By Bill Hatfield

What are we talking about when we talk about ski bums? Are we referring to the lengths people are willing to go to ski day after day? Or are we talking about the things people refuse to do so they can ski?

Like living in a ski town and getting on the resort slopes, being a ski bum is becoming increasingly cost prohibitive. As the world changes, so, too, do the ways people are maintaining the lifestyles of a being ski bums.

In the documentary film Ski Bum: The Warren Miller Story, Miller says, “You’ve left the city to go to the mountains. That’s when you’re assumed to be a ski bum.”

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A tidy and simple definition — true enough at some point in time — but does it hold up today?

It seems unlikely now to find people living in resort parking lots, skinning and cleaning rabbits in chalet sinks like Miller and his friend, Ward Baker, did at Sun Valley in the late 1940s.

“It simply didn’t matter to a bum what he did below 6,000 feet,” says Romain Gary in his 1964 novel The Ski Bum.

Are we just talking about duct-taped jackets, grazing cafeteria tables for food, sleeping in cars, sneaking on lifts, and having roommates and house parties? Or is our conversation about something else?

Perhaps this sketch accurately defined a ski bum in pop culture or in the public’s perception. And perhaps it was always a little too simple of a definition.

It could be that we are talking about all those things — or none of them at all. Like a foggy, flat-light powder day, ski bums can exist without definition. The term can be elusive, opaque, obscured by the personalities that embody it. Ski bums come from all over — from Southern California, from the east, from overseas. What they have in common is their objective: to ski.

NICE TURNS: Skip Wilson making tracks in waist-deep powder on Jake’s Peak on the West Shore of Lake Tahoe. He has enjoyed moments like this on all seven continents. He said he “needed something for [his] obituary beyond ‘he was a ski bum who worked at the market.’” Courtesy photo
Miller and Gary defined the term by geography. Tahoe-based filmmaker Scott Gaffney thinks of it more in terms of intentions: A ski bum is “someone who puts skiing first and foremost above anything else in their life,” he said. “Someone whose priorities are basically dictated by playing in snow.”

Gaffney said he lived in a room so small it felt like a closet when he first arrived in Tahoe City. This was a step up from employee housing in Colorado, where he had worked as a lift operator at Keystone.

“I think it’s just a lot more difficult to be a ski bum today. Because of the expenses of living in ski bum places, living in ski towns,” he said.

Gaffney has certainly been around long enough to have encountered plenty of personalities that exemplify the term ski bum. He’s made his career out of telling their stories, among other subjects. Most of us probably know people who focus on skiing over other priorities. Some of us may do that ourselves.

How many of us haven’t worked a string of low-paying, seasonal jobs, or slept in cramped bedrooms with annoying roommates so we could ski? Surely, we’re not all ski bums. Are we?

Like many ski town folks, employment has been at the forefront of concern to George “Skip” Wilson IV. In 2006, Wilson came to Tahoe, and a friend from college got him his first job working nights at a grocery store.

“That allowed me to ski days, so it sounded great,” he said.

For most of the next 14 years, Wilson exemplified the work/play/chase winter description that should sound familiar to ski town residents. 

“I’ve worked at grocery stores as my year-round gig and then lots of work at ski shops in the winter and restaurants in summer,” he said.

Wilson isn’t showing any sign of leaving the lifestyle any time soon. In 2020 he relocated to Whistler, British Columbia.

“I had a one-year work permit lined up and it sounded interesting, and it was something I wanted to do,” he said. Currently working at Tahoe Dave’s Skis and Boards for the winter holidays, he has applied for permanent residency in Canada and hopes to return soon.

“All of a sudden, after a decade plus in Tahoe, you’re moving to Whistler and saying, ‘Maybe Canada is the next 10 years.’”

Wilson said one thing that has changed about being a ski bum is the attainability of the lifestyle.

“I think the factors that motivate people to leave a ski town or leave the ski bum lifestyle are much more powerful now than they’ve ever been.”

But he considers himself fortunate and has had the opportunity to take ski trips all over the world.

“I got fantastic healthcare benefits and paid vacation and retirement, lots of things you don’t get with ski town jobs,” he noted

Carolyn Highland, who was recently featured in Backcountry Magazine’s YouTube series The New Class, teaches humanities at Tahoe Expedition Academy in Truckee.

This “new class” of ski bums are talking at least as much about what they do off the slopes as on them.

“I definitely live here because of skiing,” she said. “Living in Truckee affords me the opportunity to be able to ski tour all the time.”

During graduate school at the University of Denver, Highland became unhappy with her skiing to driving ratio.

“I found myself driving an hour and a half on a weeknight to go skin up the resort,” she said. “Luckily, being a teacher is a job that’s pretty portable,” she said.

Highland sought out a solution that combined her passion for skiing and her dedication to her career as a teacher and writer, and in 2018 relocated to Truckee.

“I feel really grateful to have a job that is really meaningful to me and is something that I’ve put a lot of time and effort and education into getting, but also allows me to live in a ski town and to be able to ski all the time,” she said.

WISDOM IN THE WILD: Carolyn Highland’s book, Out Here: Wisdom from the Wilderness, a collection of essays about her time living and working in the outdoors, debuted in September 2020. Photo by Joe Connolly

The idea of a ski bum “hopefully is moving into something that encompasses a lot more people and allows people to pursue multiple things at once,” she said. “It feels like it’s changing a little bit in the way that it’s defined.”

So, what is it that we are saying when we use the term ski bum?

Ski bums are more than the physical characteristics they symbolize; they are more than the spaces they occupy, more than their purposes and intentions, more than their actions and behaviors, even.

For better or worse, modern-day discussions include the influence we have on our peers and community, our impact on the world around us, our living situations, our careers, our relationships.

Ski bums are not campy caricatures from pop culture or vintage relics from the old days. We are talking about the community itself. Ski bums still walk among us. They are us. We are all bums. And we are all in this together.

When we talk about ski bums, are we not just talking about each other? 

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