The changing face of the Aspen ‘liftie’
December 19, 2008
ASPEN The snow wouldnt stop coming, so Lucas Garcia Del Val kept shoveling. Off in the distance, whoops of unbridled joy could be heard from skiers and snowboarders plowing through tracts of soft, fluffy powder on Aspen Mountain. Every few seconds, packs of jubilant snow riders, their grins shrouded by encrusted snow, arrived in line at the bottom of the FIS chairlift and bypassed Garcia Del Val in their rush to get back up the mountain.Ah, the plight of the liftie on a powder day. Contrary to first impressions, though, Garcia Del Val didnt bemoan his station in life. Not even close. On this Tuesday, a little more than a week before Christmas, there was no bah-humbugging. No grumbling about venturing out into the frigid early morning to catch a bus after trying to catch some sleep in a house packed full of fellow Argentine college students. No regrets about having to spend the morning snowblowing and shoveling and loading skiers onto chairs in the cold for a low hourly wage.According to Garcia Del Val, there was nowhere in the world he would rather be than snow-socked Aspen as the holidays approached. The college student from Buenos Aires said he had a place to sleep, a ski pass and, unlike a number of other foreign students in town like him with a J1 visa, a full-time job. And the best part about that job?If we do our job well, well probably have a ski break, said Garcia Del Val. Hence, all the shoveling.At the top of the mountain, while pulling guests skis and snowboards off gondola cars, newly-minted Aspen Skiing Co. employee Angeles Dolores was still adjusting to her new surroundings after arriving in town just five days earlier. A marketing student in suburban Buenos Aires, Dolores, 21, said she settled on Aspen for her summer vacation from college after her cousin had raved about working and living here last winter. Like Garcia Del Val, she was taking in all the fresh snow and the charm of a ski town known the world over. She stressed that she didnt come to Aspen for the paycheck.We dont earn so much money. Its for the experience and the snow, she said. I like skiing and the experience of working in a different place and learning the language.
Stroll through streets of Aspen, ride its chairlifts and eat in its restaurants, and you quickly learn the language of this towns seasonal economy. Spanish. Portuguese. Theres English too, but of the varieties from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. This tiny hamlet in Colorado remains a place where college students come to work the ski lifts in exchange for those venerated powder turns, where 20-somethings come to wait tables, work at ski shops and enjoy the nightlife. Unlike a few decades ago, though, a large number of those 20-somethings arent East Coast transplants seeking a masters in ski bumming after picking up their undergraduate degrees. Aspen has changed in too many ways to count. But one indicator of a ski towns evolution is certainly the nature of its seasonal workforce. A ski bum is always the same, insists Klaus Obermeyer, who arrived in Aspen in 1947, a year after the founding of the Aspen Skiing Corp. For a man who has watched Aspen emerge from a nearly abandoned mining town and grow into a world-famous resort, Obermeyer, the ski outerwear pioneer, knows whats he talking about. At the same time, Aspen doesnt so much resemble the place Obermeyer found just two years after the end of the Great War, a small, hard-to-get-to town where you could crash in a room at the historic Hotel Jerome for five bucks and, as Obermeyer said, get a haircut for 60 cents.Being a ski bum here is more work than it used to be. Aspens gentrification has changed the towns makeup, in good ways and bad, depending on who you ask.A lot of us could afford to buy into Aspen then, said former Aspen Times editor and author Mary Eshbaugh Hayes, another well-known local who arrived in town in 1952. Now I dont think the ski bum can. Theyre just here for a year or two. It would be pretty hard to buy into town now.Hayes arrived in Aspen on a ski trip and stayed at the Roaring Fork Dorms now the building that houses the local Ralph Lauren Store for $2.50 a night. She liked the town and decided to stay a while before heading off to New Zealand. But the latter plan went out the window when she fell in love with Jim Hayes, married, and started a family.In the Aspen that Hayes first discovered, the original ski bums waited and bussed tables at the Golden Horn and the famed Skiers Chalet, worked front-of-the-house jobs at the new Boomerang Lodge, the Prospector and other hotels, and skied as much as possible. Her husband-to-be lived in an old residence with a bunch of other transplants known as the House of the Joy.The original ski bums, they were usually college graduates from upper-middle class families, Hayes said. They were here to be ski bums. They worked in the restaurants as waiters and waitresses, on the ski patrol and some were good enough to be instructors. There are some similarities, except that a lot of those early ski bums stayed. They got married and they had families.Another longtime local, fourth-generation Aspenite and Aspen Times columnist Roger Marolt, said there are treasured pieces from Aspens past that will never be recovered, one of those being the familiar, year-in and year-out lift operators.Marolt even remembers the names at particular chairs.There was Del Gerbaz at the bottom of six. Rob Gagne, he worked at the bottom of eight. Leslie Trulove, bottom of Lift 1, said Marolt, who, at 44, has been skiing on Aspen Mountain since age 3. You knew all of them. They were as much of the personality of the mountain as the runs, restaurants and lifts Back then, I think there were a lot less of those transients who come into town every year.
What changed? Put simply, Aspen got discovered. A place so beautiful, so idyllic, with such incredible skiing was, as Obermeyer could see more than 60 years ago, destined for fame.And with that glitz came all the trappings: Pricier stores and restaurants, soaring property values, exclusive establishments and a fixation with status.There was also a downside: Rising rent, a scarcity of affordable places to live and the subsequent lack of an available work force. Aspen became a town that coined a saying: the place where you had to have two jobs or three houses.The rise of seasonal workers arriving on visas from around the globe in the last 10 years grew out of simple economics. There were more low-paying seasonal jobs than there were willing workers in the U.S. This winter, that isnt the case amidst a tight local job market. Jim Laing, the Aspen Skiing Co.s vice president of human resources, said the current global economic slowdown has created more domestic interest for Skico jobs than the valleys largest employer has seen in years. (see related story)That domestic demand also comes during a year when the Skico has had to contend with a smaller allotment of H2B temporary worker visas, per legislation in Congress.But throw the start of this winter out, and the prevailing trend for the last decade has been that seasonal employers in ski towns had to look outside the U.S. to fill their staffs.That search led to employees from around the globe, especially from countries south of the equator.Weve only gone to visas when we havent been able to satisfy our demands domestically, Laing said. And, he added, the Skicos percentage of foreign workers has historically been much smaller than other prominent ski resorts, about one in 10 workers.Still, for visitors and residents, it was easy to notice a shift. The majority of lift operators may still be in their early 20s, but instead of coming from California, Wisconsin or Connecticut, a sizeable number hail from the likes of Peru, Argentina and Brazil, among others. And instead of hearing European accents among ski and snowboard instructors, like when Fred Iselin ran the Highlands ski school, nowadays your instructor is more likely to have an Australian accent.I saw that shift starting. I saw a lot of Australians and New Zealanders coming in the 70s, Hayes said. I think up until about the 70s, it was still pretty much that early group of people who came from the East Coast to be ski bums. But I think when the Aussies and New Zealanders started coming on their own, the ski company saw that, and they began to encourage it and arrange visas. It works really well. When its summer there, its winter here.Marolt admits himself that the changing face of the seasonal worker is just one sign of a different Aspen for better or worse. I miss that, going up on the mountain and youd know all the [lift operators] and youd look forward to seeing them the next Thanksgiving, he said. A lot of the time, you wouldnt have seen them over the summer and youd catch up with them.But, given Aspens evolution, the changes are understandable.Its both sad and its a sign of the times, but if you dont have a lot of money socked away, its pretty hard to come to a place like Aspen and be a ski bum, he said. I remember when you could pick up new skis at the ski swap. There were more cheap places to stay. The restaurants were a lot cheaper. I think it would be a really daunting task right now to graduate college without a lot of money and come to a place like Aspen.
Some things never change, though. One of those is the revelation of Aspen for first-time visitors who have only heard of this place before arriving.The awakening that Obermeyer felt when he blew into town more than 60 years ago is virtually the same one that Ricardo Simal, a 22-year-old from Cape Town, South Africa, experienced when he showed up here last month.When I first came here, I thought it was phenomenal, Obermeyer said. Where I come from in the Alps, you dont have snow like this. You had snow, but you could ski deep snow here. The first night, it snowed about six inches. The next morning I put the skis down and the snow flew down. I said, Wow, thats a really dry snow. Then the sun came out and it was just beautiful. That next night it snowed again. After that, I decided this was the place.Simal, for one, had never seen snow before arriving in Aspen on a J1 student visa to search for a job and learn to snowboard, after years spent surfing and skating in his home country. So far, waking up every day and observing his surroundings still feels like a waking dream.Im loving it, said Simal, who found work at D&E Ski and Snowboard Shop selling ski and snowboard apparel and equipment. A lot of work, but obviously thats gotta happen. But I mean, its awesome. Theres people from all over. Its not just Americans. Its multicultural. I dont know the difference between [all the other resorts], but my friends came here to Aspen. They say like Vail is just a hotel on a mountain. But Aspens a village, a town. Theres a vibe with the people, and its a great town, you know?That sentiment, it seems, still translates in any firstname.lastname@example.org