BRECKENRIDGE - Michael Schiffer isn't much for talking. So when he wants to show his appreciation for the mountain employees who make the sport he loves possible, instead of saying thank you, he tosses a piece of chocolate in their direction. "Words are cheap," Schiffer said. "Actions speak louder." That little act of kindness has won him a reputation among staffers at Breckenridge Ski Resort and Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, where he logs upward of 100 days and a million vertical feet each season. Carrying on a tradition that began a decade ago, when he was a lift operator himself in Santa Fe, N.M., Schiffer says he now spends roughly $180 a month lining his pockets with miniature Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and Hershey's gold and silver Nuggets. Most years, the candy bills add up to more than the cost of his ski pass. Self-employed, Schiffer tries to spend at least part of every day in the winter out on the mountain, always first stuffing the pockets of his jacket with enough candy to hand out to all the employees he comes across. "I kind of buy my coats based on pocket size now," he said. Reactions from recipients of the candy have ranged from skeptical to surprised - part of that might be a result of the technique he's perfected over the years of tossing chocolate pieces at people's heads when they least expect it - but most are just grateful and recognize the gesture for what it is: an effort to brighten their day. "I just do it because I figure it's good juju, good karma," Schiffer said. "I wanted to give back."
Schiffer was born and raised in Colorado. He spent his winters making turns with his parents and older brother and sister at Arapahoe Basin in the 1960s, and later at Breckenridge Ski Resort. Schiffer's passion for skiing is of the life-defining sort, and has never allowed him to stray far from the slopes. "I've been skiing my whole life," the 51-year-old said. "I love the game." For each place he's lived, he notes the correlating mountain where he skied: A-Basin growing up, Tahoe during his years in California in the 1980s and '90s and the 12,000-foot peak above Santa Fe in New Mexico, where his daughter was born. It was there that he took a job as a lift operator, seeing, like many, the appeal of making a living while doing what he loved. His candy-casting habit began there as well, with Hershey Kisses. But he realized quickly he didn't like working for a large company and lasted only a single season with the resort. Soon after, he returned home to Colorado and started his own business, Michael Schiffer Windows & Ice Inc., removing ice and snow from roofs in the winter and washing windows in the summer. For him it's the perfect job: he makes enough money to provide for his daughter, and cover the cost of candy and a ski pass, never has to miss a powder day and, when the mood strikes, can "look in the mirror and tell his boss he's a jerk." "That's my advice to anybody," he said. "If you want to be a ski bum, you've got to find a really good boss." Though a self-described loner, his regularity on the mountain and chocolate distribution have made Schiffer a familiar face to many resort employees. It allows him to sometimes snag one last run at the end of the day, when the ropes are about to go up. There are others who have had the same idea - Schiffer said he's heard of at least one individual who gives out chocolate bars sometimes in exchange for snowmobile rides to hike-to terrain - for him, it's not about kickbacks. "I don't use it for my advantage in that way," he said. "It just makes me feel good."