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Emperors of the Air

Life is short, so live it up, says the new breed of Squaw Valley ski bums. It’s snow time!

Squaw Valley

Squaw Valley

Richard Gunion

Bobby Giesen, the up-and-coming boy king of launching air is sitting in the Squaw Valley Inn ski-rental shop, shooting the breeze with some of his friends. As he takes a sip of coffee from his ceramic mug, Bobby’s eyes become fixed on a poster. Scott Schmidt, the high priest of extreme skiing, appears as a little dot on top of a hair-raising cliff, about to hurl his carcass into acres of glorious open air.

“His parents definitely raised him wrong,” Bobby says, laughing, eyes still fixed on his role model. He covets his high-tech ski boots that he bought from Schmidt, and he wouldn’t be bummed at all to have his own picture on the wall at a Squaw Valley, Calif., ski shop some day.

Which is fitting, because Rowe Bobby Giesen looks like a tourist poster for the California good life: 24 years old, straight blond hair down to his shoulders, baby face, no wrinkles, no stress, unmeasurable body fat. When he orders a sandwich, he politely asks the waitress to hold the mayonnaise, and one of his “drugs of choice,” he says, is caffeine. He is a totally cool native of the town of Santa Cruz, Calif, who followed a typical career path to the slopes, skateboarding, mountain biking and sky-diving. But the powder got him extra stoked. So, smart dude that he is, Bobby headed to Squaw Valley a year after high school in 1988 and took his first job, as a lift operator.

A wise choice, because Squaw Valley is serious ski-bum country. Up here, the locals never stopped flashing the peace sign, a VW Beetle is a status symbol on par with a Bentley in Palm Beach, and a pair of battered downhill boards are prized possessions. There are no glitzy shops, no French restaurants. No Donald. No Marla. Just the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which are tailor-made for giving daredevil skiers the rush of their lives. Gnarly rock faces, some the size of small office buildings, jut out of the snows of Squaw Valley. Launch yourself off one of those, and you are, as one local put it, “ripping in the glamour land of launching air.”

Bobby is one of thousands of kids who live to ski while eking out a subsistence living from the seasonal resort business. Like his friend and fellow Californian Greg Nevolo, 22, who works at the Granite Chief ski shop so that he can spend the rest of his time chasing adrenalin. Or his pal Eden Carter, an 18-year-old snow boarder from Marin County, Calif., who maintains Squaw’s awesome snow-boarding half-pipe and gets to mix business with pleasure. Or Sherry Smulders, 26, from Durban, South Africa, who makes sandwiches at Dave’s Deli and lives with five roommates so that she can spend her quality time knuckle-scraping her way down the black diamond slopes on a Morrow snow board.

“I like to be scared,” says Sherry. “It’s the biggest rush for me.”

“A lot of people wait in line to go off cliffs,” says Greg, who also telemarks, snow boards, mountain climbs and occasionally bungee jumps. “You use the mountain for what it is made for.” On one of his days off last spring, Greg went motocrossing with some of his friends and banged up his elbow so badly in a crash that he thought it might be broken. When he’s asked how it feels, he almost doesn’t understand the question. He shrugs and just says it was fun.

Life is short, and they are young and indestructible, these rippers and thrashers who have barely ever heard of a W-2 form. They’re having a love affair with the outdoors. They’ve got it bad. So bad, actually, that they are not about to get thrown off track by something as mundane as the promise of an MBA or a chance to trade bonds that yield in excess of 7 percent.

The Alarm Rings at about 6:30 a.m. at Bobby’s house in Truckee, Calif., about 10 miles from the resort. He throws on a little reggae and tries to get his roommates Luke and Jason and his brother, Müller, out of bed. With Wailing Souls cranking on the stereo, he makes a couple of quick phone calls to see who’s going ripping this morning. Then he’ll stretch out for a while, and if his roommates are too bushed from a night of partying, he’s outta here. No need to miss the first run on account of those guys.

Bobby grabs his Salomon 225s – “good for landings,” he says – and makes his way through the back door and out the garage past a big rubber trash can stuffed with skis. If he’s lucky, he’ll get a ride to Squaw Valley in about 20 minutes, although it can take up to an hour and a half if no one stops to give him a lift. Once at the resort, he knocks back a large coffee and a croissant, which gives him the feeling that he is actually skiing in France. Then he goes ripping until 4 in the afternoon. “If I’m lucky and can get a ride back to Truckee by 4:20, I can make it to work by 5,” he says.

Money is a problem that brings on another problem: working. “I could never work eight hours a day, Monday through Friday,” says Greg, parting his long dark hair with both hands. “I like to be outside pushing myself. You have to weigh it. Do I want to work all the time and be depressed and get two days off a week, or do I want to be able to do what I want, when I want?”

Answer is … “Do what I want,” but another bit of harsh reality is that a Squaw season pass can set you back as much as $1,140. So a ski bum’s strategy often leads to a job at one of the resort’s businesses like Dave’s Deli, where Sherry rakes in a healthy $8.25 an hour. Not only does she get to gorge herself on deli food all day, but her season pass (with employee’s discount) is around $150. There’s a problem there, too: Most of these resort jobs are day jobs, and that cuts into you know what. It certainly bums out 24-year-old Katrina Sweet from Mill Valley, Calif, who has long blond hair, blue eyes and a clean style on the mountain. She picks up some cash being a hostess at High Camp near the mountain’s summit. “You don’t want to get caught working if it is a good powder day,” she says.

This isn’t like working at Citibank, after all. Their bosses are more than likely ski bums as well and will look the other way on a powder day. “When it is good at Squaw, people come out of the woodwork,” Greg says. “The contractors don’t work at all, the construction guys aren’t working.”

And, of course, paychecks are small. “The employers up here have been doing this for a long time,” says Bobby, who earns just $5.50 an hour, “and they know how much it costs for you to survive, so they pay you the bare minimum.”

Still, Bobby has managed to sock some money away. Last summer he busted his butt pouring and laying concrete at High Camp. It’s a nice spot with restaurants and a pool, and there is even a bungee-jumping tower. “I made about $1,000 every two weeks, and with all that money I paid my rent for the entire winter ahead of time,” he says. “I bought all my ski equipment and got everything I needed for the winter.”

The bartender at the Resort at Squaw Creek, an upscale joint not far from the base of Squaw, is well aware of the money troubles that plague these young ski bums. Because their problems become his problem at least once a day. “We call ’em Squaw rats,” he says. “They come in here during the peak of happy hour and eat all the free appetizers.”

Indeed. Even today in Greg’s pocket is a wad of half-price appetizer tickets for the Sunnyside Restaurant and Lodge, on the shores of Lake Tahoe. At day’s end he passes them out to all his friends and off they go to a cheap feeding frenzy.

SHERRY SMULDERS’ house is a typical wood-frame shack, the kind of thing that looks like it was hammered together in an afternoon with the help of a couple of six-packs. You have to climb some rickety old plywood stairs because it’s on the side of a hill, and as you get closer, you start to wonder if the place hasn’t been ransacked.

In the front yard, which is really just dirt, there are two broken motorcycles thrown in a heap next to the front door. There’s an old kitchen sink, a cargo rack for some unknown car, random chunks of old wood, a couple of garden hoses and a tipped-over garbage can that is being inspected by Loki the dog.

But it’s not a bad deal: $1,250 a month total, so Sherry pays only $300, including utilities. At least it’s a lot better than Greg’s last place: three bedrooms, but 11 people living there – some on the couch, some in the laundry room, some crashed in the closets. So she has decided to make this place more of a home and has even taken it upon herself to decorate her bedroom, covering the walls and ceiling with burlap. There’s an Ansel Adams poster over her bed, and in her dressing room there is a lone green light bulb hanging from a cord.

Upstairs in the living room, a huge circular powder-blue couch that could comfortably seat 10 people surrounds a big plywood coffee table. The main attraction here are the windows that are about 15 feet high and offer a killer view of the mountain. You can even see some cliffs, which is kind of nice in case anyone launches some air while you’re home.

Sherry’s long brownish-blond hair is hanging in front of her sunburned face as she sits on the couch peeling prawns that she is going to pop in with some fet-tuccine Alfredo later. On the VCR is Oliver Stone’s The Doors. In her hand is a bottle of St. Stan’s Amber Alt beer – CONCEIVED IN HEAVEN, BREWED IN CALIFORNIA, it says on the label.

Sherry represents the other side of the bum life. She is a self-proclaimed wanderer. A college grad, she did a brief stint in the advertising world. Her stepfather is a successful building contractor in South Africa, but her life is far from ideal. Her real father had something to do with the Shah of Iran’s government, although she is not really sure what. He split from her mom when Sherry was young, and she has not seen him since. She tried to find him once, thinking he was living in Canada, but he’d moved away. She’s not really interested in getting sponsors for her snow boarding, and she probably will not stay here forever. The way she ended up here is almost an accident anyway. She was driving on Highway 89 around Lake Tahoe and saw the moon rise over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. “It was the biggest moon I ever saw,” she says. “Much bigger than anything I had seen in Africa.” That was more than a year ago. For the time being she is hanging out, enjoying the good life and waiting to see what comes next.

What does come next? No one here really seems to know or really cares a whole lot. Life is short, and they are young. Bobby Giesen would someday like to buy a kiln and make pottery. Maybe. He thinks this summer, after he has bought his pass for next season, he’ll raise some dough and buy a truck and a chain saw and cut some firewood. “Everyone needs it around here,” he says, although he’s really not sure if he’ll have time, because he is going to be doing a lot of hiking. Eden? Well, he’ll probably go back home to Marin and maybe teach swimming. Greg is hoping to open an outdoor-adventure-guide service so he can give people the same kind of rush that he gets every day. Katrina is hanging for the time being. Maybe she’ll take up ballet again. Who knows?

Bobby’s in the kitchen at the passage restaurant, at the Truckee Hotel, putting together a Caesar salad. Out front, people are lined up at the bar waiting for a table, and he’s starting to feel the crunch. “It’s really nuts tonight, I gotta go,” he says.

Bobby hopes not to be in a kitchen his whole life. He has already gotten a couple of killer breaks that he thinks could lead to a breakthrough. Hell, this year he made $800 on photos taken of him skiing. His claim to fame is a photo that shows him launching some serious air over a cliff with Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay in the background. It didn’t make it into Ski magazine, however, but rather adorned the cover of Motorland magazine, a distinguished publication of the American Automobile Association. Humble beginnings, sure, but wait: The same rad shot also appears on a postcard and a refrigerator magnet.

Out of this whole gang, Bobby is the one who hopes to make a living launching air, but his chances aren’t great. There are only two really big names in extreme skiing – Scott Schmidt and Glen Plake – and industry insiders estimate they make anywhere between $100,000 and $200,000 a year, peanuts compared with slalom master Alberto Tomba, who makes millions.

Big deal. Money isn’t everything, and besides, ski bums stick together. At local bars like Humpty’s, in Tahoe City, they throw parties to raise cash for the sick and injured should the need arise. Health insurance? Forget about it. If Hillary Rodham Clinton thinks there is a national healthcare crisis, a couple of days in this neck of the woods would give her an anxiety attack. In the land of launching air, you can easily find yourself in the kingdom of the ripped anterior cruciate ligament or the torn medial meniscus – everyone around here is as well-versed in their Latin and Greek as an Ivy League-trained intern. But medical help is always close at hand and, in some cases, free. In one particular accident, a friend of Sherry’s got her shitfaced and tried to sew her up with dental floss.

DINNER TONIGHT IS AT SHERRY’S HOUSE, and Greg is in the kitchen whipping up the fettuccine. Katrina comes over, and so does Eden, with his crew cut of dyed black hair, along with his girlfriend, Kim. They make a nice couple, really. She is sweet, and he, of course, is a sensitive guy. Really? Yeah. He likes to read Cosmopolitan every month and even has a subscription, which Kim thinks is just fine. He is particularly fascinated with the articles on giving women multiple orgasms and the perils of routine sex.

The scene here tonight seems strangely adult. Almost middle-aged. No keg parties on the mountain. There are ecstasy parties all the time, but none of these bums go. There is too much skiing and boarding to do. “People smoke pot,” says Sherry, “but they don’t do hard drugs. It’s really not the scene. I think it is really the older crowd – people in their 30s – that do that. We really don’t party at night as much as other people because we are usually exhausted.”

And these little rippers are fatigued. You can see it in their eyes and the way they sink into the couch. Not surprising, really. They have burned more calories in a day than you could chained to a Stair-Master for a week. They’ll have a little pasta, a beer, a salad, and then go to bed and hope that it will dump tonight.

This past year, Squaw got dumped on big time with over 450 inches of snow – or nearly 38 feet. And once the snow is gone, it will be time to move into the world of mountain climbing and the ever-possible danger of sailing over handlebars on a mountain bike. It will be yet another chapter in some sort of outdoor adrenalin dream that – with any luck – these kids will not have to wake up from any time soon. As Sherry puts it, “It’s like we all want to be like Peter Pan and Tinkerbell and live in never-never land.”

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