I think most folks are familiar with the term “snowbird.” It refers to retirees who migrate from the north to the south each winter to escape the cold and enjoy warm weather in places like Florida, Texas, or Arizona.
I’m kind of the opposite.
I’m a retiree who escapes the temperate winters of Virginia to ski in the blizzards of the Rockies for several months each winter. This is a report on the many details and lessons learned via my twisted take on winter as a snowbound snowbird.
For the last four years my wife and I have spent the summers in the Mid-Atlantic and the winters in the Rockies. Each winter since February 2019, we relocate to Utah where I do my thing as a full-time skiing retiree.
There is much I could share about what goes into this lifestyle including general finances, transportation, accommodations, weather, ski passes, equipment, and various physical/medical, and mental/social factors. The most crucial enabler for my winter migratory habit is surely the fact that my adult son lives alone in the Salt Lake City suburbs and permits my wife and I to camp out in the basement of his house all winter. His location is only a 20 minute drive from Snowbird, Alta, Solitude, and Brighton ski areas.
This residential assistance from a family member allows me to avoid the tedious process of employing tools such as Airbnb, VRBO, Craiglist, etc. to find long-term winter accommodations. It has also eliminated any deliberation over where best to locate myself for a winter of skiing? The choice of Utah has been made by fate and family. We’re enjoying it while it lasts.
Hopefully, the situation is mutually beneficial. My wife (non-skier) does a lot of great cooking for our son and I while we’re in Utah. She has also taken the lead on numerous and significant home improvement projects during our visits including drawing the plans and acting as general contractor for a new bathroom and in-law suite (tried and tested by you know who) in the basement of our son’s house. I perform off-slope duties as handyman and yard boy.
There are some mundane logistical matters worth briefly mentioning.
You’ve got to take care of the homestead you’re leaving behind when you go away for a few months in winter. I’ve recruited family members and friends to keep an eye on things and check for problems.
It’s helpful to establish online bill paying, get your mail forwarded, and set up spring lawn care. I try to get routine medical and dental check-ups completed in the fall. The pandemic and attendant vaccine process added a little extra adventure to our travels. In April, 2022 my wife, son, and I all got Covid-19 while in Utah, but fortunately it affected us no worse than a bad chest cold.
Transportation is another key element of an annual migration to wintry climes. Typically, I drive to Utah since I’m making an extended stay. It just makes sense to bring my own car instead of renting and I have full control over the type and condition of the vehicle. I have a 2014 Subaru Outback equipped with snow tires that has served me well.
With the spike in gas prices in 2022, it now costs me about $400 each way to make the 2,000-mile drive from the Washington, DC area to Utah, not including meals and motel stops. I’ve had a driver’s license for over 50 years and I set my all-time personal record for the price of a gallon of gas on a visit to ski Mammoth Mountain, CA in April 2022: It was $6.49.
I could do an entire, separate article on ski road trip misadventures. In recent years there was the 50-yard uncontrolled slide in 2019 down westbound US 50 at Monarch Pass, CO. There was also the white knuckle drive on the Snowbird, UT access road in 2021 that caught me totally off guard because it was caused by a puny, but extremely slippery three inch snowfall in the month of April. That treacherous late spring drive is what finally motivated me to upgrade from all-season to snow tires on my Subaru.
Probably my least favorite DC-to-SLC passage was in February, 2021 when I made a drive west by myself in two days. It was 17 hours on the road, 8 hours in a motel in Missouri, and 17 more hours on the road to my son’s house in Utah. I was trying to minimize exposure to Covid-19 virus before being vaccinated, but I won’t attempt that again in two days, at least not solo. I made it safely through intermittent snow squalls much of the way, but it was a grueling, bleary-eyed slog!
Normally on the drive west I’ll detour for a few extra days to ski somewhere in Colorado; for example, I visited Copper Mountain and Steamboat in January 2022. (Traveler’s tip: the cheap motels near Steamboat are cheaper than their counterparts near Copper/Frisco.)
Once I’ve relocated to Utah for the winter, I’m typically commuting three or four days each week to ski Snowbird or other local mountains. However, I’m also likely to make one or two multi-day trips to ski elsewhere in the Intermountain region; for example, I went to Big Sky and Arapahoe Basin in 2019, to Jackson Hole in 2020, and to Aspen and Mammoth Mountain in 2022.
On the drive back east in the late spring my wife and I will take some extra days to make non-skiing stops at various towns, points of interest, and National Parks including a memorable visit to the south rim of the Grand Canyon, AZ on Memorial Day Weekend 2019.
I’ve averaged 45 ski days each winter over the last four years. In this era, where and who you ski with is all about your ski pass or megapass. My days of being a free agent and skiing willy-nilly on a day-ticket are over.
I’ve been using a Snowbird senior season pass since the 2018-19 season, which initially cost about $700, but has increased to about $800 currently. I’ve also supplemented that with a Mountain Collective Pass in 2018, an Epic Pass in 2020, and an Ikon Pass in 2022. For their cost, the amazing variety offered by the various megapasses is hard to resist for a retiree with free time and a little bit of disposable income.
Lately Snowbird has offered season passholders an inexpensive add-on for a special Ikon base pass for $250-300. Last season (2021-22), I purchased it for the first time to go with my Snowbird pass. I used it for fun side trips to ski at Copper Mountain, Steamboat, and Mammoth Mountain. But this Ikon base pass was even more valuable to use at Deer Valley (five days), Solitude (unlimited days), and Brighton (five days). They are all an easy day-trip from my winter accommodations and are great alternatives to Snowbird for terrain variety or traffic avoidance. Next season I’m doing the Snowbird-Ikon combo again, despite Deer Valley being dropped from the base pass.
Here is where I’ll make a brief digression to discuss the increasingly convoluted parking situation at some of the Utah ski areas I frequent.
Snowbird and Brighton are still free at all times, although you can pay extra for reserved or close-in parking if you like. Alta is free on Monday-Thursday, but requires paid reservations for Ikoners and non-season passholders on Friday-Sunday. Solitude requires paid parking seven days a week, but also offers limited free parking that will fill up quickly on weekends.
Parking is a variable that continues to evolve and some of the above info could now be outdated. The general trend is toward less convenience and increasing costs for guests. One Utah friend quipped that parking is the new profit engine at many ski resorts as a season parking pass can approach the cost of a season lift ticket pass.
So what’s it like physically to be a geezer and able to ski anytime you want? How hard is it on your mind and body?
My first piece of advice is to beware of too much of a good thing. I’ve found that I have to pace myself. Too many ski days in succession leaves an old body feeling tired and burned out. Having a non-skiing wife has possibly extended my ski career because I take almost half of my days off to do stuff with her. It recharges my batteries and I enjoy my next ski day more thoroughly.
Here’s another elder secret: Living very near to a ski area and having a season pass makes it feasible to efficiently ski for just a partial session. Some of my favorite days are when I catch good conditions and ski them for only three or four hours and go home. It’s almost like the mountain is my gym. I’m able to charge fairly hard and then leave the hill with gas still in the tank. This allows me to avoid injury (hopefully) and be ready for the next good day.
I still ski full days when conditions, friends, or timing calls for it, but the opportunity to conserve myself by skiing frequent, partial days almost makes up for being old!
I’ve seen people at Snowbird on skis as wide as 142mm underfoot, but 98mm seems to be my sweet spot for a daily driver in Utah. I go with wider or thinner skis depending on whether Ullr has been generous or stingy with snow in the last few days. My ski lengths range from 173 to 184cm and I can always borrow something from my hard-charging son’s quiver to expand the range of ski choices even further.
Early last season, my nine-year old Lange ski boots were killing me. In the last decade as I’ve entered geezerhood I’ve sprouted bunions on both feet. There were times when the pain of removing the old boots at the end of a ski day almost made me lose my lunch.
In February of 2022 I paid over a thousand dollars for a new pair of Dale Boots from their shop in the Salt Lake City suburbs. It was worth it. Custom shells + custom liners + custom footbeds = no more pain.
Even though I probably have about 200 lifetime ski days in Utah, I’m still learning how to dress for milder Rocky Mountain ski weather.
My rule of thumb is about a 15-degree Fahrenheit differential from back East. In other words, 30 degrees in Utah feels like 45 in the Mid-Atlantic. They say it’s due to less humidity and more sunshine, but whatever the reason I still have to force myself to dress lighter than what my instincts would suggest after skiing 50 years in the East.
Out West I also carry a plastic bottle of water in my pocket at all times and refill it as necessary during the day to stay hydrated.
A few years ago when I was still a working stiff with aspirations of becoming a full time skiing retiree, one of my biggest question marks was, “who do I ski with?”
I don’t mind skiing alone some of the time, but I didn’t relish the idea of skiing alone most of the time. There’s safety in numbers and it’s fun to ski with others. It turns out, you don’t have to worry about loneliness at a major ski resort. In fact, there are enough lift lines and traffic back-ups to make you wish for a little solitude at times.
Additionally, online ski forums such as DCSki.com or SkiTalk.com are great places to network and develop ski buddies. At this point I probably ski alone about 25% of my ski days. The other 75% I meet one or more retired or flexibly-employed buddies for all or part of a ski day. We have a great time.
Since I mostly ski the same few ski areas repeatedly, even when I’m alone I might bump into (figuratively) a familiar face or pair up with a friendly stranger for a few runs to show them around the mountain.
One of my favorite recent ski hook-ups with a stranger occurred on April 27, 2021. It was a primo late spring ski day at Snowbird, UT with about a foot of new snow in the last 24 hours. While I was booting up at my car on Bypass Road I started chatting with a local Utah guy named Craig who parked next to me. We met again moments later in a lift line and decided to take a few runs together. Craig was about age 60, but a really strong skier and made a great subject for some photos I took.
Before I knew it, 2.5 hours had passed. Craig and I skied a bunch of challenging offpiste terrain in Mineral Basin, Little Cloud Bowl, and The Cirque. For late April the new snow was surprisingly light and fun! We had our pandemic masks on most of the time and I’m not sure if I’d recognize Craig if I ever see him again. Nonetheless, you gotta love how a fine shared ski experience can instantly make strangers into bosom buddies.
The best thing about being a skiing retiree is that you get to practice the three P’s.
Pace yourself. You don’t have to ski seven days in a row. You don’t have to catch the first chair. Ski when you want to, not when you have to.
Be patient. You own a season pass. Be the person that helps a bewildered tourist or soothes a scared little ripper kid. It’s a guilty treat to entertain thoughts of your next weekday ski outing while observing others frantically eek out the most ski runs from their limited weekend or vacation time.
Seek the pleasure in skiing. Chill baby. Embrace spring skiing, when the sun is warm and the crowds are gone. Take a long lunch on the mountain or crack open a beverage beside your car at mid-afternoon. After logging 20,000 vertical feet in a few quiet hours you’ve earned the right to stop and smell the roses.
Lastly, I cross the age 7-0 threshold in 2023. At this stage of life each ski day is a reason to celebrate. I can tell you as a senior skier your strength, stamina, and ski skills will diminish, but your joy and appreciation of skiing will increase. That’s not an altogether bad tradeoff!
Husband, father and retired civilian employee of the Department of Navy, Jim Kenney is a D.C. area native and has been skiing recreationally since 1967. Jim's ski reporting garnered the 2009 West Virginia Division of Tourism's Stars of the Industry Award for Best Web/Internet/E-Magazine Article.
Yah - great mind-body section here! I'm a bit behind you in terms of years but all these observations are 100% 💯 tally on where I am right now. BTW love the edge angles in the Mineral Basin at Snowbird pic! W00t!
Best to submit to dedicated snow tires as you did - I have some nice Michelin x-ice snows ... a little better around Lake Tahoe rather than Blizzaks for a variety of reasons which include you will leave a lot less rubber on the pavement and perform as well in non-fluffy powder at 25 degrees which is the norm here ha ha.