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Carving out a lifestyle

Who is a ski bum now? Not the people you think.

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By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / February 24, 2011

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KILLINGTON, Vt. — Since news broke that Chelsea Clinton’s husband, New York investment banker Marc Mezvinsky, was taking the winter off to ski, many have speculated publicly about the health of the couple’s marriage. Or at least the wisdom of trading the hedge fund manager’s life for that of the ski bum.

Not Joanne Scannevin. Her reaction? You go, guy. “It was one more person finally getting smart,’’ said Scannevin, a Long Island insurance broker turned snowhound, as she prepared for a morning run down Killington Peak and its 1,645 vertical feet of pristine powder.

Sitting beside her in the gondola lift was Chris Congdon, a 2010 Northeastern University grad who moved to Vermont last November to pull a “Mezvinsky’’ and live la vida mogul. For this season, anyway. A civil engineer by training, Congdon says he may seek employment back in the Boston area once the snow melts. For now, though, he’s keeping his options open, ski bumming before life imposes weightier responsibilities.

“To me, there’s no negative connotation to being a ski bum,’’ said Congdon, who works part-time as a ski instructor to support his mountain lifestyle. “It’s anyone who gets in 100 days or more of skiing and works to support that goal.’’ Minutes later, he was zooming down an expert trail yelling, “Welcome to my office!’’

Scannevin and Congdon both embrace the “ski bum’’ label, which means something far different than it did a generation or two ago. Back then, it largely referred to the stereotypical post-collegian (or noncollegian) who took menial jobs and lived in dormitory-like quarters for an opportunity to ski as much, and as cheaply, as possible.

Times have changed. Service jobs in and around major ski resorts have grown scarcer, locals say, due to an influx of foreign workers. Meanwhile, necessities like food, housing, lift tickets, and equipment have risen sharply in cost. Resorts have become more corporate, too. That chairlift operator who might barter with his buddy — you ride gratis if you’ll pour me free beers at night — is gone, replaced by the barcode-scanning attendant who tracks every lift ticket.

In today’s economy, with unemployment rates high and savings scarce, the ski bum is more likely be a fully wired (and flexibly employed) IT guru working on a laptop between runs, a jobless PhD, a semi-retiree, or well-heeled (if childless) investment banker, like Mezvinsky, than yesterday’s version. Still, if no longer quite so quaintly bohemian, the idea of ski bumming retains its near-mythic aura around New England ski areas like this one.

Congdon is 25, unmarried, rents a house here with a couple of roommates, and moonlights as a technology consultant to several Boston-based companies. A telecommuting weekday skier with laptop tucked in his backpack — another new wrinkle to the old stereotype — he’ll often duck inside the lodge to work online between runs.

Scannevin is 50, happily married, owns a condo at nearby Pico Mountain, and moved here last fall after quitting her job and putting her L.I. house on the market. She found seasonal employment at modest wages — working in ticketing and lodging at Pico — so she could ski several days per week. Her husband, whose job is in Manhattan, joins her whenever possible.

“I’m not a ski bum the way Chris is, and never will be,’’ Scannevin said, gliding upward in the gondola cab over snow-capped treetops. “Then again, we used to think of someone sleeping in a parking lot trailer. More people who are into this lifestyle now, especially at my age, have some money behind them.’’

Living in rural Vermont has meant giving up many suburban amenities, added Scannevin, although few she really misses. “A 90-minute commute on the Long Island Expressway is a waste of time,’’ she said, frowning. “I didn’t want to live like that any longer.’’

Killington, among the region’s largest ski areas, has a long history of attracting powder-loving dropouts — people who crave being outdoors, even in brutal winters like this one, and will gladly trade lives in the professional fast lane for ones that literally go downhill, fast.

For decades, the resort has sponsored a weekly Ski Bums Race for locals only. About 120 are participating this year, gathering afterward to quaff beer and watch videos of themselves slaloming through the gates like Bode Miller or Lindsey Vonn. That number has been growing yearly, according to Tyler Teed, 28, a Killington bartender and avid racer who left his Marriott Corporation sales job three years ago to live up here and ski full time.

“I realized there was more to life than dollars and cents, particularly while I’m still in my 20s,’’ said Teed. Although he did not bring much in the way of savings with him, he maintained, “You really don’t need that much money here. And nobody builds great life stories by sitting behind a desk.’’

Several racers offered their own views of today’s ski bum. Karen Dalury, 55, who moved here in the 1990s and now owns a local yoga studio, said a lot more local skiers stay plugged into the workforce remotely, via computers and smartphones. “Maybe they’ll take a trip to Boston once a week, though that’s not me,’’ she said.

Jared Manning, 25, who is taking courses at a local college while enjoying a bonanza of a ski season, defined the ski bum as being “anyone who’s on the mountain on days like this, when it’s freezing and no one’s here.’’

In her book “Killington: A Story of Mountains and Men,’’ Karen Lorentz writes about the ski-bum phenomenon of 50 to 60 years ago and how those youthful renegades “worked hard to support a ski habit, not a degree or a greater ambition.’’

One example Lorentz cites is Judy Storch, who in 1964, at age 21, quit her secretarial job to move here. Storch now runs a Killington real estate firm. While not extinct, says Storch, the ski bum has been forced to adapt to new realities, economic and otherwise.

Even with roommates, she said, a person might need $3,500 to $5,000 in upfront money for housing and meals “just to come up here and earn minimum wage’’ for four to five months during ski season.

Jeremy Evans, author of “In Search of Powder: A Story of America’s Disappearing Ski Bum,’’ suggests even the terminology is due for an overhaul, the old, romantic image of the ski bum fading into history along with wooden skis and $10-a-day lift tickets.

“Ski bums are still out there, but the towns where they’ve flourished have changed,’’ said Evans, speaking from Lake Tahoe, Calif. “Some are still living the ski-bum life, but it’s getting harder to get the ‘bum’ part right’’ when financial realties and career aspirations get in the way. A resort town like Aspen, Colo., or Jackson Hole, Wyo., where Mezvinsky landed, is so expensive to work, live, and ski in, Evans notes, that you would almost need a hedge fund behind you to spend a winter there.

So has the basic definition changed? “Getting in a hundred days of skiing is still a magical number,’’ Evans acknowledged. “Anybody who dedicates himself that much, and accepts the sacrifices that go with it, deserves to be called one. It’s that ski-more, work-less mentality.’’

Bob Lanctot, 45, can identify. After working in retail and running a ski shop near Foxborough, Lanctot relocated to Vermont three years ago and is now a part-time ski instructor and videographer. Most ski bums he knows, he says, are either corporate dropouts or lifelong ski enthusiasts.

“Most of us did that’’ — the conventional career thing — “at one point, made our mark, and looked forward to not doing that anymore,’’ Lanctot said. Then he happily videotaped another race.

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.