(Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series that profiles area residents who live for riding the mountains.)
Paul and Heidi Wade have been “successfully underachieving” as ski bums in Aspen for nearly four decades.
“It’s a lifestyle,” said Heidi, who is in her 21st year as a ski instructor for the Aspen Skiing Co. Her husband, Paul, has 36 years under his belt as a SkiCo instructor but has been teaching skiing for 41, starting at Mount Southington in his home state of Connecticut when he was 16.
The two met in the early 1970s at a bar in Sugarbush, Vt., when Paul was teaching skiing with Heidi’s brother, Tim Estin, who now lives here and works as a real estate broker.
Paul and Heidi moved to Aspen in 1976, the notorious year of no snow, in a customized van that they lived in for a short time. Paul was 21 and Heidi was 22 at the time. Now they are 57 and 58, respectively.
Heidi, a native of New York City, had ties to Aspen since she was a little girl because her father, renowned ski instructor Peter Estin, was attempting to develop a ski area in Wildcat near Snowmass.
Heidi joked that the beginning of their marriage was a romantic one in that they had heard that spouses got a free ski pass, so Paul proposed.
“We went to Glenwood Springs and grabbed someone in the hallway [of the courthouse],” she said. “That was Dec. 12, 1979.”
Paul brought the marriage license to SkiCo’s head honcho who told him, “‘well you didn’t have to get married, you could have just said you were married like everybody else did.’ By then we were legally married by a judge,” Paul recalled.
After moving 10 times in five years, the Wades did what most traditional ski bums didn’t do at the time — they moved to the Ranch at Roaring Fork near Carbondale.
“That was really hard because we built a house, we were really young, I got pregnant at 28 and everybody was still up here partying, living in Aspen,” Heidi said.
They both worked in the restaurant industry; her aunt had started “The Restaurant” at the Airport Business Center, which was a jazz joint. Paul also cleaned food trays at the restaurant at Buttermilk but didn’t work much because no one was skiing in ’76. The next year, he became a ski instructor.
Before she got pregnant, Heidi started a dog grooming business in which she was able to get a $5,000 loan by putting up her horse as collateral.
“Then I really mommed out,” she said. “I was a downvalley mom and he was skiing with all the illustrious people up here.”
A carpenter and contractor by trade, Paul built a spec home which allowed him to buy a lot at what is now called Smuggler Park. The trailer was sold and transported to New Castle by its new owner and the Wades put a manufactured home in its place.
Their oldest daughter, Ali, a former Aspen Mountain ski patroller, lives there and her parents keep a room, where they stay often.
“Whenever it’s snowing out or drunk out,” Paul laughed.
Paul works between 85 and 100 days on the hill; Heidi probably 60. They ski together more often than not when they aren’t working. As instructors they solicit the majority of their clients on their own, and most of them are repeat customers. Paul said he’s been skiing with the same family for 36 years who come from Nashville every year. He’s also got some pretty high-powered people as clients who just want to escape for a week.
Neither of them are bored with instructing, or entertaining people all day long.
“People who are enthusiastic about skiing all day are the ones I have become aligned with,” Paul said. “They want to be good skiers. They are after the same experience, skiing with a focus.
“You look for clients that have that passion,” he added. “We are renewing the human spirit. I think it says that in the brochure.”
Paul teaches skiing to clients almost exclusively on Aspen Mountain, where he created the First Tracks program nearly 20 years ago and the Jerry Garcia Shrine off of Ruthie’s Run.
Living downvalley, Paul started getting to the mountain earlier and earlier to beat traffic. He’d help patrollers prepare the ski area so he could get the first run in. But that was to the dismay of a local who would always be on the gondola steps waiting to get the first run. He complained when he would he see Paul coming down. So Paul started the First Tracks program, which allows guests and locals to sign up for early morning runs before the gondola opens to the public.
And as a Dead Head, when Jerry Garcia died in 1995, Paul asked some patrollers if it’d be OK to build a shrine where there already was a bench with a view of town below.
He and Heidi bought a “dashboard shrine kit” in Moab and some roses at Wal-Mart. The shrine morphed from there.
Heidi had moved to Aspen with her mother when she was 16, after her father had died. She attended Colorado Rocky Mountain School before moving back East to attend Boston University.
“It was definitely a life-changing time because it was such a cool place coming from New York City,” she said of her first Aspen stint.
Regardless of no snow falling from the sky in 1976, Paul was mesmerized by Aspen and the West.
“I was in heaven because the skiing was so good compared to Vermont,” he said. “The following spring we went on a weeklong river trip in Cataract Canyon. I learned to kayak, and I was in the desert Southwest and I felt like I had been ripped off my whole life.”
The Wades have raised two daughters in the valley, Ali, who is now a preschool teacher, and Kelly, who is business partners with Heidi in Heidi Hat, a retail operation that specializes in handmade hats and athletic-inspired clothing that is designed for people pursuing sweaty activities, from yoga to hiking to skiing. They opened a retail store on East Cooper Avenue last year.
All the clothing is made in the Roaring Fork Valley; Heidi has a sewing machine set up in the living room of their home at the Ranch at Roaring Fork where they still live.
Dabbling as a fishing guide for a while during the summers, Paul had to go back to work as their daughters got older and found their outdoor recreational passions.
“As the girls got older they wanted everything that we had so I had to go back to the building world,” he laughed.
As a ski instructor, Paul first got certified in Stowe, Vt. At 18 years old, he had planned to move to Canada to teach skiing to escape the draft.
“I was going to be drafted and I had already been teaching skiing for a couple of years,” he said. “It was the end of the draft era and nobody was coming back saying, ‘You should go.’”
But he didn’t end up having to do that since he was at the bottom of the list before the draft ended.
And now he is still living his dream with Heidi, who he’s been with for 38 years, 33 of them married.
“We have our niche,” Heidi said. “We are doing what we totally want to be doing. When we came here we were like ‘we will never be able to vacation Aspen so we are just going to have to move here and never leave.’”
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