Life as a liftie: Finding happiness in the Colorado Rockies
December 23, 2018
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The Sundown Express lift crew rises hours before the sun comes up. The four of us are among the first to ascend Mount Werner on a gondola cabin every morning.
As we ride up the mountain, I read the first line of Steamboat Resort's culture guide, which is attached to my season pass, specifically the line that explains every employee's primary purpose: "Share the Steamboat Dream."
At times, this mountain does seem fantastical. I feel happier with my simple job here than in the past four years of toiling away at a college degree. I say this at a time when many Americans, while enjoying the lowest unemployment rate since 1969, don't appear very happy at all.
The Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index, a way of measuring one's contentment beyond economic metrics, reported the lowest scores in 2017 since the study began in 2008. The index measures aspects beyond economics, such as people's sense of purpose and connectedness to their community. Almost every state showed significant declines in well-being, with the exception of people living in the Rocky Mountain region.
After working as a liftie for just three weeks, this anomaly does not surprise me. Everyone I work with comes from far-reaching places but all with one dream — to ski or board. This dream comes true every day — for free. We may not earn six-figure salaries, but as the index proves, money doesn't mean everything.
As the gondola cabin crests over Christie Lift, the first rays of sunlight spill across the Flat Tops Wilderness Area to the west, and the low-hanging clouds over Steamboat shimmer as if turned to gold.
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"I still can't believe this is our daily commute," I tell my coworkers.
"It never gets old," says Karl Longo, one of Sundown's crew leaders who moved to Steamboat Springs from Philadelphia two years ago. He yawns and looks around at us. "Any ideas for today's trivia?"
It's a Sundown tradition to post a trivia question on a whiteboard at the lift entrance, a fun way to engage with guests. In some Proustian recovery of a years-old memory I should have forgotten, I recall a question from a Snapple bottle cap.
"What was the first fruit eaten on the moon?" I ask.
Everyone thinks for a moment.
"A banana?" Karl guesses.
"An apple?" asks Liam McDonnell, another Pennsylvania transplant who wears a sling from a recent halfpipe injury.
Jordi Anderson, an Iceland native who doesn't do mornings, gets impatient. "Alright, what's the answer?" she demands.
"Peaches," I say. "Canned peaches."
I can almost taste them, their syrupy sweetness as yellow and bright as the rising sun.
On our descent to Sundown, we are the first to carve into the corduroy tracks formed by the Sno-Cats, an experience not unlike shucking the paper off a Christmas present. Before setting to work, the four of us pile into the small shack at the base of Sundown, sipping coffee and munching apple fritters that our supervisor brought.
I ask Liam, who had never been to Steamboat before starting this job, why he chose to come all the way out here from the East Coast. At 19, he's the youngest of our crew. The bar scene certainly didn't lure him in. He admits leaving wasn't an easy choice: he'd been accepted to a state school and spent all summer preparing for college life. Then a month before classes began, he told his parents he wasn't going.
"I didn't know what I wanted to study," he says. "It would have just been a waste of their money."
He laughs suddenly through a mouthful of fritter. "I could be stressing over finals right about now. No thanks."
The rest of the day consists of admittedly mundane tasks: shoveling last night's snow off the loading ramp, running through safety tests to make sure the lift stops when it's supposed to and, of course, escorting people on and off the lift.
Guests take hacks at the trivia question: most guess apples or bananas. Their euphoria over the fresh snow is contagious, and the occasional crash on the ramp breaks up the monotony.
After clocking out, some of us walk to Truffle Pig, a restaurant that offers an extended happy hour to lifties. I order a Fat Tire and bring it out to the porch, where lifties from around the mountain are talking around a rectangular fireplace. Snowflakes the size of quarters fall and sizzle into the flames.
Corbin Korsgard looks up at the windows above Truffle Pig at seasonal condos none of us could afford. He points to the highest one.
"A guy just bought that penthouse for $4 million" he says.
He knows because he did some renovation work up there a few weeks ago for a local contracting company.
Before joining Steamboat's lift operations, Corbin worked a few odd jobs, mostly in construction, on the Front Range where he grew up. He does some mental calculations and figures, in his 27 years on this earth, he's barely earned more than $100,000.
Stiles Tate, a returning liftie from Blue Ridge, Mississippi, doesn't think wealth equates to happiness.
"We paid two bucks for these beers and have the same view as this millionaire," he says in his Southern lilt. "What more could y'all ask for?"
It's not a trivia question. Our silence serves the answer.
We gaze at Mount Werner, the snow glowing a dull purple in the twilight. We, who have little but don't ask for much. We, who hail from Iceland and Pennsylvania and everywhere in between.
We, who work and live the Steamboat Dream.