Author of In Search of Powder: A Story of America’s Disappearing Ski Bum recounts how a rag-tag group influenced ski bum culture and ushered in the birth of freestyle skiing
By Jeremy Evans • Photos courtesy of Heavenly Ski Resort
On the south shore of Lake Tahoe is a steep swath of snow called “The Face,” which spills 1,600 feet from a wooden lodge to the lowest point at Heavenly Mountain Resort. Like a cascade of white falling from nature’s faucet, The Face is a patchwork of moguls, an expert fall line that scares off most novices but is accessible enough that it’s seduced the ambitious and taken lives.
When viewed from Lake Tahoe Boulevard, it is the only semblance that qualifies South Lake Tahoe as a ski town. It’s a run that most visitors and locals have seen hundreds of times while driving along U.S. Highway 50, either giving it a passing glance or appreciating its aesthetic qualities. Perhaps it’s even a run that visitors and locals have skied or snowboarded numerous times. However, they might not be aware that it’s a run with a ski history unique to the south shore and that has tentacles reaching to the beginning of ski bum culture.
Before snowboarding had been invented, before a publicly-traded corporation controlled Heavenly, before even Glen Plake – the guy with a Mohawk and the most famous ski bum of them all – made The Face his playground, there was just a column of men. It was a group of perhaps 10 skiers, some with mullets, some with feathered hair, and all with straight-edge skis. The group was gliding like a swerving noodle on The Face, all mimicking the person in front of them and threading down the run in a single-file line.
To people on the Gunbarrel chairlift, they looked like a rat pack, tight and playful and reminiscent of the Frank Sinatra-led band that frequented the Cal-Neva Resort on Lake Tahoe’s north shore. This group of skiers, this rat pack, didn’t invent style and confidence. It was merely exposed to it in 1970, when French ski superstar Jean-Claude Killy won every race at a World Cup event held at Heavenly.
For those races, The Face was groomed. Before then, it was just a labyrinth of moguls the size of Volkswagens, a run former Governor Ronald Reagan managed to make it down upright and then endlessly brag to his politician buddies that he had skied Heavenly. Killy, though, changed the way people skied The Face and, in the process, changed the face of skiing on the south shore. He made two turns and was at the midway point. It was the first time anyone had ripped The Face with such speed and confidence, and a group of local ski bums was very impressed. Not long after those World Cup races, this rag-tag group of hand-to-mouth hedonists took and expanded on Killy’s exploits to fashion their own. They became known as Face Rats.
By the 1970s, similar groups with similar ideals were entrenched in ski towns throughout the American West. These were people who had migrated to ski towns because they treated skiing as a way of life. The 1950s spawned the ski bum – nobody more symbolic of that time period than filmmaker Warren Miller, who lived in his van in Sun Valley, Idaho – but the Face Rats’ brand of skiing popularized ski bum culture. It was a subculture within a subculture, one that adopted a brand of skiing that spread ski bum culture and posed a serious threat to the establishment.
Freestyle skiing, like ski bum culture, has always been more of a statement than purely a display of athletic achievement. In 1970, racing was the only brand of downhill skiing the world had ever known. Negotiating gates and the cave-mannish doctrine of “the fastest down-the-hill wins” had always defined ski ethos. But freestyle skiing wasn’t about how fast you went down the mountain; it was about how you went down the mountain. Experimentation. Style. Individuality. That was Hot Dogging, which is what freestyle skiing was called when it splintered from the sport’s stodgy roots. And Heavenly was the Mecca.
The 1980s ski classic “Hot Dog The Movie” was filmed at nearby Squaw Valley. The film glorified hot tubs and naked women, skiing and drugs, sun-filled days and all-night parties. The antics found in the film derived from what Face Rats had already adopted. Although only about 10 people witnessed Killy’s feat in 1970, the movement spread fast.
Dozens of wild-haired, loose souls began settling in South Lake Tahoe, typically twenty-somethings from the San Francisco Bay Area. Once they got there, they did whatever the hell they wanted. They twirled on skis and practiced precision mogul turns. They built jumps, did back flips, puffed on joints and did more back flips. They held grass-roots competitions and sucked hits of acid. Recreating was the mantra.
This behavior deeply concerned the current ski establishment and, to a certain extent, challenged mainstream American society and what it considered the traditional way of life. Ski school directors were former ski racers who geared their instruction toward racing, not to acting like drunken monkeys. But there was no denying the simplicity and allure of being a ski bum, the freedom of it all. This carefree attitude had already been introduced in Aspen and Sun Valley, the original ski bum havens, but it became a legitimate path for America’s disenchanted youth in the 1960s.
At the time the Vietnam War was deep in America’s consciousness and people were confused about their country’s direction. They invested significant time reconsidering their values, usually in a remote outpost, which ski towns certainly were then. This dropout mentality resulted in some people joining communes, some marching at protests, some driving the Pan-American Highway, and some moving to ski towns and becoming ski bums. Most communes, though, have shut down, protests are only temporary gatherings, and the water in Latin America is lousy. Chairlifts, though, have continued to turn every winter, allowing ski bums to flash a big middle finger at the squares sitting in an office building. This part of ski bum culture hasn’t changed much since the 1960s.
In South Lake Tahoe and other ski towns in the American West, ski bums had established an effective bartering system that allowed them to survive. Jobs were menial and seasonal; the wages pitiful. Working them required being willing servants of a service industry that involved employment at the ski resorts themselves or in lodging and restaurant properties. That’s basically the only type of employment that was available in those days. Ski towns were rumored to have the most educated workforce per capita in the nation, with many dishwashers and lift attendants holding doctorate and other post-graduate degrees. Servers provided free food to lift attendants, who in turn provided free access to the chairlifts.
“Now they bring in Guatemalans who don’t ski and to work the jobs that we felt so blessed to have,” said a former Sun Valley ski bum now living in Bozeman, Mont.
While a changing workforce demographic is just one of many reasons ski bums are part of an endangered species, the Face Rats weren’t thinking about that in the 1970s. They just wanted to embrace the hedonistic ski life, which promoted freedom and fun and rejected materialism and other ills of a capitalistic society.
Malcolm Tibbetts is a former Face Rat who was born and raised in North Conway, New Hampshire, a small town in the White Mountains. There have been ski bums who have moved from west to east, but the subculture was fueled by a migration to ski towns across the American West. It’s where the mountains are bigger, the snow is better, and the seasons last longer. Those are the most important qualities for a ski bum, and South Lake Tahoe offered them all.
Tibbetts was 22 and equipped with a college degree when he arrived in the 1970s, but he wasn’t equipped with a real plan for the future. He didn’t care about what job he worked. He didn’t care about how much money he made. He cared about how much he skied. He figured he would stay for one winter and return to the Northeast, but he’s never left. That’s a popular phrase in the parlance of ski towns, and one that hasn’t become any less true over the decades.
Tibbetts simply never found a good enough reason to leave. Mountains have always acted as the ballroom and he allowed his partner – skiing – to take the lead in his dance of life. That’s why when the ski patrol was looking to add members, he was a natural candidate. He had his skis, he had his mountains, and that was enough.
The Face is a run that captivated Tibbetts and others the first time they skied it. For Tibbetts, the memory is a vivid one. The sun was slipping behind the Sierra Nevada and the sky was turning a dark purple. Ribbons of snow-covered peaks curled back from the lake. As beautiful as the world was at that moment, coverage on The Face was scant. The metal edges on Malcolm’s skis scraped against rocks and sparks flared into the inky sky. It was a special day in his life, ranking just behind his wedding day and the day his children were born.
One of the first people in Tahoe who left an impression on Tibbetts was Jerry Goodman. It’s hard for Jerry not to leave an impression on people even today. He has many wrinkles and a scratchy voice caused by smoking marijuana cigars most of his adult life. He also has a silver mullet with tails that flow in a perfect, unwavering structure. But mostly he stands out because of his bow-legged walk and his bamboo stick for a spine.
Goodman has pounded moguls on The Face longer than anyone else on the south shore. He is the oldest living Face Rat, having been a part of the original group in 1970 that witnessed Killy’s feat.Now in his 60s, he has watched that original group grow from 10 members in the early 1970s, to its all-time high of about 100 by the 1980s, to maybe 30 by 2010.
Goodman has had two back surgeries, both caused by the run’s brutal layout. He also has an awkward skiing form. With bent knees planted in front of his body like a tray and the rest of his body leaning back of center, it’s not the preferred way to ski moguls. Most mogul skiers’ knees deteriorate over time, but Goodman’s jet-style resulted in his back absorbing most of the punishment. He had surgery in 2002 when 10 screws were inserted into his spine. Against doctor’s orders, he was skiing again three months later.
It was Goodman’s “I’ll do things however I want” attitude that drew the interest of Malcolm all those years ago. It was in the early 1970s and Goodman was practicing back flips, holding onto a dream of becoming a Hot Dogging star. (South Lake Tahoe was a favorite locale for Hot Dogging megastar Wayne Wong.) Goodman, however, never quite got the form down. He would fly off jumps and upon landing his chest would smash into the snow, sending his ski goggles flying. Tibbetts chuckled at his futile attempts.
“I was competing, but I wasn’t that good to win,” said Goodman, who eventually learned how to land back flips. “You need to have losers to have winners, and I was always one of the losers.”
Goodman didn’t move to the south shore until 1968 because, after graduating from college in 1965, he followed society’s more accepted path. He focused on making money for retirement and worked several straight-edge jobs. In 1967, he traveled overseas for the first time and it proved to be a powerful experience. Nevertheless, when he returned to the United States, he again engaged in society’s more accepted path and got a job working on the floor of the Pacific Stock Exchange in San Francisco. His neighbor held a seat on the exchange, and Goodman was being groomed to take it over. It never happened.
“One day, I just got tired of it all,” Goodman said. “I’m not made to be inside a building with all these guys in suits. It’s like they were conditioned. They were all looking to make millions and go play golf. It just wasn’t me. You have a decision to make when you get out of college. Go live someplace where you want to live or go make money in someplace you don’t want to live. I decided to go ski.”
Goodman called a college buddy who worked at Heavenly and asked if he had a job for him. His buddy assured him one would be waiting for him whenever he arrived. Within a week, Goodman ditched his career, started working on the Heavenly ski patrol and began skiing The Face. His first home was a garage he rented for $75 a month.
While mogul skiing produced colorful characters, it was always about the feeling associated with skiing than what could be gained from skiing. For Face Rats, every run is a new experience. Maybe the lighting on the run is different, or perhaps the moguls have changed a little bit. For Goodman, his body seems connected to the mountain, similar to a surfer who catches a wave. A smile is smeared across his face. Each time down the run seems like a new rush for him, a drug that has made him a more loyal addict with each passing winter. His lifestyle appears to be an absurd one, essentially being confined to a solitary strip of snow on a mountain with more than 4,800 acres. But Goodman’s part of a distinct brand of ski bum culture unique to the south shore, and to judge the rationality of a Face Rat is to misunderstand the reasoning behind their existence.
The beauty of being able to turn his skis however he wants, to live his life however he wants, to make his money however he wants, the freedom of it all, that hasn’t changed for Goodman. The Face has also remained unchanged. It’s still a lovely quilt of moguls readily visible from any vantage point on the south shore. But while Goodman’s passion for the run hasn’t changed, he knows things have changed around him.
Much like the Face Rats, the ski bum life is becoming a lost art. The reasons are wide-ranging, from a changing workforce demographic to ski towns becoming second-home havens for the wealthy – but an intense love for skiing remains within these towns. Ski bums are certainly not extinct but inarguably are an endangered species.
“I don’t know how you can be a ski bum here anymore,” Goodman said. “It’s turned into a real expensive place. When I first came here, you really didn’t have to work. We were ski bums when we were young, but we’ve still found a way to be ski bums when we’re old. We’re regular people. You’re not going to be single the rest of your life and live in your car. But this place isn’t for regular people anymore.”
While the debate rages regarding the longevity of the original ski bums in America’s changing ski towns, the feeling of gliding down The Face has stayed the same even for those, like myself, who aren’t Face Rats but who relish the run’s charming qualities. On a powder day, of course, I don’t stop for the view or for friends. But on other days, the surroundings are too irresistible to not digest. Before I venture over the edge near the wooden shack, I stop to admire God’s Country. The blue oval of Lake Tahoe opens up into an incomparable panorama, with ribbons of snow-covered peaks peeling back from forested shorelines.
The view never gets old, mostly because it changes with the mood of the weather and offers something new each time. Moguls, however, can make the legs feel old, but they, too, change with the weather and each run is indeed different. The popping and bounding, for several continuous minutes down a delicious fall line, the rhythm of it all, it’s worth turning back the clock and dealing with sore muscles. I am connected to the mountain, yes, but I also feel part of ski bum history unique to South Lake Tahoe.
Face Rats. Catch them while you can.