I never thought I’d be so obsessed with skiing that I would base my entire life around having the freedom to ski absolutely everyday, but that’s what happened. I never would have thought I’d be a waiter, caterer, part-time landscaper, and half-assed freelance writer all at the same time, but that’s what I do. My college degree isn’t doing me much good, but I haven’t missed a powder day for 11 years and counting. Shit jobs have given me the freedom to ski as much as I can, live in an incredible place, and still make a living, sort of.
This series will attempt to profile some of the best and worst shit jobs in a ski town. Don’t get me wrong, in no way do I intend to bash professions like these, they are a means to an end, the axis upon which our mountain lives spin. Without jobs like these, how would you ski over 100 days a season and still be employed?
Shit Jobs Part 5: Beginner Ski Instructor
Back in the early 1990s I watched “Aspen Extreme” for the first time. As a young kid in Connecticut, I was enamored by Hollywood’s glamorization of the journey of two ski-bums. I’m pretty sure I dreamed of moving out west, crushing the field in the ski instructor try-outs, bagging a cougar or two, winning the powder eight championships, and eventually ending up with the hot radio chick. I didn’t realize it at the time, but a lot of the story is a surprisingly spot-on representation of life in a ski town. There are obvious exceptions, but if you live in a ski town long enough you might find “Aspen Extreme” to be significantly closer to reality than you ever imagined.
By no means is the story completely realistic, Hollywood definitely took some major liberties when dramatizing certain aspects of the film. A prime example of this is the scene where TJ and Dex show up for the “ski-instructor tryouts” wearing blue jeans, boot gaiters, and backwards baseball caps, then proceed to blow doors off the competition. I’m not sure if instructor tryouts of this nature ever existed, but I can assure you that is not how you become an instructor in this day and age. For all the starry-eyed east coast and mid-westerners out there with dreams of moving West and instantly becoming the top-dog hot-shot instructor by dominating a mogul run, sorry to burst your bubble.
Two guys talking to one girl in a ski town? That never happens. ....
Teaching skiing is one of many shit jobs available at the ski area, and one of several ways to work on snow with skis on your feet. Unfortunately, contrary to Hollywood’s portrayal, you don’t become “Franz’s alternate” overnight. Becoming a top-level instructor is a long an arduous process that begins with the beginners. First-time instructors, regardless of skiing ability, typically start out teaching beginners of all ages. The payscale for newbies starts just above minimum wage and increases with time, experience, and additional certifications. Many people have made careers of teaching ski lessons, and these folks have dedicated serious time, money, and effort to the almighty PSIA to move up in the ranks, like TJ Burke did in a couple minutes at tryouts.
Beyond helping perpetuate the sport, the benefits of working as an instructor are many. You get a locker at the mountain so you can keep all your ski stuff there. The uniform helps you save on buying absurdly expensive outerwear. You get the employee discount on food and drinks, making it completely reasonable to eat in the lodge for a change. Your ski pass is free, and a few friends and family tickets allow you to get the family, or your bros, out on the hill in a pinch. The ski school line is much faster than the regular lift line, but you only get to use it when you’re working. Pro-deals on gear are intended for you, so you can afford to pick up those 7-XK’s you’ve been dreaming about since ‘93. Your technique has never been better and your goggle tan is all-time, all-freaking-time! The creative juices even get flowing when you start talking to little kids all day, coming up with various reasons why the forest is smoking, smells funny, and is coughing all the time.
You’ve got a job, you can pay the rent, you get to work outside, things are going great, until that first powder day. Teaching skiing is one thing when the conditions are bad, you might as well be snowplowing around with ten 6-year-olds on the bunny slope, at least you’re getting paid to be out there. Powder, however, changes everything. Instead of getting in line with your friends for first chair, you go to line-up. You watch from afar as the chairs start loading, but you meet up with your group at the magic carpet and start going over the basics. Somewhere between pizza and french-fries you start hearing the hoots and hollers of joy, people start emerging from the forest, faces caked with snow. Powder days are a scarce resource and freshies an ever-dwindling commodity, and you’re missing it. Many people have lost their instructor jobs because of powder days, it’s all a matter of priorities.
Hopefully you’re good at babysitting, because in many ways teaching beginners how to ski is low-paid babysitting. Kids, however, are probably the easiest to deal with, but large groups of kids can be tough. With ADHD on the rise, keeping track of your kids can be like herding cats, and finishing the day with a full group is worthy of a prize. It’s too bad you don’t get paid according to the number of times you hear the word, “why,” because kids are inquisitive and will ask you questions until they, or you, are blue in the face.
Generally speaking though, kids learn quickly, usually have fun with other kids, and they’re smaller so they’re easier to help to their feet. Sure you have to wipe their noses, take hot chocolate breaks, and tell stories, but teaching kids can be a really fun and rewarding experience, as long as it’s not a powder day.
Adult beginners are a different story altogether. Unlike children, adults are more likely to be stubborn, out of shape, uncoordinated, and slower to learn. Lucky you, your student Steve, an overweight 38-year-old computer programmer from Dallas hasn’t exercised much in the past 13 years, and you get to teach him how to ski. It’s gonna be so much fun! Babysitting adults is a strange and often horrible experience, and it seems like some people are not destined or predisposed to be skiers. Turns out that many adults, when taken out of their element and comfort zone, may act like your group of 6-year-olds. Unfortunately, it’s not nearly as endearing when an adult starts to cry.
Order your copy of Aspen Extreme, currently on sale at Amazon.com
Moving up in the world of ski instructing requires you to drink the proverbial PSIA Kool-aid. Not that ski instructors are in a cult or anything, but you do have to subscribe to their newsletter. Continuing education through clinics and acquiring certifications from Level 1 through 3 will keep your skills and teaching techniques up to date. None of these things are free, of course, but the level of skier you instruct and your pay increase in kind.
Teaching full-time puts you on the hill in your boots 5 days a week, but other than the occasional ski break, most of that time is spent working. Even though you spend 35-40 hours a week at the mountain, you don’t get to freeski that often. Putting your feet in ski boots on your day off could be one of the last things you want to do when your sixth toes are pissed, your heel spurs enflamed, sometimes your feet just need to breathe. If you’re not careful skiing becomes something you only do when you’re working. You know the saying don’t shit where you eat? Well, that has nothing to do with this, but be careful when mixing business with pleasure as the fun could be taken out of the sport you love.
All that said, the world needs teachers, how else we would learn to read, write, swing dance, ski, perform brain surgery, or Dougie? Beginner ski instructors are the corner stone of our sport. They embody many people’s first experience on the mountain and pass on what may become a lifelong passion for sliding on snow. Without people teaching beginners to ski, our sport might fade in to obsolescence and die. I know I wouldn’t be where I am today, a broke aging ski-bum waiter who writes tongue-in-cheek stories about ski town life for the Internet, if I didn’t get the stoke for skiing passed on to me a long time ago by somebody giving a beginner lesson. So, thank you beginner ski instructors, I don’t envy what you do, but I do appreciate it.
Read Shit Jobs Part 4: Waiter
Waiting tables, teaching beginner skiers, collecting seasonal unemployment—these jobs provide a means to an end. Swallow your dignity and embrace reality. After all, you can’t pay the rent with powder days and sunsets.