The rise and fall of the Colorado ski bum

Article by Steve Voynick

Recreation – December 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

Nick Stenick was a dean’s list junior at Rutgers University (that’s in New Jersey) when he surprised his fraternity brothers by announcing that he wouldn’t be back in September to begin his senior year.

You see, Nick was a skier. He had long ago mastered the tricky, 100-foot vertical descent slope at nearby Galloping Hill Golf Course. He had even skied “big snow,” the 500-foot-vertical descent stuff two hours away in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains. But Nick wanted to do some real skiing. And his senior year could wait, because he was going to ski for the entire season at some place called Aspen in one of those big, square states out West.

“Whatcha gonna to live on?” we asked in our best college English. “Yeah, and where you gonna live?”

“Not sure yet,” Nick shrugged. “Gonna find a job and someplace cheap to stay. I’m gonna work and I’m gonna ski.”

That was back in the 1960s when they had buses which, if you changed enough of them, could take you anywhere. Nick rode off into the sunset chasing his dreams with his skis, a suitcase. and a $40 Greyhound ticket.

As promised, Nick was back a year later. Before he picked up his degree, he regaled us with tales of the five-month-long season, 2,500-foot vertical descents, and powder that made New Jersey snow look like warm pudding. He lived in a rented room in somebody’s cellar, waited tables for a month, and finally lucked into a lift job. By his own estimate, he had skied more than 300 hours on Aspen’s slopes and even managed to save a few bucks in the process.

“It was a great year,” Nick reminisced, with a touch of sadness in his voice. “Met some great people, had some great times. Sorry it all had to end.”

Back in the ’60s and ’70s, folks like Nick Stenick were a colorful addition to Colorado’s ski slopes. And there were a lot like him — single guys and girls, all individualists, with enough independence, imagination, and initiative to take a seasonal sabbatical from schools and jobs, and from the routine of life itself, to chase a dream.

They worked hard and spent their off-time skiing. Whether they saved any money or not wasn’t the point. The point was the adventure. And since they helped fill seasonal jobs openings, they also played a functional role in ski area economics.

They were “ski bums,” but everyone knew the term was figurative. Sure, there were flakes here and there, but most were reliable. They took pride in their jobs, however menial, knowing that waiting tables or directing parking lot traffic was fair trade for the low wages that went along with the free lift tickets. They looked respectable, because they were respectable, and they burned up their youthful energy on wild descents of the black diamond runs.

But times have changed. Over the last two decades, skiing has grown by leaps, its sprawling physical, cultural, and economic presence has overwhelmed once-isolated mountain valleys, rebuilt old mining towns, and even transformed many traditional mountain town cultures.

More profit has brought more slopes, more lifts, more skiers, and more resorts. Land values, lift ticket prices, condo rental rates, and the basic cost of living anywhere near a major ski area have skyrocketed. And in the process, skiing has evolved from a colorful, rustic business and fun way of life into a full-blown industry with all the attendant pressures and problems.

While living costs soared, ski bum earnings wallowed at minimum wage levels. No longer able to afford living anywhere in a big-name ski town, much less at the base of the slopes, ski bums now have to ride packed, steamy little shuttle buses or hitchhike in long commutes over snow-packed highways.

Since the booming ski industry has record numbers of seasonal job openings, it attracts more ski bums than ever before. But don’t think this is the golden age of ski bumming. Yesterday’s Nick Stenicks have been replaced by a new breed of ski bum seeking not skiing, sabbaticals, or seasonal adventure, but low-wage, no-questions-asked, seasonal jobs. And that’s fine for the ski industry which, desperate for help, will hire anyone who shows up.

Today’s ski bums may still be individualists. But some of our new ski bums are also parents, bringing along children of pre-school and school age. Others couldn’t produce a green card on a bet. Many live thirty miles or more from the slopes, in some bedroom community shack with two, three, or even four people to a room. Many wait in lines, not for lifts and not in ski towns, but for medical and social service assistance in their bedroom communities.

And now bedroom community landlords still refer to their renters as ski bums — but this time in the literal sense.

On that April day when the lifts shut down, few ski bums will head back to schools or regular jobs. For many, ski bumming isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, it’s just another dead-end job. They’ll hitchhike out of town in April, bound for nowhere, as broke as the October day they hitchhiked in.

Sure, there are some traditional ski bums left who, because of ingenuity, skills, contacts, or a friend who owns an unused condo, can still enjoy a memorable seasonal adventure. But they’re an endangered species.

As Nick Stenick said, ski bumming was great — once. Sorry it all had to end.

Steve Voynick lives around many seasonal ski employees near Leadville.