Feature

The Ultimate Guide to the Modern-Day Ski Bum

Contrary to the popular belief, ski bums aren’t extinct—they’re just evolving.

By
November 2013

NOT DEAD YET

Contrary to popular belief, ski bums aren’t extinct—they’re just evolving.

➜The question surfaces every fall. When the golden-brown cottonwood leaves littering the ground start collecting a coat of ice, people here in Steamboat Springs—and in every mountain town across Colorado—begin to think about winter. And that’s when they ask: “Where have all the ski bums gone?” Obituaries mark the passing of a vanished breed or decry the bum’s metamorphosis to some tamer version that lacks the swashbuckling style of yesteryear’s hedonists. Either way, as ski season approaches every year, these high-altitude pundits declare with certainty: Ski bumming is dead.

They’re not the first to note the extinction of the ski bum. Bumming apparently died out in 1969, when Dick Barrymore made The Last of the Ski Bums. As an excuse to string together powder-skiing scenes that remain just as adrenaline-inducing today (and all the more impressive for the leather bindings and long skis those experts wielded), the movie followed the roving life of Ron Funk. “He’s 33 years old and has never held a permanent job. His whole life has been dedicated to the sport of skiing,” Barrymore narrates, then eulogizes: “Ron Funk represents the end of an era. He is the last of a dying breed known as the ski bum.”

Fast-forward four decades and the argument goes like this: Ski towns have become too pricey, too corporate, too glossy for ski bums. The habitat of those who scrub dishes, sleep on sofas, and vagabond between powder shots has vanished, taking with it a subculture that sacrifices material comforts and accepts near economic ruin in order to live in the moment.

Yet if ski bums are truly extinct, then I’m at a loss for what to call the waves of young people who wash up every autumn in Steamboat, where I’ve lived since dedicating my life to ski bumming more than a decade ago. These 20-somethings arrive in rusty pickups or hand-me-down sedans that park in clusters around de facto flophouses where the distinction between tenant and guest is blurred. They dole out slices at the local pizzeria, bump lifts, and staff front desks (as I once did, wearing the property’s regulation leather vest and bolo tie). Yes, the vast majority of them drift away when the melting snow triggers a receding tide of so-called seasoners, but I think it’s fair to say that ski towns still see plenty of those pleasure-seeking rolling stones. And I believe it’s fair to call them ski bums—even if they’re just flirting with the skiing life.

Any real census, however, has to include another, more committed class of ski bums—even if they don’t fit the classic stereotypes. These diehards aren’t so much rolling stones as barnacles who stick themselves to the mountain life and let nothing tear them away—not better-paying city jobs, nor big-box shopping, nor potential mates, nor family. If you really love winter—if, as happened to me, the transcendence of making turns becomes one of your life’s very pillars—you stick around and trade up. You angle your way into a bartending job, do some construction work, maybe get your real estate license so you can set your own hours and cut back on roommates. You might even declare yourself a writer and start penning pieces for magazines like this one so you can hit the slopes when you please, without entreaties to any boss.

With some minor changes in the details, this has been my path. It’s a road that might seem like compromise to those who declare the lifestyle dead because they require ski bums to surf couches or live in a van—which, in truth, only works for a few months, maybe even a season or two. That wasn’t enough for me. Like so many of my neighbors, I put skiing first not just for one winter, but for all of them. I think of myself as a Ron Funk disciple—only I decided long ago to cash in the itinerancy for a stable, if flexible, job and a 30-year mortgage. On winter mornings, when I head out to catch the 7:40 bus to the gondola, I find a familiar cast of characters, all wearing the same ski gear they sported when I first met them years ago. There’s a house painter, a waiter, and a snowmaker. None of us work mornings (at least, not snowy ones). Sometimes we’re joined by a few freshmen, bleary-eyed but present and accounted for on what promises to be yet another epic powder day in Steamboat. Yeah, ski bumming survives. Ron Funk’s spirit lives on—in newbies, in the guys at the bus stop, and in me. —Kelly Bastone

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