The phrase “ski bum” gets thrown around a lot. I remember explaining to my parents that I was going to Hood on the Spring Pass for a month, that I was going to sleep in my car and work on the internet and ski every day. I was so proud of myself, so excited. But they were aghast: “You’re just going to be a ski bum!?”
They were disappointed, shocked that I was squandering my future. But I had a job, I was responsible, I paid my taxes, everything I was doing was legal, where was the “bum” part coming in? Maybe that’s the problem with broad, undefined terms like “ski bum.” They mean something different to everyone.
That spring and summer were incredible. I skied more than I had the rest of my life combined. I scared myself on the summit of Mount Hood, scared myself in Glacier National Park, scared myself on the Great One outside of Bozeman, and still managed to hold down a job. I wrote about skis, I skied, I edited ski reviews, and I slept on a plywood platform in my car that I stored my skis under.
I still rankled a little, was still frustrated that my parents didn’t get it when I started my senior year of college online while I was skiing in New Zealand. I used free resort wifi to take quizzes and I laughed a little as I finished up my final papers and graduated while on a three week bender of a ski road trip. But I took offense at anyone who called me a ski bum.
Not the typical graduation "walk"
I met a few real ones on that trip, shared a dilapidated airstream in the Cooke City dump with them, ate elk their buddy had killed and skied some of the bigger lines of my life. They were the real deal, working hard all summer and fall to free up their spring, going after first descents of big lines, sleeping in snow caves, not caring what the industry or social media thought, just chasing steep turns. Now they run a business, centering their sales cycle around snow stability and big objectives. They’re true ski bums.
But knowing a real ski bum when you meet one doesn’t make them any easier to define. Maybe it’s easier to start with what they’re not. A ski bum isn’t just a resort employee. In fact, they’re usually not. Tourists on their ski vacations like to point at the lifty and wistfully complain that they’re living the dream. That’s just not true. Working at a resort is a great way to not ski very much, and end up hating your mountain when you do. Sure, some folks make it work, but the best ski bum jobs don’t revolve around the ski hill.
And you don’t have to be a dirtbag to be a ski bum. For some reason, the common conception is some scuzzy guy with nasty hair and a creeper van who never actually Venmos you for dinner. Sure, ski bums can be dirtbags, but you don’t have to be, and the smart ones usually aren’t.
Now there’s a new class of pseudo ski bums, folks who buy an Epic or an IKON pass and spend a week or two chasing “pow” from big-name resort to big-name resort every winter. Some of them have sprinter vans, like to tag #skibum on the Instagrams. They’re no more ski bums than Unofficial Networks is a legitimate news source.
That’s the thing though, it’s fun to play dress-up at being a ski bum. It’s even fun to try it for a year or two, to take that gap year from “real life” and go hard, only every talk about lines you’ve skied or lines you’re going to ski. But the older I get the more I see the unsustainable nature of that approach. If your goal is to live a one-dimensional stereotype of a ski bum, it’s hard not to have an unfulfilling one-dimensional existence as well. It’s a lifestyle destined for burnout.
No, the older I get, the more I realize that the true ski bums, the sustainable ones, the ones who last and make it a lifestyle don’t fit any one typical mold. That’s because a true ski bum is just anyone who’s dedicated to creating a mountain-centric life.
Some are computer programmers, leveraging their ability to work on the internet to spend their winters skiing powder. Others are carpenters or electricians, working long hours all summer to squirrel away a winter’s worth of first tracks. Still others hold “normal” jobs, teachers waking up early to ski everyday before class, journalists going hard on their weekends, salespeople dipping out early for lunch laps. You don’t have to live at some destination resort, you don’t have to have sponsors or a van or a trust fund. You just need to love playing outside.
Some ski bums live in tarp city, some live in subdivisions.
I don’t live in my car anymore, I still write for a few skiing websites, and I ski enough each winter that I’m ready to ride bikes by the spring. But I don’t fit the mold of “ski bum” that I imagined five years ago when my parents were so disappointed. I’m boring. I get excited about remodeling the house. I shake my fist when the highschool kids drive too fast because kids (and dogs) live on this road dammit! I don’t live on lodge food leftovers and free saltines. I get way more emotionally involved in local city council elections than I do with the length of lift lines on powder days.
I don’t really go to industry parties or events anymore. Instead, I attend community forums where we talk about affordable housing, planting trees, and regulating speed bumps. And these non-ski-centric meetings have a lot more free food and beer than I’ve ever gotten in the ski industry.
My minivan still smells like ski boots though, and the first thing I read every morning is the avy forecast. But I’m not just here for this storm, this season, this year. I’m not interested in a one night stand with the mountains, or even a short fling. I want to do this forever. If that makes me a bum, sure, I’ll take it. All I know is, I want to go skiing.