Buddy Werner Statue at Steamboat Resort. Wikimedia Commons Photo.
I am “taking a year off from college.” Well, classically it’s starting to look closer to two years at this point and largely because of my experience teaching skiing this past winter at Steamboat Resort in Colorado. I scored first chair on powder days, skied more than a 100 days, and guided students down everything from bunny slopes to their first double black diamond. As resorts start to hire for the upcoming season, check out this guide for a breakdown of living the dream.
The barrier of entry to anybody who wants to become a ski bum is cost. Luckily pay is going up almost universally across ski resorts. However, base pay is still only going to be around $12 an hour, which leaves tips as your primary source of income. Bad news though! Most families don’t tip their ski instructors unless it’s a private lesson. Yes, I found this shocking as well. Unless teaching an upper level group of skiers, whose families have been shelling out for ski lessons for years, most parents don’t realize it’s customary. Not receiving a tip, even if it’s just beer money, is especially frustrating when you’re teaching a “never ever” skier because they require much more work than giving advice to kids who can already rip groomers. Nonetheless, snowsport schools generally have incentives for working more hours. Additionally, getting certified by Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA) or the American Association of Snowboard Instructors (AASI) will also boost your pay rate. By the end of the season, you can usually make pretty good money, especially if you start to land some private lessons.
Working as a ski instructor is a rollercoaster. Some days are incredibly rewarding and others you wish never happened. I’ll never forget guiding two teenage boys down their first ever double black diamond. At the bottom, after a round of celebratory high fives and congratulations, I went to keep skiing. One of the boys asked me to hold on because he was shaking so much from adrenaline and excitement after doing a run he never thought he’d accomplish. On the flipside, I had a young redhead girl in a “never ever” lesson who screamed “We’re all going to die!” as she charged down the magic carpet. She was much better after hot chocolate in the lodge.
Free Ski Time
The golden goose of working in any mountain town is how much free time you have to score powder turns by yourself. Good news, every ski instructor ends up with more than they think. Most ski resorts hire instructors on a part time basis with the stipulation that you can work as many days as you would like. However, some days there just aren’t enough students to go around so you get the day off. Those are always fun because the lines are short and other resort employees are usually off to ride with as well. That being said, the great thing about working as a ski instructor is that you’re always on snow. Some days your students aren’t going to be great skiers but if you can score some students who shred, you’ve just found yourself in the best job in the world. Additionally, some resorts, like Steamboat, offer training clinics for instructors in the early mornings before the public gets access to the mountain. Not only was the snow always fresh but some of the older ski instructors took me under their wing and taught me technique I never would have learned otherwise.
Ah, the crux of this article… Employee housing is one of the most important perks of working for a resort because it makes living in places like Jackson Hole, Vail, and Aspen affordable. At Steamboat, there were three different tiers of employee housing: economy, standard, and remodeled. I started in an economy unit. I’m glad I wasn’t there long because it’s six people in a two bedroom apartment. I moved to a remodeled unit because it wasn’t much more expensive and only had four people. I stayed in employee housing until nearly the end of the season when the nightly shenanigans became too much for me. As happens with most mountain towns, everybody arrives broke at the beginning of the season but start to have surplus money to spend come springtime. After a few too many late night sirens and the discovery in my apartment of some shockingly hard drugs, I decided it was best to move. Luckily there are other options in mountain towns that are affordable just not nearly as accessible. Better to plan ahead and do a thorough apartment search if you’re not willing to roll with finding the unexpected needle.
The ski instructor lifestyle is pretty unbeatable; it’s a rare opportunity to work a job that supports the lifestyle you want to live. You’re not going to strike it rich but you will meet some amazing people while doing something you love. Nearly everybody is caring, approachable and willing to help you out. In no time you will have the local happy hours memorized and even make the dangerous discovery that your favorite burger joint offers tequila on tap. Anyways, I hope this breakdown doesn’t turn anybody off from becoming a ski bum. Give it a shot, it will probably be the most fun working you’ve had yet.
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