NOW Illustration by Kelsey Dzintars

The new age of après ski.

BY BRIGID MANDER

One snowy evening a decade ago at Wyoming’s Jackson Hole ski area, local skiers piled into a favorite hole-in-the-wall gathering spot, the Village Café, celebrating another massive powder day. It was a spot near the tram that for decades was a piece of the beating heart of local ski culture and passion.

Just then, tourists from Chicago discovered the hidden staircase down to the bar and joined the party. Swept up in this immersion into Jackson local life, one of them climbed onto the bar, raised his arms and shouted at the top of his lungs, “THIS! IS THE BEST! BAR! IN AMERICA!” He then rang the bell and bought drinks for every cheering skid in the place.

Skiing as a pastime has always had a festive, ridiculous punctuation to the end of a ski day. According to the Journal of Ski Heritage, the tradition of hot food and drinks after a cold day of skiing began in Norway, right around when skiing evolved from an over-snow hunting and travel method to recreational fun. This later became known as … après ski!

As a ski town local, you’re one with fat everyday planks, take wholly unnecessary and gratifying risks, and live amongst a community of like-minded individuals. At 4 p.m. daily, you glide into the base area at a casually inappropriate rate of speed with a few ski buddies, screech to a halt, click out of your skis and survey your world as one of your fellows cheerfully throws a beer can from some ski-bum approved bar. Yes. This is tradition. This is your tribe!

Here, industrious folks driven by that unquenchable passion for sliding on snow collectively eschew the societal pressure to spend daylight hours in offices or jostle for material status (alas, someone always has a newer jet!). Après caps that enriched, visceral existence, thanks to pointed life choices. For those who managed
to find the party, it’s been open to all. And hey, if a tourist makes it through another day without finding the nearest MRI machine, that’s deserving of a beer or two!

It’s guaranteed that the Chicagoan and his ski buddies still talk about their memorable après session at the Village Café, too. But when they return, they won’t find any such place or community. Instead, they will find a big parking structure-like building, which cost $100 million and bills itself “a spectacular earthly phenomena [sic]” according to its press release. In skiing, this phrase should never apply to egregiously over-designed hotels, rather reserved for seven-day pow storms that close airports and roads.

Après punctuates that enriched, visceral existence, thanks to pointed life choices. For those who managed to find the party, it’s been open to all.

As the curled toes of ski culture disappear under the new building, inside there are a few local skiers who aren’t paid to be there, and no colors, just dull neutrals, like its soul. This scene is playing out in ski town after ski town. Why should anyone care about the loss of dive bars, absurd bohemian personalities and silly, carefree traditions?

It’s not just about the economics of replacing $2 beers with $30 cocktails. Après, silly as it seems, is a canary in a coal mine for the health of mountain communities and ski culture.

For decades, ski towns were built on the origins of American ski bumming: WWII vets back home, happy to be alive, looking for the opposite of war in joyous, purposeful living and a ridiculous sport in the mountains. For today’s local skiers, après gatherings are still a celebration of community, where deep snow adventures and dreams, calculated risks and pure hedonism pool at the end of the day. It’s what high-end developers and marketers sell, but oftentimes the product they have is at odds with its inspiration.

Recently, upon entering an après spot at a nearby ski area, instead of free-roaming camaraderie, skier banter and cheap beers we’d customarily found, a hostess threw herself in front of me and my ski buddies. We realized she’d been tasked with ushering all who entered to … a sit-down table. With linens! No mingling! No fun! We quickly fled the stultifying scene and its refined murmuring and clinking.

A friend formerly based in Aspen waxed fondly for the not-too-long-ago days when one could get thrown out of a popular local gathering spot for rowdiness, followed by a bouncer’s pat on the shoulder and a genuine invite to “Come on back tomorrow.” That spot is now, incidentally, a cashmere boutique. Who knows what that signifies exactly, but it can’t be good for spinning tales of epic cliff sends or discussing how many jobs one takes on during one six-month season to pay for another six months of employment-free skiing glory!

Ski bums, who, like artists, are in pursuit of a certain lifestyle and culture, may abandon dulling, trophy home status-driven domains, but they will pop up elsewhere in search of powder and freedom, and the silly après of yore. That carefree après routine, where the status jostling comes from fleeting, personal athletic feats is important, and where a like-minded community finds each other—and itself. It’s not just fun; it’s a healthy philosophy, one which reminds us all to celebrate the silly joys, and not to take skiing, or life, too seriously.

Brigid Mander is a skier and writer based in Jackson, Wyoming. She writes about mountain sports, culture and conservation issues for publications ranging from Backcountry Magazine to the Wall Street Journal.