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A peak experience

A season as a ski bum can last a lifetime . . . in memory

BEAVER CREEK, Colo. -- The first glimpse of the world from these Rocky Mountain summits is not unlike an inlander's first time beholding the ocean -- inexpressible and overwhelming -- the sharp mountain peaks that fall away for miles looking somehow like a tumultuous ocean frozen in mid-storm.

That's how Karyn Lacey remembers it when, as a newly minted college graduate from the flatlands of Hyannis, Mass., she put off the "real job" market for a while, heading west for a year of ski bumming.

It was the fall of '96, and Lacey had graduated from St. Michael's College in Burlington, Vt., where she did plenty of skiing. She also skied most of her earlier life around the North Conway area, where her parents had a ski house. But retracing the path of generations drawn to some of the world's finest mountains in the West, Lacey and a friend packed up and headed for Vail and Beaver Creek, crown jewels of the ski world.

"It was a dream for me," says Lacey, whose temporary employment has turned serious over the years. "I had never skied further west than Pennsylvania, but growing up I had always heard of Colorado and Vail. It was definitely something I had always wanted to do. And I still remember my first time on top of Vail Mountain for my first ski run. I was totally in awe, it was so beautiful."

Like so many young ski bums -- a term that is far from degrading -- Lacey began at a basic job of lift operator on an hourly wage, but she was not thinking money. With just enough to cover the basics -- food and housing -- young transients like her were given the priceless compensation of three days off a week for free skiing, an arrangement that works out on both ends.

"A four-day work week was just great and a huge decision-maker for me," she says. "Three days to ski, and then a couple of runs during the day. It was great."

Vail Corp. also had taken some real steps in one of the toughest labor problems at upscale resorts, where the housing is too expensive for wage-earners to rent. Vail established an affordable housing program so that Lacey and others could line up housing even before getting their on-mountain jobs.

"When my girlfriend and I moved out here, we didn't have jobs or anything within the company," she says. "It isn't anything I had ever thought about doing, but when I started meeting people my first two days here, it sounded like a lot of fun. It turned out to be one of the best years of my life, without a doubt."

For Lacey, the first winter turned into summer, in which the lifts keep running to service mountain bikers, and then blossomed into at least a temporary career. Lacey, now 29, currently works as supervisor of lift services, with about 80 employees under her direction. Now a condo owner with roots in the community, she still has a passion for skiing, boarding, and telemarking, but she says the term "ski bum" doesn't quite fit anymore.

Modest beginning

In 1980, when Beaver Creek began to take shape as a ski resort in the high country of the old Willis Nottingham ranch, it was impossible to envision the teeming upscale village it has become. Skiing it that first year, despite a limited lift system, it was easy to see the potential. The peaks and bowls unfolded in all directions, with several areas, such as Bachelor Gulch and Grouse Mountain, actually sub-areas unto themselves, with individual design.

Yes, the resort has been called a country club, in reference to its Deer Valley-style pampering of skiers -- ski valets and double escalators lifting skiers to the base area above the village. But slamming down the bumps on Grouse Mountain or surviving the perilous steeps of Birds of Prey educates skiers quickly that this is a serious mountain experience, as envisioned by its godfather, the late Pete Seibert.

"It's just one of the finest resorts in the world," says instructor Ian Bruce, an Australian who has been coming back here for 13 seasons. "It's so well-known overseas that it draws instructors from all over Europe."

Bruce trained for his profession for seven seasons in Austria, passed his exams, and now helps with instructor training at the mountain. Ten years ago he met his wife, another Beaver Creek instructor, and the two have set up a realty company in town. And still, it never gets old.

"I still get a rush just being up there on a beautiful day, and every day you just look out over the mountains and say, `Wow, look at that,' " says Bruce. "The rush of performing one of those high-speed carved turns, or getting into the bumps. When you just get the new equipment up on edge and lean in against the forces . . . wow, it doesn't get old. It just feels great."

Lifetime memories

Some of the ski bums turn for home after a while, but they never quite get the memory out of their systems. Matt Wellington works in the financial world of Manhattan, and it has been 10 years since his ski bum season at Beaver Creek after graduating from Colby College in Waterville, Maine.

"I think about it all the time," says Wellington, who worked tuning skis and boards in the village, and received the company ski pass, which gave him about 50 days on the slopes. "As you get older and life gets more complicated, you realize you'll never be able to do that again."

Fixed in his memory now is, of course, the beauty, and even the pain of a nasty ankle sprain from when he tried boarding for the first time. "When I got there in October," he says, "I was so overstimulated by all the possibilities, I tried to see how far I could ride my mountain bike up Vail Mountain."

Of course, as youngsters meet in ski heaven for a post-college fling, the scene is predictable. "After skiing and working, whenever you felt like partying, you could find one going on," says Wellington. "Sometimes you'd just shoot some pool and check out the bands. There was a lot of great music going on. Or you'd go bar-hopping. It was a pretty amazing scene."

And one curiosity he remembers: an informal bartering system that helped the low-end wage earners get through. "In order to survive as a ski bum, everyone sort of traded their skills," he says. "You might tune someone's skis or boards for free, and in their restaurant they might hook you up with a burger, or a bartender might pour you a few drinks. It was no big underworld system, but an essential part of life there."

But as the spring ripened, Wellington remembers, "it was time to go. I knew too many people who went out there and never came back. I wanted to hop in my car and continue west for a while, before starting my career. But I'm so glad I got one season of ski bumming. I'm always running into people who say they wished they'd done it before life got complicated."

Another temporary ski bum from the opposite side of the world is Elaine Montebello (Italian for "beautiful mountain"), a surfer from Australia who is making her way around the world working in reservations at Rock Resorts. She was drawn to Beaver Creek by the beauty of the Rockies, where she took up snowboarding.

"The beauty here is just unbelievable," says Montebello, who acknowledges she has struggled learning the art and sport of snowboarding. "I'd never experienced snow before until I came here. I can't believe how lush and precious it is."

When spring comes, Montebello heads back to Sydney to begin studying for a career in sociology.

But, said like a true ski bum -- or in her case a board bum -- she is already regretting the move back.

"I think it's the people I met here and the beauty of it that I'll miss," she says. "I know that wherever I go, I'll always have this experience to think back on."

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