You know, living the life of a ski bum, hanging out in a ski town, chasing powder and ski bunnies all day, hitting the bar for some PBR and doing it all over again tomorrow. That’s the conventional notion, anyway.
To find out if this lifestyle is really all it’s cracked up to be, we caught up with pro skier and legendary bartender Dan Withey. Withey left his home in Wisconsin and moved to Alta, Utah in the early ’90s and has never looked back. This 40-something has since seen it all and was willing to share his story, the pros and cons of “living the dream” and some helpful advice for those who’d like to follow in his first tracks.
“I work four nights a week and can ski every day. Depending on how good I want my hair to look, I can have my boots off by 3:15 and have the bar open by 4. It’s kind of ideal.”
What inspired you to move to Alta?
I skied a lot in high school. We had a private ski hill near my home in Wisconsin and I got hooked. Then I took a year off from college to go skiing in Alta and they got 800-plus inches that winter. I moved to Alta in September and at that point there weren’t too many employees there for the season. By Halloween they had seven feet of snow. I can remember walking to a Halloween party and the snow banks were up to my shoulder height. There was actually a tunnel down to the house with the party. On the mountain, we were hitting forty-foot jumps into deep pow at Halloween and one night in January it snowed 48 inches overnight. I couldn’t go back.
Would you say that when you first moved to Alta you lived the life of a ski bum?
Yeah, at that point, I was in college for three years. Most resorts house their employees [Alta included] and most provide you with three meals a day. You work and then ski when you can.
Can you describe the experience?
I wanted to be an athlete, a skier, so I was definitely prone to living this lifestyle. The epic winter didn’t hurt. I just liked the lifestyle and I had parents who supported me. They saw how happy I was.
What are the pros and cons?
Obviously, the living situation is not great. It is a bunk-style dorm room with multiple people. However, the pros are pretty good. They feed you really well and you don’t have to pay for the food or the room. Also, if you want to be a skier, the mountain is right there for you. You have to want to be a skier though to live that life. There are no worries to have a checkbook and pay rent or even have a car. It’s totally carefree. At that young age, you are with likeminded people who are just looking to ski powder.
How has your life changed since then?
Now I live at the base of the canyon. I have a checkbook and pay rent. However, I still live around the clock of the ski lifts. I have more real-life responsibility though. The whole point of that lifestyle is to shun responsibility. It’s figuring out how to make it work as a skier.
Tell me about the famous Withey Wave by Lee Cohen…
For sure, it’s the coolest photo that has been taken of me. The one that is unique and when people see it, they are just in awe of it.
Who were some of the people who aided in your evolution into a pro skier?
I got in with Jeff Skillern, an upright aerial champion, who took me under his wing. I didn’t know that people could ski as good as he does. I mean, I did but only in movies like Blizzard of Oz. It’s totally enlightening to watch him ski. Same thing with Sam Howard, a longtime patroller in his 50s who skies with more energy that 20-year-olds. Seeing guys like Glen Plake on the same hill as you is mind-blowing.
What is your favorite location to ski?
I do most of skiing at Alta, but the best day of your life would be climbing into a helicopter in Alaska. I’m definitely a homebody though. Once you fall into your place, it’s hard to leave.
How did it come to be that you are running the Sitzmark Club?
I was working at the Peruvian [another Alta lodge], then in ‘96 I switched. We have an open pass now to ski for the winter, but back then we had to be in a lottery to get the pass. I didn’t get one, so I had to find something else to do, so I started working at the lodge as a “handy.” Basically, I did any odd job that they needed me to do. I did that for about a year, then I took one night a week at the bar and worked the door the other nights. When the full-time bartender moved on, I took over. It’s usually me and two other bartenders.
How do you balance being a pro skier and legendary bartender?
It’s nice because it’s a night job. An après ski bar that opens at 4. Last call is at 10:30, so it’s not a nocturnal job like most bars. I work four nights a week and can ski every day. Depending on how good I want my hair to look, I can have my boots off by 3:15 and have the bar open by 4. It’s kind of ideal. That’s why I still do it, for the amount of skiing.
I have to ask, what is your favorite après ski beer?
I definitely went through an IPA phase like everyone else in America, so I like some local IPAs like Uinta Hopnosh. Redrock Double IPA is scary good. You could end up falling asleep with your ski pants on after about three of those. However, my favorite is Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. I’ve been looking for a beer for years that I like as much as that. It’s been the bestselling beer up here forever.
What advice would you give to someone looking to live a similar lifestyle?
For me, living and working in a ski town has definitely been my personal calling. I can’t and don’t envision myself in a 9-to-5 scenario; it’s just not me. The beauty of moving here is I met people like myself. People who can’t get past their love of skiing, and want to make it part of their lives every day. My advice to anyone looking to pack up and move to a ski town? Do a little research into which town and area may be the place for you. Then go for it! Do it for a year, for three years, or forever. The real world, just like Alta, will always be there for you. People leave; become doctors and lawyers, students, and teachers. Some come back. Some don’t. But few regret the time spent here.