Heads' guide to ski town dirtbagging
By Roy Vaysmear
It’s dark, and it smells like the couch you’re pretending to sleep on has been used as a latrine. Your skin has developed an inexplicable rash. Something is tickling your face. There is a cat on your face. Take this cat off your face. When you do, you discover it’s still dark only marginally less so. It’s a January morning and your back aches.
Something very heavy falls off something very high in the next room followed by some more smashing around.
“It snowed 10 inches last night,” says your fifth, possibly sixth roommate. He’s gearing up for first chair. “You ready?”
“Yep,” you say, wearing only your undies and some stubble approaching beard territory. He reminds you to bring your butane lighter. Two minutes later, you’re out the door, unbuckled boots a-clonking. Several hours later, when you’re up to your waist in snow and busy with indigenous delicacies, you realize you have missed your shift at work and will surely be fired. You pause and weigh your options; the day is too good to interrupt. Fuck it!
If any of the above sounds familiar, you friend, are a ski bum. How did you get here from there?
Well, let’s start with our fair planet. Earth is a lot like you and me: tilted 23 degrees at all times, mountainous, about 4.5 billion years old, and full of water. The 23-degree tilt gives us seasonal change; the water gives us snow; the mountains give us—you get the idea. Basically, it took a shitload of chance and the guiding hand of Jah to make riding even remotely possible. But if “modern” humanity has existed here for about 35,000 winters, why the hell did it take so long for us to figure out that riding, i.e., one of the few worthwhile things to do in winter, absolutely rules?
Scientists aren’t sure. Crazier still, the ski phenomenon, spawned roughly 4,000 years ago, has only been observed as a religion since the early 1970s, when it first became popular to ditch school, career, family—whatever—and move to the mountains for a winter or 20. Lured by the promise of fresh snow, good herb, and the dimmest prospect of getting laid, thousands of riders the world over began migrating as seasonal citizens—make that tribal members—of what is known as the White Planet. However rich or poor, young or old, devotees flock to the snowiest parts of the globe with nearly singular purpose: to go riding, smoke themselves retarded, work as little as possible, and do it on the cheap.
Romantic? Yes. Idealistic? Sure. Real? Absolutely. But life is not all pow days and blazing up on the lift. For every pow day, there are six nights up to your elbows in the mysterious opacity that is dishwater. For every laughing fit in the trees with new friends, there are five nights of sleeping on crab-infested couches, fetid with moist ski socks “hidden” under the cushions.
There’s a pile of Brussels sprouts under all the gravy of the White Planet, kid. This is your survival guide.
Having ridden in eight different countries across three continents, I can safely tell you, unequivocally, that it taught me one lesson: Don’t bother looking for the world’s best riding outside of British Columbia. No matter where you go, you will find abundant snow, chill locals, and beautiful scenery. Oh, and you may find a few people that may offer to sell you something they grew. That said, there are lots of good spots, too. Here are a few of my favourites.
Perhaps the mother of all things Interior British Columbian, this resort is an absolute powder goldmine. Granted the lift infrastructure has been upgraded extending the inbounds terrain, this resort still has a mom-and-pop-style vibe with massive backcountry terrain. Make friends with experienced locals who know where the backcountry stashes are at, learn how to use an avalanche beacon, carry the appropriate gear, and you’ll be neck-deep in prime Selkirk fluff in no time. Nearby, Nelson is a gorgeous town of 10,500 and arguably the cultural centrepiece of the B.C. interior. It has over 40 restaurants, a thriving arts and culture scene, hot springs, and a winter vibe second to none.
Don’t miss: Oso Negro, arguably the best coffee shop in the province.
A short drive down the highway from Nelson lies Red Mountain, home to the best inbounds terrain east of Whistler. Big dumps are frequent here, but the elevation is a tad lower than Whitewater so when the mercury shoots north, it can occasionally rain. No worries—the next dump is only days away. Fiercely independent with an unpretentious vibes, Red Mountain is the oldest resort in Western Canada with a massive 3,850 acres of terrain! Rossland, population 3,700, happens to be unique, beautiful and interesting. It’s like Nelson, only not at all.
Don’t miss: The Flying Steamshovel for its selection of craft beer on tap.
This once-sleepy town was formerly inhabited solely by coal miners. Since the resort was bought by Resorts of the Canadian Rockies in 1997, the town has been transformed into an international destination. Known for its legendary bowls and steep and deep powder, Fernie gets massive storms that can linger for over a week at a time. While crowded with Calgarians on weekends, Fernie is a local’s paradise midweek. Warning: don’t fuck with the miners unless you enjoy unsolicited dental work sans drill.
Don’t miss: The Northern Bar & Stage for its authentic pub vibe and live music.
“Hey Bradley, remember when what’s-his-nuts from who’s-his-band was, like, totally in lift line beside us? Me neither. If you do go to Whistler for the riding, you’ll stay for…. the riding. If you ignore the bona fide glitterati, air kissing fashionistas, and all the attendant crap that goes with it, you’ll stand to reap the goodness of the biggest vertical in North America, huge coastal dumps (slightly heavier than Interior fluff but still good), the biggest base village, and big parties. The trade-off is that it’s extremely expensive and practically impossible to bum here unless you work for the mountain. Your lifty job may be shit, but at least you’re set up with crappy staff accommodations and a free season pass.
Don’t miss: Paying way too much for everything!
While technically not a ski town (there’s no ski area actually in it), this rapidly developing town is close to Sunshine Village, Lake Louise, and if you’re desperate, Nakiska. The first two are great places to ride, although a little stingy on snow compared to anywhere in B.C. You’ll need a car to access the mountains, but many riders have set up shop here for the choice of resorts, chill locals, and the proximity to Calgary for a city fix.
Don’t miss: Freezing your ass off in January. Oh, and head to The Drake for the best pub grub in town.
“We got married in a fever/hotter than a pepper sprout/We've been talking ‘bout Jackson, ever since the fire went out.” So sayeth Johnny Cash in his epic duet with June Carter. Jackson Hole is nestled in the Tetons—that’s French for “the tits”—and it’s a rugged range with ample snowfall. It has long been fertile breeding ground for some of the world’s best skiers with inbounds test pieces at every turn. It’s also home to proud rednecks, Harrison Ford, and hippies. You can smoke to your heart’s content here, but God help you if you get caught.
Don’t miss: Corbet’s Couloir. It’s arguably the resort’s most classic test piece. There you can watch New York bankers shit themselves prior to dropping in—solely so they can tell their buddies.
When the Mormons pray for snow, Jesus delivers. Hence, Utah license plates have a state motto, “Greatest Snow on Earth.” Hyperbole, but it’s true. Okay, so this resort forbids snowboarding and it’s smack in the middle of the 3.2 percent beer state, but damned if Alta isn’t the coolest resort in the lower 48. Old school attitude, soulful vibes, unpretentious locals, and loads of steep terrain. Plus, when it dumps big, the avalanche-exposed access road is closed indefinitely. This means the Salt Lake City hordes are shut out of your private Garden of Eden.
Don’t miss: The outside world.
Mammoth Mountain, California: Aptly named.
Mount Hood, Oregon: Ski 360-degrees around an extinct volcano.
Mount Baker, Washington: Big, wet dumps, and B.C.-like vibes.
Powder King, B.C.: Far from crowds, and far from average.
It was written: “I’m a skier, not a millionaire, and because of the former, I’m not the latter and vice versa.” If you’ve saved up cash—which you haven’t unless you’re a grower—don’t bother working. On the plus side, it’s a great way to meet people like you, only not as pathetic. Here are a few classic ski bum jobs:
- Free season pass and often free staff accommodations
- Get to work outside
- Dude, you’re a fucking lifty
- Working outside in –800 sucks as bad as the pay
- You say the words “have a good one” 8,348 times a day
- Worst of all, when it’s dumping, you’re stuck in the monotony of loading chairs
- If you get caught smoking dope on the job, it’s over
- Work nights and your powder potential will remain untouched
- Unless they’re Republican, count on every kitchen staffer working stoned
- You can eat untouched food for free. Fajita plates often come back loaded with goodies. Mmm… cholera
- Dishpan elbows
- Anorexic paychecks
- It’s fucking hot in there
- Delivering to the rich and famous can lead to big sympathy tips
- If they don’t tip cash, many will tip with the other green
- You don’t have to work with douche bags that talk about how rad they are
- Work nights, ski days
- You need a car
- Deliver any time after midnight and you’ll meet glassy-eyed people glued to their PlayStation, unshaven, and living in their own filth. It reminds you of you. Just try to pretend you’re not scared.
- Work nights
- Working in a tourist-heavy bar can lead to big tips. Find the Americans because they tip huge.
- Meet tons of people
- Meet tons of people
- Difficult to pull off when high
- Working nights means closing shifts and difficulty waking up for first chair
- Misanthropic tendencies develop into homicidal urges
- Live, breath, and sleep riding
- Work alongside similarly stoked people
- Deals on gear, often comp passes, too
- Work to music
- Minimal interaction with civilians
- Shitty pay
- Some shop staff are ski nerds who could catalogue every make, model, and team member. Befriend at your peril.
- Loud machinery. Ski tuners have been known to wake up in the middle of the night because they “heard” the ski grinder in their dreams.
- Inhaling wax fumes makes smoking weed seem totally healthy
You won’t be able to afford good, clean ski town accommodation. Be the good little Hindu your parents raised and accept your fate. So let’s stroll through the archetypical dirtbag pad, shall we?
It snowed last night but nobody shovelled. Actually, no one has ever shovelled because the shovel has been buried since November. Posthole your way up the walkway or lawn, soaking your socks. A broken axe handle lies on the porch next to a pile of rotting “fire wood.” Open the balsa wood door, braced with sopping towels to keep out the drafts, and walk inside. The first thing you notice is the smell, a symbiosis of everything disgusting: polypropylene long underwear thick with sweat, wet dog, mildew, hippy, and boots that aren’t drying as much as they are slow roasting on the creaking baseboard heaters.
Condensation drips from the windows, mopped up with dark towels rolled up near the walls. Then you remember the towels you bought were yellow. The front hallway has three pairs of skis and two boards leaning against them, dripping melted snow from the bindings. You don’t bother with towels here.
The kitchen is crammed floor to ceiling with dishes. They may be dirty, but at least they’re not chipped. Beige linoleum flooring peels from every corner, revealing a hidden layer of…linoleum.
Down the hall is the bathroom that you share with five others. It hasn’t been cleaned since you moved in. Even if you wanted to clean it in a fit of Howard Hughes psychosis, you couldn’t: you’ve never bought Mr. Clean in your life. Now there’s mould in the corners, mould in the grouting, and mould in the shower. The toilet tank is topped with Club, and a few ski mags with a few missing pages. You don’t read them because you are afraid to touch them. This is where you brush and shit only.
The living room fares no better. The TV is tiny, but surrounded with a PlayStation, DVD player, cable box, ashtrays and dirty dishes. The couch is covered in wet dog hair. (Fuck, Colin promised he’d only be allowed in to eat.) A pile of outerwear, a stained sleeping bag and moist backpack are under the coffee table. Right. The guy we met in the Kootenays—how many days has he been here already?
Your bedroom is your only solace, an oasis of clean, calm privacy in a Sahara of communal everything. This room is your happy place with restorative powers, the love den you vowed to maintain. Bummer you can’t see the floor for the dirty clothes.
At all costs, eat at home and pack a lunch. You’ll be smoking a lot more than usual, so expect to get hungrier, too. Beyond the requisite No-name chips, and other junk, stock up on staples outside town. If possible, hitch a ride and do your shopping out of town because ski town grocery stores cost a goddamn fortune. Get thee to a Costco and buy shit for the whole house for three months at a time.
Buy the usual stuff like pasta, Kraft Dinner, ramen, and anything microwaveable. For instance, two Knorr Sidekicks packs are a solid meal for one and less than $5. Forget about eating meat unless you kill it yourself. But if you can spare the cash, a whole chicken is the cheapest bang for your buck. Cut that shit up, spice ‘er with Jamaican jerk rub, throw it in the oven for an hour at 350º, and you’re dialled. But since there’s not a chance in hell you’ll make chicken, here’s a sure way to get your protein: Mr. Boyardee, meet Mr. Highliner. Nuke, combine, and serve. Or, for a weekly treat, stir a $1.19 can of No-name tuna into a bowl of $0.79 No-name macaroni. Chase with a cold or warm one—whatever you’ve got.
Thank Christ for hot sauce
Back in the day, ketchup was the ultimate condiment. Today, only Philistines and five-year-olds put ketchup on Kraft Dinner. And reddening scrambled eggs? Out of the question. So what does one do if one cooks a meal that tastes like open ass?
Douse it in hot sauce. Good hot sauce is expensive at $5 a bottle but worth its weight in preservatives. The food dyes in hot sauce are fucking horrifying, too (more yellow #5, anyone?) but they sure taste good.
If you’re white trash, hot sauce is probably an alien substance. Same goes for WASPs and Quebecois. If so, start small with something like Louisiana Red Hot. Don’t buy the name brand, because they all taste the same. This vinegar-based sauce makes shitty old pasta taste awesome. Also, when you find the crusts you never ate from a week-old pizza (probably behind the couch), you know what to do with them. Go ahead and put it on anything you microwave, too.
People will tell you the next level is Tabasco, but stay away. It’s hot, but it’s bland. Go with something else, like a chipotle-based sauce or something with Chinese characters on it. A good rule of thumb is to avoid hot sauce with a label that would appeal to your dad: a horse vomiting fire, cartoon devils stabbing something, a skull, or anything with Emeril’s fat little face on it. They’re either expensive, bland, or over-the-top hot for macho idiots.
Don’t be afraid to experiment. Five different hot sauces is five times the variety on all the crap you already cook.
Everyone knows that a joint is the second tastiest thing in the world, but given you’re riding and smoking—water and fire—wouldn’t a pipe be the answer?
Of course. A wind-resistant butane lighter, a pipe, and an airtight stash are foolproof. Vaps offer an alternative to smoky-smoky clouds of combustion, while edibles are a stealth way to avoid any unwanted attention a lingering skunky aroma may attract.
But savouring the sweet, sweet taste of burning chemicals and paper are an empty Altoids tin away. Stuff two or three pre-rolled units in there. They may end up curiously minty, but they’ll work.
Smoking on the lift is a generally accepted practice in many resorts, but if you get a cranky patroller on the chair behind you, he may NARC your shit out. Patrollers have also been known to call if you’re not private about it. I’ve seen a kid smoking on the side of the halfpipe get carried away by an on-mountain RCMP officer. Smoking in the trees and out of sight from the chairs is generally fine. If a patroller bumps into you while you’re in the trees, the worst that will come of it is that they’ll want a puff.
McGiver: The Snowball Pipe
Mon dieu, you fucking stoner, you forgot papers and your pipe! The day is ruined. Or is it?
Snow, once thought only good for riding, thwarting German military advances, and building homes in the Arctic is also great for pipe building in a pinch.
Step 1: Find something long and skinny. If you’ve started unzipping your fly, you probably went to Catholic school.
Step 2: Now that you’ve found something like a thin pen, pack a snowball around it.
Step 3: Remove pen. You now have a snow chillum. Add a wide bud whole to one end but make it thin so it’s the dimension of a dime. That’s the one with the boat on it for you Canucks and the X for you Yanks.
Step 4: Place bud on end, but do NOT press it; balance it. Smokey-smokey.
Perhaps the granddaddy rule of them all: When in doubt get friendly with the locals. Don’t talk shit about how rad you are on (or off) the mountain. Don’t be afraid to smile, even if you’re broke and your virginity has grown back. You have nothing to lose, and you’re going to remember this winter forev…
Local friends can help you find the stashes on and off the hill, get you out of a bind, cover your shift at work, and help push your car out of the ditch. Think before you speak, offer to help anyone in a jam, and you should be good to go. After all, you are a ski bum, you got here all by yourself, and you know the rules. Now take that cat off your face.
According to his father, Roy Vaysmear wasn’t planned. “That asshole was an urge at a keg party,” says his proud Papa. Roy had a teary farewell with his family and set forth to ski bum for seven years through the mountains of western Canada. Between winters, he traveled extensively throughout the Middle East and Asia, where he lost his appendix but replaced it with life-affirming parasites. Blessed with good looks best suited for radio and print journalism, Vaysmear has been published in Toro, Powder, Skier and Bike magazines. He was a finalist at the 2004 National Magazine Awards and has since conquered his mortal fear of Smarties.