You have finally arrived at your long-planned ski vacation. You can’t wait to hit the slopes, feel the wind in your ears, and enjoy an afternoon in a snowy mountain town.
But guess what? Life has become increasingly difficult for many people who live in mountain towns, work for ski resorts, or host clients like you. Jobs in the ski industry often pay uncompetitive wages, and the cost of accommodation at US ski resorts has skyrocketed. The pandemic has caused a severe labor shortage and intensified the housing crisis. And, of course, climate change is radically altering the lives of these communities.
While you may not want to focus on these larger forces during your ski trip, we recommend considering them when interacting with locals. After all, the last thing you want to do is make life more difficult for the person scanning your lift ticket or serving you chili at the side of the slopes.
Connor Ryan, Lakota skier and founder of the athletic and creative collective Natives Outdoors, says vacationers need to remember that the moment they set foot in a mountain town, they’re part of its fabric.
“What you get into it is what you get out of it,” Ryan says.
Outside spoke to several ski industry sources about the challenges facing mountain towns and how to be good hosts. Here are some things to consider when interacting with other people at the resort, whether you’re talking to your ski instructor, the lift attendant helping you into the chair, or the hostess seating you at the local restaurant.
Patience is a virtue
With labor and accommodation shortages, there may be a longer wait time at the lift or at the restaurant where you dine. “I talk to people from a ledge every day because they need to relax. I’m like, ‘I’m trying to help you. Can you please stop yelling at me? says Heather Adams, a skier and resident of North Lake Tahoe, Calif., who is a hostess at a local restaurant.
Be kind. Of course, a job in the mountains can be a dream, but in addition to the low salary, it can be very physically demanding. Elevators are up hours before everyone else, sweeping snow from chairs and shoveling down slopes. Thank them for their work. Say hello to the ticket scanner and ski patroller.
Be aware that many people you meet have multiple jobs and work multiple shifts in order to make ends meet. “Even if you make $40,000 a year, that’s not a living wage in Jackson,” says Clare Stumpf, coordinator at Shelter JH, a housing advocacy group in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. “You can’t even find a studio for less than two thousand or $2,500.” In case that math isn’t obvious, take it from Adams, who says, “You can’t pay $2,000 a month in housing costs on a service worker’s salary.” This means that the lifter who swept the snow off your chairlift seat could be doing a shift at the bar well after bedtime – give him a break if he looks tired while he prepares your after-cocktail .
Say thank you with your wallet
Consider making a donation. The conversation is changing and many groups are working to make the industry and ski areas more equitable, inclusive and sustainable. They include Mountain Dreamers, Improbable Riders and Protect Our Winters. “There were no scholarship programs for natives, blacks, or gay people just a few years ago in sports, and now you see a lot more of them,” says Ryan. (Ryan’s group, Natives Outdoors, has partnered with Aspen’s Ikon Pass for its own scholarship program.)
It is also good practice to tip generously. Instructors, like many other workers in the service industry, often depend on tips. According to Richard Spritz, a ski instructor at Breckenridge Ski Resort, many beginner skiers don’t understand the economics of instructors and simply assume that their payment goes directly to their instructor. “They paid $1,000 for a one-day private lesson. And their assumption is that the instructors get a lot of it, but that’s not the case,” Spritz says. Spritz has worked at Breck for a decade and earns $19 an hour teaching, but he doesn’t live off that salary. He is a retired pediatrician and professor of genetics. “If I was here as a kid, or in my thirties, trying to make a living out of it would be impossible,” he says.
Resort workers, such as ski patrollers, have recently begun to organize to fight for better pay. But ski resorts have managed not to pay their workers decently for years.
“There’s this narrative that says ‘Hey you want to be here, you chose to do this, your job is cool so we don’t have to compensate you because there are 20 guys from Michigan who would love to play your role,'” says author Heather Hansman, whose recent book Powder Days: Ski Bums, Ski Resorts and the Future of Snow Hunting chronicles the challenges of life in a ski resort. “There are these social structures that explain why wages have been depressed. But just because you’re in an attractive recreational field doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pay people for their work.
Choose your mountain town wisely
Consider choosing a small mountain to learn from. Skiing has undergone massive corporatization in the United States, with giants gobbling up independent resorts and changing the culture of skiing. “There’s this whole ski resort thing and big, expensive hotels,” Ryan says. “But there is also the start on a small local hill.”
You don’t need massive bowls and real double diamonds when you’re just starting out – in fact, stay away. A small hill can be a perfect place to learn. It can be less crowded, less expensive, certainly less intimidating and more intimate.