The feast and famine of writing about skiing

Making a living as a professional ski bum is tough. The pay is poor, if it exists at all, and the work is unpredictable. While a small handful of the world’s best skiers are able to survive on money made from skiing alone, the rest of us mortals cobble together a variety of jobs to live the dream.

040716-Benson_PearLakeHikeJeremy Benson hikes near Pear Lake in Sequoia National Park in March 2016.

Remembering the feeling of those first turns on a powder day is enough to keep us coming back to teaching ski lessons, working construction, waiting tables and in Jeremy Benson’s case, writing. But what if the snow doesn’t come? And what if you’re on a deadline?

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“It’s hard to narrow it all down. There’s just so much good skiing
and it’s so diverse.”

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When Mountaineers Books contacted Benson about writing a guidebook to back-country skiing in California, the West Coast had just come off two less-than-impressive winters. A bit hesitant, he took the assignment anyway.

“We were due for another good winter, so it should be easy to go and ski the lines I haven’t done yet,” said Benson, who has built a strong reputation as a writer and a skier over his lifetime.

A self-described New England Mutt, Benson grew up skiing the hills of Connecticut and when it was time to go to college he moved north to the mountains of Vermont to study at Saint Michael’s College.

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Benson drops into a chute on Monument Peak just outside of Bridgeport
earlier this season. | Oscar Havens

“I arranged my ski schedule, sorry, I meant my class schedule, around skiing. I was usually able to get on the mountain five days a week,” said Benson. Immediately after finishing school, in true Eastern ski bum fashion, Benson made the pilgrimage out West.

“I thought ‘Why not be a ski bum for a year?’ I moved to Tahoe City in 2001, and 15 years later I’m still here,” said Benson, who came for the skiing, but like many long-time Tahoe residents, stayed for everything else the area has to offer. And like many Tahoe residents, Benson began to patch together a living as a skier.

He landed a consistent stream of gigs skiing for professional photographers and earned his place as an ambassador for several prominent companies that ensured he had the right gear each season.

“For a long time, I was trying to be the hot-shot, pro-skier guy,” said Benson.

His efforts landed him a gig as a ski tester with Skiing Magazine where he met fellow ski journalist and Skiing Magazine editor Megan Michelson (who now calls Tahoe her home, as well).

“Megan assigned me a short write-up on Alpine Meadows, and paid me. I couldn’t believe I just got paid to write for an hour,” said Benson. He continued to pursue freelance assignments, following Michelson as she took a job with ESPN Freeskiing. His writing has since been published with Powder Magazine, Teton Gravity Research and the Tahoe Quarterly.

“I don’t know how Mountaineers Books got my name, but I think it was Megan,” said Benson.

Unfortunately, the big winter Benson was hoping for didn’t arrive that season. Nor did it come the season after.

“I wasn’t able to do the research and take photos. I can look at a map and study other books and online guides, but without going out and skiing it myself it feels like a cop out,” said Benson.

The project started to drag on. Without snow, the skiing was terrible and many of the routes were unattainable, but the mountain biking was great year-round.

If there’s one way to survive in an unpredictable industry such as skiing, it’s the ability to adapt. So Benson pitched a guide to mountain biking.

040716-Benson_MorrisonSki

Benson arcs a turn on Mount Morrison high above Convict Lake
in the Eastern Sierra. | Oscar Havens

“It was a lot easier to deal with than the ski book. The summers are longer and it’s not as arbitrary as hiking to the summit of a peak and skiing down. There are established trails,” said Benson.

The book covers trails in the Tahoe region. It’s currently in the copy-editing process and should be available in Spring 2017.

The snow finally returned to the West Coast this season, and with it so did Benson’s enthusiasm. This winter, he’s been able to balance crossing off new ski routes with putting the finishing touches on his mountain biking guidebook.

The book, “Backcountry Skiing and Snowboarding in California” will cover cherry-picked routes from Mount Shasta to Southern California. Throughout the process, he chose to focus on ski routes that are easily accessible and can be completed in a day, rather than showcasing classic lines that sometimes require three or more nights of back-country, winter camping.

“It’s hard to narrow it all down. There’s just so much good skiing and it’s so diverse,” said Benson, who recently completed a trip to Sequoia National Park. But even in a season with average snowfall, it’s been a struggle to complete certain routes.

“The snow line is high, and in the south the snowpack is thin. It’s been trying for what I wanted to accomplish but we’re better off than last year so I’m not complaining,” said Benson. He plans to continue skiing this season until the bitter end and will finish writing the guide this summer.

“You can’t control the weather; you just have to roll with it. It’s feast or famine,” said Benson.