The Social Cycle of the Winter Ski Season

In a conversation on the bus with a new hire down from the mountain, the line came out, ‘The cast may be different, the characters remain the same.’

I have done 20 winter seasons, 15 of which back to back. Every season, every year there is a distinct social order and cycle of events which, given the nature of the industry, always remains the same. When back to back winters are involved there is the ebb and flow of seasonal workers, summer staff leave and there is an eerie calm before the storm that is Winter.

The first snow may fall in May and this sets the tone for the preseason. A buzz usually emanates through town in anticipation of pow days, face shots and some great all mountain skiing.

Snow in May, never stays (although it does some years!)

Winter staff will start to trickle in. Those that have been coming for a couple of years will get here early, hoping to secure themselves a decent or affordable place to live. Rarely do they get both. Or an evening job to either supplement their seasonal income, or tie them through to the start of the season. Both are beholden to the laws of time and place and rarely do they coincide.

Middle management are usually the first to arrive as their contracts generally start first. This sets the scene for subsequent staff to have their welcoming parties, catching up and telling stories of the season just had or the summer they’ve grown accustomed to not having.

Snow in June, still too soon.

The weather at this point plays a major role in the tone for those flying in. If the mountains are white with a lot of snow, then this gets subconsciously noted and people are excited to have finished their between season travels and start work. Or, if there is minimal, if any snow, then the mood is subdued as getting on snow not only means having fun, but also the first pay check to back date rent or put a decent meal on the table. So much rides on the weather and snow conditions.

Welcoming parties/drinks continue, ‘So and so is in town. Let’s go and catch up!’ This continues for as long as there are visas approved and contracts starting.

Social hierarchical order is discerned early. Returners and how many seasons, new everyone has their pecking order. In previous seasons you may have had buddy in the tech shop that tuned your skis for a 6 pack, or your barista buddy for a cheeky coffee, or on the bus you may have forgotten your pass and the driver might let you on under the radar. All this for a few tips on how to ski or where the stashes are on a pow day. Unless they all return the reset button is hit and the new staff eager to please, play it strictly by the rules. At least until it gets busy…

The next excuse for socialising is school holidays. Again, how much snow usually dictates how busy the holidays are. The more snow that stays early on, the busier the school holidays tend to be. When the masses arrive, chaos increases and so to does the desire to have a post work beverage, or two. There becomes a mini cycle of work, drink, eat (maybe), sleep and repeat. There doesn’t seem to be too much else that fits in. We use this time to try to maximise our income as the level of patronage will eventually diminish. Make hay while the snow falls, or so the saying goes!

Relationships can be made or broken in the course of the season, there is a saying in some ski towns that ‘you don’t lose your girlfriend, you just lose your place in line.’ Maybe it just shows the strength of relationship or where they are in life. Sometimes after the melee of the season, things get patched up and then they continue on life as normal. The doing a ski season urge sated, ‘what happens in the season, stays in the season.’

Then it’s birthdays and since everyone (mostly) survived the holidays there is a new sense of comradery, ‘They’re a legend, and it’s their birthday, we’ve got to go out!’ This occurs concurrently as school holiday contracts finish. ‘And so and so is going back to uni/school/ where they came from, and it’s their leaving drinks!’ No one seems to have any money, until they’re at the bar.

When the school holiday dust has settled, and a routine has kicked in, the beginning of the end is made evident by the trickle of ever increasing leaving parties. ‘Back to uni or school or travelling , my visa runs out in 3 weeks’ are the usual citations. These are the people on their once in a lifetime trip (or so they think) without the intent to return. They understandably want to capitalise on the opportunity while they can. Usually they’re back for at least one more season.

Leaving parties are attended by the saisonaires that are training for their next exam. Making sure that their com is traveling with their bos. Although since their money has been spent on the exam, they’ll only go out once they’ve completed the exam, hopefully, passed it. Then celebrate once they have their pay rise!

The snow storms subsided, the longer days disguised by inclement weather, are now noticeably getting longer. Sometimes, the dark starts to the day are a cold comfort of the season ahead. When the days get longer the time for making money to travel on, or save, gets shorter and the anxiety kicks in. ‘How can I make more money when we’ve been dropped to 4 day weeks??’ More time to ski or ride, go on road trips or play frisbee golf.

Conversations of post season travels are starting. Booking flights, accommodation and anything else starts happening. Decisions are made and locked in as the money becomes apparent. Another conversation is next season, this sometimes helps to determine between season travels. The winter staff tropical caravan making their way through various cost effective destinations that lend themselves to travel photographers and a disturbing amount of hash tags. It should also be noted for the first week the only tan they have is a goggle tan on an otherwise luminescent (Lumi-dermi-escence) and pasty lustre.

The winter population subsides, and the end of season staff parties are in full swing. The single twenty-somethings making a last ditch effort to hook up with their crush for the season (if they haven’t already) in the haze of the school holidays. ‘Serial monogamy’ is the condition of getting in to a relationship at the start off the season, remaining faithful for the duration of the season, and only the season. Sometimes stretching to post season travels, and rarely past that. Then the next season in to a new relationship again, remaining faithful for the season.

Departure parties have slowed and the final day has been done. Now all that is left is to finalise the packing. Deciding what gets left in storage, if it can be found, what comes with you and what gets discarded, either at the charity shop or landfill. Nothing compares to the friends you’ve made, experiences enjoyed or endured and the anticipation of the next season. Ready to start the cycle again.

Remember, the cast may be different, but the characters remain the same!

Let’s go ski!


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