Heber resident’s garden sustains an endangered species: the ski bum
It’s hard to ski all the time if you have to work. But, as many who have been unemployed know, it’s also hard to live if you don’t have work.
So people who want to spend their life skiing have a few options, the most prominent being early retirement from a stressful but lucrative career, or aggressively lowering their cost of living.
Mike McKinney is of the latter category.
The 26-year-old Heber City resident doesn’t just want to work for someone else and take what time is leftover for skiing. He wants to make his own path, which is why he’s infatuated with backcountry skiing.
“That’s what keeps me coming back,” he said. “The opportunity to make decisions for myself.”
Not surprisingly, he’s applied that ethos to the mores of daily life in Heber. He has eschewed the stability of a 9 to 5 job in favor of skiing.
He estimates that he earned $25,000 last year, 56 percent of which came from renting out rooms in his house and 44 percent from his job working at the Salt Lake-based Komrades food truck.
But, by his standards, he’s making every dollar count.
McKinney has skied 85 days this season as of Tuesday, and is closing in on his goal of skiing all 90 runs featured in Andrew McLean’s “The Chuting Gallery” – a guide to steep backcountry skiing in the Wasatch.
His parents helped him with the down payment on his 2,000 square foot house in Heber four years ago, which he lives in and rents to six other people, and, occasionally, to short-term renters through Airbnb. He himself lives in the laundry room, under the stairs, behind a sheet that demarcates where clothes washing ends and his person space begins.
He saves a considerable amount of money by growing his own produce.
His house, inside and out, is dedicated to growing, curing and storing food, making McKinney’s setup as self-sufficient and sustainable as possible.
The front yard is dedicated to fruit trees and small garden plots. The backyard has chickens, bees and larger garden plots, where McKinney and his housemates cultivate a vast assortment of produce, including pumpkins, squash, tomatoes, kale, beets, carrots, radishes, tomatillos, jalapenos, serranos, lettuces, greens and sunflowers.
Ripe veggies and fruit are pickled or otherwise stored, mostly in the garage.
Alongside a ski rack and other outdoor gear, stands a rack of large jars and whiskey bottles. The jars are filled with pear and plum jam, garden salsa, homemade pickle assortments using carrots, cherry tomatoes, lemon cucumbers, beets and other produce.
About 30 bottles are filled with apple cider vinegar, the product of a project in 2018 when McKinney, his housemates and his neighbor, Dave Collins (known as Skinner) collected all of the apples they could find around the valley and pressed them at home.
“There’s probably too much,” McKinney said of the apple cider vinegar. “We pressed, like, 50 gallons of apple cider.”
Many of the apples were dense and difficult to press. James Geary, one of McKinney’s housemates, installed a car jack in the press to increase the potential force.
Some of the containers holding the cider burst when their contents started to ferment. The vinegar that’s left has a flavor reminiscent of kombucha tea, which is fine by McKinney, though not what he expected.
The apple caper is a microcosm for the house’s vibe – most projects are experiments with varying degrees of success. Down in McKinney’s laundry/bed room, McKinney is trying to grow mushrooms. There are several large clear bags of soil, only a couple of which are successfully intertwined with the white mycelium of lion’s mane mushrooms.
But, as a whole, the agricultural and culinary effort is paying off. Last season, McKinney said he was able to roll past the grocery store for eight months straight, knowing his cupboards at home were full – something he had never considered before minting his green thumb.
McKinney grew up in Ellensburg, Washington and attended Washington State University in Pullman. He dropped out his junior year, and started traveling around the U.S.
He lived in Breckenridge, Colorado, for around a year in 2012, and liked what he saw, but didn’t feel like he’d found a place to settle. The next winter he came to Park City.
“It was really just on a whim,” McKinney said. A friend had told him about Park City, so McKinney decided he would check it out.
It was the winter of 2014-2015, and though it wasn’t a good snow year by Utah standards, it was enough to lure McKinney to the Beehive State.
“I was like ‘Man, if this is a bad year, I gotta stick around for the good year,’” he said.
He was still a snowboarder at the time, having cut his edges on the slopes of Stevens Pass, White Pass and Mission Ridge, and hadn’t grown so much as a tomato in his life.
McKinney got a job at Red Tail Grill at Park City Mountain Resort, where he met Chris Comstock, a ski patroller and avid backcountry skier who convinced him to clip into an old pair of touring skis and come with him into the backcountry.
“The only reason was because it was convenient,” McKinney said of switching from a snowboard to skis.
The next season, Comstock gave him a copy of “The Chuting Gallery,” and he started ticking off descents.
At the same time, he was settling into the house that he had begun paying for, experimenting with a compost pile and getting to know his neighbor, Skinner.
“I started with a small garden on the south side,” McKinney recalls. “Things just kind of started popping up. That’s what started interesting me, how easy it was. Then with Skinner, things definitely took off. I was kind of worried how far it would go.”
It started with gardening tips, but Skinner had many ideas for the house.
Now, there are signs of the neighbor everywhere.
He helped build the beehive and the chicken coop, was instrumental in the apple cider idea, and has convinced McKinney of the benefits of cooking with cast iron (Skinner is the author of a cookbook called “Simple Stupid Dutch Oven Recipes”). Now, his stove is populated entirely by jet-black pots and pans.
On Saturday, McKinney went to see if his neighbor could join him for a Park Record interview. He walked past the sapling fruit trees in their rock planters and over to the little weather-worn trailer that sits just on the other side of his property line.
McKinney rapped on the door, but Skinner did not emerge. McKinney returned with the message that Skinner would be over as soon as he donned his good kilt.
A few minutes later, Skinner joined McKinney, his housemate James Geary and friend Carissa Dahl, in the kitchen. Skinner’s “good kilt” – and he frequently wears kilts – is made from gray and black plaid wool, which he wore with black boots. A long, gray beard fell over his green cable knit sweater.
There is no easy way to summarize Skinner’s life. He is 62, grew up on a farm in Ontario without running water or electricity, and has held a variety of job titles including cook, author, blacksmith, parking lot line painter, canvas stretcher, buffoon clown, stunt clown, ventriloquist, circus manager, equine expert and taxi driver.
He is a walking tall tale who has managed to shoehorn the fantasies of the 19th century into a life in the 21st.
For instance, he recalled being invited to represent Idaho in a recreation of the Oregon Trail for its 150th anniversary. He drove a covered wagon from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon City, Oregon, then picked up what was once a harrowing, deadly journey as a sort of hobby. He said he has ridden in covered wagon trains for more than 13,000 miles in total.
“I’ve done the Oregon Trail two-and-a-half times, the Mormon Trail one-and-a-half times, the California and 49ers, and all the Wells Fargo and the Santa Fe lines,” he said.
His experience growing up on a farm also makes him influential in McKinney’s operation.
He helped McKinney optimize his space, showing him where to grow nitrogen fixers and plants that produce natural pesticides, what the best fertilizers are (from animals that defecate pellets) and how to store the vegetables and fruit his garden produces. (For apples, wrap them in newspaper and store in a cardboard box).
The gardening project has been so successful that McKinney wonders why other outdoor enthusiasts aren’t growing their own food.
“A lot of outdoor people love to promote climate awareness, then it’s like, how much can we actually do ourselves instead of just promoting it and talking about it,” he said. “What about your daily actions? How sustainable can you be? That’s a good question to ask yourself.”
In the summer, he and a few friends run a gardening project called Root Revival, where he helps others build gardens and maintain them. Then its members (about five plots last season) share their produce.
Fruits of their labor
With the money McKinney has saved through gardening and the amount of work that it has allowed him to not do, he has started bagging more and more lines from “The Chuting Gallery.”
Last season, he skied down more than 40 of them, and set a goal to ski the rest this year.
By last Friday he was up to 80, and had just completed Montgomery and Ivory chutes the day before.
“Montgomery is kind of a scary one,” he said. “It’s 53 degrees, and there’s a 75-foot rappel in the middle of it.”
With just 10 more to go, he said trying to complete the project is becoming a puzzle. He is trying to complete them all this season, but going to one location might preclude going to another, and on any day he might get skunked by conditions, and there are a handful of routes where conditions need to be very good — the North East Couloir of the Pfeifferhorn and Ciochetti’s Ribbon being chief among them.
The North East Couloir route, for example, starts with a 200-foot down climb to a snow ramp.
“This ramp sweeps around to the skier’s right and turns into a chute that gets narrower and steeper with every turn,” McLean writes in “The Chuting Gallery.”
The chute runs at 52 degrees, funneling down to a cliff, with an anchor point built into the wall about 15 feet before the dropoff. From there it’s a 130-foot rappel to the route’s apron. All told, the North East Couloir route is about 1,100 vertical feet.
Of course, McKinney loves it, and the lifestyle that affords him to spend most of his time in the mountains.
He said he hasn’t had any serious complaints from the neighbors.
When he finishes “The Chuting Gallery,” he is tentatively planning on finding and mapping new routes in lesser-known areas of the Wasatch Range near Provo.
He doesn’t know how long he will continue his quest for steep skiing, and more generally, the lifestyle he’s built. So long as it’s up to him, he has no plans of stopping.
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