Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
Aspen, CO, Colorado
As teenagers, we used to keep our eyes open for the new ones, the lady ski bums who’d hit town every fall. It was before Aspen State Teacher’s College had opened its doors, and rather than “freshmen,” we labeled them “new talent.”
They weren’t much interested in us kids, as they were looking for more “sophisticated” entertainment, but we had a knack for teaming up with their male counterparts, who liked to follow us around the mountain. This naturally led to invitations to derelict Aspen parties, where we met the women we’d been drooling over all winter.
Wait a minute – this isn’t about women. It’s about ski bums, or who passes for one, anyway. In the beginning, people who fit that moniker were for the most part people of means, young elitists with Ivy League educations, trust funds and a disdain for the big-city life. They apparently thought they were pioneers by simply “putting on hold” their deep-seated ambitions in life while they played around in Aspen. Like guests at a masquerade ball, they toyed at menial jobs, drove old cars, wore nondescript clothing and rented their living quarters. For most of them, needed money was but a bank draft or phone call away.
Expatriates of the 10th Mountain Division, the Camp Hale boys set the bar high. For not only were they highly credible skiers in Aspen, but they also were interesting, handsome and daring. It was after them that the rest of the ski crowd trailed, hoping to somehow become as magical as a 10th Mountain trooper. It was all about mystique, having fun all day and going to interesting parties at night.
Of course, skiing took off like the colloquial bat out of hell, and Aspen suddenly was a world-famous ski town. Almost overnight, the term “ski bum” comprised not only just the wealthy elite, but also included young people looking for the same life, mostly on thin wallets. For the most part, even these poor, hedonistic hobos still had a leg up on the rest of society, as evidenced by the overused and overworn stories about Ph.D.s washing dishes and making beds. National magazines romanticized every powder turn, every sexually nuanced reference to freedom, and the party that would never stop, began.
The hype germinated, and before long, excellence became the standard to which everything was compared. Stein Eriksen was said to perform ballet on skis, Fred Iselin pulled off gut-wrenching, exhilarating maneuvers; night-time bashes had movie-star innuendo. Sexual exploits (real or imagined) and well-practiced swaggering were included in the day-to-day mantra of what was considered excellent.
The ski patrol and ski schools were lionized, reputed to have some of the best skiers in the world. A dedicated ski bum worked on the patrol or as a ski pro, but even members of such highly revered cliques wanted plenty of time off so they could ski without the mantle of authority over them. Correspondence between Walter Paepcke and his Hotel Jerome manager indicates that keeping reliable employees in the winter was next to impossible. My dad kept good winter help by promising they’d be done feeding the cows by 10:30 a.m. so that the hands could go skiing. Even at that, powder days were a challenge.
Well into the ’70s, “ticket packers” were hired at all the Aspen areas. Show up early, ski-pack runs such as Red’s or Silver Queen through beautiful fluff, and get turned loose by noon with a free day pass. The advent of more efficient snowcats had a lot to do with changing the ski-bum paradigm.
Many of today’s ski bums seem to be much older than 50, gray-haired second-home owners who spend an inordinate amount of time “ripping ‘roy” on Aspen Mountain, telling improbable tales of sexual braggadocio, shrewd financial windfalls and skiing ability. No one is saying they haven’t attained excellence; it’s just tough putting up with the “bullshit booster” that goes with it. The tragedy of some Aspen men is marrying women who can outski them.
Anyway, whether you’re a ski bum or just like to ski, winter is fast approaching, and it’s time to remember where you stashed your stuff.
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