What Happened to the Dirtbag Skier?

And why you're better off with a duct tape patch than a new Gore-Tex jacket

Gore-Tex or tweed, does it matter in the end? PHOTO: Matt Small

Gore-Tex or tweed, does it matter in the end? PHOTO: Matt Small

This story is supposed to start with “I remember,” so I’ll just start with that. I remember when we used to wear garbage bags to ski in the rain. I remember when CB Sports made the most waterproof winter jackets on the planet and they weren’t even close to waterproof. I remember skiing in boots way too big and skis too small. And it wasn’t just me. Most everyone on the slope around me had a duct tape patch somewhere on their outfit.

Back then, being uncomfortable was an integral part of skiing. It was something that folks on the hill were proud of: black-and-blue shins, frostbit fingertips, soaking wet clothes. It added to the adventure and the subtle insanity of flying downhill on slippery pieces of wood. (That’s what we do, by the way.) In the current age of altimeter watches, wifi on chairlifts, and apps that tell you if you are skiing or sitting at the bar, some of the adventure of the sport has been lost. Or at least hidden behind a commercial façade. Along with that went some of its spirit.

The only thing more uncomfortable than skiing in sleet these days, is watching young and old skiers preen about a base area with enough gear on their bodies to pay my rent for six months. The layers of color-coordinated fleece and Gore-Tex; goggles with a dozen moving parts; backpacks with pockets for all of the above. In town, it’s worse. Ski pants are replaced with “technical” travel pants with articulated knees and ergonomic pockets; goggles become sunglasses built with NASA technology; ski boots are traded in for waterproof approach shoes that can walk up a sheer cliff.

Don’t get me wrong, advances in outdoor gear have changed the sport for the better in many, many ways. Backcountry skiing on modern A/T gear is a small miracle; skiing in the rain is now civilized. It’s the commercial culture and importance of buying and displaying gear these days that is unsettling. It’s as if wearing new pants and a new jacket makes you a better skier. Or worse, it actually gives you more joy than skiing itself.

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Many folks today think the act of skiing would be impossible without a wicking underlayer and appropriately matched, breathable outerwear. Or that they wouldn’t be able to complete a backcountry tour with a hole in their pants. The epidemic has extended to the overall lifestyle of skiers. Where long-bearded ski hippies who pioneered the West on skinny skis wore their unkempt beards—and destitution—with pride, the current generation grooms their facial hair and actually looks in the mirror before heading to the hill—kind of like the folks that most of us moved to the mountains to get away from.

I read an article in Adbusters once that said, 30 years ago, corporate marketing strategy revolved around trying to associate a company with cool culture—like skiing, skateboarding, and surfing. Since then, corporate culture has become the new cool—now people try to associate themselves with a brand to make their cultural statement.

What seems to be left behind is the culture of skiing itself. And within that, powder skiing. Weren’t we the group that turned our backs on careers, racecourses, colleges, money, vanity, and all the trappings of the humdrum life? Aren’t we the offspring of the hypocritical Boomers who scoffed at a workaday life and drove across the country to sling drinks and ski pow? Who left behind the billboard ads, prime time TV, marketing managers, and focus groups to strike out on our own?

Which is to say, shouldn’t your jacket just be a jacket? And not your identity? Same with your skis, boots, sunglasses, underwear? Do you need to grow a new skin every year like a chameleon? Shape your facial hair in just such a way, like everyone else?

Herd mentality works in cities, where great populations swing to and fro with sweet whisperings of the Great New Thing: food trucks, cupcakes, skinny jeans. It has no place in the mountains where most skiers ran like hell to get away from all that. Up there, with a skin track in front of you and 2,000 vertical of powder below, it doesn’t matter what you are wearing or what you look like. As long as you have those slippery boards on your feet. There need not be another distraction—just trees, snow, nature, air and whatever god you believe in between you and the bottom.

Add a comment

  • Joe

    The only reason Powder Magazine exists is because companies (like gore-tex) pay for ads. Why do they pay for those ads? So that we buy more gear. And the cycle continues… Seems hypocritical to complain about all the techy gear on the slopes when it in facts pays for your magazine…

    • Kt

      Ha. Joe got duped. Now joe wants to be cool by bashing on honesty in the face of those brand’s advertising money that make him feel included as he sips his latte. Have fun in your cubicle joe.

    • Colin

      Not true dude. Yes, ads are one reason magazines exist, but not the only reason. Magazines are constantly walking the fence between earning ad dollars which promote the consumer culture on their pages and trying to simultaneously remain loyal to the readers and the die hard duct tape-embracing spirit of skiing that those readers identify with. Ads are one reason magazines stay afloat, but the emotional response and the connection readers feel to the sport they love from the stories and photographs is the real reason magazines like Powder exist. Not everyone who reads powder is a die hard ski bum who ditches college or responsibilities to ski 100+ days a year, but I can bet you the community of people surrounding that lifestyle, who truly make the ski industry go round, is who Powder values most. They aren’t stressing out about how to remain loyal to the city slickers with expensive taste who need their smartphone apps and high tech gear to have a good time. Sure, Powder makes a good part of their revenue from ads that encourage materialism and not being “uncomfortable” while skiing, but without authentic skiing content that readers can connect with, why make a magazine at all? Why would subscribers keep coming back? People don’t buy Powder for the ads. I sure don’t. And I can only hope the majority of their readership feels the same way.

  • rob thomas

    We’re still here Porter… no new gear, no apps, no lattes, and no cubicles.

  • Freddy

    Could not agree more!!! A couple of years back I went on a clinic at the Highland´s Bowl with my old RC4 Fischer skis, they were yellow, skinny and have a plastic tip for when you were doing slalom, the have no carv or rocker (by the way what in the hell is rocker?). Any way I was there with my skis on my shoulder, the way you are supposed to carry skis, it has been snowing for the past 4 days and was the bowl was opening, the clinic instructor looked at me and said “you gonna ski the bowl with does?” So I answer “Yeap they are my only skis”… I hope this little story can add some more to what is said up here.
    Keep skiing the way it should be!!! With fun and fear!!!
    See you all

    • Jay Tierney

      You can be a dirtbag skier with skis that utilize technology from the past decade. It’s not like rocker is the new thing this year.

    • Thomas

      Rocker is when your ski tips (nose rocker) or tails (tail rocker), or both, start rising earlier. That way the skis are more shaped as a banana, giving you better flotation on deep pow and making the skis more foregiving on turns.
      I get your point but I really don’t think it’s bad having a pair of skis with some new technology (such as fatter skis with rocker or carving shape in sted of traight edges) that will help you have a better experience. I don’t say “give you a better experoence” because having more technology will not make skiing beter. Someone like you with your old skinny skis can for shure have a better time than some other person with new gear that doesn’t really enjoy skiing. But a new pair of skis might alow you to do some new things you couldn’t, therefore helping you to have a better ski experience.

    • JasonASE

      The new ski tech has revolutionized powder skiing and made it a lot more fun, but hey if you wanna grandstand about skiing on old POS skis from the 90s then that’s your prerogative.

  • joker

    Skiing is and has always been a white elitist sport. How many truly destitute people have you ever seen on the slopes? Not including those who are broke by choice, most of whom were introduced to skiing by their well-to-do parents on expensive family vacations. In the hand full of ski towns I’ve lived in the “ski bums” are generally rich white kids rebelling from their parents.

    • Katahdin

      True enough, joker.

    • diaryofagearwhore

      Not totally, I for one was raised poor, only had handmedown gear we got at garage sales, shared tickets with my siblings and eat pb&js. Now as an adult, I live out of a 20 year old car, make enough money working a job that would pay triple in the cityand ski over 100 days a year. That guy in the photo also lives out of his car. I know this cause he steals food from where I work. We both are living the dream, on a budget.

      • Hugh Gren

        So this food he says I steal are crackers out of a basket!!

    • Manville

      Spot on

  • kookskier

    what a waist of time reading this article. Hate less ski more n stfu

  • Caleb Weaver

    I think the best way for us all to have fun and enjoy this sport is to splinter into small factions and rage about each other…

  • Mistah Vader

    I’ve seen plenty of dirtbags skiers. Just because skiing as a whole is becoming more clean cut doesn’t mean people care less about skiing.

    • pnoonan

      I don’t give a hoot who what why skis. Just go out there and tear it up.

  • KM

    I promise you they’re all in Montana. Shared a chair with an older dude wearing flannel and denim overalls. I complained about the snow conditions and in the gruffest farmer voice he replied, “It’s always a good day as long as yer suckin’ in air.”

  • Alden

    Where’s paco garcia?

  • Rachy

    To summarize, today’s generation cares more about the appearance of being great, rather than actually being/becoming great.

    I’ll keep using my friends’ hand-me-downs as long as it means I can spend a few less days working and a few more days skiing. Except boots.

    After 10 years in the same boots and finally getting new ones, I will never do that to my feet again.

  • L T

    “Successful people don’t worry about what others are doing” …. Some people buy quality gear because its flashy, others because it improves their experience. The more respected people on the mountain will always be the ones in a hoodie & sunglasses shredding harder than the others on some beat up sticks. Its the 21st century and I couldn’t be happier that I can ski comfortably.

    • JasonASE

      The best skiers on the mountain are wearing top of the line gear that they were either given for free or obtained via “other means” for huge discounts. The advanced-intermediates from NYC like the guy who wrote this article are upset because they have to pay full retail.

  • Eli

    Vail and Aspen aren’t representative of all ski areas or skiers.

    • JasonASE

      Have you ever actually skied Aspen/Snowmass or are you just basing your asinine comment on what you have seen in People magazine during the holiday season?

  • Leerprof

    I thought all the Dirt Bags were snowboarders

  • LB

    Duct tape and old gear fully exist in a place called Glacier, Wa-Home of MT Baker!

    • Paul_Rand

      yeah. I am from LA. I felt out of place at Mt Baker with my dayglo Lime Electric E2 goggles…haha!

  • Bob

    Skier Trash

  • Skuzzer

    You guys are all bent. I crawled out of my dirtbag dungeon to let you know that we are alive and well. skier trash lives on, but stop drawing attention to our culture. I don’t want north face to make a 5000K waterproof duck tape patch.

  • PFurn

    Go to Bridger Bowl, MT and you’ll find the DB’s. No cell service at BB until you are on top of the ridge ;)

  • Christopher Milark

    I’m with you Used to ski at SUGARLOAF/USA in Maine years ago some of the best technical skiers anywhere and most of the locals spent money on skis not the foo foo gear funny the people that skied in it If you can call it that coudnt keep up with the locals. My gear was down coat covered by an old canvas fleced trappers coat that had to be 40 years old was great those were the days

  • Joe

    I remember skiing before global warming.

  • Max Mogren

    Good article. Now you just need to apply your writing skills to exposing the fact that chemtrails cause climate change and that geoengineering is in fact genocidal weather warfare.

    • Shredthegnarpow

      So what?

  • JasonASE

    The guy who wrote this article lives in Brooklyn, NY… I’m sure he’s a really hardcore dirtbag ski bum though. I mean, you’d have to be to in order to have such an original, refreshing take on the state of skiing, right?

  • Bozman

    Pfurn and KM, shush up about MT. Enough Douche Bags (not Dirt Bags) already. I actually had the CB jacket (only allowable colors, red or blue) with duct tape. Sold trash bags for 5 dollars in the rain. Joker, stay the white elitist rap, whats up with the hate? It is OK to be white and like the mountains. Real and honest is the key. PLUR!

  • sthrendyle

    Porter Fox is generally an excellent writer, but there are some pretty brutal generalizations within this essay.

    I think we’ve all skied with a LOT of guys (and… they are guys) and I would say that very few have what you would call ‘dirtbag gear.’ That whole deal is a holdover from the 60s and 70s, when ski gear truly was priced at a premium (I recall going into a shop in KW in university and seeing a pair of Volkls for $699… a year’s tuition, back then!) and there just wasn’t that much of it around. There really weren’t any consignment stores or inventory blowouts back then in ski towns. There was no Re-Use It store where guys left their skis by the front door as they dashed out of town.

    And far as I know, most guys definitely felt ‘better’ when skiing on well tuned skis and wearing WARM boots that FIT well. Further, to suggest that someone is “proudly destitute” is taking things a bit far. Most mainstream ski areas chased the van campers out of their lots decades ago (though some areas still welcome ‘em, which is fantastic, I think). Look, skiing is a Big Tent, there’s room for everyone and a resort that you’ll feel at home in somewhere out there. The big thing, of course, is that you simply ‘keep skiing’ regardless of cost. (And for a lot of people, that means backcountry or even plain ol’ cross country skiing. Nothing wrong with that when you have to pay bills and put food on the table).

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