He wasn’t thinking about finishing school, or how he needed to get back to work on Monday. He was thinking about how he could be right back here again the following year. Ten minutes later, after he’d dropped into his final run, and maneuvered his way to a spectacular finish with a gigantic Lincoln loop, he knew the groundwork he’d laid, all the hard work he’d done so he could take the winter off had paid off. And next year would be even better. Hailing from Wilmot, WI, a small town that lies about an hour south of Milwaukee, J.T. grew up making laps on 260 vertical feet of pure midwestern ice. It wasn’t until he was eighteen and decided to move to Utah to attend Weber State in Ogden, that he was exposed to telemark skiing. By age 20 he’d sold all of his alpine gear and within three years he was competing full time at big mountain telemark competitions, consistently placing in the top ten from 2005 to today.
Now, at age twenty-seven, he’s traveling the world with other freeheeling friends like telemark champion Dylan Crossman, making first descents like the Crossman Couloir in Austria, filming parts for various production companies, and searching for endless powder. We caught up with JT to see how a kid from Wisconsin figured out how to stash his cash and spend his winters chasing snow. —Josh Madsen
Telemark Skier: You went to college at Weber State and got a degree in finance. When was it that you decided not to go after a real career?
J.T. Robinson: Finishing up the final weeks of college was an interesting scenario that I had never envisioned when I was a freshman, with all the typical ideas about jobs and big Wall Street salaries. I realized that I couldn’t go down that road and I was beginning to lay out a strategy to pull off my “dream season of skiing”. As a result, the direction in which I began taking the last weeks of my education was much different then my peers in the finance school. They were calculating the valuations of corporate stock and I was figuring out the financing timeline of budget constraints that would make it possible for me to ski big mountains full-time. Having grown up in the blue-collar farm country of Wilmot, (Wisconsin) all I had was a Midwest work ethic and a knack for finance. I guess that’s all I needed to go for the glory winter of racking up over a hundred days buried in the pristine champagne powder of Utah.
TS: Given your education you’ve got a leg up on the rest of us, but it doesn’t sound like you had the luxury of much money to start with. What was your first job, first step?
JT: Graduation came and I walked across the stage in my cap and gown, grabbed my diploma, then jumped in my old Jeep, and headed back over the great plains of Interstate 80 to my hometown in the dairy land. It was the middle of April and I had to get right into the first step of my plan: the work. A family friend scored a job for me working for the crew he ran up in North Milwaukee for the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewer District. Our job was to dam and redirect a drainage river of the sewer system and replace main lines feeding into the river. In the first week, I found myself crawling down a two-foot diameter pipe with a rope attached to me, to prevent going into a death slide down the steep angled pipe before I could free the jammed pump line. I was the new guy and also small enough to fit into the pipe, “lucky me” I thought. After six weeks I was getting stronger, settling into my 70-hour weeks, and getting used to working in the bowels of the sewer system. I remember on my first day, the guy that was training me said that if I lived through the first month then I should be okay.
TS: So, you’re banking some bucks. What next?
JT: The money was finally filling my pockets and it was time to initiate the second step of my plan. The first of June I headed to my bank and purchased a certificate of deposit (CD) for $2000. The idea of a CD is that you give the bank money now, and you can’t touch that money until the CD matures at a set time in the future. At that time you can withdraw your money and the interest that it accrued over the time that the bank was using the money. I came to call my concept the six month CD Ladder.
The basic idea was that I could buy a six-month CD every month in the off-season, and that CD would mature just in time to pay my bills in a corresponding month in the winter. I labored through the next few months sweating it out in the sewer river bottom so each month I could go to the bank and buy another $1000 CD. This way I could look forward to the corresponding day six months from then when I would cash it in for the one thousand forty dollars to pay that month’s bills, while I logged as many vertical feet of of blower Utah powder in the Northern Wasatch as I could handle.
TS: Sounds pretty good. What next?
JT: As the leaves began to change and the cold of the morning was sneaking in. I started to feel that itch that any real skier gets during the fall. It was the motivation that I needed to muscle through to the snowy payoff I had set up. The job was getting harder with the bitter cold and I was starting to feel the fatigue of six months of hard labor. I bought my last CD the first of October, and then I busted my hump till a Thanksgiving dinner finale. With some extra cash from the last two months of work, I packed my Jeep with ski gear and leftover turkey sandwiches. Then I was on my way over the great plains of Interstate 80 again, this time toward the sun setting into the Nebraska cornfields.
TS: So, you’re off to the Wasatch to live high on the hog?
JT: Not exactly. Even with the money in the bank, there would be concessions. I had lined up a place to stay for three hundred a month in Ogden. It was cheap, centrally located, and full of skiers all the time. We lived on a communal system, which actually worked out well for good cheap eating with everyone in the house contributing to the cooking and cleaning. This system made dayto- day living much cheaper, which, of course fit right into the plan. I had a low-cost cell phone, cut-rate insurance, a flip out bed on the floor and a million dollar smile that all rang in at just under six hundred fifty a month. That left me with $350 a month to put gas in my car, for entertainment, and to feed myself. The thrifty living I had learned was plenty to get me through the winter each month. I was getting social in resort parking lots, at ski bum houses, and full-moon bonfire parties. The vibes were great and cost effective, and I learned that a little battery-operated radio can keep a party going for a long time with the right people.
TS: So, what was the pay-off?
JT: That year we had good snow, which in Utah is better then almost anywhere. It was exactly what I was daydreaming about just nine months before. Spending every day in big mountains does something to a person’s soul. I was not living rich by some people’s standards, but I felt like the wealthiest man in the world every evening driving at sunset with a goggle tan grin and rubber legs. I skied Utah with as much heart and appreciation as anyone ever has, and I also made laid back, hand down, toes-on-the-nose freeheel turns all over the West. The plan worked, and I was living with the zest and pursuit of telemark skiing every day. I had earned every white room moment of it with each drop of sweat left in the sewers, and each expensive sushi dinner I went without all summer. As all good stories end, that winter went off like Woodstock and I had five months of ski epics that I will talk about and dream about for the rest of my life.
TS: What’s your advice to other tele skiers looking to follow in your tracks?
JT: There are a lot of different ways to go about making those endless powder moments a reality, but trust me, all the sacrifices and hard work will payoff over and over with each big mountain, deep powder turn, and soul-silent moment you encounter.
CHECK OUT MORE ABOUT JT ROBINSON AT: WWW.JTROBINSON.COM