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Originally published Wednesday, February 9, 2011 at 7:00 PM

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Escape the humdrum and snowboard every day? Mount Baker's 'lifties' tell how it's done

They used to be called ski bums. These days they're snowboarders, and they work hard, running the lifts at your favorite slope. One thing's for sure: They're tracking more powder than you are.

Special to The Seattle Times

Do it yourself

Four tips for spending winter on a ski slope

1. Not all mountain jobs are created equal.

Don't like standing around in a blizzard all day? Don't consider parking-crew duty or lift operations. Does smiling at impatient customers turn your stomach? Forget about a rental shop. Want to actually get first tracks? Skip ticket sales. Before applying, find out important information such as your tentative schedule and whether you get regular skiing/boarding breaks. Try to get a job that leaves mornings free for first tracks — or a bit of extra sleep. Oh, and prepare to take a pay cut (see tip No. 4).

2. It takes a village.

There's an old saying: "No friends on a powder day." However, after the mountain is tracked out, it's pretty nice to have other humans to hang out with. Fortunately, ski towns are typically full of people looking to make friends, and making a new one can be as easy as getting on the same chairlift. Show up with an open mind and you might find friends for life.

3. Summer logistics.

The snow stops in April, and oftentimes so does your paycheck. Line up a seasonal summer gig in advance to alleviate financial stress between the seasons. Try a tourism job or commercial fishing in Alaska to replenish the savings. Or, follow the snow and work the southern hemisphere winter in New Zealand or Chile.

4. Minimize your life.

With an unsteady seasonal income and probable shared living environment, it's time to do a spring cleaning of your stuff — and your budget. Cut excess expenses whenever possible to stretch your modest mountain paycheck. This might prove the hardest step for city dwellers. While you might have to skip sushi and cocktails, the payoff for simple living will prove deep — like waist deep.

— John Kinmonth

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The morning commute is bumper to bumper. A man in the next lane absently blows on his morning coffee. Catatonic. The woman in the rearview mirror texts rapidly. Distracted. The line of cars crawls endlessly toward heated offices and stale coffee. Bad benefits. Insecure tenures.

But — and there's always a but — there is another way to live. Alyeska, Jackson Hole, Mammoth, Vail. Mythical places that only exist in the "10 Winter Getaways" pages of ski and travel magazines. Yet real people actually live there. And they ski and snowboard more than you.

While it's possible to balance city life and outdoors passions, this isn't about balance — it's about obsession.

In the Pacific Northwest, the escape plan hides in plain sight. Craggy, snow-covered peaks stand sentinel over gridlocked Interstate 5 from Northern California all the way to the Canadian border. Hidden on the flanks of towering volcanoes and winding mountain passes, there are pockets of life that have nothing to do with an office building.

You couldn't just leave it all and join the seasonal skiing movement — or could you?

The chairmen of Mount Baker

Nobody represents this seasonal ski culture more than the iconic lift operator, commonly referred to as the "liftie." They are the witnesses of winter. They saw that epic powder slash. They watched as you dropped that cliff. They were staring right at you as you awkwardly caught an edge near the lift line. Yeah, they definitely saw the whole thing.

Meet James Dealey, Jeff Hecker and Jeff Catron — three Mount Baker Ski Area lifties living the dream, one powder day at a time.

The Early Riser

"Ski bum" is not really an accurate depiction of how James Dealey, 26, spends his winter. First of all, he's a snowboarder — in fact, that's true of all three. Second, there's nothing bumlike about waking up at 4:30 a.m. for work. As one of the drivers of the Mount Baker employee shuttle, Dealey's winding his way up the Nooksack River Valley before most nine-to-fivers have hit the snooze button. And don't think he's off early, either. He shuttles employees home after working a full shift on the mountain, often making it home around 6:30 p.m.

While this schedule might seem like torture to most, Dealey is contemplative.

"I love being outside every day, especially when the days are so short," he said. "You are up for every single second of daylight."

Having grown up in Chicago, Dealey started his snowboard career with man-made snow on 120 feet of vertical.

"It was just this little snowboard park [outside of the city] called Raging Buffalo. They set up jumps and rails and each run lasted two or three seconds," Dealey said.

Hearing about Mount Baker through a family friend, Dealey decided to attend Western Washington University. After graduating with a bachelor's in business, Dealey hit the job market, but found prospects scarce leading up to the recession. Ultimately, Dealey decided to take the winter to work at the mountain and snowboard. Three years later, he's still at it. To balance all those powder days, Dealey spends summer on the golf course, working at Semiahmoo Resort in Blaine.

"Sometimes my life seems like a permanent vacation," he said.

Still, Dealey is realistic about the demands of seasonal employment.

"A lot of people say 'I'm going to take the winter off and work at the mountain,' but it's still work," he says. "It's just like any other job, and the more snow, the more work we have."

Often standing outside for hours in a blizzard, Dealey has advice for would-be lifties on how to dress for success in the Northwest.

"Invest in really good rain gear," he said. "A $30 pair of fisherman waders can be worth many times more than a $500 pair of Gore-Tex pants. It's a battle between staying dry and staying warm. I also bring three pairs of gloves every day."

With most of his family still in the Midwest, Dealey plans to move back and pursue a traditional career path in the future. But he's in no hurry. Besides, his family is happy with his vocational choices:

"They're proud of me for it, and they definitely like to come out and visit."

The Naturalist

When Jeff Hecker graduated from Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., two years ago, he had one thing on his mind.

"I had to get out of there," he said. "I worked at a ski area in North Carolina as lift supervisor, but I was fed up with man-made snow."

Graduating in the winter with a degree in science and biology, Hecker quickly loaded up his Honda Civic for his cross-country escape.

"I spent Christmas Day with my parents, and then the next day got up at 5:30 a.m. and headed out," he said.

Bypassing legendary ski areas such as Snowbird, Telluride and Squaw Valley, Hecker wouldn't settle for anything less than the modest infrastructure and excessive snowfall totals of Mount Baker. It was no coincidence, though. After all, his fate was set at an early age.

"I wanted to work at Mount Baker since middle school," he said. "I read an article in a snowboard magazine and I just knew. I decided pretty much then and there that someday I would work at Mount Baker."

Hecker, another 26-year-old, who also drives the employee shuttle, is a mainstay at Mount Baker's Chair 1 mid-station, giving him a front-row seat to the heroic exploits of most of Whatcom County on a powder day. While some might resent having to work while others play, Hecker is all smiles.

"I love the human aspect," he said. "Everyone that's here is [here] because they want to be here."

But lest you think Hecker's job is all first tracks and high-fives, he works — hard. All those powder days require someone to pay penance with a shovel in order to get the lifts running.

"Some days I'm getting up at 4:15 and not getting home until 6," he said. Despite the long hours, Hecker speaks with reverence about his daily grind.

"I just love mountains, this place especially is a magical place," he says. "It makes me happy."

In the summer, Hecker works as a general farm hand for Osprey Hills Farm in Acme, Whatcom County. Living year-round in an idyllic setting — a house bordered by a 40-acre blueberry farm and the Nooksack River — Hecker is satisfied with his decision to leave North Carolina.

"I love the life that I live here," he said.

His best advice to those looking to work and play in the mountains?

"Keep an open mind and prepare for the elements," he said.

The Believer

Jeff Catron, 37, has held a lot of different gigs. Growing up in rural Whatcom County, he dabbled in construction, farming, odd jobs. But it wasn't until getting a job at Mount Baker that he found his true calling.

"Everybody tells me that my head is in the clouds. And they're right, I'm in heaven," he said.

With a big red beard and infectious enthusiasm, Catron is a far cry from the typical liftie in so many ways.

"I'm one of the oldest lifties you'll find. Everybody calls me a happy liftie," he said. "I look at it that everybody who comes up here allows me to live the lifestyle I love."

And that mountain lifestyle is a family affair. His wife, Fay, works in the lodge as a breakfast cook.

"Ask for the Fay scramble; she'll love it," he said.

When they're not working, they're snowboarding.

"We put as much time as we can at the hill," he said. "We love it. We're just big kids."

Although he hopes to eventually land a supervisor or mechanic role, Jeff loves the life he's found in the mountains, and he hopes to convey that feeling to every person who rides his chair.

"It's brought me so much joy, I want to give back that joy every time," he said. "When I die, I want my ashes to be spread off of Chair 8. I'm totally living the dream."

John Kinmonth, a Seattle-based freelance writer, has done stints as a ski-season worker at Mount Baker, a tour driver in Alaska and a snowboarding instructor in Austria. Contact him: johnkinmonth@gmail.com.

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