The new modern ski bums
They open your doors, serve you cocktails and make sure you get on and off the chairlift safely.They surround visitors and locals on and off the hill during the ski season. They’re primarily here to ski and snowboard all winter, but they sometimes work multiple jobs in order to live in a place they love, no matter how briefly.Some pile into apartments with five or more of their soon-to-be closest friends, enduring the crowded conditions to save on rent.They put up with arrogant tourists and sometimes boring jobs, but the paychecks and powder days make it all worthwhile.They are what’s known as the freshman class of Aspen – mostly young, fresh-faced college and high school graduates discovering this ski town for the first time.”We are the plague of Aspen,” said one Australian bellhop at the Hotel Jerome. “We work our asses off, take all of your money, and we leave. Everybody knows that.”But maybe everybody doesn’t realize just how many foreigners come to Aspen for six months of the year and promptly skip town when the lifts close and the tourists vanish. They come from around the world when the rain turns to snow and vanish at the first sign of the mud months.They’re here for the snow, but they’re also here for the money. They are the new, modern ski bums of Aspen, and it’s probable that Aspen’s tourist-driven economy wouldn’t survive without them.Far-flung freshmenIt’s no surprise anymore to see name tags on ski lift operators listing hometowns in Peru, New Zealand or Romania. Aspen’s freshman classes tend to be a diverse international crowd.At Snowmass Ski Area’s Fanny Hill lift, one young lift-op in silver sunglasses patiently takes the hand of a small skier and walks her up to the pickup point. His name tag says “Roy, Latvia.”Roy Stalazs, 21, is from Riga, the capital of Latvia. He came to the United States on a work-exchange program and ended up working in a grocery store in Florida.”I was there for 10 months – it was the longest summer of my life,” he said. “I was sick of it, so I said to a friend, `Let’s go to Aspen.’ We checked the Internet, found jobs and came here.”Everyone knows about Aspen, Stalazs said, although it’s hard to tell if he’s serious when he says he’s watched the movie “Dumb & Dumber” (set in Aspen) several times.Stalazs taught snowboarding in Latvia, where there are “no mountains, just hills.” He first lived in a small room with his friend in Basalt, where they each paid $275 a month just to cook and sleep there.”All we cared about was a place to sleep,” Stalazs said.At first he had no money to spend in the bars, since he was saving money to buy a new snowboard and boots. But he later got into a $475-a-month studio owned by the Skico, bought his new equipment and discovered Aspen’s nightlife – a bar scene that needs more girls, he asserts.But back to the task at hand:”The only reason I’m here is the snowboarding,” he said. “When I got here, I looked at Aspen Mountain and Buttermilk, and I was shocked about the mountains [Aspen is steep and narrow, Buttermilk is small]. But I found my place at Snowmass – they have a great terrain park.”Stalazs said he’ll stick around this summer with a landscaping job, and will try and become a snowboarding instructor next winter.”Maybe I’ll stay here until I’m 30 – as long as I can snowboard and have fun,” he said.Just up the mountain, Danka Pawlitek from the Czech Republic is in shirt sleeves at the Coney Glade lift and scanning ski passes. It’s a hot and sunny spring day, and she said she’s a little bored but loves Aspen all the same.”I thought Aspen would be bigger, so I was surprised when I came here,” she said. “Aspen is pretty famous – I heard about it in the Czech Republic.”Pawlitek’s boyfriend came to Aspen two years ago, and she followed him this year after a short stint of waitressing in Maine. Like Stalazs, she lives in Skico-owned housing.Ski resorts in the Czech Republic are small, and she said she has been spoiled by Aspen’s varied expert terrain. But the shopping is expensive, and although she plans on staying through this summer, she thinks work may be hard to find.”This is a fancy place, but I guess I expected something more,” she said with a hint of disappointment. “But,” she added, “I ski whenever I can.”Life is about “food, rent, transportation, skiing and that’s it,” for Mike Trudov, a waiter at Montage restaurant in Aspen who was born in Russia and has lived in Greece and France. Technically an Aspen sophomore, Trudov lived in Aspen until his first off-season one year ago, when tips dried up and he had to move to cheaper housing in El Jebel.”Aspen is the perfect match between nature and civilization – you can be in a nice restaurant one day, and step out the door the next day and there’s nobody around you,” he said. “I’ll probably stay around for one more winter season.”That Aussie essenceIt’s the ski bums who work multiple jobs and still manage to fit in some gleeful turns every week that best embody the Aspen ski bum spirit, both old and new.Standing at the podium in front of the Hotel Jerome is Christopher Day, a grinning, boisterous 23-year-old from Brisbane, Australia. On his second-to-last working shift at the podium, Day described himself as a “stock, standard worker” in Aspen:”We’re here to ski and earn American dollars,” Day said. “We come here and work our asses off – sometimes over 100 hours a week.”For his part, Day worked three jobs this winter: opening doors in front of the Hotel Jerome from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., going straight to the Alpine Shirt Company to sell T-shirts from 3:10 p.m. until 11 p.m., and sometimes driving late-night limousines for Ajax Limousine.This winter, he worked five times a week and skied twice a week with a two-day pass from the Hotel Jerome.Day moved to Aspen with 11 of his mates from Australia, who were coming to Aspen to work and save money for a trip around the United States and then around the world. They decided to live at Aspen Highlands above Iguana’s Mexican restaurant – together.And it’s not a big apartment; this season all 12 of them lived in the two-bedroom unit, sleeping anywhere they could fit.”The last guy home sleeps in the bathroom – but usually because he’s the last one home, he’s so sick anyway he has to sleep next to the toilet,” said Day. “And we never bring a woman home, if we’re lucky enough to get one. You should see what our kitchen looks like – it’s like a war zone.”Day said the apartment was really only a place to sleep for all 12 Aussies; the only time they found themselves in the same place was 2 to 6 every morning. His roommates work every job you can think of locally: Some are lifties, some work at The Little Nell, one drives the skier shuttle between Buttermilk and Highlands.Many of them got up before dawn to work, so they could have the rest of the day to ski.Although he recently graduated from the University of Queensland with a degree in commerce and business German, Day said he just wants to travel the world until he figures out what to do with the rest of his life. Aspen, he said, has been an “epic” place to spend the past six months.”It’s awesome here. The people, this place … everything,” he said. “The lifestyle is good, even though this town has shithouse nightlife, but you make it good. It’s like a bloody magnet – you get to know one person, and pretty soon you know everybody.”He and his friends partied this winter at the Lava Room, the Jerome Bar and upstairs at Cooper Street, where he became addicted to one particular video golf game.Day said he’d like to come back and live in Aspen, but he’s probably had enough of working three jobs and living with 11 roommates. He’ll come back only if he can afford a house on Red Mountain. Whether that’s a realistic goal is immaterial – Day said by the time the season got rolling, he and his roommates all agreed they were here for the run of it, and they stopped thinking of their daily grind as work anymore.As this article goes to print, he and his roommates are using $1,200 airline tickets to travel the United States and then head to Europe.Before moving to Aspen, Matt Turner knew Christopher Day only through mutual friends in Brisbane, but the two ended up as co-workers at the Hotel Jerome bell stand.”In this town if you work hard, you get rewarded for it, and a lot of us work hard,” Turner said. For him, the town has lived up to its partying reputation: “Every night is Saturday night.”He spent the last four-and-a-half months living in a two-bedroom apartment with six or seven roommates, while working three jobs: at the Hotel Jerome, the Sky Hotel and the Aspen Alps.”The only thing that matters is if you’re a local, everyone looks out for you, and you look after each other,” Turner said. “I considered myself a local for the last four-and-a-half months.”Turner is heading to the eastern United States and then Dallas before traveling with friends through Mexico, Costa Rica and Puerto Rico. They plan to watch the Australian cricket team play in the West Indies before spending three months in South America. Then it’s off to the U.K. and then Southeast Asia.It’s a long journey that began with several months in Aspen, and Turner said although he recently graduated with a degree in accounting and business from the University of Queensland, he’s not so sure if he’ll ever want to go back to a “real” job.If he ever came back to live in Aspen, Turner said he would try to work less. “I loved the skiing, the people, and the money was pretty good,” he said. “I just wanted to travel around and see if anything was different. So far, I like what I’m seeing.”Ski-bumming YanksThere are people who move to Aspen from all over the United States – many as a step between high school and college, or between college and the real world.Jared Shown is another lift operator at Snowmass whose name tag simply says “Idaho,” because that’s where he’s from, and the nickname just stuck. Kooskia, Idaho, is a town of “maybe 1,000 people,” he said, and it’s where he was born and raised.Shown’s other nicknames from co-workers include Slim, Spud, Potato and Tex, because of his slow, soft drawl. He doesn’t mind the nicknames, maybe because they’re based in truth: Shown is indeed slim and more than 6 feet tall; he also hails from a state where potatoes thrive.Shown fell in love with skiing during an eighth-grade ski trip.Now 20 years old, he graduated from high school June 4 and hit the road for Aspen the next day. A family friend had offered him a place to stay in El Jebel, and since moving he has found his own place in Carbondale.”It’s a little further out, and in Idaho I could rent a two-story house for half the cost,” he said.The Skico pays for half of his bus pass, and, although he was raised in the Pentecostal church, he’s joined Crystal River Baptist Church in Carbondale as a way to meet people and join the community.”My favorite part about working here is helping people have a good day,” he said. “If you talk to people, you can cheer them up if they’re having a bad day.”Vaughn Seery, 18, moved to Aspen from Grand Junction six months ago, and makes people smile daily when he hands them ice cream and cappuccino over the counter at Aspen’s Paradise Bakery.”I’m here for the work opportunity, the scenery and the nice people,” he said. “I want to make money here for a while to get a car and a nice place to live. But I haven’t had much luck with finding another job.”Brady Emens, 24, moved to Aspen from Atlanta to take a break from her old construction job. She has spent part of the season as a cocktail waitress at the Ute City Bar and Grill, and part as a ski instructor at Snowmass.”I love the general attitude of people here,” she said. “Everyone is so laidback – except for that whole rich-and-crazy group.” Back in Atlanta, she said her friends are getting married and growing up, and she’s happy to have escaped some reality by moving to Aspen to ski hard and work hard.`Who wouldn’t want to live here?’Aspen’s ski-bumming tradition goes back decades, and some early ski bums have become locals, some even employing the town’s current freshman class.Sam’s Knob restaurant recently scaled back to a skeleton crew, but former ski bum and current restaurant manager Michael Kiernan said this year he had at least seven recent college graduates and a handful of Romanians.It’s the four mountains and the nightlife that draws the ski bums to Aspen, Kiernan said. Some will move on with their lives, others will decide to stay.Kiernan is a good example of the latter group: He moved to Aspen in 1969, left to give Telluride a try and came back to Aspen in 1980 to make a living from his ski-bum lifestyle. He owned Cafe West at Buttermilk until the Skico bought it and gave him the job at Sam’s Knob.”I didn’t want to leave, so I made a life out of it,” Kiernan said. Kiernan said the biggest difference between the modern ski bum and the ski bums of his own day is housing opportunities. Many employers now offer housing for their seasonal staff; in 1969, Kiernan paid $70 a month to share a room at the Independence Lodge with six other guys.This past season, several Romanians worked at Sam’s Knob and lived in a couple of apartments just above the restaurant. They have some restaurant duties and also shovel snow from the restaurant’s decks and walk ways, and the housing is the definition of a ski-in, ski-out residence.”In recent years the labor pool has been much greater, because now that we have employee housing and benefits, it’s easier to get people,” he said. “Think about it: If we can offer you housing with the job from the beginning, it’s a whole different situation.”Kiernan also notes most ski bums used to be primarily from the United States, and in the past decade they have become an international crowd.”Aspen is more renowned now, and it’s a great place to make money for people from overseas,” he said. “The Romanians saved every dime they made when they lived here in the restaurant.”At D&E Snowboard Shop in Aspen, Hunter Webster is a former ski bum who has lived in Aspen for eight years. The shop welcomed many new employees from New York after September 11, 2001 – some of whom had serious careers but decided to pursue a new path after terrorism struck.This year the shop had an influx of seasonal employees from Australia, he said. And life for temporary employees got better when the store merged with the Skico, so they could offer health insurance and a full ski pass.In addition, D&E schedules no more than two full-day shifts for their employees, and spreads out the afternoon shifts so skiing time is maximized.”Our philosophy is that we know why everyone is here, and so we schedule our employees so that the odds have it that you’ll get your share of powder days,” he said. “We may not pay a whole lot, but we believe in giving them incentives, discounts and letting them get on the hill.”The Hotel Jerome offers its seasonal employees a two-day-per-week ski pass and one free meal for every eight hours of work. It’s a strategy that has worked, said Steven Holt, the Jerome’s sales and public-relations manager.”People that come here enjoy both extremes of life – they work hard, and they play hard,” Holt said. “The bottom line is that Aspen is expensive, and if you’re not working, you’re not doing much.”Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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