Author Heather Hansman (right) and her new book, Powder Days (left). Photo courtesy of Hanover Square Press; photo by Heady Kader.

Once upon a time, many, many years ago, back when the earth was new, I thought about being a ski bum. This was when I was still in college, and for one reason or another, it didn’t work out.

This is a fairly common dream for those of us who love to ski, and it’s one that Heather Hansman, author of Powder Days: Ski Bums, Ski Towns, and The Future of Chasing Snow, managed to make a reality. After graduating college in the early 2000’s, Heather moved from New England to Beaver Creek, Colorado, where she lived as a ski bum for a few years. It didn’t last forever — these things seldom do — and she moved on to a career in journalism. She’s been an editor at both Powder and Skiing Magazines, is an award-winning freelance writer, and served as an environmental columnist for Outside Magazine.

For many of us, ski bums are an iconic part of ski culture. I mean, who wouldn’t want to spend their days at a place that many of us visit just a few days a year, skiing every day and chasing pow at every opportunity? But according to Heather, there’s a lot more to it than just that. Her book, Powder Days, not only gives us a first hand account of her experiences as a ski bum, but explores how skiing evolved to become what it is today. Through the lens of the ski bum, she examines some of the issues the ski world is facing right now: Corporatization, economic disparity, ski town zoning issues, housing shortages, climate change, diversity, and more. She talks about what it’s like to be a female skier in a (ski)world that’s still predominately male. And she attempts to answer the question of why we ski and what makes some of us risk everything — a conventional lifestyle, financial security, our health and safety — to slide down a hill on two sticks.

Powder Days can be bittersweet, since it juxtaposes Heather’s fond memories of life as a ski bum with a landscape that’s changed in many ways. The result is a brutally honest look at the ski world, with all of its challenges and flaws. It’s beautifully written, thought-provoking, and something that should be at the top of every skier’s reading list.

I spoke to Heather recently about her book, and here’s what she had to say:

SD: So tell me, Heather, why did you decide to write this book?
HH: I had an editor approach me about writing a book about skiing and I didn’t think I could just write about the ‘shiny parts.’ I felt that there hadn’t been a book that presented the whole picture of skiing, and I thought that that was an important thing to dig into. I wanted to investigate why I’m so obsessed with skiing, why it’s been such a big part of my life, and why skiing grips people so intensely. I also felt that I couldn’t tell that part without telling about the parts that make it hard and problematic and where the history came from. There are so many strands connected to that idea.

SD: How is it that you decided to do it from the perspective of ski bums?
HH: Because they’re so obsessed with skiing, ski bums seem like the perfect canaries in a coal mine for what’s happening in the ski world. So much of the narrative about skiing centers on this person who’s devoted their life to skiing. There’s such a mythology about it, so it felt like that was the cleanest way to tell the story.

SD: It seemed like the book began with a somewhat idealized view of ski bums, but I thought it got a lot darker as it went on. Towards the end you’re even talking about suicide and drug abuse and how this life may not be as good as it’s cracked up to be. Was that intentional? Did you go down that path because of the way the ski industry is going or is this just something that may have been there all along but you just didn’t see it when you were younger?
HH: I think it’s both. Not only was I thinking about the ski industry, but I was thinking about my friends and my peers – the guys who I was patrolling with and working with when I was  scanning lift tickets 15 years ago. Now they’re trying to have families and buy houses in ski towns, and it’s not easy. We all kind of fell into the idea of the ‘shiny thing,’ and as we tried to grow up with it, we found that it’s not really a ‘shiny thing,’ after all. That arc felt like part of the story. I think it’s easier to talk about than fun parts — to go to the bar after skiing and say ‘best day ever’ even if it’s not. There can be tension between the good parts and the hard parts.

SD: What was the most surprising thing you found when  you were researching this book?
HH: I think the stuff about mental health and brain science was especially interesting. I hadn’t thought much about why someone wants to be a skier — the adrenaline rush they get and that sort of thing. I think there are certain types of people who are geared toward skiing and there are biological and social reasons why we want to go skiing every day. There’s something inside of us that causes that to happen.

SD:There are so many issues in the ski industry right now. What do you think is the most concerning? I live in a ski town, and I see all of the things you talk about in the book. This year housing is a huge issue; it’s one of the reasons why resorts can’t get enough workers. Every day on my local Facebook page there are people looking for housing,  and all the houses have been bought up as vacation homes or are being used for short term rentals.
HH: Yes, this is a huge issue. One of my friends works for Summit County, Colorado, and they hired someone to be a new director of housing for the county and that person never even started work because they couldn’t find anywhere to live. There has to be employee housing, The machine doesn’t work if you don’t have places for them to live. All these problems are tangled up together.

SD: So if you ran the zoo, what would you do?
HH: One of the things people have said to me is that I don’t give any solutions at the end of the book, but that’s because I’m not sure what they’d be. All these things are tangled up with one another. I think a lot of it is housing and zoning restrictions, it’s better wages, it’s breaking up some of the monopolies, I think it’s local investment from the top down and bottom up, I think it’s diversity. I think it’s everything.

SD: How do you feel about the corporatization of the ski industry?
HH: I think  my biggest fears on consolidation come down to two things: First,  it makes that barrier to entry for people who just want to ski a few days too high. If you’re not going to buy a pass you’re sort of automatically priced out.  And I think on the monopoly side of things, since Alterra and Vail can set the ticket prices and have deep pockets to make investments in things like snowmaking, they’re pricing out the the smaller places where I learned to ski and are feeder resorts for larger areas. It’s problematic now and it’s going to be even more problematic, making the pathway into skiing really anemic. You’re not bringing people in, you’re not making it accessible, you’re making the audience for skiing so much narrower.

SD: They always talk about  growing the sport, but how can you grow the sport when the walk up window rate at Steamboat is $269 for the day?  It’s wild. On the flip side, however, do you this could end up being a boost to the smaller areas?
HH: I think some places will do really well, but I also think we’ll probably lose, because it’s harder to run a ski hill. Economically, it’s a pretty tenuous business. For those places, the margins are really slim.

SD: On a positive note, four out of five resorts in Colorado are now led by women.
HH:  There are more female patrollers and magazine editors, too. For me, that’s been a really cool thing to watch.  Kind of like even in my own ski life – the amount of younger women coming up behind me. For too long it’s been men deciding who gets to a skier and who’s welcome.

SD: In your book you talk about what it’s like to be the only girl in the group, which is something I could relate to because I’ve been in that position, too. It was one of the things that caused me to start my website, because I couldn’t find any other women to talk to about skiing. I didn’t want to be the only woman in the room.
HH: I now have a pretty solid group of women in the ski industry, and it’s the best thing ever.
SD: It is. I used to go on line to some of these other forums to talk about gear, and as soon as they found out you were a woman, they automatically assumed you were a beginner and didn’t know anything. I don’t need that.
HH: It’s still there. I went to get skis mounted a few weeks ago and I got a call from the shop manager. He was like ‘Hey, just wanted to check that we didn’t get the tags screwed up. These are 181’s. They seem long.’ I was like, I don’t have the time to explain to you how you’re alienating women by making phone calls like this. It’s infuriating.

SD: One last question, Heather. With everything going on, would you want to be a ski bum today?
HH: I think I would! I do think it’s harder now, but so many good things have come out of it for me that it’s hard to imagine not doing it.