The Remarkable Staying Power of Ski Bums
The disappearance of ski bums has been predicted for decades, yet the lifestyle perseveres, albeit evolved.
By Brigid Mander // Photography by John Slaughter
The flick The Last of the Ski Bums opens like so many ski movies: clips of skiers making turns on steep, deep, open faces and through trees, disappearing in a wall of white. It gives viewers the same feeling as any movie from 2019. Filmmaker Dick Barrymore’s opening voiceover laments that it used to be common to see ski bums on the road in Europe, but not anymore—a common topic in today’s outdoor media—so it sounds like a 2019 ski movie, too. But you know it isn’t a 2019 movie because in it skiers’ knees are together, pole plants are upright, and the skis are long and skinny (and then there are the outfits, which, well, go watch the movie for yourself). The Last of the Ski Bums was released in 1969.
It’s now been fifty years since Barrymore noted the demise of ski bums and ever since, ski and outdoor journalists have agreed, predicting in various articles and books the imminent disappearance of the lifestyle. (Jeremy Evans’ 2010 book In Search of Powder is subtitled “A Story of America’s Disappearing Ski Bum.”) But all it takes is five minutes in a lift line out at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort (JHMR) to see that ski bums, practitioners of a carefree lifestyle whose mantra is simply: “Ski as much as possible,” still exist.
“A ski bum is someone who organizes their life around skiing, so their days are free for skiing,” says Wade McKoy, a Jackson-based photographer and writer who moved to the valley (to ski) in 1974, and has been documenting skiers of all types ever since. “When I got here, I remember Tom Raymer lived in an igloo on the mountain, and ski patrolled during the day. There are still those classic ski bums out there, I think.”
McKoy is right, kind of. While there’s no one living in an igloo at JHMR anymore, every season I meet a new crop of ski bums. But it is more and more difficult for traditional ski bums, aka skids—those fresh out of high school or college and on tight budgets—to find inexpensive places to live. During my ski bum days in the mid- and late-00s, I was one of these and lived in draughty cabins, sheds, lofts, and even a cozy laundry room. The low rent for places with such, umm, personality, allowed me to ski more than I worked in the winter, and, during summer, often take a month or two to travel to South America to ski. These ramshackle rentals are disappearing though; in the last few years I’ve watched as most of the places I lived in were sold and redeveloped into properties that are well beyond a skid’s budget. And while it was never easy being a skid, the housing situations in ski towns across the country have made it more difficult today.
At the same time, 60 is the new 40, more jobs can be done remotely, and a work-life balance has grown in importance. For every tenacious skid skiing up all the powder, bucking convention, and doing as she pleases with only next season in mind I meet someone who’s retired early so they can ski 100 days a season or a 30- or 40-something who has created a work life that allows them to prioritize skiing. Today’s ski bums might come to the lifestyle in different ways but have crucial elements in common: They organize their lives around the sport of skiing and are unconcerned with the outside world.
EMILY WRIGHT // Pure Skid Life
Emily Wright gets into the goods at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.
Emily Wright sees no obstacles—including little money and nowhere to live—to achieving her dream of skiing as much as possible. (This character trait of Wright’s is an important foundation for success in life, but an absolute necessity for successful skid-dom.) Last winter, the 23-year-old wrapped up her fifth season in Jackson—skiing all day, every day, including more than 100 days skiing off the JHMR Aerial Tram—without a job and without paying rent or paying for a ski pass.
“You can make it just fine if you lower your standards,” Wright tells me over a couple of semiwarm beers pulled from her backpack. We’re hanging out in the base area of JHMR after ripping around the resort all day, making top-to-bottom, nonstop tram laps in a few inches of soft new snow, skiing Rendezvous Bowl to cliffy tree runs to the Hobacks.
A native of New Zealand who started skiing with her family when she was a kid, Wright first came to Jackson in 2013. Her older brother said it was a good ski mountain, and that he’d come visit. Also, winter in Jackson coincided with her summer break from university (she graduated with a degree in marketing in 2017). “It seems a waste of my youth and of this body I have, not to do this right now,” she says. “I’m so active, I like skiing so much. I can work and make money when I’m older, when I don’t
want to ski all the time and jump off cliffs and stuff.” During her first few winters here. Wright worked as a ski instructor at JHMR’s Mountain Sports School (MSS). By working for the resort, she got a season pass.
But last winter, her first here as a college grad, she didn’t work at the MSS, or anywhere else. She wanted the full ski bum experience. To get a free season pass Wright volunteered two days a week as a JHMR ski host. To live rent-free she made a one-time investment of about $3,000 to buy a van formerly used for cleaning carpets. She named the van “Free Candy” and made it livable by putting in a new floor, a bed, clothing racks, and even a dresser she found on a curb. “It is expensive here,” she says. “There is nowhere to live. But people still want to ski bum.”
Even with her expenses minimized, Wright kept a tight rein on her funds and an eye on the ball—she was in Jackson to ski, not to run out of money and struggle to pay her bills with pittances from a low-wage job. “I’m really good at saving. I don’t spend much on food or booze, like most people are doing, and I don’t let anything go to waste,” she says. “I don’t live paycheck to paycheck, and I keep a safety fund. My bank card broke, too, so I really can’t spend money from my savings, unless I take out cash.”
Wright once stretched $7 over two weeks. “I don’t even know how I did it,” she says. “I might have spent $5 on a hockey ticket, and maybe $2 at Nick’s [the café below the tram dock]. I think there might have been a lot of events going on those weeks, with [free] food and stuff. And, sometimes friends give you leftovers, too.”
Having survived last winter, this winter Wright may return to Jackson, or she might try ski bumming in Whistler, Canada. “This is a cool time to be doing this. I don’t know that I want to be doing the same thing when I’m thirty,” she says. “But for right now, I can keep doing it.”
SHARIF ZAWAIDEH // Ski Bum Evolution
Sharif Zawaideh soaks in his hotel pool after a big day on the mountain. “It’s more bougie [in Jackson] now, it’s definitely no longer the Wild West,” he says.
In Sharif Zawaideh’s world, his only workday during winter is Monday. So his ski bumming isn’t technically skiing all day, every day, but it’s not too shabby an evolution from the 12 years during which he did ski all day, every day. “It’s tough not being a full-time ski bum anymore. I miss all the party days, and spring skiing. And the less I ski every season, the less I feel on my A-game,” he says. “But then the rest of the year, I do other things with my life which also make me happy, and it’s nice to know that I could support a family.
In 2014, Zawaideh founded Global Operations and Logistics, an event management company with clients including festivals like Bonaroo and Burning Man. For nine months of the year he works full-time. But for three months every winter, it’s Mondays only; he deals with the rest of his work via phone while riding the bus, the tram, or anywhere there happens to be cell service. While skiing full-time three months a year is a dream for many, it is a step down for those who know better. “If I could change anything, maybe I’d have [full-time] ski bummed for a little longer,” Zawaideh says. “Now, if I miss a powder day because some conference call happened to be scheduled, it still eats away at my soul.”
Seattle-born and raised in a family of nonskiing Jordanian immigrants, Zawaideh was introduced to the sport thanks to a bare-bones weekend kid’s program at Alpental. He was hardly obsessed, but, post-college and unsure of his next steps, he moved to Jackson to meet up with a friend and take a couple of months to figure out his future. Three ski seasons later, during each of which he skied 120 days, Zawaideh was far from the clueless, mediocre skier he’d been when he arrived, and he was totally hooked on the sport and lifestyle.
Zawaideh’s story is one of ski bum lore. Over his 16 winters in Jackson Hole, he spent some in conventional housing, others in hovels with no running water, and even four winters living outside. During the latter, he creatively linked up places to shower and eat; nights were spent in a sleeping bag in an MSS teepee at the base of JHMR. (He was up and out by 6 a.m. every morning.) “One morning, I woke up in a 16-inch snowdrift. I’d be first in the tram line. I’d ski all day,” he says. “It wasn’t just about money. It was a bit meditative, and that first winter I found I enjoyed sleeping in uncomfortable places, and learning to be really minimalist in my needs. The next season I came back to town with a minus-20-degree bag and moved back into the teepee. I think the resort knew, but they ignored it.” By the fourth winter, Sharif says the teepee became lonely; he moved indoors for 2011-12, and now, in 2018, the 38-year-old says he has become a “boring old working man.”
Good ski bums are opportunists, and when the opportunity to make money—a lot of it—in the summer came along by accident, Zawaideh seized it. He had volunteered at a small music festival in Washington, found he was skilled with the logistics of it—and enjoyed doing them—and doors began opening, culminating in him founding Global Operations and Logistics.
Nowadays, Zawaideh rents a small suite at a Jackson hotel for the winter. He’s done well enough with his company that he’s in the market for a local house. As far as the state of ski bums that came after him? “It’s more bougie here now, it’s definitely no longer the Wild West. It certainly doesn’t seem like people are living above garages, or in sheds anymore. But ski bums are a very resilient species.”
ALEX GAMBAL // The Sweet Life
Alex Gambal enjoys a bluebird day in Rendezvous Bowl.
Alex Gambal has a perma-grin. He has a goggle tan. He skis every day. Sixty-one-years-old, Gambal cuts a youthful, fit figure, and his new friends are in their twenties and thirties. He beams and walks around practically bursting with happiness, as if not even his perma-grin is enough of a release. This is because finally, starting in 2017, Gambal skis as much as he wants.
“I worked for 39 years!” he exclaims, by way of most unnecessarily excusing his early, semiretirement. Gambal and I chat after an afternoon of skiing in the spring sun. Our conversation is not fueled by a warm beer pulled out of a backpack, but by a crisp, white Burgundy. We sip in the civilized quietude of the members-only club in the new Caldera House, which Gambal and his wife joined as a social outlet in their new town.
In his 20s, Gambal was based in Washington, D.C., and had a successful career in real estate and finance. Yet he had an inner itch to shake it all up, so he and his wife at the time and their two kids moved to France for a year. The plan was for Gambal to work for a wine exporter and then return to the U.S. But he fell in love with wine culture, and one year became 25.
Today Gambal’s an accomplished vintner, with 30 acres of vineyards in the heart of France’s Bourgogne (Burgundy) region and his own winery, Domaine Alex Gambal. After two and a half decades, the latter was finally ready to thrive without Gambal’s constant presence; he and his second wife, Diana Williams, a former professional moguls coach, decided to return to the place he’d visited and fallen in love with on a 1975 family trip his senior year in high school and where they could ski their hearts out.
In 2017, the couple found and purchased a modest house off Teton Village Road and, to make it feel like home, had 500 cases of wine shipped over from their stock in France. Before moving, Gambal trained to ensure he’d be ready to get the most out of skiing. “I hiked up and down the hills in France, with weights in a pack, so I could be fit to ski here,” he says.
Settled in Jackson Hole, Gambal does rise early to catch the end of the workday in France and deal with business. “I get that done, and then I’m like—great! Now I can go up and ski!” He skis six days a week, close to 100 days a year, and is learning the skills necessary for safe backcountry skiing.
While they could live in the bubble of Jackson Hole second-home-ownership, Gambal and Williams don’t want to. They’ve fallen in love with the valley’s community and culture and take almost any opportunity to get to know other passionate skiers. Gambal volunteered as a ski host not so much for the free ski pass it comes with, but to get to know more people and better understand local issues.
As to whether new ski bums in Jackson are going to be more like him and Williams—instead of skids—Gambal hopes not. It is not directly a problem for him, but Gambal finds the issues facing young ski bums on tight budgets a sign of an undesirable community direction. “The untenable housing situation is a concern,” he says. “How are you going to maintain a fun, genuine, mixed community with different kinds of people? When you ski you can be friends with anyone: No one cares what was or is your career, only where you want to ski, climb, hike, or fish today. This mixed community is what attracts people here and frankly keeps the crowds away who are looking for the hot disco, bar, or restaurant.” It turns out being a ski bum with money isn’t nearly as much fun if it doesn’t come with the other side of bumming—the skids.