How You Can Give It All Up to Become a Ski Dirtbag
Ski bum, dirtbag, skid, whatever you want to call it, the point is you’re someone who prioritizes skiing—that feeling, the flush of adrenaline and cold air—over everything else.
My first year working menial labor on the mountain I was part of a wave of rookies, bright new gapers, slightly out of place, standing around scanning tickets or bumping chairs. A lot of those people left in the spring, back to Minneapolis or St. Louis or Maine, for real jobs and relationships. We’d all moved to the Vail Valley looking for adventure, but they had just been trying on the shape of ski bumming. In the mountain town hierarchy, the gap year single season kids are the worst. They’re just above the fumbling, entitled tourists. But if you stick around for a summer, then another winter, people start to treat you differently. You do it, then you keep doing it, and your life takes on a certain arc, you’re a skier for real.
By my second season I’d developed muscle memory in the click of buckled boots, and a quick hitch through the lift line. A new wave of first year lifties and ticket scanners rolled in with the winter, and I took on an eye-rolling sophomoric judginess, and a spiky territorialism. I didn’t want to be associated with the new girls, I wanted to draw a line around myself, to prove that I was committed, that I knew the ropes. I have always been a know-it-all but I’m sure I was particularly insufferable that winter.
I wanted to be a diehard, a local, a dirtbag, a ski bum. I beat myself blue lapping bump lines, trying to teach myself effortlessness through effort. That should have been a sign that I’ve always been too much of a try-hard to really make it work, but after hours of hacking turns, I had a stake. This was my mountain now. I had favorite runs, I had sneaky hideouts, I had a much older ski patroller boyfriend, who made me feel legitimate, even though our relationship underlined every stereotype. Even as he helped me hone my backcountry skills and took me deeper into the mountains it was hard to shake the new girl tagalong feeling. I was constantly insecure about my rank and place. But I had a second job at a pizza place with a contingent of local barflies, who started to remember my name, and I started to recognize the terrain park crew when they came in for happy hour. I begged the old patrollers for stories and learned which hotel pools you could sneak into. There was novelty in feeling like part of the rhythm.
A big part of skiing is commitment, in the time spent getting to know the mountain and the decision to throw yourself in. When do you become a ski bum and who counts as one? Even saying ski bum is part of the myth and the manifestation. There’s a privilege in claiming dirtbaggery.
Ski bum, dirtbag, skid, whatever you want to call it, the point is you’re someone who prioritizes skiing—that feeling, the flush of adrenaline and cold air—over everything else. Love, stability, money, or friends, there’s an adage that none of those matters on a powder day. Psychologists call that rejection of norms antisocial behavior, and that’s another common thread. Ski bums don’t play by the standard rules of society very well.
You learn to spot the signs of dedication quickly in the mountains, because ski bumming is physical, psychological, and temporal. You can pick out the smooth locals by how they carry their skis and stand in their boots. The racers flexed forward, ready to run. It’s the people with next year’s skis, but a hat their dad got for free in the ‘80s. They’ve got meals in their pockets (PBJs and PBRs, bacon, whiskey), and a certain patina of use. It’s most visible in motion, the low-effort ease of initiating turns. It’s knowing gravity and how to bend your body to it. It helps to be obsessive because it is part practice, part love, no part rational thinking. It’s the way you chase motion, and the things you give up by living outside the rules.
But the space for that dedication is narrowing. You have to be fulfilled by the routine and rush of the job. It isn’t a logical lifestyle to hold onto. “Who among us would think of doing it now, and who would be able to pull it off?” Historian Annie Coleman says. “It’s been a long slow march toward increasing capitalization, and in a more corporatized labor market, the space for ski bums has been narrowing. It’s racially and economically so narrow.”
To really prioritize skiing over everything else, you often have to forego some of the kinds of things that might make you happy and satisfied in the long run, like companionship and stability. You probably have to come from a subset of financial and physical privilege to do so, and you have to be bullheaded in your dedication. There’s beauty in the mid-afternoon ridge hike, but there’s also some willful negligence. You have to be willing and able to shrink the bubble, to just focus on this. It might be easy to judge the dirtbags who carve out a life here as avoiding responsibility, but there’s something beautiful and rare about the commitment.
Heather Hansman is the author of Powder Days: Ski Bums, Ski Towns and the Future of Chasing Snow available now from HarperCollins/Hanover Square Press.