Resort Reality: Ski Employees Face Financial Nightmares

For many Colorado College grads, working at a ski resort after graduation is the ideal set-up. Despite last year’s commencement speaker’s suggestion that CC students pursue more fulfilling work right off the bat, graduates still flock to the mountains each year in search of jobs. Why this trend year after year? Working at a ski resort conjures up images of discounts, endless days on the mountain, and opportunities to spend every waking moment in a winter wonderland. However, a quick chat with some recent-grad resort workers found that this ideal is not grounded in reality.

A view from the south side of the ski resort at Telluride. Photo by Austin Halpern

Most gigs allow employees one hour to ski during each shift and lift-operators typically have two days off, which they spend skiing or snowboarding. I spoke with a former CC student as well as a few other people in their twenties working at various resorts around Colorado to get a sense of what it’s like to find work in a mountain town. While the days off sounds nice, I wonder if it’s all it’s made out to be.

Many workers echoed each other about long hours and an onerously high cost of living, but they were generally content with their lifestyles. Adrian Bergere, who recently graduated from SUNY Geneseo, is currently working in Telluride, Colo. Now a bartender, he formerly worked at the gondola. He said finding a job was pretty easy for him but “housing was a nightmare.” He lived out of his car for about a month in the fall, but as temperatures began to drop he worked to find an affordable option near his job. Bergere stated that Telluride isn’t nearly as bad as Aspen, but definitely found housing to be the most difficult aspect of working in a ski town. Even in Arapahoe Basin, which has more of a small-mountain feel, affordable housing remains a large barrier to workers. Brian Raffio, a 26-year-old from New Hampshire, said he ended up buying a place with friends in Park County, which is about an hour away from the resort. The alternative, paying $2,000/month to rent a tiny condo closer to the mountain, was not feasible for someone working on the mountain

Raffio described A-Basin as having more of a ‘mom and pop’ feel in comparison to Breckenridge and Vail. He prefers it to some of the larger resorts because “you feel like you actually matter.” “At some of the larger resorts, ski patrols are just sort of put on the mountain and have to fend for themselves,” said Raffio. “But at A-Basin, they gave me hands-on training which was pretty cool.” Additionally, he described the relationship between the skiers and the workers as one of “mutual respect.” Lee Junkin, who works at Aspen/Snowmass, also found the culture to be fun and everyone to be generally considerate of each other. However, people skiing in Aspen are “the richest of the rich,” Junkin laughed. “I’m eating Ramen noodles and dehydrated potatoes at night and they’re eating caviar in a fur coat.”

This immense wealth disparity Junkin described is evident in ski towns across the country. Workers struggle to find housing and in some cases are forced to commute 2-3 hours each day. Drew Cavin, the director of Field Study at CC, stated that Summit County is a little better in terms of commuting but in places like Aspen, the town thrives off of the exponential property prices. “These places are selling real estate, not skiing,” Cavin told me. “They’re all built around housing—renovating older condos, flipping houses at ridiculous rates.” For CC students looking to work for a year or two, these barriers to work do not present a significant obstacle. However, the problem of housing and transportation continues to grow and presents serious problems for those with lower incomes trying to keep their jobs.

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