The recent storms and ski opportunities have many people thinking about the Tahoe ski cultures of years’ past. When did the term “ski bum” get initiated, and what does it mean? Those questions are explored by writer Bill Hatfield this month in the Moonshine Ink Arts & Culture section. I want to chime in on my own experience with skiing — wayyy back in the 1970s and ’80s. To my friends, the term “ski bum” might mean any of us that gave up the rat-race to move to Tahoe and ski all winter.
A 1980 photo that gathered dust in my hallway for years shows a friend and me posing with our new K2 210s. It’s not a remarkable photo or subject; probably any older Tahoe local has shots just like it, showing long-haired guys and gals with long skinny skis wearing jeans, cool (for the time) jackets, and shades.
Gazing at that photo takes me back to a time when I was a young longhair living and skiing on the North Shore.
Getting by was a study in early mountain economics. As people who were dedicated to skiing above all else, we worked at lumberyards or the clubs, or pounded nails to pay the rent.
Winter days became a contest of how many guys or gals could be off on any given day, since deep snow and TRPA regs meant very little work during storms. Most of us had contacts or part-time jobs at ski areas to get comps so we could hit the slopes when the boss said there was no work today.
Being off from work on a stormy weekday could mean taking first tracks at Alpine or Squaw (now Palisades) or being on the first chair to Quail Face at Homewood. All of this was with little competition from out-of-town folk, who were likely still working or else fighting through chain controls on I-80.
Before the recent corporate takeovers of our local ski resorts, comped passes were easy for locals to get, and everybody kept a ticket or two in the beat-up four-wheel-drive for that layoff day in the fresh powder.
Resorts offered discount days to locals, sometimes called Two for Tuesday, Women’s Day, or Silly Hat Day. Local school kids got comped for good grades. The annual Merchant’s Day was an event for us where we could ski free with other local workers and talk shop over a cold one or a schnapps.
We reveled in hanging out: The partying was as extreme as the skiing. On winter nights, the snow-covered streets of Tahoe City, Kings Beach, and Incline Village streamed with people having fun. Late nighters thrived at places like Pete ’n Peters, the Bridgetender (in its old location wrapped around a tree at the waters’ edge), Tom Foolery (now Wolfdale’s), all the way out to River Ranch at Alpine Meadows, the Gold Spike in Tahoma, and the Bronze Bull in Incline Village. After the bars closed, we’d keep the party going at the casinos until the 99 cent breakfast and a Bloody Mary greeted the sun.
The skiing, the bars… this is where ski legends were born. With no GoPros, smart phones, or even VHS tapes back in the day, we relied on the “cred” of witnesses or the occasional still photo to share tales of incredible shred. My heroes weren’t World Cup or Olympic racers: They were carpenters, bartenders, and ski patrollers sharing tales of cliff drops, gap jumps, and blistering straight-line chutes.
Then, in the mid-1970s, one local realized that the skiers’ feats needed to be on film. Though Warren Miller had been making ski movies all over the world for years, in the early days they didn’t really reflect the experiences that we had here at Tahoe — and they didn’t have rockin’ soundtracks.
Craig Beck, a local builder and an epic skier and hang glider, did something about that. He thought it was important enough to put his house and business on the line to finance his own ski movie.
His film, Daydreams, released in 1975, captures footage of Beck, his brother, Greg, and other local and international ski legends hucking off cliffs and chutes on 225s and pulling all the tricks of the time: backscratchers, front flips, back flips, and blasts down impossibly narrow chutes. The film captures incredible footage of Beck’s posse going huge off Palisade’s Palisades and Eagles Nest, plus other locations. They had on long skis, denim, and plenty of neon.
Beck’s film even contains footage of heli-skiing in the Bugaboos before most of us even thought of heli-skiing, all to a soundtrack that includes Pink Floyd (thanks to the love of his life). Providing a new kind of cred, Beck kicked off the current craze for recording these ski feats along with great music — the kind that even today fires up the minds of skiers and snowboarders.
A little later, Hollywood tried to capture the flavor of the scene with the 1984 ski movie Hot Dog, the Movie, sections of which were filmed at Palisades and which had locals doing the ski stunts.
While Tahoe had plenty of talented women skiers, footage was sparse until Truckee local Eric Perlman’s 1990 ski film Skiing Extreme III. Ski Hall-of-Famer Kristen Ulmer, a New Hampshire native, traveled from Snowbird to jump her skinny skis off Palisades, and inspired generations of women to huck it huge.
Now as I sit at Carnelian Bay’s Old Post Office café at the very same table I often used in 1980, the 70-inch TV screen mounted on the wall is alive with incredible shots of today’s skiers performing every trick imaginable, hucking off some of the same cliffs our heroes did then.
As the camera zooms, you can see the skis now are twice as fat as the old tools of the trade — the skinny rockets that were all the rage back when the skis — and the nights — were long.