words by Mike Rogge
photos courtesy of Alex Kaufman
In today’s day and age many people think the ultimate ski experience is winning the X-Games, staying in over-the-top hotel rooms, and accumulating as many oversized paychecks as possible. While those may be some great accomplishments, there are thousands of dedicated skiers holding down multiple crappy jobs just to pay their way onto the lift for the next powder day. This is the ultimate ski lifestyle. The ski bum lifestyle is a staple of our sport. How many of you have ever heard of a football bum (This doesn’t count your QB buddy from high school that recently got fired from the local car wash)? While some ski bums are doomed to a life of poverty and a bed behind a bar dumpster, some go on to bigger and better things. I give you the story of Alex Kaufman, a once 16-year-old drop out ski bum that went on to head up marketing and communications at Sunday River.
Mike Rogge: Hey Alex, how’s it going?
Alex Kaufman: Let me check the calendar. It’s early winter. It’s going at a high rate of speed.
MR: What’s shakin’ at the River these days?
AK: Plenty. New ownership. Lots of talk of expansion in the future. Obscene snowmaking. Trying to make many different types of people happy at the same time. Of course we continue in our quest to convince the Eastern seaboard that going to the mountains is better than the movie theatre. It’s been cold this fall so we’ve been having a fair amount of success at that.
MR: Alex, you’re not the typical “high school, college, suit and tie” kind of guy. While we discussed this over a few drinks a couple weeks ago, tell the NS.com community a little about the story I’ll be referring to as “The Legend of Alex Kaufman.”
AK: Well my formative years were, um, different. Moved every year growing up. New schools all the time. New step-parents often too. Started skiing in Vermont at age three. Moved to CO at 12. Vail at 15. At 16 the current set of parents said they were moving back East. I said no, got emancipated (divorced from parents), dropped out (bad idea kids), got my GED and ski bummed solo in Vail from 16 to 19. Lived in a tent, truck, storage units and sometimes places with working utilities. Basically did what most ski bum types do after college but at a much younger age. I basically turned adult at 16 while just happening to live in Vail. This was in the mid to late 90’s when newschool was just getting rolling.
I had a bunch of ski town jobs like pizza delivery, restaurant everything, golf course stuff and others. I even caddied for Gerald Ford. I also worked with Tom Winter at a ski shop, which I got fired from for having a different shop hook me up with bindings in a coffee trade (also worked at a coffee shop). No hard feelings though. It was the wife of the guy who fired me who originally inspired me to go legit. Her name is Sari, in case she reads this. There were some wild times back then since I hung with a much older crowd that would ski hard, work hard and the other stuff too.
Since I wasn’t a drop out due to lack of intelligence I just happened to score super high on the GED, which got me a scholarship. I went to CMC in Steamboat after three years of teenage ski bumming in Vail. Got good grades and rode every day it snowed. By then I had four straight years of every pow day Colorado had to offer and was over the bum lifestyle. I was winning some small comps in halfpipe (based purely on amplitude – not style), but in the 90’s it was all still a sideshow.
To wrap this quickly…I transferred back east to North Adams State (now MCLA), stayed sponsored for a couple more years doing a few more comps, started a college ski club, hosted some killer TGR premieres, worked in radio and TV, played college soccer and golf, got a real lady friend and graduated with a 3.9. Thinking I could leave the ski bug behind I took a job out of college selling radio ads in Barre, Vermont. No luck.
Took a job as Snow Reporter at Killington in 2003. My boss went on maternity leave for the season and I tried my best to run the communications department of the biggest resort in East. My industry experience on both coasts helped huge. Didn’t do it all right I’m sure, but learned a ton. The next year I was still the deputy in a town with no sheriff and it was suggested I take the Communications Manager gig at Attitash in New Hampshire, which would be more my size considering that I wasn’t 25 yet. After a year, a bigger role in the company popped up and I was off to Sunday River. I’m now in my 3rd year at The River. While at K-town I also got 2/3 of the way through an online graduate degree in Meteorology. I can do a heck of a weathercast and darn near got my AMS seal of approval before bagging it to focus completely on the resort biz.
MR: You’re also one of the few large resort marketing/communications people with a history in freestyle skiing. How exactly did you get involved in the freestyle scene and how does that background affect how you perform your job?
AK: I got involved by jumping off everything I could find growing up. Bolton, Sugarbush, Jay, Stowe, Smuggs and Cochran’s are where I started out. Then out in Colorado I was actually on the Vail Freestyle Team when Toby Dawson was on it. We also went to school together. He was Olympics bound, I lived in a truck and wasn’t all that serious about training, nor did I have any equipment I could count on. I still do think that the Flexon boot and Salomon Super Force 9 were made for each other. I turned a pair into twin tips with a J clamp and heat gun. They lasted for two more years. I took third at the Anti Gravity Grail with them in 1999 or 2000. Lost to Rory Will and Hibbert. Halfpipe was good to me early on because only the strong skiers could do it. The big air comps had loads of poor skiing groms who could spin, but only the experienced could boost out of the bad pipes consistently. I could land a 9 off a park hit, but man were they ugly. My pipe run was usually mute, to alley-oop hutony, to right side 5, to alley-oop ball grab spread, to shifty, to right side 7 hoping I wouldn’t lose a ski when I landed in the flat bottom. Ah the 90’s.
It affects my job in that I can respect and relate to the people in the park. There’s not very much of that in resort management throughout the industry just yet, but I think there will be more soon. I like to think that I can throw together events that are fun for the people in them vs. simply what has always been done. I think it can be done with large or small resources. Sometimes I can be speaking a different language than co-workers who have never really been in a park or been a part of the scene, but that’s my challenge and it’s ok. It also means that my back is twice as old as I am. Now I telemark a bunch in order to put the stress on my muscles and not my spine and knees. Sliding rails on tele skis is a new challenge, which keeps it fun.
MR: How do you feel about RCR’s recent “industry leading initiative” to eliminate jumps from their parks?
AK: You trying to get me in trouble (laughs)? It’s interesting you ask that because I was out at Lake Louise last year and they had a really well designed park, which is what tends to make it safer. Things were marked small, medium and large and everything was very organized. I was surprised to see the announcement. However there are larger forces at play in our world than just what’s cool or not. I think it’s too early to judge the effects of the decision, both at their resorts and for the industry. I am watching closely to see what sort of recommendations the NSAA puts out regarding jumps. That will surely have a major impact on the industry. One thing’s for sure, people will keep getting big air, it’s just a question of where. Did I dig myself any holes I can’t get out of? Hope not. I try not to.
MR: The No Bib Jib series has become an East Coast tradition and a highlight of the Sunday River experience. Where did this idea originate?
AK: Good question. First I was thinking of a way for people to compete as a team. I got that from the Orage Masters. I guess that’s an example of how being a freeskier impacted how I do my job. Once I was sure we could pull that off I wanted to make it as much like riding with your crew as possible. That meant very little waiting, no bibs, and as laid back a format as possible. Since I’m in marketing and communications and do park events on the side I tied the website into it and we had ourselves a laid back park event with a web 2.0 twist to keep the folks involved before the season and during the series.
MR: And of course, the winning team gets a trip to your baby, Heat Harvest. Is Heat Harvest going down this year and what can we expect?
AK: As of this interview Heat Harvest 3 is coming full speed. There’s some ideas in the works between myself, our parks manager Nick Roma and his crew, The Meatheads and Jay Scambio who is now helping out at Sunday River and Sugarloaf along with Loon. We liked last year’s night session so that’ll stick around and we want to incorporate some kind of audience element to the photo shoot vibe. Maybe make one afternoon or night into a demo with some live tunes. I’m always open to ideas so if there are any sponsors out there with money burning a hole in their pocket that want to be a part of the East’s original Superpark event to blow it up huge, call me.
MR: Why do you think other mountains stray away from having closed photo shoots similar to Heat Harvest?
AK: I don’t think they do really. I just think it’s a tricky thing to pull off in the east. Plenty of mountains out west have them all the time, but you know that. You need a lot of things to make it work and worthwhile. You need a big group of athletes and media to cover them, you need a venue worthy of it, you need time and resources to build it and a place away from the public that is closed for the year, you need a place to put all the young and boisterous patrons. Most of all you need to be able to justify it business-wise to people who likely do not know what a tranny is. Since I can relate to people who huck their meat for fame, and I can also communicate the value to the top rung at today’s big resorts, that gives me a leg up on making it occur and making it worthwhile.
MR: Alex, you’ve gone from being a sixteen year old drop out, trying to make it as ski bum to heading up new events and communications at Sunday River including the East’s original superpark. Sounds like a success story to me. What does the future hold for Mr. Alex Kaufman?
AK: It’s safe to say it’ll have a vertical drop to it. I really like working with all the other departments at Sunday River and all the resorts I have worked at. I go out with the snowmakers on gun runs, I learn as much as I can about Patrol and grooming, I manage a staff, act as spokesperson for everything media related, write most anything that is released, and try to fit in some golf in the summers. Maybe I’m optimistic, but with my early start at adulthood, my early start in the ski industry, and my fast track to responsibility in it, I’m chomping at the bit to guide a small to medium sized resort. One with some spit and vinegar that wants to stand out. Maybe it’s two years, five years or ten years down the road. But I hope that’s where my road goes. It sure doesn’t take me back to selling radio ads.
MR: Any words of advice to aspiring ski bums and/or future ski industry leaders?
AK: Go to college. Work in the ski industry before it and after it. During if you can. If you are a mediocre pro skier, do some soul searching and maybe start to specialize in an area of the industry rather than beating up your back or your knees for a few more years. Ski hard, but big hucking is for the youngins and those getting paid to do it.
MR: And of course, do you have any shout outs?
AK: My wife Laura
My dog Kappy
Everyone at the snowplan meetings at Sunday River
Nick, Greg and the SR Parks Crew
Sari Lucas who made sure I got my GED
Potential outerwear sponsor here
The Ktown class of 03 - Dwight, Neil, Kevin, Dana, Josh, Steve
My parents – you made me move every year, but it taught me how to deal
MCLA English Faculty and Shewy
Dave Schwartz on TWC – the definition of on camera freestyle
All my industry friends who will not see this unless I show them
All the locals in Vail who gave me the “don’t end up like me speech” after midnight
As much as Rogge wants it to be true, Dexter Rutecki played no role in my life