So, you want to make it work in a ski town? You know about the classic first-year liftie jobs at the ski hill and the constant cliché about the mountain-town bartender, but what about the other, under-the-radar jobs? We’re talking about the gigs that get you plenty of ski time, sneaky gear perks and connections to an eccentric community of fellow skiers.
Sometimes, finding gainful, meaningful employment in a mountain town means going out on a limb and starting your own gig, like a food truck or a bakery. Or, it could entail putting in a pile of sweat equity until you get to a level where your skills are significant enough that people will pay you to guide them around the mountains. That leap can pay serious dividends. We talked to people whose jobs we dream about. Then we got them to spill about the glamorous and the gritty parts—and how to actually make it work when you’re working hard.
The Ski Guide
Zahan Billimoria, who was born in Switzerland, knew he wanted to be a mountain guide when he was 18, after he spent a day in the mountains with legendary French guide Christophe Profit. But it took a decade of climbing and skiing, two kids and a few years of working full-time jobs in his hometown of Jackson, Wyoming—one guiding for Jackson Hole-based Exum Guide, one working in marketing—before Billimoria could throw himself into guiding full time.
Now, he runs his own guiding business, Samara Mountain Guides, and he said his favorite part is finding new routes and educating clients about how to move around in the mountains. His biggest pieces of advice are to build a big well of personal skills—recognizing patterns in the mountains, dealing with every kind of condition—and to find a mentor you can shadow and learn from.
“You have to be flexible and ramp up slowly, building skills and experience,” he said. “Every part of guiding takes patience.”
Jen Henson and her partner, Drew Schwehr, couldn’t believe it when they found the listing for Glacier, Washington’s Wake’N’Bakery. They’d been wanting to move from Colorado and start a café in a quiet mountain town, and the beloved bakery on the road to Mt. Baker Ski Area was for sale.
The duo jumped at the chance. They took ownership of the bakery in July 2019. Since then, the 3am wake up calls have been tough, but Henson said they have the mountain solitude they craved. Plus, the vibe inside the bakery is so fun that most of the time it doesn’t feel like work. Henson said the reality is even better than what they could have imagined. “Sometimes it still feels like a wonderful dream,” she said.
The Gear Tester
Kelly Cordes knows he has it good. His job is to abuse Patagonia gear in the mountains—something he was doing way before the brand started paying him for it. As a rising and decorated alpine climber in the ’90s, Patagonia sent Cordes gear to test while on a trip to Alaska. He gave such thorough feedback—“I’d write a book’s worth of notes,” he said—that he became an official gear tester for the brand. Now, he works as a field testing coordinator in mountain sports for Patagonia from his home in Estes Park, Colorado. It’s his job to take prototypes into the mountains to see how they hold up, analyzing the gear’s performance in a range of conditions.
The job involves more computer time than he’d like—he has to build detailed reports from a variety of field testers to give feedback on how and where the gear worked best. But overall, Cordes said he has the perfect job for a climber and skier who never wanted a so-called real job. “I was head-over-heels passionate about climbing, and I simply tried to do well and be real with the relationships I had going,” he said.
The Mountain Photographer
You’ll find Ben Arnst at work at 7am on a powder day at Squaw Valley, California, shooting photos of a skier dropping into an untracked face before the mountain opens to the public.
Arnst didn’t follow a straight-forward career path to becoming a photographer. He worked for a snowboard brand and an architectural fabrication plant, among other things, before settling into his role as Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows’ photo and video coordinator. He landed the job through a connection he made while shooting athletes for the snowboard company he used to work for.
The toughest part of his job? The dependence on the weather. “Here at Squaw and Alpine we’re talking to ski patrol days in advance and spending a lot of time in the mountains to know where to shoot ahead of time,” he said. “On a storm day, you’re up at 4am getting everything ready, working with mountain operations, so that when the athletes show up, you’re off and running for an hour or two.” That all goes into getting maybe one or two shots that’ll grace a billboard, an ad or social media. If he’s lucky, Arnst scores a few powder turns on his way down, too.
The Food Truck Founders
High school friends Chris McGinnis and Dan Purtell had been slinging pizzas at the base of Beaver Creek, Colorado, for 15 years when they got to talking with Jose Reza, who worked in the restaurant’s kitchen, about their dream of starting a taco truck and going into business for themselves. Reza and Purtell began tapping family recipes to build a menu, and the three targeted what they saw as the ideal location for their Rocky Mountain Tacos truck: right between a brewery and a dispensary on the road to Vail.
McGinnis said they thought it would just be a summer gig, but when winter hit, they didn’t want to quit. That was five years ago, and even though water pipes and propane tanks freeze and winter nights can be unbelievably cold, the three business partners love being a part of the community and getting feedback on their food. “Even the tourists are nice,” McGinnis said. “It has been a blast.”
The Hostel Owners
In 2014, when Eliza Greene and her partner, Justin Hyjek, opened the Homestyle Hostel in their hometown of Ludlow, Vermont, their vision was to provide the kind of casual, communal lodging they’d found traveling around South America but with a solid restaurant.
Their first establishment was such a success that in 2018, the couple took over the motel across the street and turned it into a stylish motel and bar called Main and Mountain. Now, they work a ton, especially in the busy season, but they also ski a lot. The closest chairlift at Okemo Mountain Resort is less than a mile away, and Green said it’s easy to pop out for a powder morning or a lap on the cross-country trails right outside their door.
In the off-season, when town basically shuts down, they take advantage of the quietness and travel out of the country for up to six weeks. Greene said their job requires flexibility and having a go-with-the-flow attitude, but it’s so fulfilling to build a community. “I think everyone should start something like this in a ski town. It’s such a captive audience,” she said.