(This is a sidebar to an HCN magazine cover story on the New West's servant economy.)
Copper Mountain Ski Resort, Colorado
Greg Smith was a 23-year-old ski bum when he drifted into Summit County in 1983 or so. "Now it's just the opposite," he says. "I work a lot and don't get much chance to ski."
Smith established himself hereabouts by working as a janitor and he's owned a ski shop. Now he has to juggle three jobs: At the Copper Mountain ski resort, he supervises maintenance at a condo building six days a week, and two nights on graveyard shift he drives a snowcat grooming the slopes. On the side, he has a remodeling business serving wealthy clients in the ski counties.
As I meet him, he's just completed "a triple' - working 4 p.m. to midnight on maintenance, then midnight to 8 a.m. driving the snowcat, then 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. back on maintenance.
"That only happens once a week," he says.
Of his jobs, maneuvering the snowcat on tilted slopes late at night sounds the toughest: Steering by headlights, he grades the snow with the blade in front and smooths it out with the tiller dragging behind. Where it's steep, he ties off to a tree and winches along. "Sometimes on a steep slope you cut loose and slide a hundred yards down. In whiteouts you have no idea where you're going."
With six years' experience on the snowcats, Smith has worked his way up to $12 an hour, a top wage in ski country. His wife, Pam, has a white-collar job at the Copper Mountain resort. Their annual income totals about $60,000. But despite all the work and time they've invested in ski country, they can't afford to live here.
So recently the Smiths bought a three-bedroom house in Leadville, on three acres, for $70,000. For the same package on this side of the pass, "you're looking at $300,000." Smith says. "That's the only reason I live in Leadville."
During the winter, with the snowcat job taking more of his time and blizzards slowing his high-altitude commute, he doesn't see his daughter, three-year-old Taylor, much. "If you really want to make it up here," he explains, "to get ahead, you really have to hustle your butt."
- by Ray Ring, HCN senior editor