Ski Bums at Soup Kitchens: Warm Winter, Hard Times in Mountain Towns

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Months of unseasonably warm weather have given the economy quite a boost: Mother Nature has been pointed to as the reason for increased spending on construction, restaurants, and home-improvement supplies, among other goods and services. More people have been golfing as well. In ski towns where the local economy is heavily dependent on snow, however, the winter of 2011-2012 has been a disaster, and unemployed and underemployed resort workers have grown increasingly desperate.

In most years, trails and chairlifts at the big ski resorts stay open at least until Easter weekend. After an exceptionally mild winter, however, nearly all the mountains in New England are now closed. Killington, in Vermont, which is renowned for hosting one of North America’s longest ski seasons—where slopes often stay open well into June—currently reports that just four trails are open, and that “there is thin coverage on parts of the open trails that can change rapidly and create unpredictable surfaces, so please pay close attention when you’re out on the trails and check back often for updates.”

The snow situation is better in the Rockies, but “better” is a relative term. Colorado’s Arapahoe Basin, another mountain known for extra-long ski seasons, plans on staying open through the first week of June. In the past, though, A-Basin has hosted ski parties as late as the Fourth of July.

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Overall, though, the lack of snow has caused tough times in most ski towns, especially for employees who earn little more than minimum wage and often try to work multiple jobs in order to afford living in a luxury resort area like Breckenridge or Telluride.

According to the Denver Post, as hours are cut and jobs are harder to come by, young ski mountain workers are showing up in increasing numbers to resort-area food pantries, soup kitchens, and free community dinners provided by churches. One church in Breckenridge, long accustomed to serving about 85 people at community spaghetti dinners, now averages 115. A food pantry in Telluride, meanwhile, says that this is its busiest season in more than three decades.

Ski bums are well acquainted with practices such as piling up four to a bedroom, working a half-dozen odd jobs, bartering for all sorts of goods and services (a free guided snowshoe tour from me for free powder ski rentals from you), and eating beans and rice, Ramen, or PB&J at every other meal. These are some of the tradeoffs expected for the privilege of living in an idyllic mountain town and getting to hit the slopes regularly. Facing persistent hunger and accepting handouts is somewhat new.

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It’s the “underemployed and the unemployed” of the high country who make up the attendance of weekly meals at one church in Eagle, near Vail and Beaver Creek, according to its pastor:

“It’s steadily increasing every year. I think that has to do with the economic situation up here, as well as exposure and more people bringing in their friends.”

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.