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Booty Call

Booty Call

Gear
By Hillary Rosner
posted: 10/30/2000

At the base area, it's 80 degrees and sunny, but by the time we reach the summit, conditions have changed. The temperature has dropped 30 degrees, the wind is whipping dirt in our eyes and hail stings our cheeks. I take one of the large white garbage bags I'm supposed to be filling with ski-season debris and fashion a raincoat. Holding the waist of my Hefty slicker so it won't blow over my head, I continue stuffing handfuls of energy-bar wrappers, trail maps and coffee stirrers into a second trash bag.

This isn't exactly what I'd envisioned when I signed up for Steamboat's mountain cleanup day. I'd heard stories of riches uncovered beneath ski lifts. The one about the guys in California who found $10,000 and a bag of drugs after the snow melted one spring, and who supposedly got to keep the cash after turning over the dope to police. And the one about someone who found a prosthetic leg. I'd heard about platinum wedding bands, sparkling ruby rings and bulging wallets dropped by fumble-fingered skiers, all hidden until spring.

Mountain scavenging has long been a popular pastime in ski towns, the locals' little payoff for enduring tourists through the winter. As the snow melts each year, a small corps of dedicated scavengers head out to look for loot. "It's like you're treasure hunting," says John Kohnke, director of Steamboat's ski patrol and a 30-year veteran of the mountain. "You have this specter of 'who knows what you'll find?' You can climb up a steep hill to the top because you're so excited."

In Steamboat, the king of mountain-treasure hunting was Phil Eggleston, who died last summer at age 78. Eggleston, who once sent his granddaughter a box of 200 assorted chapsticks he'd found, would lead his wife and two teenage sons on frequent hikes up the slopes. "Where the river or creeks would drain, it would be like panning for gold," says Scott Eggleston, one of Phil's sons and a real estate broker in Steamboat. "A lot of people skied with money clips and change in their pockets. They didn't have as good clothing back then, so if you fell you lost your money." Scott once found a clip containing more than $300. [NEXT ""]

Rooting around under ski lifts is a bit like an archaeological dig, uncovering the cultural necessities of the moment. Scavengers now find complete product lines of sunblock-tubes, creams, lotions, sticks, pastes, emulsions. Film canisters used to follow lift towers up mountainsides. In recent years at California's Squaw Valley, "we've been finding tons of digital cameras," says resort worker Katja Dahl. Don't even get her started on dropped water bottles. The staggering number of trail maps and volume of "sniffle station" tissues littering liftlines calls into question any policy that gives away stuff for free. And the number of cigarette butts flicked off lifts is enough to shatter the image of skiers as a healthy lot.

Some cleanups move off the hill. Snowbird and Alta employees join forces each spring to clean up the Little Cottonwood Canyon road. Last year's event turned up, among other things, clothing, bras and adult videos-which makes one wonder how some skiers pass the time on the way down the mountain.

Occasionally, a weird kismet hovers over these tidy-up projects. One spring day, Damien Medlin, a Steamboat reservations agent, was out hiking when he spied a Völkl ski sticking out of a patch of snow. Medlin extracted the ski and carried it home, intending to transform it into "a piece of ski furniture." But then a strange thing happened. He took a call at work a few days later from a guy in Chicago who wanted to book a summer vacation. The Chicagoan happened to mention that he'd been to Steamboat that winter and had lost a ski-on the very trail where Medlin had found the Völkl. Medlin had his ski. "I mailed it back to him and he sent me $100," says Medlin, whose other mountain scores include a wallet and a pair of Elvis glasses.

This year, Kohnke, Steammboat's ski patrol director, found a brass box containing what appeared to be someone's ashes near a picnic table on the slopes. Had someone thought he was burying it when, in fact, he had only sunk it into the snow? Had it been fumbled off the lift or lovingly placed in that spot? Kohnke would only say that he moved the box to a more serene location. Meanwhile, on my side of the summit, chased off by rain and hail, we retreat to lower ground. On my cleanup crew is Heidi Thomsen, whose grandmother, June Specht, has lived in Steamboat for 34 years. Specht, 84, used to hike from her slopeside home to collect coins on the slopes, which she'd then present by the bagful to her grandchildren.

Thomsen isn't so lucky. She finds some change, a lot of lip balms and several right-hand gloves-which fall from the chairlifts with much higher frequency than their left-hand partners (only 12 percent of people are left-handed). Our crew also finds keys, busted ski poles, a cell phone and an international student ID card belonging to someone named Madeline Irvin. [NEXT ""]

Other crews fare slightly better. Casey Calhoon, a lift mechanic, comes across a hunting knife with a 10-inch blade and an antler handle. "This is the coolest thing I've ever found," he says. Rex Keller, another liftie, finds a silver dollar. Keller shows some ridges in the coin's edge: "This has been run over by a snowcat."

It doesn't measure up to the one-carat diamond earring he found several years ago. Still, he's pleased with his score.

"What you find these days are cell phones," Scott Eggleston says with a hint of resignation. "You don't find money clips any more. It's all plastic now." Bingo!

Don't look like an amateur; here are tips from the pros on how to find the good stuff.

1. Talk to local residents. Locals know which parts of the mountain melt out early. Get there as soon as the ground is exposed.

2. Search creek drainages. Scott Eggleston's father, a veteran scavenger, favored stream beds and snowmelt drainages, which tend to be collection points.

3. Think like a skier. Where are you most likely to rummage in your pockets or peel off a coat? Best bets include underneath liftlines and around restaurant decks.

4. Look for "sun pockets." When heavier objects like cell phones or wallets are dropped, their relative warmth melts the snow around them. "When you're riding the chairlift in the spring, you'll see holes all over the place," says John Kohnke, Steamboat's ski patrol director. "Look in there and once in a while you'll strike it rich."

October 2005

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