Life in mountain towns is not getting any cheaper, but where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Wherever ski bums go, big money eventually follows. That’s the story of mountain towns across the globe, from the Rockies to the Andes to the Alps. Rent and cost of living rocket upward, and the people who once formed the grassroots soul of an alpine hamlet are forced to the margins. So how does a twenty-something with little more to their name than big winter dreams— the classic dirtbag — navigate a world of escalating costs and gentrification?
Resourcefulness has always been, and still is, the dirtbag’s most excellent antidote to skiing’s surging opulence.
In 2006, Swedish journalist Kristian Lund followed his powder dreams to Niseko, one of Japan’s most celebrated ski resorts today. Back then, there were just a few thousand foreign skiers in any given year. It was an obscure paradise of volcanos and birch forests where snow chilled by Siberian winds fell in endless quantities. Today, foreign snow sliders number in the tens of thousands annually, and palatial accommodations fit for royalty can rent for $30,000 US — per night.
However, with some economic creativity, Japan may still be one of the simplest places ski bums can not only survive — but thrive. Rent in Kutchan, a small town close to Niseko, can cost as little as $100 US a week, explains Lund, founder and editor of Powderlife Magazine, the go-to outdoor publication for Niseko and Hokkaido. Dining can be surprisingly cheap, too, thanks to Konbini (convenience store) ready-made Western and Japanese meals that cost less than $5 US. Dirtbags don’t have to skimp — forget the PB&J and try pasta, salads, sandwiches and local staples like curry rice, ramen noodles, and sashimi. Even a bottle of Chilean wine is no more than five bucks.
The Japanese winter scene isn’t complete without the quirky subculture of “Car Danchi” — ski bums who spend all winter in vans and other vehicles. Shinji Ohmori, one of the original Car Danchi crew, was featured in the 2006 film In Short, documenting snowboarders’ lives from Halifax to Alaska to Japan. The film spawned a cult of minimalists living on the margins. These days in Hokkaido, caravans of Car Danchi enthusiasts are a colourful, even coveted, facet of ski hill parking lot culture.
On the other side of the world, Switzerland’s Verbier presents a stark dichotomy between the fur coat crowd drawn to the avenues by the Michelin stars and the boutique scene — and the folks drawn to the iconic inbounds steeps like the salt and pepper couloirs of Mont Gelé. The balance between Haute Route and haute couture is a delicate line to maintain.
“It’s a complicated question,” says Simon Wiget, director of Verbier Tourism. “[High-end tourists] allow us to keep investing in new projects. That’s our brand, and we don’t want to be positioned as a low-cost resort.” But Wignet knows it’s the Haute Route crowd that gave Verbier its “je ne sais quoi” — the character, diversity and vibe that made it a place to see and be seen in the first place.
Vernier’s new projects recognize this symbiotic relationship — the construction of a youth hostel and affordable apartments in the valley bottom village of Le Chable — are aimed at helping the core skier. This demographic spends more on their passions and hobbies than most consider reasonable, but they live the rest of their lives without much material wealth.
For many of them, initiatives like Verbier’s are too little too late.
It has become increasingly common to find folks like this seeking cheaper alternatives by moving down the valley from mega-resorts. Nendaz — a relaxed town that offers access to the same epic 4 Vallées terrain for a fraction of the cost of Verbier — has seen an increase in core skiers buying local homes. The same situation plays out in Stuben am Arlberg, a quiet, compact village at the doorstep of Austria’s Arlberg region without the cachet, party on steroids vibe of St. Anton, or the TAG Heuer affluence of Lech.
Across the pond, Canadian mountain towns face economic challenges compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. This prompted a mass exodus of urbanites escaping the close quarters of cities to move closer to nature … and work remotely. As a result, rising costs are rippling across the broader region, and many locals find there’s no longer an option to move down the valley.
Dave Mayr moved to Whistler to ski and party straight out of university in the late 1980s. He has not only persevered but, in many ways, thrived in one of the most expensive postal codes in Canada. Mayr is now general manager of Whistler Bike Co. but, along the way, held various odd jobs and lived with enough different roommates to fill a bus. Mayr watched housing costs soar and extinguish his dreams of being anything but a lifelong renter in Whistler — or even “down the valley” in the neighbouring towns of Squamish and Pemberton.
Thankfully, civic leaders in Whistler had some foresight. In 1997, local politicians created the Whistler Housing Authority (WHA) based on a simple premise: people who work here should afford to live here. A new bylaw required property developers to provide staff accommodation or pay into a municipal housing fund. By 2012, the authority had built more than 1800 non-market units, a little more than half for sale and the remainder for rent — to people holding local jobs only. Today, WHA owns and manages more than 2000 non-market housing units.
“I bought my first WHA place in 2004 and moved into a bigger one in 2010,” says Mayr, adding that he would have said goodbye to Whistler a long time ago without this housing opportunity. “It’s allowed some folks to stay and start families. Without it, the community’s labour crisis and income inequality would be much worse.”
Resort life hasn’t gotten any cheaper since Mayr went from ski bumming to homeowner. Wages haven’t kept pace with the cost of living, and real estate continues to soar. But the call of the mountains remains as strong as the pull of gravity sending skiers down the slopes. The core community that heads into the blizzard for face shots while the fur coats sip cocktails indoors will always find a way. After all, innovation and ingenuity are the core of the dirtbag’s credo.
Increasingly, resorts are realizing that they need the ski bum as much as the Car Danchi need a place to park their rigs. But beyond cheap labour for jobs that keep the resort operational, there’s an intangible character that no money can buy. Ski bums add colour, they add intrigue and authenticity — but more than anything, ski bums add soul.