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The 21st Century Ski Bum 

Winter adventure is a state of mind

Mitch Thompson was an early adopter.

The now 44-year-old Bend resident first strapped a snowboard to his feet while living in the hills of western North Carolina in 1984, at a time when snowboarding was as common (and about as welcome) on a ski hill as a warthog. Thompson remembers using wood screws to secure his bindings to his water ski-esque board, a Chuck Barfoot original. On his feet, Thompson wore leather hiking boots.

"It was either that or Sorels," he says with a laugh.

Thompson's setup was decidedly low-tech and the Southern Appalachian snow was hardly blower powder, but he loved it. That is because Thompson is an uber-optimist—a defining trait among ski and snowboard bums. As a scruffy, carefree teenager, he likely wasn't aware of his trajectory into the world of ski bum-dom. Now, 30 years later and living in Central Oregon, Thompson's fate seems sealed, though his life doesn't look like you might think. He's not living out of a van and working seasonally. Thompson has a good job, a supportive wife and a nice house—but he's also more physically fit, and skiing and snowboarding more than he ever has.

Such is the way of the 21st Century ski bum.

Technology, economics, social norms—it is hard to pin down exactly why the sleep-in-the-resort-parking-lot ski bums of the '60s and '70s have gone the way of Grateful Dead fans and faded to kitschy relics.

Sure, young skiers still sardine into low-rent apartments as near Rocky and Cascade mountains as they can, and trade in their Dartmouth diplomas for pizza-making jobs. But there is also a massive population of "ski bums" that aren't so obvious—well-employed, settled and dressed in fine threads rather than flannel, yet still obsessively pursuing that endless winter.

Consider Mitch Thompson, a paramedic hyperbaric technician at Bend Memorial Clinic who works three 12-hour shifts a week. The former professional mountain biker has traded in decades worth of bike and ski shop gigs for a stable job (with benefits!) that allows him to ski his brains out. Today, Thompson, a lean, perpetually stoked Oregon transplant, can get in 25 runs on his off days, or go skate ski for hours, or trail run, or mountain bike, or whatever the weather allows for. He fell into the job naturally, allowing his love of powder and human-powered pursuits to propel his decision-making.

"I've always been of the mindset that money is not going to drive me," says Thompson. "It's the first time I've been able to say I truly love my job."

And that is the modern ski bum: working professionals who make a point of getting out there, rising in the wee hours to make tracks on The Cone at Mt. Bachelor or lapping the bowl at Tumalo Mountain before hustling back to the office by 9:30 am, or skate skiing four days a week at Meissner, but doing so after work with a headlamp. They're not giving up, just adjusting, placing their "habit" into a grownup lifestyle.

In this issue and in celebration of winter, mild as it has been so far, we take a look at how ski bums like Thompson differ from those of 40 years ago (pg. 10). We also sat down with one of Bend's best professional adventure photographers to learn how he was able to merge his three hobbies—shooting photos, producing films and snowboarding—and turn the three into a paycheck (pg. 11). And, because being a ski bum isn't a passive endeavor, we list winter events for the upcoming months. (see pg. 15) Happy winter adventuring. •

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Latest in Winter Adventure

  • Ski Bum for Life

    The Source talks business with local snow fanatics
    • Jan 16, 2014
  • Ski Bums: Then vs. Now

    A side-by-side comparison
    • Jan 16, 2014
  • Ask Pete

    Winter adventure, from behind the lens
    • Jan 16, 2014
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