Charlie Toups was the consummate ski bum. He spent more than 30 years of his life sleeping in cars in snowy slopeside parking lots so he could ski all day.
He wasn’t the best skier. He didn’t have the latest gear. He didn’t ski the hardest lines or boast the prettiest form. But he was out there every day. From the late 1970s to 2010, he lived in ski area parking lots. For many of those years, home was a Volkswagen Beetle. He had ripped out the passenger seat so he could unfold his lanky frame. The Beetle spent many years at the base of Aspen Highlands and more than a decade buried in the corner of the Loveland ski area lot.
“He had to tunnel down to it. That car was basically a snow cave,” said Halsted Morris, a longtime Loveland skier and avalanche educator who serves as president of the American Avalanche Association. “Not a lot of people went to visit him in there. The smell was a bit ripe, I remember. He was one of the true last ski bums, that’s for sure. I don’t think you’ll see his kind for a long time.”
Toups crashed his mountain bike near Montezuma on July 27. He suffered a head injury and died at St. Anthony’s Hospital in Lakewood a few days shy of his 74th birthday.
Toups worked afternoons in the Loveland kitchen back when the Beetle was buried. At Aspen Highlands, he would wake up at dawn every morning and place his skis first in line at the lift. He would bootpack snow with ski patrol all morning for a lift ticket. At night he would stock shelves at the local grocery. Many remember him grazing from abandoned trays in the cafeteria.
“He was always, always the first guy out there every morning. It was first-come, first-serve and tickets were limited for bootpackers,” said Aspen Highlands patroller Mike Tierney, who met Toups in the early 1980s. “He was such a hard worker. We all loved him. How could you not? He just lived for skiing.”
Toups grew up in Refugio, Texas. After his parents died when he was in his mid 20s in the mid 1960s, he loaded up that Beetle and moved West. He ski bummed at Mammoth in California, Snowbird in Utah and Mount Hood, Oregon for several years, landing at Aspen Highlands in the late 1970s. That was before the ski area was owned by Aspen Skiing Co. and long before the arrival of a base village and Ritz Carlton hotel. Back then a quiet skier living in a small car near a chairlift could be overlooked — maybe even appreciated among the colorful characters that enlivened skiing and ski towns back then. He eventually graduated to pickups with campers and skied more than 100 days a year for decades, getting by on a few bucks earned shoveling snow or moving furniture.
As Colorado’s resort towns evolved and matured, Toups, well, he didn’t. Fancy homes and villages pushed him further afield. By the late aughts, he could no longer escape detection sleeping at the base of ski areas. Aspen Highlands had long given him the boot. Same for Loveland.
Arapahoe Basin finally kicked him out of its parking lot. So he limped his creaking Ford pickup and camper across the street to the Colorado Department of Transportation facility at the base of the ski area.
The truck stopped running and that’s where he ran afoul of the Forest Service. He spent 61 days in jail in late 2009 and early 2010, facing misdemeanor federal charges. One charge was connected to him camping too long on federal land. And there were charges connected to marijuana in his pocket when he was arrested. And a charge stemming from a Forest Service official saying he was aggressive when she tried to take him into custody in December 2009 while he was skiing at Arapahoe Basin.
All he had to do was sign a paper admitting his crimes and they would let him go. He wasn’t having that.
“I’ve lived this life for 33 years and now all the sudden I’m supposed to admit I’m guilty? I can’t do that,” he told me in a phone call from the jail in Georgetown in early January 2010. “I don’t know what changed after the Forest Service tolerated me for all these years. I thought we were just respecting each other. Let me ask you, is it snowing?”
A front page article in The Denver Post sparked an outcry, including an online petition to “Free Charlie Toups.” He worked out a deal with the feds, promising he wouldn’t live on federal lands anymore. And Toups returned to the ski hill. This time though, a friend offered him use of a condo at the base of Keystone.
Toups was a fixture at Arapahoe Basin and Keystone. In 2011, he was still skiing with his Sony Walkman, his backpack clacking with cassette tapes. He adopted higher-tech eventually — but kept the tape player — and was adept at social media, often posting on Facebook and sharing memes. He frequently called into talk radio shows to share his unique perspectives.
Ask everyone who has ever come into contact with Toups and they remember his intelligence and humor. He spoke with a careful cadence, making sure to convey his thoughts clearly.
“He was a bit above a lot of our intelligence levels, I think,” Tierney said. “So insightful.”
Jeff Herynk, the maintenance manager at Gateway Mountain Lodge in Keystone where Toups lived, saw his friend every day.
“He marched to the beat of his own drum,” Herynk said. “That’s putting it pretty lightly.”
Toups would stop by the maintenance shop every morning and say hello.
“He’d just walk in and start in on some topic. You’d never know where he’d be going,” Herynk said. “Charlie didn’t know a stranger. He would talk to anybody.”
Toups would sit in the complex’s hot tub every night, “holding court” with vacationers and residents, Herynk said. He always had treats in his pockets for the dogs. He filled his days with skiing, mountain biking or missions on his motorcycle.
“He stayed real busy. He always had something going on,” said Ben Bayless, a co-worker at Gateway with Herynk who remembers Toups always sharing donuts and candy. “He had quite a sweet tooth.”
Recently Toups had taken to skydiving. Shoulder problems prevented him from reaching the parachute ripcord so he often jumped tandem with more experienced skydivers.
“He always talked as though all he would do is get stronger and healthier, not older and more decrepit,” said Jerry Hertz, who let Toups live in his Keystone condo. They were friends for 31 years.
Hertz and other friends often note how Toups was extremely cautious.
“To a fault, sometimes,” said Hertz, who remembers waiting for Toups to carefully pick his way down ski slopes.
He always wore a helmet on his motorcycle and when skiing, but not necessarily when he went on his daily bike rides. The Summit County Coroner’s Office reported Toups died from a traumatic brain injury after he crashed his bike while not wearing a helmet.
He was wearing sweatpants and a tape player strapped to his chest, pedaling in his easy-to-recognize bow-legged style when his front tire washed out in some gravel as he was descending.
“He was smiling. The sun was out. He was pedaling wholeheartedly,” said Douglas Hood, a Montezuma resident who saw Toups grinding past his house just about every day. “He was the guy on the heaviest, junkiest mountain bike and was, without question, the most consistent cyclist on Montezuma Road. He was an inspiration to everyone who lived in this little zone.”
Hood rushed over when he saw Toups crash. The over-the-ears headphones Toups favored was the first thing he saw. They were split into two pieces.
“Charlie, he is a Colorado endangered species,” Hood said. “The quintessential Colorado live-and-let-live ski bum. It’s so sad he had to have that helicopter ride. As a skier, I’m sure that was not the type of helicopter trip he wanted.”
Hertz remembers chatting with skiers at Silverton Mountain more than 15 years ago. When they heard he mostly skied Summit County, the skiers asked if he knew Toups.
“Everyone seemed to know him,” Hertz said. “He really stuck with people. He lived life in such a unique way.”