‘Middle-aged ski bums’ flock to mountain areas such as the Fraser Valley | SkyHiNews.com

‘Middle-aged ski bums’ flock to mountain areas such as the Fraser Valley

Janet Day
Sky-Hi Daily News
Byron Hetzler/Sky-Hi Daily News
ALL | Sky-Hi Daily News

We all eventually get asked the same questions, especially if we’re well past the age of being a pre-, mid- or post-college lift op: “Why are you here? Why do you stay? Don’t you get sick of the cold?”

There are no simple answers.

In 2003, I left a somewhat prestigious, occasionally glamorous, six-figure media job in midtown Manhattan and moved to Fraser with only a vague idea of what I wanted my life to be.

New York friends wondered whether I was suffering from Sept. 11 post-traumatic stress. Old pals from a 20-year newspaper career in Denver figured it was a mid-life crisis. Family members were simply embarrassed.

Five years later I’m a 51-year-old ski bum with no regrets, no worries and no need to ever again put on high heels and pantyhose. Those neurotic New Yorkers are envious of my relaxed lifestyle. Denver friends beg to use my guest room on weekends, and family members brag about their access to cheap lift tickets.

I’m not alone. Baby boomers are moving to the Rocky Mountain states in numbers that are only going to increase as my generation shuns typical retirement enclaves in Florida or Arizona, according to demographers who track such trends.

Winter Park Resort employs approximately 1,500 people this snow season, with 266 ” about 18 percent ” age 50 and older. Some have been here since they were 20-year-old lift operators and built careers in the resort industry. Others climbed the career ladder elsewhere and jumped off in middle age to take lower-level resort jobs.

We talk about moguls, not menopause; powder days, not prostate exams. Our blood pressure is low and our energy level high. Few people know what or who we used to be and fewer care.

“You get sucked into this life and you can’t leave, but that’s a good thing,” said Winter Park Marketing Director Mary Woolwine, 51. “I love this valley, this life.”

Woolwine’s ties to the resort date to her childhood when she joined the Eskimo Ski Club in Denver. She started working as a ski instructor in 1976 while still attending the University of Colorado.

Geoff Anders, 58, followed the typical ski bum path. At age 20, he left Fort Collins for Winter Park, finding jobs building lifts and working as a lift operator. Today, he’s in his 13th year as the Winter Park Ski Patrol director.

Nancy Roark took a little longer to make the move. She came to Winter Park in 2002 after a 32-year education career in Arkansas. She was 55 at the time. She’s now putting her junior high school principal skills to use as a supervisor in the children’s ski and snowboard school.

“I just couldn’t see myself sitting around, playing bridge,” she said.

Bob Dart followed hang-gliding buddies from Southern California to Denver in 1975.

He moved to Winter Park two years later, working construction jobs, coordinating ski races, managing the resort’s competition center and now, at age 56, overseeing all mountain maintenance.

Wayne Balnicki’s children were grown and gone when he decided to leave a career in corporate human resources and move to Winter Park in 2001. He was 50 years old.

“I just got burned out in the corporate world after 25 years, so I escaped,” Balnicki said. Today he works in the season pass office and escapes regularly to ski the deep snow among the trees or guide fly fishing trips.

Ron Richards, 56, found himself in Winter Park as part of a highway construction crew 30 years ago. He’s now the resort’s slope maintenance manager.

“It’s a dream job,” Richards said. “I’m paid to ski; I’m out on skis every day.”

In 2005, Stan Hopkins retired at age 50 from a television news career that took him from Tulsa to New York, Boston and San Francisco. He followed Roark, his cousin, to Winter Park. He works in children’s lesson sales and co-owns the Trail Ridge Art Gallery.

“I had always thought about moving to the mountains and now I’m living the dream,” Hopkins said.

Locals love to quip that people come here for the winters and stay for the summers. The truth is we stay for all of it.

“I love this life,” said Anders. “I love the people, the camaraderie.”

Dart, too, credits his friends with making the mountain resort life his life.

“The local people are what you have when the winter is over,” he said. “Your friends are why you stay.”

It’s not always an easy life. Living in an area known for more than 300 inches of snow each year often means wrecked cars or wrecked knees.

Many of us, at what should be our peak earning years, work for less than we did three decades ago. We learn to live with it because a job that allows, even requires, making fresh tracks in knee-deep powder is worth keeping.

I work a few days a week as a Winter Park guest services information agent. The job and the lifestyle have taught me more useful lessons than a master’s degree and media career ever did. Being a baby boomer snow bum means:

– The energy of 20-year-olds can be matched if paired with sufficient subsequent use of icepacks and ibuprofen.

– Time still heals all wounds ” except for a hamstring tear, which is a bother forever.

– Pre-existing spouses or significant others cannot be forced to embrace the resort lifestyle.

– Age-appropriate dating in a small mountain town is a challenge. Age-inappropriate dating in a small mountain town is entertaining, but not for very long.

– Life-long friendships can be made during a chair lift ride, no matter how long that life has already been.

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