Whitelines' definitive guide to living and working in the mountains
Chances are you already have your plans for the upcoming winter, whether it’s a fully-booked chalet package or a plan to wing it based on conditions a la Ed Leigh. But even now you know that time on the hill will be fleeting; your week or two will fly by whilst you’re having fun and then before you know it you’ll be back on your favourite mode of transport over/under the English Channel wishing for more. But what if you could have more, what if you could just leave it all behind and move to the snow?
“Almost anyone can move to the mountains, at least temporarily! And if you really love snowboarding, you should”
Between us, Team WL has worked through pretty much every crap seasonaire job there is, but no matter how shit the work is one of the most common things we’ve heard over the years from holiday makers (after “what’s the snow like?” to which the answer is always “white”) is “I wish I could do what you do.” It pains us to hear this – almost anyone can move to the mountains, at least temporarily! And if you really love snowboarding, you should. In our humble opinion anyway.
Imagine being able to get up and have the option to ride any day of the week for a whole six months. Sound good? You’re damn right it’s good. Speaking on the behalf of ourselves and a legion of others we’ve shredded with over the years, it’s unbeatable. And the only thing that’s stopping you is you, not your job or your flat or your girlfriend/boyfriend. Quit, move out, dump and wave goodbye to all of that, take the plunge and go.
That is step one, and it’s that simple.
WHERE TO GO?
ANYWHERE – where there’s snow, that’s where you need to be. Well, the obvious choice would be a resort, and as you can see from this handy map courtesy of Wikipedia, there are quite literally thousands to choose from.
The most popular season destinations are France, Austria and Canada, though how rad would it be to say you’ve done a winter in somewhere different like Norway or Japan? And if you’re going to be somewhere for a whole five-to-six months then maybe you can justify spending a bit more on getting there than you would for a holiday.
“Huge resorts can and will bring huge crowds, so if solo shredding is more your thing maybe look a bit further afield”
A whole season means you’ll probably need a lot of terrain to stop you getting bored, which is why mega-resorts like Chamonix, the Three Valleys, Whistler-Blackcomb and Tyrol Valley are such popular destinations. Bear in mind though, huge resorts can and will bring huge crowds, so if solo shredding is more your thing maybe look a bit further afield.
Don’t just limit yourself to the winter here – whilst we’re all moaning about the lack of a British summer it’s always snowing somewhere else. Whether it’s a couple of months up a European glacier or a whole season down under, don’t just limit yourself to the winter months.
If all the time you can spare is in your summer holidays from university, that is coincidentally the perfect time to be in ripping it up down under or getting ‘lado’ on ‘nieve’ in South America. But again, most importantly just get on a bus/plane/snowmobile and go! The world is your mountain…
Ok, so you might actually want some proper advice rather than over enthusiastic ‘JUST GO’ hippy-spiel. You’ll want to choose somewhere that will suit your riding: whether your particular brand of snowboarding is steep chutes, mellow trees, park or just cruising whilst getting drunk, there is a perfect place for you.
For jibbers and budding slopestylers, you’ll want somewhere with a good, progressive park, but most importantly one with a good park crew that will keep it both maintained and evolving all through the winter; there’s nothing worse than a park that only has the same three or four rails out all season (ahemAVORIAZhrrmmm). Big resorts in the States like Keystone, Breck, Mammoth and Bear Mountain all have highly rated parks with more than enough features to keep you entertained for as long as your visa lasts, whilst closer to home Swiss and Austrian resorts like Mayrhofen and Laax are getting better every year and are drawing many seasonaires away from the pretty standard destination of France.
Powder junkies and soul surfers will want as much untouched snow and terrain as possible. Chamonix in France is great if you think ice axes are really cool, but for smaller crowds you could do worse than Las Nenas, Argentina in a good snow year or St Anton in Austria. Obviously J-Pan gets crazy snow and there is a demand for fluent English speakers in resorts in order to encourage more tourism, and out of the hundreds of resorts Niseko seems to get the most rave reviews.
For a well-rounded mix, it is the mega resorts that come out on top, if you have a full area pass based in Morzine, the Portes du Soleil really does have it all from pipe to parks to pow, as does Le Trois Vallees, both in France. The Tyrol Area season pass in Austria has just under a thousand lifts included, so it’s unlikely you’d ever get bored there. All of these have booming après and partying scenes for you extra-curricular entertainment too.
It is worth mentioning however that staying closer to home could also be an excellent option; I have it on good authority that Aviemore is a rad season destination, albeit one with rather hit and miss conditions. The snow is either absolutely epic or just not there, but the ultra-determined Scots managed to keep it open until July in 2010, an incomprehensible idea in France…
When chatting to people about ‘doing a season’ the talk will always eventually turn to the money. The bad news is when you start stacking up all the different necessary purchases like accommodation, passes, board, boots, etc, it will add up to a pretty scary number. But what you have to bear in mind is the value for money you get; when you compare the cost of a season to that of a holiday, you really start to see how much your average punter gets raped by tour operators. Euros or Dollars spent per day of shredding are a lot less.
“When you compare the cost of a season to that of a holiday you really start to see how much the average punter gets raped by tour operators”
It also worth knowing that if you plan to work you can even save a bit of money on a season, you’re surrounded by heaps of other cash-conscious locals, so other that the odd massive boozy night out or breaking/losing a snowboard down the mountain (it happens) your cost of living will be quite low, you just need to part with a lot up front.
The below info is based loosely on my experiences in the past so shouldn’t be taken as gospel (feel free to complain about how wrong I’ve got it below, I do try and stick to the lowest end of a budget through sales/scrounging when possible), and I’ll use the PDS area in France as my guide, but here is rough estimate of the costs of a season:
Not exactly cheap, but bearing in mind the amount of fun times and shred you get for your buck, we’d say it’s definitely worth it!
The good news though is there are always ways to save a bit of cash as a seasonaires, its part of the way of life! You’ll probably be living with heaps of other people, so sharing rooms as well as cooking big communal meals and having pre-drinks on cheap booze is a great way to cut costs together.
“When you buy gear or go out it’s always worth trying to get to know shop owners or bar staff to get that elusive ‘locals rate’”
When you buy gear or go out it’s always worth trying to get to know shop owners or bar staff to get that elusive ‘locals rate’. You’ll quickly learn to avoid eating out on the hill as its hella-expensive (we’ve often seen 8EUR for a slope-side coke before!); pack your pockets with snacks or last night’s leftovers to keep you going on big shred days. Alternatively, mine sweep half eaten plates in empty restaurant seats if you’re really desperate for some cold chips. If you’re in a place where you have to drive to the snow every day, like in New Zealand, it’s worth lift sharing to save on fuel money, plus its good karma to pick up hitch hikers in the hope that the favour might be returned one day.
It’s almost become a rite of passage for seasonaires to start flogging their own brand of hats or tees to fund their winter drinking habits; it’s a great idea but be aware that you’re probably entering a packed local market. Try and be genuinely innovative rather than just sticking a brand on something and charging 50 bucks. You might actually create something to be proud about as well as a potential future career…
“After a couple of weeks you’ll really start to notice if your cheap board is actually a piece of crap or your TK Maxx jacket doesn’t actually keep you warm”
I would say however, when it comes to the big purchases we’d always go for spending a little more to get the right stuff for your season. After a couple of weeks you’ll really start to notice if your cheap board is actually a piece of crap or your TK Maxx jacket doesn’t actually keep you warm, it’s worth shelling out a few more quid to get the most out of winter. And in no other area is this truer than in backcountry equipment; it may seem like an optional extra but if you plan on doing any off-piste adventuring then you should have a backpack, probe, shovel and transceiver, and also know how to use them. It can really be a case of your money or your (or a friend’s) life.
Is a job essential, or could you save hard all summer and live the charmed life of a ‘bum’?
For many people, the ultimate dream is the latter: a whole winter to progress their riding and have fun without having to work. All you need to do is save a few grand over the summer, buy your season pass and rent an apartment. Getting a job, though, does have its advantages: you’ll meet new friends, gain a sense of achievement and generally be less skint – no small advantage when you’re living in some of the most expensive towns on the planet.
If you work for a tour operator or chalet the hard work of finding somewhere to live is all taken care of – as is the expensive lift pass – and if you get lucky with your tips you might even find yourself leaving town with a couple of grand saved, instead of a couple of grand burned. You might also walk straight into a summer job somewhere hot.
“All of the package holiday companies have plenty of positions available, from hosts that run the chalets, to chefs and cleaners”
All of the package holiday companies have plenty of positions available, from hosts that run the chalets, to chefs and cleaners. Visit the likes of natives.co.uk or hit up the tour operators direct to see what is available (they usually begin recruiting around May). Many independent chalets also need a kitchen skivvy or two. You’re the lowest of the low, but you’ll get free food and somehow they’ll find somewhere to lay your head.
If you’ve left it too late to line something up then it’s still possible to wing it in resort: fly out during pre-season (late November), ask anyone and everyone, and have enough saved to last you into the New Year – jobs often come open around Christmas as people get injured or quit.
A few of the classic resort roles include:
Hours: Mostly during après ski and late through the evening. Pros: You’ll get most of the day to ride and you’ll have plenty of fun; people with access to booze are always popular with the opposite sex! Cons: It’s hard graft working a crowded bar six days a week, so you’ll need plenty of stamina; the late nights can make it difficult to drag yourself up for first lifts on a powder day; that amusing Austrian oompa music also loses its charm pretty quickly.
Hours: Approx. 7am till 10.30am breakfast/cleaning shift, then 4pm till 9pm dinner shift. Pros: Free food, lift pass and accommodation; plenty of time to ride in the middle of the day (especially as you get more efficient at your job); you gain cooking skills; tips can be good. Cons: It’s generally hard work; pay is pretty dire; you can’t ride on transfer day; early mornings can be a killer after a night out; occasional moaning guests; you’re cleaning toilets.
Hours: On and off throughout the day and night – your time is rarely your own Pros: Better pay than most tour operator jobs, including bonuses; it’s a ‘proper job’ for your CV; improves your people, sales and organisational skills; occasionally involves guiding; free lift pass and accommodation. Cons: Constantly dealing with complaints; little time to ride for yourself; can be stressful; super early starts on transfer day; long hours.
Hours: About as 9 to 5 as it gets in a ski resort. Pros: You spend the whole day on the hill; you get to see the look on people’s faces when they learn to turn; you get to skip lift queues. Cons: Except for your day off you don’t get much time to ride for yourself; you’re often stuck on the nursery slopes; some pupils are a nightmare!
Hours: All day – On and off between 7am and 5pm.
Pros: You get to hang out on the park, obviously; you’re generally well liked and respected by your fellow riders; you’re learning a craft you can take with you wherever you go. Cons: You don’t get to ride as much as you might like; pay is average; work can be tiring; incredibly hard job to get into initially; risk of sunburn/frostbite!
Hours: All day Pros: You’re on the hill; you get the evenings off; free lift pass. Cons: You get to watch other people having fun; work is monotonous; you only get a short break to ride.
Remember, with some countries you will need to gain visas to work, whereas within the European Union you won’t need to worry about it. America requires a visa just to visit let alone gain employment, so if you’ve got your heart set on a season in Colorado or California you’re most likely going to have to bite the bullet and save. The maximum stay on a US tourist visa is 90 days. UK citizens can apply for a working holiday visa for Australia and New Zealand, but you only get one in your whole liifetime, so use it wisely i.e. not stacking shelves for £2.80 an hour…
Accommodation can be a bit of a struggle. Even if you’re early, many of the good places are already being held back for returning seasonaires. Some jobs will come with a bed which is a great perk if you can get it, but don’t bank on it. You’ll need to research heavily and book and pay in advance, or wing it and crash with friends/anyone you can until something comes available. A few resorts have hostel type dwellings, which can work out pretty cheap if you stay long term.
“A written contract is far better than just handing over a fistful of Euros to an Austrian farmer who has a guesthouse on top of his abattoir”
In the US, Canada and Southern Hemisphere it’s definitely worth contacting the local estate agents as they’ll be specialising in seasonal lets and this way it generally feels more legit i.e. a written contract rather than just handing over a fistful of Euros to an Austrian farmer who has a guesthouse on top of his abattoir. The further you stay out of the resort hub, the more likely you’ll end up with something a bit different and spacious.
If you wanted to put a figure on how money you’ll need to stay safely housed, well fed (enough to survive) and well lubricated (enough to do some permanent liver damage) £1000 a month wouldn’t be bad amount to start with. It’s not always as cheap as you might think/hope, and the days of absolute squalor with seven to a room are nearly gone as owners spruce up existing buildings and squeeze more money out of you.
As to whether all of this is worth it – yes it is. Every time.
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