We sure hope so. Heather Hansman, author of the new book, Powder Days, has some thoughts on that.
In January 2019, skier and author Heather Hansman—a former Powder magazine editor and A-Basin ski patroller—got in her Subaru and hit the road. She posted on social media: “Driving to the mountains (all of ’em), so let me know if you wanna ski, or talk about skiing, or let me sleep on your couch/floor.” She wasn’t just going on a fun road trip to visit friends in different mountain towns. She was writing a book about ski culture. The result? Powder Days, a new book out this month that would make for a thoughtful holiday gift for the skiers on your list. We called up Hansman, who currently lives in Seattle, to chat about the psychology of skiers, the art of nostalgia, and how things like a housing crisis and climate change are going to impact skiers of the future.
There are a lot of books about skiing. What’s different about yours?
I think a lot of the books about skiing that do exist are sort of the opus of ski history, which can be boring and dry. Or they go too far down the wormhole and feel too insidery. I think there was room for a book that was about skiing but more the culture of it. Some might call it ethnography. It’s a way to look not just at the sport but at the community. That felt more interesting to me.
So, you decided to take a road trip to find the heart of the sport?
It was great and it was also limbo. It felt like I am in this, and I am also not in this. You can drop into these ski towns and do things like stay with Rachael Burks in Jackson. But I was very aware that it wasn’t my life. Though that was one of the coolest parts of it, this ability to drop into other people’s lives. I posted on Instagram, ‘Who wants to hang out?’ I would show up somewhere, and some guy I kind of knew from river guiding who’s a patroller at Alta would be like, ‘Stay with me.’ I had some points where I was like, ‘I’m 35. Should I still be doing this?’ That’s part of the tension in the book.
Luckily, you did all of this before the pandemic.
I had sent in the first draft, then COVID hit. It took a long time to whack the book into shape. COVID happened in the middle. The pandemic has changed the face of these ski towns, exacerbating some of these issues around housing and affordability. So, I had to figure out how to incorporate that. Are people even going to want to talk about skiing in the face of a global pandemic? I had some down moments where I thought, this book shouldn’t come out. But through the pandemic, more people were recreating, going outside, and last winter, skiing still happened.
We get to meet a lot of characters along the way, but we also get to learn about your complicated connection to skiing. What was writing about that like?
I selfishly got to unpack it for myself: Why is this dumb, arbitrary sport so important in my life? But it’s also why do we get obsessed with things? When I was 22 and had just moved to Colorado, people would say, ‘You’re living the dream.’ For me, skiing is not all rosy. But despite that, I know I’m still obsessed with skiing. There is this feeling of having gravity not really exist. That’s a feeling you can’t really get in a lot of other places. That’s a feeling my brain wants. I think it’s interesting because it’s complicated. In all kinds of sports stories, it’s interesting to sit with this idea of why are we obsessed with it? Why is it still part of my life? It’s not straightforward. Hopefully this is a way to sit with those feelings and talk about it.
You say in the book that the ski bum is mostly a myth, a literary hero. What is being a ski bum to you?
The scrappiness and the working outside of the rules has always been part of the ski bum image. I don’t think it’s ever been super easy. But people definitely have to be scrappy these days. There are more people living in their vehicles, some of that’s intentional, some of that’s because they don’t have an option. I keep saying it’s about living the dream, and then why it’s not always dreamy. There are a lot of people who are trying to make it work, but they’re struggling.
This is a book about skiing. But it’s also a book about a lot of big topics, like climate change and inequality. How did you juggle that?
Like any kind of writing, you’re trying to find people and ways to make it a story, instead of just a topic. How can I use this guy in Big Sky to illustrate this point I’m trying to make? A lot of the mental health stuff, the planet stuff, the economic stuff, they’re not just confined to skiing. Skiing is a compressed way of looking at issues like housing inequalities or climate change.
What did you learn about mental health in ski towns from reporting this book?
Being a ski bum seems like it should be dreamy. So, some people think, if my life doesn’t feel dreamy, what does that mean for me? There’s a chapter in Little Cottonwood at Alta/Snowbird. Some of these places have high suicide rates. The psychology part was really interesting. Why do people want to become ski bums and who’s drawn to it? People process dopamine in different ways. For people who want to be pushing it, they can use exercise as a crutch. People are starting to talk about it more and talking about the not great sides of it. The myth is that everything is awesome. The reality isn’t always that way.
What do you think climate change will do to skiing?
I think climate change is going to kill skiing in a lot of places in our lifetime. But it’s also a place for people to care. A lot of these towns are on the leading edge of how do we change transportation, city design? How do you lobby for climate policy? The future of snow isn’t looking great. Some places, like Breckenridge or Mammoth, that are high and cold and have access to snowmaking will potentially be OK. But Killington, for example, might not. It’s going to make things harder. It’s going to push the inequality factor of who gets to be a skier in the future.
So, is the ski bum a thing of the past? Please say no.
I got into skiing before social media, before the recession. Things felt different then. Former Ski Magazine editor Greg Ditrinco says to me in the book, ‘You should have been in Aspen in the ’70s.’ That nostalgia is part of it. This idea that you’re getting this last slice of something cool. I don’t want to say it’s over. Maybe it’s evolving. Now you can have a remote job in a ski town, and work as a consultant and not have to work for 8 bucks an hour scanning lift tickets. There are a lot of factors at play changing what it looks like to be a ski bum. One of the questions I had is what does skiing look like in the future? If skiing is going to exist in the future, inequity is one of the things we need to address. You can’t ignore the fact that it’s a sport of excess.