Bummin’ into the season
A look at the fine art of ski bumming

Patrick Cass looks skyward from the sixpack at Purgatory on Tuesday. Although gainfully employed at Performance Peak as a ski tech, Cass still considers himself a ski bum, as he has for the last decade or so. Despite the delayed opening of DMR this year,Cass and other local diehards are not losing hope. “You just have to keep on remembering previous epic pow days,” says Cass, who has done stints in Crested Butte, Tahoe and Winter Park./Photo by Jared Boyd

by Renee Johns

With the long-awaited opening of Durango Mountain Resort right around the corner, many locals are tentatively starting to mentally map out their seasons. How many days will they get in? Do they have enough vacation hours set aside in case the powder gods smile upon us? Has the equipment been pulled out of the closet and the attic? Is every piece accounted for?

On the flip side of that scenario is a vastly different kind of “local” – one who began mapping out his or her season at the end of the last one. They calculated, down to the penny, just how much work would need to be done over the summer and what would have to be saved in order to arrive at the desired self-sustaining level that would carry them through the winter. Their mental checklist consists of questions like: If money gets tight, who do I know with the most comfortable couch? Have I located my copy of 101 Things to do With Ramen Noodles? Has the perfect winter place of employment been located that meets the following requirements, 1) minimal responsibility and 2) maximum slope time?

In their case, the equipment was NEVER put away in the attic or banished to the closets. This second grouping includes those society has lovingly deemed “ski bums.”

Whether the phrase brings up positive or negative associations, there is unarguably no one else watching the skies more closely then the “bum.”

Are they really the under-achieving and somewhat lackadaisical individuals they are at times made out to be? Or are they in fact … geniuses?

Elizabeth Barnes, 24, hails from Augusta, Maine, and has been a self-described ski bum for most of those 24 years. “I’ve been a bum my whole life in some way or another, putting the word ‘ski’ in front of it just sounds better.”

As a freshman in high school, Barnes spent most of her time at Sugarloaf, where she first took the classes and later taught them. She began in the junior pro instructor program and moved her way up through the certification levels. Then Barnes gave up the teaching gig altogether and succumbed to the inner bum that called to her constantly.

“By the time I went to college, I just wanted to ski, not teach.” Barnes said.

She was however, one of the lucky elite in that all of the couch hopping she had to do was on her own couch, in her family-owned condo on the mountain.

“I realize that not everyone is as lucky as I was to have their own condo. I admire the lengths they go to for the same end result. I knew some ‘couch-hoppers’ back in the day, but they were all accompanied by weird odors.”

Barnes is a ski bum at heart but also feels the financial pull to keep consistent employment a priority. “I have my job right now to basically justify my college education and the massive amount of money that was shelled out,” Barnes – who holds down a nine-to-five, with benefits – admits. Throughout the year, she squirrels away her vacation days in the hopes of chasing them in when the epic dumps come. “A ski bum is what I am at heart and what I aspire to be.”

Even with Thanksgiving Day upon us and the mountain’s opening delayed, there is still a lot to be thankful for, admits 27-year-old Patrick Cass. A seasoned ski bum, Cass has been perfecting the role for almost 10 years, since the tender age of 19.

“I first started in Crested Butte, next came Tahoe, then Winter Park and now D-Town.” Cass says.

He does explain that, although the word ski bum has been thrown at him more then a couple of times, it is all in good fun, and all in all, Cass considers the term a positive one. “For the most part, you are living a sweet and stress free kind of life. A negative would be that most seasonal jobs don’t bring in that much dough, but you can always make it … always.”

Unlike Barnes, Cass, who plies his days tuning skis on the mountain, did have his days of couch hopping, but only for a short, 2½-month stint in Gunnison. And, for the record, he has never had complaints about his personal hygiene or any

strange smells. The stigma is just something that you deal with and one of the sacrifices you make in order to ski as much as possible.

Barnes, true to her nature, has her skis stashed by the front door, waxed, preened and patiently awaiting that tell-tale chill in the air. She also takes preventative measures and packs two of everything in her backpack preparing for the inevitability that someone is going to forget an important piece of equipment.

“It wastes way too much time to go back for something. And it doesn’t matter how hard you work, or how hard you may have partied the night before, you need to be there for first tracks no matter what” Barnes testifies, and someone forgetting their gloves is not an excuse to miss first tracks.

It is much the same story with Cass, who acknowledges that some may think his priorities in life are a little skewed. But he admits that it is possible to have your powder and ski it, too. “The ski-bum definition changes as you get older and more responsibilities are added: family, mortgages, etc., but if you have the heart you can still have the best of both worlds,” Cass says. “In order of importance, skiing and breathing go hand in hand … everything else is just details.”

With the beginning of this winter not bringing much of the fluffy white to our corner of the state, many mere mortals would begin to let feelings of disappointment sink in, but this is not an option for Barnes or Cass.

“I have read the Farmer’s Almanac, and it is calling for snow, so I’m keeping the faith,” says Barnes.

Outside of that, Barnes notes that even what is considered a “bad” day on the slopes by Colorado standards is a good one for those accustomed to skiing the glare ice of the East.

To keep his hopes high, Cass simply remembers the powder days of “yesteryear.”

“I’m always excited for the start of a new season. You just have to keep on remembering previous epic pow days. Skiing and being in the mountains gives you a sense of purity and freedom away from the everyday ho-hums of life.” And nothing, not even the greenhouse effect or mid-November temps in the ’60s, is going to successfully quell his excitement.

So here’s to those holding out hope for the best season ever; the die-hards who still remember El Niño and the blessings it brought to the slopes years ago. This week, as we sit down to give thanks, may we reserve some space for the ski bums who refuse to give up hope. May the season’s powder prove as abundant as their unending optimism. •

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