A professional ski bum
Kiwi transplant finds higher calling in Durango

New Zealand’s Mount Aspiring, Black Peak and the Treble Cone backcountry, a perfect untouched canvas, awaits Michelle Clark-Smith’s first turn. The Kiwi now calls Durango home and is parlaying her love for soft snow and steeps into a career./Photo by Scott DW Smith

by Christine Rasmussen

In Maori culture, you don’t say your name in your introduction – you are recognized by what mountain and river and ocean you come from, then by your ancestors; your name is superfluous,” Michelle Clark-Smith explains about her home country’s indigenous culture.

Maybe that’s why the New Zealand native and Durango local – who is building a semi-professional ski career for herself in tandem with her partner-in-crime and husband, longtime local photographer Scott DW Smith – is as modest as they come. Someone may know her for months, years, before she’ll tell you she’s found a way to comfortably support the ski-bum life, something most Durangoans can wholly appreciate (not without a slight tint of jealousy). Or you’d find out by seeing her on a poster

Clark-Smith’s passion for mountains stems from her childhood, as she grew up hiking and scrambling around New Zealand’s Southern Alps. In 1999, she landed a job as a chef at a small backcountry resort, or “club field,” in Castle Hill Basin near the Craigieburn Range where at age 20, she taught herself to ski. By 2003, Clark-Smith was turning out notable results on the New Zealand freeskiing competition circuit.

“I ended up doing a whole heap of different jobs – other chef work at different hills, whatever it took to stay there,” she said.

At a New Zealand club field, a busy day is 130 people, said Clark-Smith. “All the resorts I worked at are tiny, so you end up doing everything. If there

In classic ski-bum pursuit of riding bigger mountains and riding them more often, Clark-Smith secured a work visa and headed for the Canadian Rockies in 2005. Red Mountain in Rossland and Kicking Horse in Golden, both in British Columbia, and Sunshine Village and Lake Louise ski resorts near Banff, Alberta, were among her training grounds.

When Clark-Smith decided to make the move to Canada permanent, she returned to New Zealand to tie up loose ends and spend one more winter in Castle Rock. It was then she met Scott, shooting in New Zealand on photo assignment.

Upon returning to Revelstoke in B.C., where she planned to work that winter, Clark-Smith went to Denver on business for her father’s merino-wool clothing company. She decided to give Smith a call. “My motive to get in touch with him was skiing,” said Clark-Smith. “I’m a ski bum at heart, so I saw potentially a free lift ticket in Colorado.”

In the fall of 2007, Clark-Smith came to “check out Durango” and never left. When she first went skiing in Colorado with Smith, he said, “‘Wow, you’re a lot better than I remember,’” Clark-Smith recalled. “He saw that I had some potential, so he helped me out. Scott definitely had a big hand in me being where I am today, no doubt about it. Before, I definitely looked for free gear whenever I could get it, but so does every bum. He went about it in a great way.”

Clark-Smith enjoys some powder south of the equator at at Treble Cone in New Zealand. The skier came to “check out Durango” in 2007 and never left./Photo by Scott DW Smith

First it was a Purgatory season pass, which she worked off as a ski model for the resort. Then came other sponsorships from Wagner Custom Skis, BCA, Leki, Smith Optics, Flylow Gear, Hestra and Osprey Packs.

“It’s pretty funny that I only have one photo of me skiing in all of those years before I met Scott,” Clark-Smith said. She has since been seen in Colorado Ski Country USA, Durango Magazine, Pagosa Magazine and various catalogues and resort marketing publications. This winter, I-70 commuters will see her on a billboard ad for Chicago Ridge Snowcats.

Clark-Smith recalls receiving the sublime phone call from Wagner Custom Skis owner Pete Wagner: “It’s every skier’s dream to be told, ‘Tell me what you want in your dream ski, because I am going to build it for you.’ That was huge.”

Wagner said Clark-Smith is exactly the kind of skier they look for to ride their skis, each pair built uniquely for the rider. “First and foremost, she’s a great person – in terms of us finding the appropriate people to be on our skis, that is what we look for,” he said. “Second, she’s a great skier – really smooth and stable. She has a passion for skiing that is evident in the way she skis.”

With Clark-Smith’s work ethic and passion, more opportunities likely await in her pro “ski bum” career. But she will be the last person to acknowledge that. “I feel extremely fortunate for the opportunities I have each winter – with the gear, travel, going to amazing places – but I don’t feel like I’ve earned that yet,” she said. “When I go out and ski for the camera, it’s a serious deal for me. I know we need to get a really good photo because it’s going to stoke out the people who gave me these skis, or the marketing department for this mountain, or maybe end up somewhere where some kid’s going to see it and think ‘Wow, I want to go there.’”

Spending more time in the backcountry is Clark-Smith’s primary goal this winter. “Resorts are fun, but my favorite time skiing is when I’m in the backcountry,” she said. “There’s a challenge about climbing a peak and skiing it that gets me really amped.”

Despite occasional bouts with homesickness, the 32-year-old has no regrets about immigrating to the States, even though that comes with its own set of challenges. “The hardest part about immigrating is getting asked every day where you’re from or looked at like, ‘I don’t understand what you’re saying right now,’” she said with a laugh. “I just got asked two days ago, ‘You’re from New Zealand? Now where is that?’”

Yet every day that Clark-Smith is on a mountain, she’s reminded of her roots by the graphics on her skis. “The tiki bird symbolizes loyalty to your family and to your home; on the tips of my skis is a mango pare, which is the hammerhead shark – symbolizing strength and determination.”

And written in Maori is the proverb: “Whaia e koe ki te iti kahurangi; ki te tuohu koe me maunga teitei.” “Seek the treasure you value most dearly; if you bow your head, let it be before a lofty mountain.” •



In this week's issue...

January 25, 2024
Bagging it

State plastic bag ban is in full effect, but enforcement varies

January 26, 2024
Paper chase

The Sneer is back – and no we’re not talking about Billy Idol’s comeback tour.

January 11, 2024
High and dry

New state climate report projects continued warming, declining streamflows