A Skier’s Search for Nirvana

Jimmy Rogers has spent a lifetime looking for nirvana in the mountains. He found it in Chamonix, but what did he leave behind?

ILLUSTRATION: Alelli Tanghal

A feverish crowd is riding the tram to the top of Chamonix's Grands Montets ski area. It snowed two feet last night and three feet the day before. The top of the mountain hasn't opened in two days, and this morning, the clouds lifted for a brief window of clarity. The operator opens the tram doors and skiers race down the summit staircase, jockeying to get first tracks. Taking his time in the mad rush, Jimmy Rogers keeps his cool.

Clad in muted dark blue and gray, with a frayed olive-green knit hat, Rogers stands out from the powder-hungry hordes—many of them young, brightly dressed, and anxious to charge. As the crowd streams over the backside of the summit saddle, Rogers gestures the other direction, toward the frontside, and three friends follow him, trusting he will lead them to the best snow.

His companions hungrily drop in to the steep, glaciated face and pick up speed in the thick yet forgiving waist-deep powder. Rogers, on the other hand, draws out the experience and makes art on the untouched canvas with rhythmic, disciplined turns all the way down 1,700 vertical feet to the piste. At 64 years old, he outgrew the frenetic energy and packs of boys on a big powder day a long time ago. But his understated reactions to a great run—"that was nice" is a common one—belie a deep-rooted, unshakeable enthusiasm for skiing.

Everyone wants to ski more. The difference between everyone and Jimmy Rogers is that Jimmy Rogers acted on it. PHOTO: Jeremy Bernard

All his life, especially in times following personal challenges, Rogers has turned to skiing as a way forward. He has skied almost every day for 17 winters in Chamonix, and 18 in Taos before that. He does not have sponsors, or a ski career, or a social media following—he carries a flip phone. He lives off a frugal, down-to-the-euro budget funded mainly by his summer work as a builder. His priority is skiing. It is what balances him, what betters him, what drives him, and what brings him joy. Despite some regrets with family that he still struggles with, each step of his journey has brought him closer to an ideal life—to ski every day, find the best snow, and share his gift with others.

"I always use Jimmy as an example to my friends," says Michael Wäppling, a 38-year-old Swede whom Rogers befriended in Chamonix. "You can use your age—or your family or your job—as an excuse not to do things. But he's a good example that your age doesn't really matter."

Rogers had plenty of excuses not to go skiing. He was a single dad at a young age, and for the last few years has increasingly taken care of his elderly mother in New Mexico. He's always had to work hard, often just scraping by, to support his family. Sometimes, he can sound crotchety, grumbling about the changes he's seen in Chamonix and threatening to move someplace where he can golf year-round. But, when asked if he's had enough of the ski bum life, he is unequivocal.

"Never," he says. "I'm satisfied during the ski day, but my brain is telling me I want more while my body is telling me to calm down. When it snows, I'll stay out till it hurts to breathe—I find myself just not getting enough."

Rogers' first memories are from the 1950s in Missoula, Montana, where he got on skis at age 3 at Marshall Ski Area. He would look out the window on winter mornings to see how much snow had fallen. His family—mother, father, and a half-brother—often attended church in ski boots and were on the slopes every winter weekend. An aggressive skier from the beginning, he broke two pairs of wooden skis before his parents bought him Head Masters with metal edges and plastic boots in 1962.

His father, a Navy pilot in World War II and a businessman, died of a heart attack when Rogers was 10 years old. He dealt with this tough loss—his first significant personal challenge—by turning inward emotionally and becoming a bully in school. He feels his father's loss to this day, but skiing, which he says is a gift from his father, was his emotional release.

PHOTO: Jeremy Bernard

Throughout high school, Rogers channeled his athletic talents into ski racing, winning university-level downhills and excelling in slalom and GS. He avoided the Vietnam War by attending college in Nelson, British Columbia, where he thought he was on the right path by skiing for the university's alpine ski team. His racing dreams, though, were quashed when the team was canceled after less than one season. Not long after, Rogers married his girlfriend, who was pregnant with their child. They were 20 years old. He left college, enrolled in trade school in Kelowna, British Columbia, and worked in construction.

The marriage didn't last long (Rogers left his wife when he discovered her involvement with one of his good friends), and he wasn't skiing much, living in the city. So, when his half-brother invited him to help run a café in Taos for the winter of 1979, he accepted immediately.

Everything about Taos affirmed Rogers' decision to try out the ski bum life there. He found an alternative to mainstream society in the free-thinking, culturally rich community, heavily influenced by the local Pueblo Indian and Hispanic populations. He liked the open views of the high desert and the Taos Mountains, the clean air and plentiful sunshine that produced perennially deep blue skies and technicolor sunsets. And he found his path again in the plentiful steeps of Taos Ski Valley, which reminded him of skiing at Montana Snowbowl as a kid.

In 1983, Rogers moved full-time to Taos, deciding he wanted to live in a ski town the rest of his life. His ex-wife had given him custody of their son and he married again, and had a daughter. Intrigued by the Southwest building style—adobe, stone floors, and wood beams—he got his residential contractor's license and launched a career as a custom homebuilder. But he had also built a lifestyle around a quest to ski as much as possible, finding he wasn't happy off the hill.

"From then on, skiing was my main focus," says Rogers. He'd work long, hard summers building homes and winter nights tuning skis, leaving winter days open for skiing. "I was skiing like a madman, and working like a dog, too, trying to build a life," he says. He taught his kids to ski, they grew up athletic, and he's close to both of them now. But, looking back, he feels guilty about putting skiing first, and perhaps not being a good enough influence for his kids. He blames himself for not dealing well with his son's troubles at school, for not managing the conflict better between his son and his second wife, and for not being able to make up for his ex-wife's absence in his son's life.

PHOTO: Jeremy Bernard

Though settled in Taos, Rogers eventually itched for a new challenge: undiscovered powder runs, steeper terrain, longer descents, and more ski touring. Divorced again and with his children grown up, he bought a round-trip ticket to Chamonix in the winter of 2000, planning to stay for three months.

Rogers didn't speak a lick of French, and he didn't want to spend much money. He found different places to stay, averaging about 500 euros a month, or sometimes trading carpentry work. Once, he found a place to sleep with a woman who picked him up hitchhiking. The French culture, food, and wine were appealing, as was the slower pace of life and cost of living—the basics, including skiing, were cheaper than in the States. He had friends on powder days. "I found my challenge, a journey to a higher level of skiing," he says.

Chamonix gave Rogers balance, community, a blank canvas to ski every day, and the freedom of living by his design. His spark was rekindled, and he renewed his quest to ski as much as possible. "Here, there are no rules—you can ski wherever you want," he says. "Every year I find a new place to ski, sometimes half a dozen of them. Here, you can't ski the whole place in a lifetime—it'll kill you before that happens."

Not long after he started wintering in Chamonix, Rogers found ways to return the gift that his father gave him, by mentoring young skiers and showing them the way. Brooke Kerrigan, an illustrator from Canada, was a beginner with no backcountry experience when she met Rogers in 2005 during what was supposed to be one season in Chamonix.

"He was so generous with his passion for the mountains, which is pretty amazing," says Kerrigan. "If it wasn't for him, I don't know if I would have had the experiences I had that first winter, and here I am now living in Chamonix."

Another friend, Martin Waters, calls Rogers a normal person with an extraordinary ability to pass his passion to others—he wants others to love skiing as much as he does. It's infectious.

"There must be a Rogers at every mountain around the world," says Waters, a 33-year-old carpenter from England. "I think everybody knows someone like him."

From the top of the tram to the bottom of the valley, it’s all about one thing: Jimmy likes to ski. PHOTO: Jeremy Bernard

PHOTO: Jeremy Bernard

PHOTO: Jeremy Bernard

On a sunny spring day, Rogers took me up the Col du Passon, a ski tour that started at Grands Montets ski area. We skied off the tram into the glaciated Argentière valley, hiked over a 10,000-foot pass, and descended some 7,400 feet to the hamlet and ski area of Le Tour. The skiing-to-hiking ratio favors the downhill, which suits him well—he gets teased for doing this ski tour so often.

Rogers is by no means a lazy uphiller, though. He scrambles up the first moraine wall and the steep upper bootpack sans crampons or ice axe. "I'm a goat," he jokes. We hang out for over an hour atop the col as he ruminates about life in the mountains.

"Mostly, material possessions weren't important," he says. "I wish the clocks could be turned back so I would be able to focus more on being a better father. I was lost to my own world. Now, trying to make up for the past, it's hard to deal with those feelings. Maybe that's why I push it so hard on the ski slopes. Living with mistakes is hard to deal with, only to hope that things turn out right in the end."

On the surface, Rogers appears to be a carefree ski bum who's reached nirvana. His budget hasn't changed much since his first season in Chamonix—he's perfectly happy with a baguette and a chocolate bar for breakfast and nearly always has an invitation to dinner. But this season has been hinged with personal uncertainty. He was in the process of selling his 89-year-old mother's house and struggling to pay for her care in a nursing home. At a moment's notice, he could have to fly back to the States to deal with these issues. Family responsibiilities have cut his Chamonix season short before, and he accepts that.

Rogers has a rule when skiing off-piste—he's the oldest, so he gets to ski first. It's not quite as self-serving as it sounds. Over the years, he has been caught in one avalanche, fallen in two crevasses, and gotten cliffed out for nearly 24 hours descending from the Aiguille du Midi. He's lost plenty of friends to the mountains, and, while cautious with a well-honed sense of conditions and weather, he says he's been lucky to ski 17 seasons in Chamonix without worse injury, or death.

"I've had a lot of time in the mountains," he says. "My ski partners are all 20-plus years younger than me. So if it's going to rip, it might as well be me."

He pauses, then brightens up. "And if it's a powder day, I get first tracks."

This story originally published in the November 2017 issue of POWDER (46.3). Subscribe to The Skier’s Magazine for $14.97.