“It’s hard to be a ski bum anymore,” says Tony Daranyi. A patroller in Telluride for more than 17 years, with a focus on snow safety. Daranyi still looks the part, but has long since graduated from overcrowded dormitory style living to a farm 40 miles outside of town. “You always had to be creative to scrape out a living in a mountain town, but it’s gotten a lot harder these days.”

Daranyi’s reflections echo those of patrollers and long-time residents of ski towns throughout the West. From Bozeman to Summit County, from Telluride to Jackson Hole, wages have barely crept up over a decade or more (ski patrollers are among the worst paid professionals according to Department of Labor Statistics, making a median hourly wage of just $9.34 per hour in Colorado), while home prices, cost of living overall, and day-to-day demands have jumped dramatically. In Summit County, the sale price of single family homes is up 18 percent over the past year. Add to this a changing corporate culture among high profile ski resorts that puts profits before community, and disenchantment, if not real anxiety and even depression, ensues.

“Cut, cut, cut,” says Daranyi of the realities of a profession that is having a hard time keeping employees happy. Last fall, Telluride patrollers ratified their first union contract, which should help, but the problems facing the profession are not going away soon.

Turnover is a challenge for ski patrols everywhere. From Bozeman to Taos, high-to-record numbers of visitors have strained patrol resources, and put a heavier burden on younger, less experienced patrollers. At Breckenridge, the 2013 expansion that created “Peak 6” resulted in a string of exhaustion-related injuries, with night rescues an almost daily occurrence. Many patrollers segued to their second job afterwards nevertheless. This is just the new normal in the New West.

The Changing Ski Town

Stress and low pay affects more than ski patrollers, of course. Any number of ski town inhabitants—from those employed in small businesses and box retail stores alike, to teachers and firefighters—are finding it harder to make the allure of laid-back ski and snowboard culture square with making ends meet. Over the past five years, housing crises, homelessness, and even suicides have spiked at the base some of the most well-known ski resorts in the U.S. Add climate change to this mix, which despite its variability has measurably affected opening dates, and mountain communities are feeling the strain.

In the dry early months of the 2016-2017 ski season, Aspen Ski Company (SkiCo) began to feed its seasonal workers who were left unemployed, at least periodically. Ski town food banks reported a surge in visitors.

Other low-wage service workers in and around Colorado ski areas live so precariously that a delayed opening day puts entire households at risk of food and housing crises. In a mobile home park 40 miles from Vail, where a cluster of mostly Hispanic families lives, an entire dwelling might disappear overnight, according to a local non-profit worker who assists with insulating the steel-framed mobile homes and asked not to be identified.

In these cases, a family unable to span the dry stretch has usually fled to seek income, maybe somewhere south. Those who stay, brave the leanest months before restarting their 40- to 100-mile one-way commute to work as landscapers or in construction during the summer, or in ancillary ski-driven businesses in the winter, like housekeeping, snowplowing or kitchen prep. On the one hand, the long commute allows for housing that these workers can (mostly) afford. On the other, they are not welcome in towns where rich visitors fly in to play. Their long commutes are forced upon them.

Not only aren’t they welcome, they are also subject to regular theft of wages and harassment. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) successfully brought a $1 million suit against Vail Run Resort, a luxury condo association, after uncovering widespread and systematic abuse of female housekeepers in 2016. An EEOC attorney familiar with the case noted that her office doesn’t normally get involved in such local cases, unless, as it was in Vail, the abuse is “fairly widespread.” What also got EEOE’s attention was the extent to which victims were “threatened, extorted and marginalized.”

That’s just one aspect of an acute inequality problem. A 2016 study by the Keystone Institute recorded nation-leading levels of inequality among ski communities in Colorado, with Aspen’s Pitkin County leading the pack. This masks, however, the influence of low-income families tied to ski area employment that live in distant counties, unwelcome, and unable, to live closer to work. Widening the scope to ski area corridors regardless of the county would reveal more dramatic inequality rates yet in a state that is otherwise egalitarian.

Inequality, in turn, may feed a darker mountain town phenomenon. The causal factors behind spiking suicide rates in ski towns can be debated, but inequality, housing-related stress, and a lack of social cohesion in a transient setting are commonly acknowledged as key drivers of stress. Then there’s the problem of access to affordable health care. Whether or not the Affordable Care Act is repealed, premiums in mountain regions remain exceptionally high, putting health care out of reach for many of the locally self-, or semi-employed.

In its current form, the Western ski area economy is producing what economists might call significant negative externalities—costs to society that are unrecognized by markets, or in obvious dollars and cents. The ski economy, after all, is booming.  But as costs mount—mental health, housing and income crises—the foundation upon which the economy rests erodes.

The Way Forward?

No single public policy can address these interlinking challenges, but clearly the integral role of low-wage workers in ski area operations, and by extension ski area communities, is under stress. But not all communities, nor all ski companies, are sitting by idly.

“My hope is to get to where Aspen is,” Tony Daranyi says, referring to the evolution of Telluride’s ski patrol union, which passed by a 50-1 vote in 2015 thanks in part to his leadership. Telluride’s ski patrol also unionized with the help of the Communications Workers of America (CWA). CWA’s key negotiator, Lew Ellingson, says the result is a “very, very, good first step, that treats patrollers as the professionals they are.” Moreover, “the support from the community was overwhelming,” hinting at potentially critical variable in determining the direction of a ski town going forward.

Aspen’s ski patrol union has become the gold standard. “It was hostile there for a while,” says a 40-year patroller familiar with the unionization process who asked not to be named. The company, he claims, hired obstructionist managers, dragged out negotiations, and replaced negotiators who came around to patroller demands. “But it’s going strong now,” he concludes, with improved pay, stipends for acquiring necessary certifications, and multi-year contracts with far warmer relations with current ownership.

Ski company leadership has become another crucial component in addressing some of the core challenges that face mountain towns, and will be essential to build sustainability and overcome them. Successful unionization has hinged on a ski company—usually a region’s largest employer—committed to community development. Ski companies, including Vail Resorts, have donated money to local health clinics, along with significant sums of money, and sometimes land, for “workforce housing.” How that money is spent, and for whom the housing should serve has become a new source of tension between towns and ski areas, however.

Other large employers in Breckenridge have extended their health insurance to even part-time and seasonal workers. This will be the key to change. Where towns and counties are hamstrung when it comes to creating policy, around, say, health insurance, the role of large employers will become increasingly more clutch. But towns are stepping up too, by luring less seasonal businesses, as in Aspen, or by subsidizing child care, to limit teacher turnover for instance, as has happened in Breckenridge.

Unions may not be the lone answer. They provide a glimmer of hope for some, but they don’t address other sectors, nor the risks to sustainability that go beyond patroller income and security. But as successful unionization efforts further suggest, the ability of diverse stakeholders to convene, to communicate openly, and to come together as a community with a zeal for sustainability, might prove the most necessary traits separating those communities that adapt versus those that struggle most as they confront their urbanization, and its social costs.

Mountain town solutions could even provide a roadmap for national economic solutions. Communities that come together suceed in ways that would please those on the political left and right. Take Montana’s Bridger Bowl, which operates as a nonprofit. State residents can become members, and members elect leadership.

Doug Richmond, a long-time Bridger Bowl patroller shrugs off unionization as a foreign idea. “I’m compensated enough for my work,” he says. “The General Manager is one of us, in the trenches, and the best avvie (avalanche) guy on the hill. As for turnover, it’s simple: Just treat people fairly.”

Operating as a team, and as a community, claims Richmond, has helped local patrollers at Bridger Bowl remain positive, even as Bozeman gentrifies, and skier visits climb steadily higher. Community and leadership, ultimately, might prove more necessary to addressing ski town challenges than any one public policy.

<EDITOR’S NOTE: At the same time this story was originally published in the October 2017 issue of Elevation Outdoors, Telluride ski patrol and Telluride Resort began work on a deal that Tony Daranyi described as one of the best in the industry for patrol. That new contract was signed in early November.“The first contract, which wasn’t scheduled to expire until after the 2017-2018 season,  established job security and a framework from which to move forward to address employee wages, job safety and benefits,” said Daryani. The new contract addressed every item the patrol representatives brought up for consideration to the satisfaction of the representatives and management accepted all of those proposals, according to Daryani and Telluride CEO Bill Jensen. Jensen also stressed that Telluride pays wages far above those reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for the industry. “Telluride Ski & Golf is a year round resort business model (ski and summer). Telluride is remote and like many other mountain resort communities cost of living (driven by housing) is higher than other rural non-resort areas,” he wrote to Elevation Outdoors. “TSG’s minimum starting hourly wage for first-season seasonal positions is $12 an hour and hourly rates for our employee workforce ranges from $12 to $32 an hour. Telluride also provides end-of-winter season bonuses for our winter season (non-tipped)  hourly staff and annual bonuses for our year round staff (including hourly year round staff).  Telluride patrol wages fall between $14.25 an hour (entry level probationer trainee) to approximately $31 an hour for a tenured, highly skilled patrol specialist. A large majority of the Telluride Ski Patrol are tenured, long-term patrollers with a variety of skill sets that compensate them in the $20 to $30 an hour range. We believe this wage range is reflective of the training and skill sets required to successfully manage a complex mountain environment including snow safety, back country access, in resort and area boundaries, and guest services including first aid/medical support.” Further reporting on the ramifications of this deal will appear in the December 2017 issue of Elevation Outdoors. We applaud Telluride’s efforts but also acknowledge that mountain towns and ski patrols still face immense challenges when it comes to cost of living, diversity, and a positive future. We do hope that efforts like Telluride’s can lead the way to more changes.>