I don’t know what it feels like to be a professional skier. I don’t know what it feels like to be a professional cinematographer or photographer. I don’t know what it feels like to be much of a professional anything in skiing. I’m starting to get a taste of what being a professional illustrator feels like, but even now, it’s still just a taste.
I do know what it feels like to want to be a professional “whatever” in skiing. I know that feeling really well. I think most people on this website know that feeling at some level, that ache of really, really wanting to make some aspect of skiing your life. Maybe you never even articulate it, but you imagine sometimes that you’re filming for Level 1, or you’re taking photos for Powder, or you’re pressing skis for Line, or you’re skiing in a Toyota commercial or X Games, or whatever other fantasy.
It’s so tantalizing, the jumps from “that’s cool and interesting” to “I want to do that” to “I think I could do that” are so small, so easy to make. And Instagram has made it even easier to progress along that path. It’s jarring when the final leap to “I’m doing that!” is so large and abrupt. And it’s even more jarring when, once you’ve made that final leap, you find that skiing just keeps dumping hurdles in the way of sustainable success.
Maybe I’m not really qualified to publish my ramblings on this subject because when it comes to fulfilling those sorts of dreams, I’m less than a has-been, more of a never-was. But, I have been privileged enough to hold a series of jobs that have put me in close proximity with folks who have made that final leap, who are doing the things young skier kids dream of. And I’ve learned that no matter what vocation they’ve fallen into, most folks “living the dream” sustainably have some things in common. At the root of the challenge are two competing facts:
Skiing is expensive. We’re all aware of that on the surface level, we all complain about rocketing lift ticket prices and how the cost of an average ski vacation could put a kid through community college, but it goes deeper than that. Being active in the ski industry is expensive, and comes with massive opportunity costs. Every moment of your life you spend honing your craft as a skier, photographer, filmer, whatever, is a moment you could be dedicating to something more lucrative.
Camera gear is expensive, and you’re not getting hired to shoot without it. Plane tickets are expensive, but good luck competing or shooting if you don’t travel. Heli time is expensive, and it’s tempting to float it on credit cards because you know a banger segment will maybe help you pick up sponsors. Sleds are expensive, gas is expensive, lift tickets are expensive. Hell, buying the “right people” —the people who could help your career—a beer in a ski town is expensive. Every damn element that adds up to a career in the ski industry is terribly expensive. And if that wasn’t bad enough, skiing is cheap.
Or more accurately, the brands and organizations in skiing that have money tend to be cheap with it. It’s hard to get paid in the ski industry. It’s hard to get promised pay, and it’s even harder to follow up and receive that payment. Sure, there are plenty of exceptions to that rule, and I’ve been lucky enough to have generous clients, but I’ve also chased invoices for months, and everyone else I know that’s ever worked in this industry has similar stories. Nobody wants to pay you, and they really don’t want to do it on time.
Skiing is fun. Most people in the ski industry would still be doing what they’re doing on some level, even if they weren’t being paid to do it. So we undervalue the work. We accept getting paid well under the market rate because we love what we’re doing. That goes for pro skiers, and for the professionals who make the content and equipment that support them.
Those two factors, the fact that skiing is both expensive and cheap, combine to create a system that is anything but a meritocracy. There’s an undeniable element of being able to “afford” to be a professional in this industry that’s not as present in most other sports. So people who have the means, privilege, the generational wealth, have an automatic head start. Why is anyone surprised that skiing is so white and straight and male? What demographic can most afford to not have a “real job,” to work for “exposure,” to negotiate bro deals in the old boys club? And the tragedy is that those factors combine to push talented people out of skiing to less expensive, better paying industries, or worse, preclude them from ever participating.
We’re making slow progress on both fronts. There are more opportunities for folks to get into skiing at less exorbitant rates than ever before, and at least in some circles, the folks that have money are getting better at giving it to the right people at the right time. We’re not moving fast enough obviously, but I’ve met a bunch of good folks this winter who filled me with a lot of hope for this sort of systemic change.
For now though, the people I’ve seen succeed, the people I’ve seen make any aspect of this stupid sport into their profession, have been the ones who treat it as such. The folks who treat whatever aspect of skiing they’re trying to be part of like a job. Those who budget for it, who negotiate to get paid a fair wage, and then show up and do what needs to be done to earn that wage, are set up for a more sustainable career in the mountains.
That’s really hard to do when you’ve been skiing out of love for years. It’s hard to wake up sore, and go up to the hill to fulfill sponsor obligations when the conditions are terrible and the light is flat, and you’re just not emotionally that into skiing right now. But plenty of people go to work every day, sit in an uncomfortable chair under crappy fluorescent lights, and email people they dislike all day too. If you’re trying to make skiing your work, you have to understand that sometimes that work will feel like, well, work. And if you don’t have generational wealth, you can’t afford to not do the work. And then even once you do the work, chances are, you’ll have to do a different sort of work to even chase down payment.
Do you want to be a professional skier? Do you want to get paid to take photos of skiers, or maybe write about them? Do you want to film ski movies, or design skis, or draw the art that goes on them? That’s awesome. You should do that! Dreams are made to be chased. But there are two questions that you’ll find yourself trying to answer time after time: Skiing is expensive, in all sorts of secret nefarious ways. How will you manage that expense without digging too deep a hole of fiscal and emotional debt? Skiing is cheap. How will you keep yourself and the people you work with accountable to make this worth your while?