On the Bunny Slopes: Playboy’s Guide to Ultimate Skiing
by Tom Passavant
A hot day in New York City, summer 1978. My friend Jim Petersen walks into my office at Playboy magazine. “I hear the guys downstairs at Playboy Press want to do some lifestyle books. Let’s go talk to them.” Jim pitches Charlie, the editorial director, an idea for a book of sex advice, based on 10 years of being the Playboy adviser. Charlie turns him down. I pitch a travel guide to the Caribbean. No dice. As we turn to leave, Charlie asks, “Got any other ideas?”
Off the top of his head, Jim replies: “Sure. How about a guide to the top 25 ski resorts in North America?” “Fine,” says Charlie. “Give me a budget.” Out in the hallway, we make up a contract. We ask for, and get, $25,000 and two winters off work to do research.
Fast forward to mid-December 1978. We have just completed out first bit of “research” at Crested Butte. We are numb from very deep powder and very late evenings — boogie nights with the locals, featuring exploits that are eventually deemed too outrageous even for a book with “Playboy” in the title. Now, we are about to be decanted into a tiny aircraft for the 10-minute flight to Aspen, for which Crested Butte was supposed to be a warm-up.
Aspen proves to be even crazier. Jim’s notes begin with, “Our Father, who art in Aspen, Hollywood be thy name …” One morning we’re riding a triple chair with a guy with deeply bloodshot eyes. “Man, what a party last night,” he raves. “The guys from Playboy. Blondes. Booze. Coke. Indiscriminate sex.” Err … wait a minute. We’re the guys from Playboy, and we weren’t at the party. At least, not that we recall.
Eventually we learn to pace ourselves. One problem is that although I am a semicompetent skier and Jim is considerably better than that, when we show up at, say, Snowbird or Jackson Hole, our local hosts send us directly up the gondola with the head of ski patrol and a couple of former Olympians, and the only option is ski or die. Other resorts pair us with beautiful women guides, who pose challenges of another sort. (The statute of limitations has run out, but we remain silent to this day.)
Our first winter finally over, we head back to the office to recover and try to decipher our notes. Our style is Hunter S. Thompson meets Arthur Frommer — wild anecdotes (all of them true) and breathless ski descriptions followed by places to eat and stay. We have developed a list of questions that unlock the secrets of each resort. Ask locals about their fi nest day, and you get the reason they became locals. Ask where they go on their birthday or to impress a hot date, and you get the best restaurants and bars. When we ask a guy in Jackson Hole for the ratio of males to females, he replies, “Nine.” Nine percent? “No, nine females.”
We’re also responsible for paying for the book’s numerous photos, and we quickly realize we’re unlikely to capture any iconic images ourselves during our drive-by visits. So we cut a deal with the best local photographers at each resort: After we pay our expenses, we’ll give them all of the rest of our advance. Not one objects.
Our second winter is mellower. We spend time in New England, then California. We spend three weeks on the road, with one week back in the office to answer mail and do laundry. By late spring we’re at Snowbird and Alta, skiing epic, whiteout powder for days, falling through elevator shafts full of fluff, thunder booming above us on the invisible ridgelines.
Finally we’re done. Cooked. Wrung out. Eventually the book appears, to general praise among hard-core skiers, and total indifference from the bookbuying public. But then a funny thing happens: Playboy’s Guide to Ultimate Skiing becomes a sort of underground classic. The ski magazines adopt some of our writing tics, especially the cheeky captions and letit-all-hang-out narrative. One day the famous novelist James Salter (Downhill Racer, etc.) appears in my office, introduces himself politely, and asks if he might purchase our book. No way; I give him a copy.
And wait — it gets better. The friends we made on our travels are still friends. Twenty years later, I moved to Aspen. Jim — his love long unrequited — is finally moving to Colorado this winter.
What began as a heat-of-the-moment fling has somehow become an abiding, lifelong love affair with the mountains. And somehow, we owe it all to Playboy.
Tom Passavant is a former editor-in-chief of Diversion magazine. Now a freelance travel and food writer based in Colorado and Hawaii, his work has appeared in Aspen Magazine, Gourmet, Four Seasons Magazine, Town & Country Travel, ForbesTraveler.com, Ski, Powder, Luxury Living, and many other places. He is the co-author of “Playboy’s Guide to Ultimate Skiing.” A former president of the New York Travel Writers Association, Passavant has won a Lowell Thomas Award for his travel writing and has served as judge for the James Beard Journalism Awards. See more of Tom’s work at TomPassavant.com.