Just How Hard Is Navigating Sobriety in a Ski Town?

For three decades, Ryan Friel has reveled in the exhilaration of 100-plus days a season on his home turf, Whitefish Mountain Resort in Whitefish, Montana. For the first 28 of those years, the combination of chasing powder, ski patrolling, and drinking was as inseparable to him as the marriage of snow to a sloped incline. 

The 51-year-old patroller and fishing guide, whose bright brown eyes sparkle with each boisterous story and well-hewed joke, long identified as a “dyed-in-the-wool skier drinker.” Now two years sober from alcohol, Friel reflects on his transition as well as the cultural evolution he’s witnessed—a transformative shift from the historically intertwined link between skiing and excessive drinking. 

He continues to hit the slopes daily, navigating holiday crowds and less-than-ideal conditions, such as the notorious swampy fog that blankets Whitefish. However, what he no longer does is cap off a day on the mountain with a 12-pack of beer and shots of bourbon.

“I’d say the day I commenced skiing in the West was the day I also initiated post-ski beers. They were inherently linked,” he reminisces. “I feel like I grew up in a culture of skiing and drinking. We never drank while skiing, but post-skiing, we embraced it with gusto. It was profoundly social. However, it morphed into excess, and not everyone succumbed. I certainly did. I was at the forefront. I’ll be the first to admit, there wasn’t enough bourbon or IPAs in the world.”

Friel’s experience of rigorous skiing paired with heavy drinking isn’t unique, and it’s widely acknowledged that skiing and revelry often go hand in hand, particularly in many mountain towns where such lifestyles are celebrated. Yet, as Friel’s commitment to addiction recovery attests, the two don’t have to be so tightly intertwined.

Beyond the mountain towns, a sober-curious movement is gaining momentum, prompting individuals to reassess the role of alcohol in their lives. For Americans, there is a decreasing trend in alcohol consumption, mainly among Millennials and Gen Z. A 2022 Gallup poll indicates that 60 percent of Americans reported consuming alcohol, down from 65 percent in 2019. The cultural shift is evident in the rising popularity of low or no-alcohol beverages and movements like Sober October and Dry January, focusing on moderation and mindful drinking.

Not all skiers succumb to the allure of excess or addiction. For 39-year-old Jen Parsons, who also calls Whitefish Mountain Resort her home base, the connection between skiing and alcohol was never a fundamental part of her skiing experience. Alcohol has never played a significant role in her life, and she humorously notes having “underdeveloped adult tastes,” eschewing coffee as well. In her twenties, she moved to Montana’s Flathead Valley to ski. The nature of backcountry skiing, devoid of ski bars, didn’t make post-ski drinking as routine after shedding skins as it is in resort areas. “It wasn’t the goal to ski and then get wasted. I wasn’t part of a big party scene,” she recalls. Although she’s a non-drinker in social circles where alcohol is prevalent, Parsons navigates these situations without much difficulty—motivated by her work addressing domestic violence. While alcohol may not be a common thread in her social circle, she emphasizes the need for awareness regarding mental health, addiction, and substance abuse in communities like the Flathead Valley. She aims to highlight stories like hers to challenge the notion that skiing necessitates an embrace of excess isn’t the only line to take. 

Ski resorts are also witnessing a growing demand for sober-friendly events. Last spring, Winter Park Resort in Colorado spearheaded a sober ski day as part of its Spring Bash and Splash Great-Full Days event lineup. Instead of the customary revelry, the day focused on supporting local mental health organizations in the community. 

Jen Miller, the PR and communication manager for Winter Park, notes the dynamic shifts in ski culture, emphasizing inclusivity. “It’s an intriguing time culturally, in all mountain sports, to be more inclusive of various people with diverse lifestyles. Embracing sober skiing is a lifestyle choice, and skiing is striving to be more inclusive,” says Miller. 

While most resorts, including Winter Park, advocate for responsible alcohol consumption, acknowledging that many skiers don’t succumb to intoxication or addiction, it’s widely acknowledged that mountainous regions report some of the highest rates of alcohol and substance abuse intertwined with mental health issues.

Veteran ski journalist and author Heather Hansman tackled this issue in her 2021 book, “Powder Days: Ski Bums, Ski Towns, and the Future of Chasing Snow.” She shared the perspective of a therapist in Jackson Hole who asserted that sobriety is challenging in mountain towns due to a culture that champions the ethos of skiing hard and partying hard—from “first chair to last call,” as she puts it. Hansman, candid about her own relationship with alcohol, explored how drinking is deeply ingrained in skiing culture. “Drinking socially can be therapeutic,” she notes, “and [adds] camaraderie, but like skiing, it can also be a dangerous way to avoid real life.”

Hansman and Friel acknowledged the social essence of skiing, yet they recognized the potential complications stemming from the post-ski gathering spot being predominantly the bar. “It’s tricky because there isn’t another touch point for people to get together socially,” remarks Hansman.

In the realm of substance abuse recovery, Friel’s experience is personal and unique to him. He finds solace in participating in après-ski at the local bar, the Bierstube, where he’s discovered that consuming soda water or non-alcoholic beer enables him to remain an active part of the ski community he’s cherished since relocating to Montana in 1994. Recognizing that others may require alternatives devoid of alcohol, Friel’s journey underscores the diverse paths to sobriety.

Hansman envisions an opportunity for skiing to broaden its scope, accommodating diverse participants and varied interactions with ski culture—whether indulging in shot ski traditions or not. “Skiing doesn’t have to be a monolith,” she says. “What do we do to ensure all sorts of people are comfortable in the sport, regardless of how they show up and socialize?” 

Whether it’s a resort introducing free sober ski days or a local slopeside bar diversifying its non-alcoholic offerings, winter enthusiasts are redefining après-ski with a more mindful approach to substance use.

Despite Friel no longer indulging in post-ski drinks, his enduring love for the mountains, gravity, and snow remains unwavering. If anything, he attests, his sobriety journey has deepened his connection. “It’s been great. People taking a little more responsibility for their bodies, ultimately, is a good thing. It’s got to have a net benefit for the universe, right?”


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