Last winter, while skimming a resort-town Yellow Pages in search of...um, espresso joints, we came upon a bevy of ads for escort services. Hookers in skidom? We started to wonder about our squeaky-clean, Ivory soap sport. Journalistic curiosity duly piqued, we did some sniffing around. Local resort phone books coast-to-coast revealed the same strange twist. There were ads for High Heel Barbies in Vail, Confidential Endeavors in Stowe, and Madame Kitty's Fantasy Ranch near Lake Tahoe. Ads offered "private dancing" and "romantic evenings," all with plenty of "discretion."
What's thinly veiled beneath the sketchy language is obvious to those looking for sex. But what about the women behind the ads, we wondered? Are they simply prostitutes, or are they savvy ski bums by day who earn their turns by night? What's the likelihood of hiring that hot babe you saw tweakin' helis in the terrain park? And who are the clients? So you can't buy love, but maybe you can buy a ski date¿a date that'll segue from the chutes to the sheets. In search of answers, we called the services, logged on to racy websites¿we even busted out the history books.
In the late 1800s, adventure seekers came west to towns like Breckenridge and Park City to scavenge the mountains for gold and silver. Back then, like today, men far outnumbered women¿the ratio being in the neighborhood of one tender, sweet lady for every 50 drooling, drunken miners.
In the Old West, employment opportunities for women were limited, and many girls ended up making a living by selling the only thing they had¿themselves. Before prostitution was criminalized around the turn of the century, the red light district, filled with saloons, brothels, and gambling houses, was the social center of a mountain town. Women plied their trade in parlor houses, tents, and dilapidated shacks. The cost of a quickie with the women who came to be known as "soiled doves" was less than the cost of a Big Mac today.
Arriving by train or wagon, Old West working girls were adventurous and sometimes entrepreneurial. One of the most famed madames of the West was Mattie Silks, who's since been immortalized by a restaurant of the same name in Steamboat Springs. Considered the queen of Denver's red light district, she ran her first parlor house at age 19 and eventually employed scores of women. Mary Jane, another Rocky Mountain prostitute, has the singular honor of having a ski area named after her. Not much is known about the namesake of Winter Park's bumpy backside except that she once owned the land on which the Mary Jane base was built, and that she practiced her trade at the top of Rollins Pass during the early railroad days. These painted ladies played a key role in the Old West's economy and community.
Today, women who exchange sex for money in the mountains keep a much lower profile. And though prostitution is illegal outside of Nevada (and Canada), it's not much of a concern to law enforcement officials in mountain resorts. "You have to have a victim to have a crime," says Jim Crowley, an assistant patrol supervisor and 10-year veteran of the Aspen Police Department. He can't remember there ever being an arrest for solicitation in Aspen, but he adds that the police don't do undercover work and wouldn't investigate without first receiving a complaint. "If it's going on, it's very discreet," he says.
Some would even say hooking in the high country is a dying trade. Donald Brenner, a First Amendment lawyer who has defended sex workers for 25 years, maintains that the prostitution industry in Colorado's mountain towns is nearly defunct. "There are too many freebies up there," he explains. Brenner tells the sad tale of a girl who moved to Vail to work as a street walker and "nearly starved to death."
Still, other indicators suggest prostitution is thriving in mountain communities. In February 1999, The Daily Trail reported that "Vail's escort services, and theree are plenty of them, were booked solid" during the '99 World Championships. The article mentioned phone book listings for a dozen escort services. Our research, however, showed that most of the numbers are funneled to the same answering machines, and that many are based in Denver. Vanessa, a self-employed, buxom redhead who works out of Denver and advertises her services on the Internet, says most women who work in ski towns "commute...at a rather large fee."
But for the working girls who don't commute, an escort could clearly earn considerably more, working far fewer hours, than a back-shop ski tuner. And she'd have her days free to ski. A girl might just be tempted to sell her body for a ski pass. Simply the Finest, an escort service based in Whistler that has fielded calls from millionaires looking for women to accompany them heli-skiing, suggests not. "Most of the women employed by the agency are nonskiers," says Stacy, Simply's owner. "None of the girls are here to ski."
Roxy's, also in Whistler, does have some skiers on staff. Though it caters to clients who are in town for the area's skiing, the price of taking an escort to the slopes discourages potential ski dates. "Some of the girls might go skiing with their clients the next day, just for fun," says Roxy, "but not while they're working."
"You can easily get injured skiing, and then you're out of work," explains Dolores French, executive director of HIRE (Hooking Is Real Employment) and author of the classic prostitution memoir Working: My Life as a Prostitute. "It's too cold up there anyway," she adds.
Okay, so the escorts aren't passionate skiers. But what of the clients? In mountain towns, male to female ratios have improved since Mattie Silks's day, but not by much. With the demographic odds stacked against men, why wouldn't a lonely guy pony up for a little chairlift companionship?
Brandy, who works out of Salt Lake City for Executive Vogue, explains that a ski date is prohibitively expensive. Her service charges $125 an hour with a two-hour minimum. Pile gear rentals and lift tickets on top of that, and you've got a significant investment. And nobody said the gal could ski. Imagine paying to chaperone a nonskier around the mountain, a task most men refuse to do for legitimate female companions.
Calls to dozens of agencies and independent escorts yielded the same response. Where we did uncover a paid-for ski date, the fantasy had backfired. A prostitute who grew up skiing in Portillo, Chile, recounts the story of a client so exhausted after skiing, "at the end of the day, he was too tired to have sex."
We started our research for this story with romanticized, if naïve, ideas about the world's oldest profession. One by one, our notions of madames and bordellos, of ski-bum hookers and chairlift dates, fizzled in the face of reality. Now, even more so than a century ago, prostitution is about two simple things: sex and money.
History should have been our first clue: The prostitutes of the Old West didn't ply their trade underground with the miners. So it should've come as little surprise that today's soiled doves aren't in town for the skiing. You want your skis P-texed, you don't call a plumber. Prostitution does live on in ski towns, but it's not the booming industry it once was.