Work Hard, Ski Hard: Sam Cox, the Smokejumper

Montana skier fights fires all summer to ski powder all winter

Marquee Image: Cox reaps the rewards of a summer’s hard work, at his home mountain of Bridger Bowl. PHOTO: Luke Driessen

As skiers, we’re all in pursuit of the same objective: as many days on snow as possible. There are many routes to this goal, but some skiers have it figured out more than others. They log 60-hour weeks all summer so they can take the entire winter off to ski every day for months to come. These people work hard. Their lives are not glamorous, and the hours aren’t easy. But the truth is: These skiers have the real dream jobs.

In celebration of this seasonal lifestyle, we found a group of diehard skiers who tirelessly work all summer, so they can punch out of the time clock as soon as the first snow flies. First up: Sam Cox. The 34-year-old Montana smokejumper works from the end of March until the middle of November. His job is to parachute into remote, rugged terrain in order to quickly and tactically fight fires. Now in his 17th year fighting fires for the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), Cox has been assigned to fires everywhere from Alaska to Texas, Oregon to Virginia, and just about everywhere else across the American West. Come winter, though, he always finds himself on skis back home at Bridger Bowl, Montana, where he (and ski buddy Tavis Campbell) literally wrote the book on skiing there.

POWDER: How did you get your start as a firefighter? Why did you choose this career?
Cox: The path that I’ve taken to get here wasn’t by design. It started as a summer job during college. I guess some people want to be a physician or an engineer or whatever. I definitely wasn’t like, “I want to work for the Forest Service for 30 years.” It just morphed into it. I think it was pretty easy to travel the path of living this seasonal lifestyle. It’s pretty easy to get roped into.

When you’re out fighting these fires all summer are you thinking about skiing and using that as motivation?
Yeah, definitely. I mean there are certain assignments that for whatever reason are really hard. It’s crazy hot out or it’s a super challenging fire because of the terrain or something like that. There are definitely times that I think to myself, whatever it happens to be, ‘If I get through this block of time, that pays for a Europe trip,’ or something along those lines. That keeps the spirits up.

It is likely not advisable, but Cox is counting down the months until powder turns, mid-flight. PHOTO: Darby Thomson
It is likely not advisable, but Cox is counting down the months until powder turns, mid-flight. PHOTO: Darby Thomson

I can imagine that skiing the Alps is a great motivator. Is Europe a common destination for you in the winter?
Europe trips are usually my big-ticket deal—literally and figuratively—for the winter. I’ve been almost every season since I was 20. Every year I try to go a couple spots that I’ve been before, just because I have a somewhat decent understanding of the lay of the land. I also try to incorporate one new place that I’ve never been, just to expand my knowledge base.

What similarities do you see between firefighting and skiing?
I think it attracts the same kind of people. I know a fair amount of guys that are in fire, and I think the drive and factor is there so they can ski during the winter. So I would say personality would probably be the common denominator between the two.

You get really high-caliber folks with diverse backgrounds and interests. Pretty much anything you can imagine, there’s somebody in the off-season doing it. There are some guys that go on big sailing trips in the Caribbean, other folks that will go to one of the research centers in Antarctica, folks that spend the whole winter in Thailand. I have a buddy that used to surf in Mexico all winter. A couple of the guys rode motorcycles to the tip of South America one year.

Cox arcs his way down the Schilthorn, high in the Bernese Alps of Switzerland. PHOTO: Jure Roethlisberger
Cox arcs his way down the Schilthorn, high in the Bernese Alps of Switzerland. PHOTO: Jure Roethlisberger

So have you lived in Bozeman most of your life?
Yeah. I spent a winter in Salt Lake, but predominantly I’ve always lived in Bozeman. During the summer I’ve lived a couple different spots, but that’s just been for fire. I was in McCall, Idaho, and then I just transferred back to Missoula. I learned how to ski at Big Sky. Skied there for a couple seasons and then we started skiing at Bridger in 1986.

Word is that you wrote Stepping Up, the guide to Bridger Bowl. Where did the vision for that come from?
I’ve known Robb Gaffney for a long time, and when he put out the Squallywood book, that was a huge inspiration. I wrote it with my buddy Tavis (Campbell) who I used to work with—he’s actually a city firefighter now. We were at one of the bars in Bozeman with Robb, and he really encouraged us. We had been kicking the idea around and making real slow progress on it for a couple years, but it wasn’t really going anywhere. And then he kind of pushed us over the edge a little bit, so to speak, and then we went and invested a bunch of time into it.

Moving forward, do you plan to continue on the same path, skiing as much as possible?
I am hopefully going to continue to have full winters for as long as feasible. I don’t think I’ve ever had a doubt or I’ve ever had a season where I feel like it’s something I don’t want to do. It’s always kind of at the forefront. I really, really look forward to winter every year, and hopefully, I want to have as much longevity as possible and ski for a long time.