Time stands still for the true snow bum who knows no limit to the obsession of extreme skiing – Standing in the lift line, there are always a few gnarly skiers edging forward. You can tell they’re hot on their boards; they have that look, like they can really rip. Must be locals. Tourists sneak side glances out of the corner of their eyes, thinking, The lucky dogs, ski bums… livin’ the life.
Why have we chosen life in the mountains? Apart from the vow of poverty many of us have taken to live here, it’s physically demanding and you have to have decent tires. lt’s not for everybody.
That’s okay. Everybody takes a wrong turn now and then, before they see the light.
Beth, who waits tables, cocktails and now is an EMT, used to be a school teacher and has a masters degree. She knows what it takes. Bob, who now buys $17,000 worth of wine for two restaurants and a bar, speaks three languages, graduated from Georgia Tech and was heavily recruited by the CIA.
He knows what it takes.
Brian Swinson knows.
“It’s about quality of life on a personal level. Skiing is about self-expression. You do what makes you happy, and you are who you are.”
My brother Ken also knows.
“It comes from being a little kid, the first time you experience snow – you get all geared up with the Rainbow Bread bags on your feet. You play for hours, come in soaked and frozen and then go back out.”
It’s about zipping down the frozen street on your Flexible Flyer, looking for a place to bail in someone’s front yard. Wherever and whenever you first experience snow it becomes your little wonderland.
So, with 24 hours in a day, eight working, eight asleep, what about the other eight?
Keep in mind, there are different levels of ski bumming. There are people who are notorious for couch surfing, living on canned tuna and clipping tickets.
Then there are certified professionals who have it dialed. They expect to work long hours over holidays. They’ve lined up a night job so they can ski all day and manage to make decent money living in a place most people dream of only visiting. They work at skiing just like most of us work at working. It’s simply a matter of values.
It was the winter of 1990, an unseasonably cold January. I had just graduated, and had decided to start my new life skiing. C-lot, the parking lot at TSV, that is, became my home. Sometimes in ski towns finding a job comes easily, finding housing can be a chore. My mom and dad’s 1985 Caprice Estate station wagon with nine inches of insulating snow layer actually made a pretty good apartment for a while. With wool hat, wool socks and my down bag stuffed inside my brother’s down bag, I was quite comfortable. Twenty degrees the first night. It got progressively warmer as the temperature crawled toward freezing during my two weeks. I’ll never forget the salsa jar that after lying on its side all night now had a vertical frozen line with all the salsa in stasis on one side of the jar.
When you get the bug to ski, you somehow are able to view major inconveniences as minor setbacks. A friend of mine got it and lived underneath the dining room table for a spell. I’ve seen walk-in closets becomes studio suites.
My good friend Gary used to bring sardines and crackers, open them up on the lift. Inevitably he got that slimy juice all over himself, me and the chair. He would grind up a mouthful, lean over and stick his tongue out to show me. Eight feet in the air on the old double chair at Sandia Peak, I had no escape. He also taught me that when you come to ski you don’t stop for lunch.
There’s something about that numb, dazed feeling of total exhaustion after skiing powder all day. I remember another feeling of total exhaustion from my corporate job in L.A. that came from babysitting adults. This is different. It’s a physical drain that leaves you with a sort of HighPro glow. There’s a moment in skiing that keeps you coming back: it’s the moment of slow motion, at full speed, where time stands still. Its being in the air feeling small and compact, free-falling on a steep toward the next turn, with refined movements and quiet body, yet ripping down the steep as if the pitch is your friend.
And then it gets better.
You burned up your quads at about 2 p.m. yesterday, somehow worked through that lower back thing and made it ’til 4. You wake up, can hardly walk and all that hard work, those beautiful tracks you left, have been wiped clean by another foot of fresh. For the hard corps, there is no choice, you have to go.
You creak back into the liftline grinning and nodding at the other wounded soldiers. Kindred spirits. Crazies. And then the muscle memory takes over.
Within one run you’re back up to speed on the exalted page you thought you’d read the day before…
– Extreme skier Michael Holmquist of Taos loves snow, travel and almost every outdoor sport imaginable. He is a writer and freelance photographer. His awesome deck at TSV overlooks Al’s Run.
This article appeared on page 31 of SkiCountry Magazine 2002-2003.