The Endangered Ski Bum

Jeremy Evans is the author of the recently released book In Search of Powder: A Story of America’s Disappearing Ski Bum. An avid mountaineer and snowboarder, Jeremy grew up skiing in Arizona, where, sadly, he wore jeans on the slopes. He switched to snowboarding after moving to Lake Tahoe. His work has appeared in regional and national magazines, including Skiing and Powder, and in newspapers such as the Seattle Times, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Tacoma News Tribune.

There was a time not too long when ski towns across the American West were remote outposts, situated on the fringe of society. Ever since the 1940s, when young Americans began migrating to places such as Aspen, Colorado, and Sun Valley, Idaho, ski towns attracted malcontents and drifters who sought an alternative way of life. And they usually found it. Some homes could be purchased for unpaid property taxes, usually just a few thousand dollars…not that these young people cared about the acquisition of real estate or other monetary goals.

They worked for almost nothing and accepted employment as dishwashers or lift attendants, menial jobs that cemented their place – at least by the general public – as bottom-level members of the proverbial totem pole. They experienced cramped living conditions, an extension of college dorm life most recent college graduates were none too eager to replicate. These sacrifices, however, were not only accepted, they were voluntarily sought out. All in the name of a little something called “Powder.” Soon, the term ski bum was coined.

During the advent of the ski bum, one dead-end job paid enough money to eat and live somewhere for a winter, perhaps in a van or someone’s garage. It was an agreeable situation for ski bums because ski towns were cheap then. While ski bums at that time had little trouble escaping the establishment and carving out a life for themselves in the mountains, the ski bum is now becoming an endangered species, though far from extinct.

Rising real estate costs, an immigrant workforce, misguided values, and independently owned ski resorts now operated by business-above-skiing companies have changed the dynamic of ski towns and the ski bum lifestyle. It’s more difficult now to get by as a ski bum. It’s different.

While many of the great ski towns have become mega-resorts, complete with maddening crowds and dwindling powder stashes, there are still places in North America to experience the intoxicating feeling of powder, and often times without the crowds.

Backcountry skiing is one obvious example. Anytime people have to work hard – or earn their turns as the expression goes – the number of people drops, ensuring untouched powder and a more pure experience than the one that includes bumping shoulders and fighting for lines at ski resorts. Previous backcountry experience and being properly equipped (avalanche beacon, probe, shovel) are necessities when venturing out into the backcountry, although many of the following locations have guide services.

In the Lake Tahoe area, backcountry peaks such as Mount Tallac and Red Lake Peak offer intermediate and advanced terrain and are easily accessible from South Lake Tahoe. Teton Pass between Jackson, Wyoming, and Driggs, Idaho, offers short-to-long hikes from an easily-reached parking lot along a popular highway.

For the properly equipped, there’s no better feeling than carving powder lines with just yourself and a buddy. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that the future of ski bum culture is in the backcountry and non-descript towns. There has been a migration to unheralded mountain locales where there aren’t any major ski resorts nearby but there are employment opportunities and, most importantly, mountains to climb. Anybody willing to earn their turns can ski powder.

Silverton, Colorado, which has a lift-served ski resort nearby – albeit one that boasts some of the most serious terrain on the continent – is still the quintessential mountain town that hasn’t been transformed. Tucked amongst the soaring San Juan Mountains in the southwestern part of the state, it’s remote and can only be reached by a series of 10,000-foot mountain pass, but that’s part of the fun. Condos and chic restaurants won’t be found in Silverton, just stunning mountain scenery and an authentic western town complete with remnants of its mining culture past.

The interior of British Columbia, Canada, including towns such as Golden and Revelstoke, are up-and-coming destinations, with established ski resorts surrounded by an unlimited amount of backcountry powder stashes. Sure, these places might not be discovered like Mammoth Lakes, Park City, Jackson, Telluride or Vail, but that’s exactly the point and part of their allure.

If one enters the mountains with the right mindset, ski bum or not, they have adopted a basic principle that Tim Kasser, author of the book The High Price of Materialism and a psychologist at Knox College in Illinois, believes is the secret of life.

“Most ski bums are reasonably relaxed folks because they’re doing what they love,” Kasser said. “They have found the secret of life, and that’s doing what you love. It’s hard to argue with that.”