Working at a Ski Area

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Call it serendipity. In the past few days, several people have asked me about ski area work. Perhaps the uncertainty of our economy has people scared. Maybe our culture is shifting away from acquiring “things” and instead looking for a better way to live. Or it could be that coming off the heels of a fabulous winter has some people thinking. Why not move to a ski area?

If you plan to make the move, there are several factors to consider. I’ve talked about some of these before, and plan to hit on more of these as we head toward winter. Today’s post is on ski area work.

First, consider your skills. Ski area workers are notoriously underemployed. Those with Master’s Degrees work as waitresses. Doctors become ski patrollers; business majors are baristas. That doesn’t mean you have to take any job you can get. Most of us would have a hard time as a lift operator. The unmotivated ones whittle away hours in the lift shack, the faraway look in their eyes getting more and more jaded. The motivated ones, with mad shovel skills and a friendly smile, are quickly promoted to another position. If don’t mind a brainless job and are completely without other skills, being a lifty might be a place to start. Just don’t stay there. Having said that, here a few of the jobs available at your local ski area.

  • Lift Operator. As I said above, this is an entry-level position. Pay starts in the $7-$8 range and the day includes shoveling the loading ramp and being nice to the customers. While it’s a low-skill job, it’s an important one. You’re in charge of a multi-million dollar piece of equipment with the potential to kill someone if you aren’t paying attention. Still, lifties usually last a single season–either moving up to another job or moving on entirely.
  • Ski Instructor. These guys have a coveted job. They get to be on their skis, cut lift lines with their class and get tips at the end of the day. But there is a down side. It is getting harder to find a position as a ski instructor. With more applicants filling positions, today’s would-be instructors must at least complete PSIA Level 1 training, and often need a Level 2. Pay can be as high as $14 an hour plus tips.
  • Cat Crew. Cat drivers have it pretty good. They spend their nights chopping moguls and laying down corduroy and have their days open for skiing. This is the closest thing to the perfect ski bum job I’ve ever seen. Only problem is the hours. Most cat drivers start at midnight and drive until the lifts open. Pay rates are slightly higher than ski instructors and previous experience in heavy machinery is a must.
  • Ski Patroller. This is the best job on the mountain. Of course, I’m a little biased, but it’s true. Patrollers must have first aid certification (most have Outdoor Emergency Care and/or EMT) and be strong skiers in good physical condition. A typical day might include waking at 4 a.m. to throw explosives for avalanche hazard followed by a powder run back to the patrol shack. Next up could be a toboggan ride, a shovel project, putting ski racks out or any other number of catch-all jobs completed by patrollers. Be prepared to work hard, but the effort is worth it. You might even save a life. Pay starts at $10 an hour.
  • Marketing. Today’s marketing budgets are shrinking and not just in the ski industry. But, with social media outlets, marketing dollars don’t have to go to big ad campaigns. Ski areas need someone to send out tweets and Facebook updates about weather conditions and upcoming events. While this can feel a bit like an office job at times, it’s more mentally stimulating than shoveling your ramp and a great position for anyone wanting to meet new people.
  • Management Positions. Ski areas are looking for serious, high-caliber men and women with management skills. While many of these positions are filled from the ranks, you might be surprised how often these jobs get filled from outside. If you have experience as a manager and aren’t afraid to spend time in the office, look for openings in upper management. My husband is the General Manager at Crystal, and he spends a good portion of his day skiing. While he works harder than me, (and I’m pretty tired at the end of the day) he still fits in time to check the conditions and operations on the mountain. Of any job at a ski area, being the owner and General Manager is certainly the best. But it’s not for the faint of heart. Running a ski area isn’t nearly as fun as just skiing there, but it’s pretty darn close to living the dream. Salaries vary widely.
  • Other. Ski resorts have a myriad of non-resort-specific jobs. Waiting tables is a great job at any resort, especially if you work nights. Usually, there is little turnover in these carefully guarded positions. Resorts have retail outlets, and these guys are often hiring. Try to get midweek days off to beat the crowds when you actually can get on your skis. Ski areas also hire baristas, ticket sellers, mountain hosts, and other unskilled jobs. These are a good way to get your foot in the door.

Twenty-two years ago I quit my teaching job in favor of a year ski bumming at Crystal. I figured I’d get a good season in while I regrouped and planned my next move. Fortunately for me, I never did regroup. Instead I found exhilaration, crisp beauty, great friends and true love. If you decide to move to a ski area, just remember that you might love it so much you never leave.

How about you? Anyone thinking about taking the plunge? Let me know. I’m happy to answer questions or offer words of wisdom.

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31 responses »

  1. I keep thinking that one of these days i’ll go part-time and join my husband on patrol, but… haven’t made that jump yet. good post, realistic view of the “glamorous” life of working at a resort. another thing to consider, depending on the area, is housing. If there isn’t anything nearby, you might spend a big chunk of your wages on transportation. And beer. You’ll definitely spend the rest of your wages on beer. :)

  2. Great post, Kim! As you well know, I consider myself fortunate to be among those who have realized the importance of turning a cheek to dollar signs in order to discover what truly makes one happy. (That, and having an understanding spouse)

    Fingers crossed! ;)

  3. Incredibly interesting! Then do you have all summer to write? Gosh, that would make it the dream job LOL
    I’m completely incompetent on skis…so not seeing this come to fruition anytime soon – - now, if I could come up with something on a snowmobile, maybe :)

    BTW, I sometimes moonlight as a reviewer over at Simplystacie.net and just got the query for THE NEXT FIFTEEN MINUTES — of course I jumped on it, and I’m super super excited to read/review it!!

  4. Love this post! Working in the restaurants at Crystal Mountain, I am constantly answering questions from guests about how and why I ended up here, and what makes me stay. Some want in, while others think I’m crazy…

  5. I’ve thought about doing part time ski-patrol/medic type stuff. But I need to become a way better skier. I know for a fact that I couldn’t ski down some of the stuff at Vail and/or other places in CO without breaking a leg, and then there would be TWO people injured. I’d probably do better, doing medical stuff at the BOTTOM of the mountain.

  6. Thanks for the post. I’ve considered the option of moving West so I could work PT @ a ski resort. The problem is most of my family and friends are on the East coast. I know I would love it though! Does everyone that work at a resort get to ski free? That would certainly sweeten the deal!

    • Yes! Many of the ski area employees get a season pass as part of the job. Usually these are the jobs that require the employee use the lifts to access their jobs, but other employers offer it as a special perk.

  7. This is a pretty interesting and informative synopsis. I toyed with this back when I taught on the weekends at Crystal in the early-mid 1990s (sounds like we overlapped while I was there, 1990 – 1994), and I seriously considered an offer to go teach in New Zealand for the winter via some of the Kiwi Crystal instructors, and sometimes wonder how different my life would be if I had taken the plunge. But I ended up going back to school for a program that led me to my current profession (tech writing and editing). I sorta wish I had taken up that offer. So it’s hard to get a job as an instructor now? Back then it wasn’t too hard as long as you were a decent, solid skier.

  8. There’s a company called BoobooSKI (www.boobooski.com) which provides jobs at some of the best ski resorts in Japan. Food and accommodation are provided free, and you get paid on top of that. Japan has awesome snow, so check it out if you want to work at a ski resort this year :)

    • Interesting that you bring up Japan. I had the best ski experience of my life teaching there. Check out Evergreen Outdoor Center in Hakuba, Japan. I don’t have PSIA credentials, but was teaching powder clinics, mogul clinics, tele-clinics and served as a mountain and backcountry guide there. My only beef with skiing in Japan is that they don’t let you ski under the chairs or in the trees. Some of the pillow lines are absolutely insane, so you’ll probably poach, but expect to get your pass revoked. The pay averaged $30/hr., but I had to live in an unheated hostel (which was very inexpensive). I think they moved their employee housing to another location with heat.

      This season I’m at Vail teaching kids how to scooter and pizza for $10/hr. Hopefully serving tables by night.

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  11. Kim-your blog is just great (so is the Crystal Patrol blog). Just am now seeing this entry for the first time. I’ve seriously considering applying to be a part-time/weekend ski instructor up at Crystal this next season (2012-2013). Live just outside Renton. Seems like a fantastic way to engage with people, get lots of skiing in, free season’s pass, and still maintain another job. Would you say the same?
    Thanks!

      • Kim im just wondering, since you and your spouse both work at Crystal (which is a great mountain by the way), do you both live in Enumclaw ? Or do you somehow find a place even closer ? Or to make my question more simplified to other mountains, how far away would you recommend living from the mountain ? 5, 10, 15 or 30 or more mins ? Thanks for all the info.

        P.S Does Crystal ever hire snow mobile mechanics or lift mechanics ????

        • Barry,
          During the winter, we have an apartment at Crystal. Since it sits on Forest Service land, we have only a limited amount of employee housing. Some live as far away as Enumclaw, while other employees live on Greenwater. Yes, we are always looking for good mechanics. Check out the website for our job fair.
          Cheers!
          Kim Kircher

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  14. Hi I am a teenager in highschool and I REALLY want to be a ski resort manager and I’m still trying to find out the salary, benefits and what college to go to. If you can answer that That would be Greatly appreciated! Thank you!

    • Kaden,

      I’m glad you asked. Ski area management is a good career choice. My husband would tell you to get a business degree and be sure to take extra economics classes. He’d also suggest going to hotel school. Possibly in Switzerland. There are a few ski area management programs in the U.S. Off the top of my head, I think there’s one in Upper Michigan (Marquette) and one at Sierra Nevada. This is a good place to start. Consider that running a ski resort is multi-faceted. The GM is ultimately in charge of the lifts and the skiing, but also the restaurants and the hotel and the golf course (if there is one) and everything else that goes on. Let me know if you have any more questions. Feel free to contact me (see contact page for my addy).

      Cheers!

      Kim Kircher

  15. I love this! So crazy I have come across this post. My husband is unemployed at the moment and I have a great paying job…but not in love with it. I said THIS MORNING lets move to the mountains and work at a ski resort, I’ll wait tables and you do something outdoors- he is very outdoorsy. He thinks I’m crazy but thinks it would be fun to get out of where we live at the same time. We have no ski resort experience, we have no skill at snowboarding/skiing because we have never done it. We both can wake board, ha! We live on the east coast and want to work at a ski resort in NC. My husband is toying with the idea and I’m game….my family thinks I’m nuts but as my sister in law says, why live in a rut and pay bills when you have nothing tying you down to experience life. Thats why I love her, so am I nuts???

    • Stacey,

      You aren’t nuts. There’s always plenty of time to work a job you don’t love. If you don’t have anything tying you down, and you’re willing to take a risk, then why not? What’s the worst that can happen? You might end up living in a crappy apartment, but you will be in a beautiful place, surrounded by active people. If you are thinking about doing it, start applying right away. Waiting tables can be a tough gig to get, depending on the ski resort. But there are also other jobs. Just make sure you have the time to learn to ski/snowboard. You can learn fast if you give yourself time. The people that I see living at a ski resort are the ones that don’t get out and ski enough. Then it becomes just another small town.

      Best of luck to you two. Keep me posted.

      • Thank you so much for your quick reply! I will have to talk more to the hubby tonight but I have seen right now is the time to apply at the resorts and have checked out the cost of living nearby so it is stlil doable. I cannot thank you enough for your post and all the feedback, it is awesome! I will let you know on what we decide :)

  16. I am a senior in high school and i am planning to take a gap year to go work at this ski resort. The question is, is it hard that they will hire me since i am so young? I will be 18 by then.

    • Thanks for the comment. Which ski area are you applying to? Your age is appropriate for food & beverage as well as lift operations. Most ski area employees are young. I wish you the best of luck.

  17. What if you’re not young? I’ve been working an office job for fifteen years that I despise. I love the mountains and skiing. I’m not skilled enough to be an instructor. Is there something else that a middle-aged man can do at a resort. Would someone my age even have a chance at being hired?

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