The Life of a Professional Ski Guide

The Author, Donny Roth, admires the sunset from the lower slopes of Volcán Antuco, Chile

Living the Dream

When I tell people what I do for a living, I usually receive incredulous responses related to “living the dream.” While not a day goes by that I’m not appreciative of the opportunities I have, I also know the behind-the-scenes efforts that go into skiing more than 200 days a year, all over the globe. It’s an extremely rewarding occupation to be sure. It also requires focus, hard work, and the ability to follow unnatural rhythms throughout the year.

The easiest way to ski 200 days a year is to work back-to-back winters in the northern and southern hemispheres. Working for reputable guiding services and/or ski schools in world-class destinations can be fairly profitable, logistically simple, and downright fun. While going back and forth between Aspen, Colorado and Portillo, Chile, I was skiing more than 225 days per year, putting money in the bank, and living experiences that still create smiles and laughter when retold.

But this pattern has its pitfalls. Primarily, it is really tough on the body. To ski 130 days out of 150 in the north, and then 95 out of 100 in the south, leaves the body not only beaten by bumps, crashes, post-holing through powder, and carrying heavy loads, it also leaves one completed lopsided. During the short off-seasons of June and October I could barely walk down hill. On one backpacking trip in October, my knees hurt so badly on the descent that my girlfriend had to take most of the weight out of my pack so that I could make it back to the trailhead. It was at this moment that I realized that this lifestyle was not sustainable.

A clouded path lies ahead - Volcán Lonquimay, Chile

A clouded path lies ahead - Volcán Lonquimay, Chile

The woman from that trip is a kind, talented, smart, and beautiful individual. She, however, is no longer my girlfriend. Living a transient life is a relationship killer. Constantly packing up and flying around the globe doesn’t create a sense of security for a partner. While the lifestyle is often very attractive, and the early stages of dating are extremely romantic, eventually the nights of flowers and romance transition into days filled with questions and doubts.

And while each season typically nets enough money for a great off-season vacation, and even an ostensibly decent standard of living, it’s extremely superficial. Mountain living is expensive, especially in relation to the building of any real financial equity (e.g., home ownership).

When I began to pay attention to the lives of the older folks surrounding me, I noticed that most of the guys who had been “living the dream” for a couple of decades were preoccupied with making money and bitter, because they were beat up and tired, and probably had been divorced at least once.

Would following my passion be a wonderful ride to a depressing end?

Life is a winding road, for a Professional Ski Guide - photo taken near Portillo, Chile

The path to success is not a straight line - photo taken near Portillo, Chile

Refining the Model

For the past few years I have worked to refine the “ski all year” model into something more sustainable. The most important piece of the puzzle became establishing a true base of operations. I spent years moving around, testing different environments, while looking for a community and climate where I could fuel my passion. I have tried mountain towns of the Rockies, small villages in the Alps, and remote locations in the Andes. Eventually, I realized that the answer was to return to the place where my addiction first became my profession – Boulder, Colorado.

Donny Roth, atop of Volcán Lonquimay, Chile

Donny Roth, atop of Volcán Lonquimay, Chile

Boulder, Colorado as a base for a professional skier? If this doesn’t make sense to you, I wouldn’t call you crazy. There’s really no world-class skiing accessible without a minimum four-hour drive from Boulder, and there’s a lot more wind than snowfall. As strange as it may sound though, snow and world-class mountain terrain might not be the most important factors when it comes to finding the right base of operations, as a professional skier.  I’ll explain why.

I don’t need world-class skiing out my backdoor. I travel to some of the best skiing destinations on the planet – all year round. I’m home about 150 days a year; the last thing I want on these days is to be cold. When I get home I don’t want to shovel my driveway; I want to ride my bike or go rock climbing. Boulder’s climate allows this. On any given day I can get the exact right training for my body and soul. Whether it’s a killer session at the Alpine Training Center, a diagnostics check at Boulder Center for Sports Medicine, a wicked trail ride with Timmy Duggan, a classic climb in Eldorado Canyon, or just a quick lap up Mt. Sanitas, there is always exactly what the doctor is calling for.

Boulder is also a hub of the outdoor industry and an exceptionally athletic community. There is no better place on earth for me to work with a network of passionate, outdoor-oriented folks. Rather than residing in a homogenous culture of a typical mountain town, living in a place like Boulder allows me to mix in with a group that sees the world as its audience.

Throw in the culture of a major university, and the amenities that come with one of the trendiest places on Earth, and there’s no excuse for boredom at home. The town is full of places for great food, interesting shows, and even some art – though it’s still the Rocky Mountain West – so there’s not that much art.

Roth finds art in nature - lenticular clouds at sunset over the Front Range of Colorado

Roth finds art in nature - lenticular clouds at sunset over the Front Range of Colorado

Staying Focused

If skiing 200 days a year in world-class destinations, while residing in a hip town, complete with great food, beautiful women, and superb access to outdoor recreation, sounds too idyllic to be true, it’s because it basically is. Accomplishing this lifestyle essentially goes against everything our society has taught us is “normal”. Staying focused is critical. Not getting caught up in emotions and trends is difficult, but vital. Even facing questions that often feel like an interrogation is par for the course, as I’ll soon explain.

The first thing I must accept is that I have given up seasons. It’s absolutely true that this was the point – to give up the seasonal lifestyle of the vagabond ski guide. But I have also given up seasons as many people know them. There’s no summer, fall, spring, winter; it’s always winter. There’s no mountain bike season, climbing season, beach season; it’s always ski season. I must constantly strive to find balance on a micro-scale. I will ski for twenty days a month, and look for warm weather activities the other ten. This is harder than one would think. I am constantly out of sync with normal, everyday culture. While it’s 60 degrees in Boulder, I am keeping track of snow and storms in mountains hundreds, or even thousands of miles away. Even if it has dumped a foot of new snow in the mountains where I am at the time, I may be racing back home to squeeze in a bike ride before heading out to a different ski destination – as the timing and nature of my schedule oftentimes dictates the mountains that I ski (as opposed to snowfall, which drives most recreational skiers toward particular locations). While my friends are frantically skiing every day they can before the spring thaw, I must patiently keep the big picture in mind and remember that I will still be making turns throughout the Summer.

Cerro La Parva, just north of Portillo, Chile

Winter Eternal - Cerro La Parva, just north of Portillo, Chile

Just as I constantly shift between climatic conditions, I have no consistency to my workload. As a sole proprietor in a niche market, I don’t have the luxury of “just doing my job.”  I have to focus intently on the job in front of me to make sure its  being done properly while  simultaneously considering the bigger picture – or the rest of my tasks waiting on the periphery for that moment.  Each task will demand my complete attention eventually, and it requires planning and discipline to coordinate and handle them all smoothly.  My work is normally a three-ring circus – stay fit, plan trips, stay in touch with clients, work with sponsors, fulfill all the writing and media obligations… It can make a day on the mountain feel like a vacation – even though it is still very much work.

You could easily read this and think, “Yeah, so, whose life isn’t a chaotic juggling act?” And actually, that’s my point – my life is less exotic than it appears on the surface. There’s no doubt that I am privileged because my given talent means that I can work in beautiful places with great people that are generally happy because they are pursuing something that they love. While it is these special moments in the mountains that end up being shared on the Internet, in photo albums, and with gatherings of friends, the preparation is what makes it all happen.

Matt Wylie climbing Alto Lo Posada in Central Chile.  Cerro Anconcagua in the background

Matt Wylie climbing Alto Lo Posada in Central Chile (Cerro Anconcagua in the background)

To truly make a living in a sustainable fashion as a professional skier, every day has to count – and not just once, instead more like three times. What does this mean? Well, simply put: each day must serve multiple purposes. A day in the mountains may start at five in the morning and go until four in the afternoon. And when most people head to the bar or the hot tub, I go to work. The day was just the beginning of the story. That story has to be shared, and the equipment used has to be evaluated. On top of that, I have to constantly be preparing for the following day, as well as months into the future. Detailed plans laid well in advance make for smooth sailing.

On any given day I will submit an article to at least one website or blog. The print article in the process of being written, edited, or revised is omnipresent on my desktop. There are countless photos and video segments to be edited. At any one time there can be between five to ten prototypes of equipment that must be thoroughly evaluated in the field and then clearly documented. This sounds like fun to most people – and it is – but when you have to take notes on the performance of your underwear the luster begins to wear off a bit. Email can back up faster than a water-saving toilet in a chili restaurant. Gear must be maintained, and the logistics of travel never cease. Each piece of the puzzle basically pays in pesos, so each day goes into overtime.

I’m not complaining; I love each piece of the puzzle. I truly enjoy the labor of each day. At the same time, as I become more successful I become more shocked at how much there is to do. The continual organization required to conduct my profession is staggering. The need to constantly change gears without slowing down is exhausting. The reward however, is huge. To regularly get feedback that what I do is inspiring to other skiers is nothing short of amazing. Being cognizant of my life’s dream being realized provides for unparalleled satisfaction, and I don’t take it for granted.

Finding Balance

So “living the dream” is probably a little more business-like than most people would like to hear. Sure, the rewards are significantly better than buying a bigger TV or upgrading the lawn furniture. But, the next time you end an epic powder day on some amazing mountain, I’ll bet that you’ll be happy that you’re headed to the bar, the masseur, or the hot tub instead of sitting down to the computer. The client’s vacation is my job; and the business doesn’t slow down while we’re out for a daily adventure.

The Grand Teton at sunrise in December

The Grand Teton at sunrise in December

I have taken on more responsibility by going out on my own. While there is no doubt that it’s more work, I still have hope that it will feel like a more balanced life, soon. Instead of long seasons of fairly straightforward work, there are shorter, incredibly intense periods anchored by a somewhat normal life. My year used to feel like a drawn out wave with a long, steady rhythm of work and vacation. Now, my life has a pulse; going from maximum to minimum in many calculated but irregular intervals.

I believe this pulse will contribute longevity to my life – professionally and personally; physically and mentally. I never really escape Winter – it’s always on my mind. On any given day – even in June – it’s likely that I’m planning, preparing, training, recovering, or documenting some ski adventure. But this is the balance that I hope allows me to stay sharp, motivated, and at the top of my game throughout the year.

I look forward to sharing more detailed accounts, behind-the-scenes peeks if you will, of skiing all year round. I truly believe that there is inspirational value to demystifying the typical perceptions surrounding the lifestyle of a professional ski guide. Honestly, the average hardworking, motivated, reasonably athletic person already possesses all the tools necessary for carrying on a lifestyle of big adventures in the mountains. It would be great to see more people “living the dream.”

Prayer flags in northern China

Prayer flags in northern China

Donny Roth works as a professional skier all year round. He owns Alpine Ambitions, a service dedicated to inspiring and facilitating big mountain adventures for passionate skiers. When not guiding, he can be found exploring wild mountain environments. These experiences serve as the platform for equipment research and development, as well as stories to share through a variety of media outlets. Beyond the classic destinations like the Colorado Rockies and the Alps, his passion for skiing has brought him to places like Japan, China, and Morocco. His favorite destination is the mountains of Chile, which he visits annually.

All photos in this article are © Donny Roth – All Rights Reserved

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    avatar Patty Ransco
    Posted March 8, 2011 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    Wonderfully written! Very inspiring to anyone who has a job! Wouldn’t it be great if other people in other jobs could feel that passionate about their work. And be that objective!

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    avatar Justin
    Posted July 19, 2011 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    Hello Donny,
    My love of skiing and wine (and a mid-life crisis) brought me to Chile 2 years ago (I now live in Concepcion) and am always looking for people to play in the snow with. Let me know if you’re ever near here (day on the slopes or backcountry) … I should warn you though, i’m a tele (but a good one) 🙂
    BTW, love the photos.

    PS Heading to Antuco this weekend — any websites, books, beta, etc. for ascending to the top?

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  • […] I left the United States on March 21, which was a little early for me since I typically work as a ski patroller through the winter. I was on patrol up until the last week, training for the hike by skiing, […]

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