Locker Room Aromas
It reeks in the locker room.
In a week or two, it will be the stink of sweat, feet and exhaustion. Between boot warmers, the high temperature of the locker room, and the heavy exercise of skiing all day while repeatedly picking up 45 lbs of dead weight (the approximate average mass of a floppy-legged six year-old), the smell will grow to be unbearable. Often, instructors will leave the door open, allowing sharp winds and the freezing cold to sweep through and air out the room. It’s rarely enough.
Today, though, the locker room is filled with the stench of desperation.
I count myself among the lucky. My second job pays my bills, so getting classes at Eldora is a luxury. Much like I was last year, there are plenty of instructors that are full-time who are anxious for work and the paycheck that comes with it.
When I took the job as a ski instructor, I didn’t expect it to be a living. If you are lucky and worked hard, we were told, you might get 25 hours a week as a full-time employee working 5 days a week. At our base pay, that’s a little more than enough to live on, and certainly not enough to build up a savings. And that’s if we’re lucky.
Lessons are handed out on a priority system: If you’re full time, you get priority over part timers. If you have certifications, you get priority over lower certifications and the uncertified. If you’ve been there for longer, you get priority over those who are newer. If you’ve worked a lot of hours, you get priority over those who haven’t worked as much.
With an estimated 250 employees in the snowsports department alone, the priority system meant I spent the first month without a class, despite being up there 5 days a week. Simply put, full time status got me close to having a class multiple times, but I never quite got there.
On a bitterly cold and windy Christmas Day, I found myself teaching for the first time. It wasn’t because I had ingratiated myself or worked my way up the food chain, but simply because of the lack of instructors on the holiday.
My class went horribly.
Another instructor chewed me out for mismanagement. My kids spent most of the day complaining about the bitter cold. Parents hung at the top of the magic carpet and constantly asked questions, pulling me away from the kids. I got rebuked by one of my supervisors for taking too many hot chocolate breaks (due to the horrendous cold and wind). By the end of the day, I doubted I belonged and worried that I would be drummed off the mountain like a boot camp reject.
Little did I know that my stubbornness and persistence wouldn’t just pay off with better classes and more success, but with a passion for a sport I enjoyed but felt I could’ve lived without.
Ken smiles. It’s his jovial nature. Behind the smile, however, I can see fear in his eyes.
Ken is one of the senior instructors. He’s a level 2 certified skier who’s worked at Eldora for nearly 20 years. This is his only job in the winter.
During the first few days, there are only a handful of classes handed out. I haven’t been assigned one. Neither has Ken.
“I needed classes three weeks ago,” he tells me, laughing uncomfortably.
On Friday, the kids center opened, offering our first full-day lessons of the year. Over the weekend, I worked every day, wrangling 4-6 year-olds from gapers to beginner snowmonkeys. Ken, too, had classes, as did a dozen other anxious instructors.
We’re only a few weeks into the season, and I know things will be fine and we’ll survive if not thrive as the darkness descends and the snow accumulates. For the next week or two, as we gain the year’s new hires and the kids’ center begins its reinvention as a mad house, there will be plenty of fretting, kvetching, and knitted brows.
In an industry full of transients and part-time employees, there will always be a clamoring for more paying work, but there’s also an understanding that sometimes you just have to be patient or move on.
I keep looking around for friendly faces, but there’s been an exodus in the off-season. Gone are senior kids instructors Tony Bologna, Captain Ron and Brooks. Gone are skiing virtuoso Aaron, snowboarders Viking Zack and Loopy Larry, and our trainer Kate (actually, she’s just dropped to 1 day a week, but it’s still like missing a staple). Gone are dozens of my cohort of new hires from last year. In a way, the motley collection of instructors left feels almost skeletal.
Some of last year’s crop of instructors have certainly moved on to larger resorts. Vail, Copper Mountain, Winter Park, Park City, and Crested Butte all pay better and guarantee more work, and that’s pretty standard across the board. Others have found cushier professions or decided they’d rather just ski than teach on their weekends.
Among those who have remained, most are employed at least part time elsewhere. We have teachers and retail clerks, masseuses and yoga instructors, cooks and cashiers, bartenders and dog walkers. My friend Dave plays drums in Truckasaurus, which is hardly a profession, but still steals time from the mountain, and he’s only one of a dozen musicians. And there are myriad students who work the weekends (or pretend to so they can ski the day when there aren’t enough classes).
Not everyone can say they’re “just an instructor,” but for the few who can, now is a time of worry.
Every day there are more people appearing on the slopes and in the school. With every snow storm, more of the mountain invites people to carve up the snow. Soon, we’ll be moving full bore and people will be fighting for a day off.
The locker room may reek of desperation at the moment, but in a few months it’ll just stink of a locker room.