing or, like anyone who's sort of like the most focused, the most obsessive I think is sort of compelling and I think skiing and the ski industry and the way it's kind of built itself up. It's really kind of revolved around storytelling and characters. And I think that, since we've been kind of like telling stories about skiing, that framework has been a really big part of it.
Paddy: If there is someone that knows about the art and the business of ski bum storytelling, it is Sierra Shafer. She worked at Powder Magazine for six years, started as an associate editor and worked her way up to Editor In Chief, a title she currently holds at SKI Magazine, which was first published way back in 1936. As Sierra sees it, the ski bum is a critically important archetype in ski culture. And we might not survive if it goes away.
Sierra: You've got to have like the hero of the story, right? You've got to have the aspirational person. You know, if you don't have the thing that you're striving to be, or be near to, or be associated with, what are you selling?
We're all selling something in this industry. And like, not in a cynical way, but like we're all offering something. Like publishing a cover photo, you know, I'm always thinking about like, does this make you want to go skiing? Does this make me want to put this magazine down and not even read it and go skiing? I'll come back to it later.
You're selling that dream because most of us don't get to do it every day and we don't get to live that lifestyle. But if we can get a piece of it, if we can get near or adjacent or like touch it for a day, it's worth it. You know?
And so I think that the ski bum is like, represents the pinnacle of like skier status. Without the peak, like what are we all what's everybody else even building towards?
Paddy: Do you feel a responsibility to report on the current state of skiing while also trying to tell the ski bum glory tails.
Sierra: I think you have to tell them both because why do we care about any of the bad stuff? If it's not putting the good stuff at risk.
I want people to pick up SKI or read a story, you know, in their inbox from us that makes them want to go skiing. That's aspirational. That's inspirational. That makes them feel good. And, is a break from the bullshit that is in the world. but then conversely, it's like all of that fun stuff, all of that good stuff that we love goes away if we don't report on and talk about the kind of underbelly, the challenges that skiing is up against
Paddy: If we lose the ski bum, what does skiing lose?
Sierra: Soul and truth and north star. And I think just the purity, ski bumming is more probably fantasy than reality, but I think that is just as important.
I think If we lose the ski bum as that north star, it just starts to become a very homogenous, corporate production and not an experience, not a way to like, find your identity.
And I think things that are soulless like that don't live a long time.
Paddy: So ski bumming is incredibly flawed but worthy of being saved because it is the passionate gooey center of the skiing world. Got it. But, how the hell do we actually go about living the ski bum dream now and forever?
NARRATOR: For that, we need to talk to a couple of legit ski bums. That's coming up after the break.
NARRATOR: There are a handful of special ski areas that represent the soul of the sport; places that are a physical manifestation of the funkiness and grittiness that is the ski bum, and how it all seems to be under attack.
One of them is Telluride, Colorado.
Galena Gleason: I would say there's one word to describe the Telluride vibe. It would be rootsy. It's an independently-owned ski resort. And people are attracted to this place because it is non pretentious. It's not all about the glitz and the glamor and the Versace concept store. It's about the mountains and the still archaic, slow lifts.
Paddy: That's my pal, Galena Gleason, and nobody on this planet is more Telluride than her. Galena's family has lived in Colorado for 5 generations. In the mid 1990s, her father Bob opened a ski shop in Telluride that he dubbed Bootdoctors. Galena says she grew up in the shop, played in the ski racks as a kid, was a shop rat employee as a teenager, then became a part-owner as an adult. And just like Bootdoctors, the ski resort is a no-frills, down to earth, for the skiers by the skiers type of mountain.
Galena: Things haven't changed much in regards to the infrastructure of the ski resort. You're changing your boots in a muddy parking lot, even though you're buying a top dollar date ticket. It's very much the same as it's been since the ski area opened in 1972.
Paddy: Galena, who is one of the most talented skiers you'll ever meet, married an upsettingly handsome Telluride ski patroller, and they are raising their two boys amongst the same dramatic peaks they fell in love in.
But while the ski area in Telluride hasn't changed much, the town itself sure has.
Galena: There's a sticker on, I think it's like tower 10 on chair nine and it always gives me a chuckle. It says you should have been here yesterday. And I feel like that kind of sums it up. This is good, but used to be so much better.
My family We were here at the right time for sure. And it's, it's a different place now. There are more and more fancy home furnishings stores, art galleries, real estate offices. And less bike shops and funky coffee shops and habitats of where the ski bum feels comfortable.
We want the funk as ski bums. You know, I actively seek out funkiness. The new modern buildings make me a little uncomfortable at times.
I like the funky old shacks. I like walking down the, the dirt puddle stricken alleyways, with, you know, fences made out of old skis, you know, old license plates running the length of the buildings, that's the town I know,
Aesthetically, the town has lost a lot of its vibe because everything's being fancified as it were. And the funk is getting renovated out of it.
Somebody arriving here and trying to set roots and maybe establish a business, purchase a single family home, for instance, that's quite unattainable unless you have a big pile of cash. I just picked up the local newspaper and took a gander, this morning over a cup of coffee and there were 74 job listings and nothing available in the paper to rent. Not even in the region.
It's a really tough situation right now. And I think it's creating a little bit of an endangerment of the ski bum life.
Paddy: Galena is eyeing a role in county government in order to push for the kinds of changes she thinks are necessary to preserve the ski bum life. Things like building more affordable housing, giving resort and town employees discounts to Telluride's famous festivals, and creating programs to lower the cost of skiing for local families.
Meanwhile, in order to afford a home, Galena and her husband moved 45 minutes outside of town. And she just recently stopped working at her family's ski shop and has made plans to earn a masters degree in psychology. According to Galena, adjusting your version of what a ski bum is or should be helps the dream stay alive.
Galena: Now that I'm a mother and I've been a business woman. You know, I transitioned from what I would call like a real core ski bum getting my 120 days a year a season in. And I don't get to get out there as much as I used to, but it's still my motive. I know that it is one of the most integral parts of who I am and it's a basic health need for me.
There are many flavors of ski bums. Part of being a ski bum is caring about your community, and caring about preserving and enhancing that ski bum culture.
You could be slinging real estate or washing dishes. It doesn't really matter what you do. And you know what? Don't believe that just because you're a fifth homeowner that you aren't a ski bum.
If you have a passion for the sport and it drives your decision-making, then you're a ski bum.
Paddy: Is the dream still alive?
Galena: The dream is still very much alive.
It's still a really incredible dreamy life to live. And, I think we can forget that those of us that have been in these ski towns for, for decades or for generations. You've just got to really carve out and find a way which is not as easy as it used to be. You've just gotta be creative. You've gotta be gritty and, you've got to really want to ski. You know? If you, if you don't have those elements in your repertoire, then the dream might not be alive for you, but there's a way.
Paddy: If anyone has found a way to live the modern ski bum life, it's Megan Dingman. Megan grew up in Park City, Utah, where she first started to ski at age two. She was a talented ski racer as a kid, so much so that she attended a ski academy for high school and raced for St. Michael's College, in Vermont. But she missed that dry and deep Wasatch powder so she transferred back home to the University of Utah. When she graduated in May of 2021, her parents told her to get a ski bum gig so she could pursue her dream of becoming a pro skier.
Just kidding, her folks told her that she better get a real job, real quick. Which she did. She now works as a graphic designer for Berkshire Hathaway, the massive multinational conglomerate run by Warren Buffet. Now, I don't know Mr. Buffet personally but I think it's safe to assume that he has never slept in his Cadillac in order to get first chair on a powder day.
Megan Dingman: I interned for Berkshire Hathaway last year during school. And, they brought me on full-time when I graduated. I've gone corporate.
NARRATOR: But before you conclude that Megan has completely sold out, get this: she lives in a house in Salt Lake City with 5 roommates, 4 of which are stinky dudes, rent is pretty damn cheap, like a few hundred bucks each, and they all ski as much as possible.
Paddy: Tell me about the situation that you have with your boss.
Megan: When she was talking to me after my internship and after I graduated, she was like, ‘Hey, like, we really want to bring you on full time.’
And I was like, ‘Hey, listen, boss lady, like, no way. Like, I don't want to be an adult yet.’ Like I like, like to ride my bike and hang out with my friends and ski.
And she was like, ‘Yeah, like, no.’
She was like, ‘okay, Megan. How about, you know, it's the summer, you're not skiing. You don't have these obligations. How about we bring you on full-time for the summer? And part-time, you can go part time in the winter.’
And so I just had this conversation with her after Thanksgiving and I was like, ‘Hey boss, lady. I was just wondering. If maybe, you know, I could go part-time now, like we talked about.’
And she was like, like, ‘you know, we really like having you here.’
Please don't make me quit please. And she was like, ‘well, how about, you know, you have these obligations. I knew that going in. How about you work full time and just send me an email. Like whenever, Whenever you need to go.’
Paddy: Whenever you need to go where?
Megan: Go skiing.
Paddy: This is incredible to me on so many levels. I've never heard of a corporate-esque job having the powder day clause in it. I mean, I also think of it as incredibly poetic and kind of emblematic of where the ski bum is in 2021. You're like, okay, Richie rich, you're moving into my town. Well, guess what? I'm moving into your job.
Megan: I feel like I kinda have to around with a mask, like I'm, I am one of you, but I'm also one of them, you know, I'm like, shoot, it's an opportunity that I was So luckily presented with and I think it would be quite foolish to not try.
For me living the dream is doing what makes me most happy. And if hard work is required to get me there, like that is part of living the dream.
I wish I could live in 1982 and just like live in a snow cave and be a ski bum. But yeah, the new age ski bum that's me.
Paddy: Today, it is as hard as it's ever been to be a ski bum. But struggle and hustle have always been a part of the deal. I mean, do we really think that as he and his pal were fighting over rabbit popsicles and who was hogging the sheets whilst freezing their asses off, Warren Miller stopped to say, ‘Man, this sure is dreamy, ain't it Ward?’
So here's the deal. The dream is only dead if we allow it to die. If skiing is the rudder directing your life, you'll make it work by any means necessary. That romantic grit is how and why so many of us fell in love with the ski bum in the first place. And it's why it is still an iconic character worthy of being celebrated. But, in order to make the greatest lifestyle available to more people and make sure it continues into the future, both aspiring ski bums and silver backed veterans are going to have to update their ideas of what it means to live the dream, the way Gelena has in Telluride, or the way Megan has, in Utah.
And as Heather Hansman explains it, modern ski bums also have to do their part to bring about change.
Heather: Part of the ethic of ski bumming is like, you're kind of sliding by under the surface. And like, you're like, you know, scamming free lift tickets. And like your buddies, you know, feeding you cause they work at the bar. And that's part of that kind of dirt bag ethic. But if you're not participating, you can't get mad at how things are changing.
So I think part of it is like, okay, we're the grownups now. And we want this thing to exist and to be good, we have to put in the effort, like you, can't just kind of like skate by and like assume things are going to be good.
If you want the thing to be better, you have to, you have to make it better.
Michael: This episode was produced by Paddy O'Connell, aka PaddyO, and edited by me, Michael Roberts. Original music by Robbie Carver.
Heather Hansman's book is "Powder Days: Ski Bums, Ski Towns, and The Future of Chasing Snow." You can order it on her website heatherhansman.com or find it at your local bookstore.
And you can follow the ski bum dreams lives of Galena Gleason and Mehan Dignman on Instagram. Galena is at @galenag, and Megan is @megan_dingman.
If you dig skiing, I highly recommend Ski magazine. Editor-in-chief Sierra Shafer and her team are killing it. And the best way to get access to all their stories, videos, and other content is to become an Outside+ member. Go to outsideonline.com/podplus and learn about all the benefits of membership. Also, we're offering new members a 25% discount. Just enter the code pod25 at checkout.
This episode was brought to you by Tracksmith, a proudly independent running brand that makes high-performance products for amatuer athletes striving to be their best. Their No Days Off collection is exactly what you need for winter training. Check it out at tracksmith.com.
We'll be back next week.
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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, which was developed in partnership with PRX, distributors of the idolized This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour, among others. We have since expanded our show and now offer a range of story formats, including interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and politics, as well as reports from our correspondents in the field.