The dish pit isn't the easiest place to work at the lodge, but it has its perks. You don't have to interact with guests, semi-affectionately known as "Jerrys" or "goblins," depending on the mood. The shifts are great for ski hours, and you can get away with showing up to work exhausted, smelly, or--god forbid--less than sober. The tele skiers working the dessert and salad counter sometimes slip you leftover ice cream. Half-full pitchers of beer are never hard to find, particularly if you're not above a lukewarm mix of Cutthroat Ale and PBR. When you're skiing every day, happiness comes easy. So this winter, belting Madonna at the top of my lungs with a bunch of skiers in aprons as we closed up the kitchen at Alta's Goldminer's Daughter, felt like something close to a dream job.
I took to showing up for my shifts as a dishwasher with my braids dripping with melting snow, face wind-chapped, legs too spent to squat down and put away precariously stacked dishes. If I really hustled, I could ski until 1:55 p.m., sprint to the basement, swap my ski gear for kitchen attire, and run to the lodge's third-floor restaurant in time for my 2 p.m. shift. My fellow dishwasher, a quiet Northeasterner named Ben, was on a similar program, though he often started a ski tour three hours before I woke up.
Ben walked me through the basics on my first day. There's not much to washing dishes--efficiency and humility are all you need to survive. The thing is, I'd been writing to put food on the table my entire adult life. So I had a little adjusting to do.
As I sprayed myself in the face for the fifth or sixth time, a mountain of dishes growing around me and a puddle of dirty dishwater at my feet, I thought to myself: I don't know if I like skiing this much. Later, I was elbow-deep in searing dishwater trying to unclog a sink, and a line cook walked over.
"Have you ever worked in a kitchen before?" he asked.
"No," I said.
"You'll learn a lot about yourself in the dish pit."
"Hopefully only good things?"
"They won't all be good experiences, but you'll learn good things."
The town at the end of Utah's Little Cottonwood Canyon is an idyll. Storm systems hit almost every week or two. Twenty-one-year-olds lose their phones for months at a time and don't seem to care. Skiers on a dishwasher's salary--around $800 a month after living expenses--live 30 yards from some of the best lift-accessed skiing and accessible backcountry terrain in the Lower 48. The small community that has come to call it home is a mix of nomadic mountainfolk, college dropouts, ornithologists, semi-pro skiers, genuine ski bums, disillusioned young professionals, and wizened Alta lifers.
The patriarch of the GMD is Trainer, the bar manager. He is about 5 feet 5 inches tall, wears a Harley Davidson sweatshirt and a bleached ball cap, and sports the most sun-weathered skin I've ever seen. He also mans the Howitzer when storms call for serious avalanche control. He tells me people call him "that son-of-a-bitch Trainer," but really, it's "just Trainer." The 69-year-old has been at the GMD for 37 years. He came to Alta in the late '70s because it was the only place that had snow at Thanksgiving and liked it so much he decided to take a job as a bartender. When the employees come in each year, Trainer finds ski gear for those without the means to buy their own. He helps wash dishes on busy nights. He says he gets 90 new "children" every year. Something tells me he's the kind of dad liable to slip you a tequila shot on the sly.
When I showed up in early February, the HR manager led me to my room in the basement of the GMD, skis and bags in tow. He was a sweet, smiling guy who did a great job ignoring the smell--an odd mix of weed and stale booze--as we rounded the first flight of stairs. He explained the bennies of washing dishes at the GMD: a practically free season pass; a room and three meals for $10 a day. It's the best deal in ski bumming, and it's been that way since Jim and Elfriede Shane built the the legendary lodge in 1962.
We swung open a door marked "Employees Only" and entered a dormitory-style hallway with low ceilings and dingy brown carpet. I had to kick aside a towel wedged in the gap to open my door, which my trusting roommates left a key in at all times. I'd be staying with the other first-year Goldminer's employees on what's best known as the G-floor, in semi-subterranean shared rooms musty from years of wet things.
I had the top bunk, above a 48-year-old woman named Jamie. When I went to shake her hand, she laughed and said, "We're too chill for that." She isn't a skier, but was drawn to the mountain's "healing magnetic forces." My other roommate, 19-year-old Amber from Indiana, was blond, cherubic, and fearless. She had never skied before she came here, but every moment she wasn't cleaning hotel rooms she was hurtling down groomers on rental equipment, turning only when absolutely necessary.
I scored an invite to drinks at the Peruvian Lodge (known as the P-dog) on my first night thanks to a friendly, flaxen-haired Goldminer's Saloon bartender named Lisa. Amid vacationing dads in tourist T-shirts and locals dancing in their ski gear, I made fast friends with a crew of East Coasters-turned-employees. Eight of us, in various stages of undress, ended up in the Peruvian hot tub only to get kicked out when one of the guys stumbled through the hotel in soaking boxer shorts. The bear-like Peruvian bartenders warned us that we'd be cut off for the rest of the season if we "pulled that shit again."
I learned more about GMD culture over the next few days. Employees could be surprisingly casual. They ate their meals in front of guests in dirty flannel pajamas, drank beer from customers' half-finished pitchers, maybe did laundry once a month, and couldn't bring themselves to buckle their boots on a day that was less than stellar. If you skied 30-plus blower powder days a year, you'd skip the February high-pressure slush, too.
Once, as I waited for my lunch in the GMD cafe, I talked dishwashing with Isaac, a fixture of the Alta community since the '90s. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of Little Cottonwood Canyon's cliff drops and jumps, made bamboo ski poles for locals out of old ski patrol equipment, and once dropped a cliff onto a tree branch and skied to the base with a large stick jutting out from the butt of his shredded ski pants. For Isaac, dishwashing was meditative. He worked with dishtowels on either side of his belt like holstered guns, reveling in the methodical process of making messy things neat again. Kitchens can't function without a dishwasher, and he took pride in that. It was the rosiest description of the job I'd heard yet.
Afternoons started off slow, but once the dinner rush hit, dishwashing was less Zen and more like a horrible game of Tetris, one that involved sharp kitchen utensils, scalding pans, and mountains of slimy dishes that never stopped growing. Bonus points for handling crusted fish skin, moldy leftovers, or gooey congealed fat, and penalties for jamming the steaming dishwashing machine or slipping in a puddle of dishwater. Low-skill, high-speed, and monotonous, it wasn't the most inspiring job I'd ever held. On the bright side, it did foster camaraderie. With the kitchen staff and dozens of servers cycling in and out of the kitchen, the dishpit wasn't a bad place to meet people, as long as my sense of humor didn't run out.
One day, I was so tired by the end of my shift that I skipped a party at the Buckhorn, employee housing to most of the lifties. My fingers were waterlogged and purple, my feet were throbbing, and everything--down to my hat and my underwear--smelled like fry oil. I showered slowly, washing the day and night off, and crawled, exhausted, into my top bunk.
The term "ski bum" is misleading. A normal week at Alta had employees on their feet for 40 hours, skiing somewhere between 20 and 40 more, and sleeping, well, not nearly enough. Four days after I moved in, I woke up bone-tired, hungover, and sick with the G-floor cold (so named for the close quarters and musty climate of the employee living area). For the first time since I'd been there, I couldn't see the parking lot from my ground-floor window. A foot and a half had blown in overnight. I clambered down from my bed, pulled on my long-johns and Gore-Tex, and jogged upstairs.
We'd been interlodged, meaning avalanche danger was so high that no one was allowed outside until Trainer and the patrollers did their avalanche work. I was eating oatmeal with one of the line cooks when Trainer walked in, dusted with gunpowder, and heckled us for not being in line. He'd been up since 3:45 a.m. to make sure we could all safely ski sweet, deep snow.
Wildcat, a slow two-seater next to the more popular Collins chair, is the unofficial Goldminer's chairlift. It accesses rolling, protected trees and a zone called Keyhole, which feeds into Snowbird via steep meadows punctuated by cliff bands and chutes. Just about any time of day you'll catch a few Goldminer's employees spinning laps on "the Kitty."
We staked our place in the lift line and watched the red numbers above the chair inch toward 9:15 a.m., beers in hand and Hawaiian shirts buttoned over technical jackets. When the bull wheel started spinning, the crowd erupted into cheers.
I was in line with Elliot, a line cook and Salt Lake local, and Steven, one of the tele-skiing "salad boys." At the top, a huge posse coalesced and we skied into Keyhole, sending sluff hurtling down steep chutes, poaching each other's powder turns with a holler. "No friends on a powder day" doesn't apply at Alta. Everyone's your friend as long as you can keep up.
Not that it's an easy task. Steven can throw backflips on his teles, Elliot turns once for an average skier's four turns, Northeastern Ben absorbs everything so smoothly you'd think he wasn't moving if you saw him from the waist up. We moved to the Collins chair once the lift line thinned out and sidestepped up a long ridge to a short, steep notch and a wide-open bowl full of untouched, creamy snow punctuated by long stripes of avalanche debris. That afternoon, everyone came into the kitchen giddy and exhausted.
Powder days keep the peace at the GMD. Skiing, eating, sleeping, drinking, and working with the same people day after day, for five months, can leave you feeling antsy. There is no privacy or pretense. One night, I wound up perched on a stranger's unmade bed with a crew of new friends, sharing beers amid piles of dirty clothes and ski gear, amazed at the lack of boundaries and personal space. One person I met likened it to living in a submarine: a space with little room for conflict.
On a sunny, high-pressure Tuesday, I linked up with a crew of employees and party-skied the Hollywood airs under the Collins lift, each skier mimicking (and doing their best to one-up) the one before.
That afternoon, I soaked my sore, bruised, shin-banged, sunburned body in the basement hot tub. A father and son from Florida quizzed me on life as an employee, and I was reminded that people actually vacation here.
Friends gradually introduced me to more canyon culture over the rest of the winter. On the same slopes where Alta's first ski school director, Dick Durrance, pioneered the modern powder turn and big mountain skiers--and dishwashers--like Sage Cattabriga-Alosa cut their teeth, the bar was set high. I visited Funland, a hidden clearing in the woods where season-long projects--huge jumps, ski-through tunnels, rugged amphitheater seating--rise out of the snowpack. Employees hung out there after the lifts stopped spinning, until alpenglow fired up the valley and headlamps came out. I attended my first Alf's party, semi-regular get-downs at a mid-mountain restaurant with unlikely employee housing. Getting there took at least a half-hour of hiking, and getting home called for a brisk, blurry moonlit ski. I drank cheap margaritas at the Sitzmark and cheap whiskey at the P-dog, earned invitations to clandestine smoke shacks, and learned the cost, in pitchers, of getting my core-shots fixed. I experienced the Alta time warp. Living here, blissfully detached from life beyond the confines of the canyon, you lose the shape of a day, a week, a season. It's how one winter turns into a lifetime.
By the end of my stay, I couldn't ski two laps without running into a friend. One day I resolved to head in early and rest. An hour later, I was ripping groomer laps with the oldest guy at the Goldminer's, a 70-something retiree who decided it was finally time to become a ski bum. JD was a G-floor dwelling dishwasher, too, and he preferred Snowbird's wide-open groomers to Alta's varied terrain because he loved to ski fast. He had a wife at home in the Midwest keeping a honey-do list for his return in the spring. Two hours after that, I bootpacked to the top of Mount Baldy with a John Belushi-esque financial analyst from Boston who quit his job and moved to the GMD in December, in search of a day-to-day life that didn't, well, suck.
At the end of the season, I toured up to Alf's for the last mid-mountain party with a handful of the kitchen staff. The stars were so bright we hardly needed headlamps. We took our time, stopping for a sip of whiskey now and then. When we arrived, a massive bonfire was raging in the woods.
"Not everyone is down to take a keg stand at 9,000 feet," one girl told her friend while she hoisted her into position. Two young Rustler employees with thick mustaches talked about the wisdom they'd gained as their facial hair filled in: how to make a proper powder turn, how to navigate dating in such a tight-knit, transient town. Someone tossed Roman candles and bottle rockets into the fire, their bright, horizontal paths splintering the crowd.
After I left, more parties and powder days followed. The season stretched long into the spring. There would never be another season quite like this, the exact same community would never assemble again. Alta will open again next year, though, offering the same dizzy blur of storm days and late nights, welcoming those willing to drop everything but their skis and move to the end of Little Cottonwood Canyon.
This story originally appeared in the November 2017 (46.3) issue of POWDER. To have award winning stories delivered right to your door, in print, subscribe here.