It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that “Powder Days,” a new book that explores the ski bum culture in America, wound up being mostly autobiographical.
After all, author Heather Hansman has experienced the subject that she wanted to explore in her second book. Sixteen years ago, she was one of those East Coast kids who moved west for a life dedicated to skiing, a thread that has filtered through her life in many different ways.
“For better or worse, a lot of this book ended up being about me,” Hansman said.
The result is a work of non-fiction that pays tribute to ski bums, those people who have built their lives around winter sports, no matter where the pursuit may have taken them. “Powder Days — Ski Bums, Ski Towns and the Future of Chasing Snow,” to be released on Nov. 9, is described as “an exhilarating journey into the hidden history of American skiing, offering a glimpse into an under-explored subculture from the perspective of a true insider.”
“Why is it we get obsessed with activities like skiing?” Hansman asked during a phone interview. “What’s the point of it?”
The Cambridge, Mass. native, now living in Seattle, had been tooling with the idea for years, hoping to probe the skiing business and the people who dedicate themselves to this, what she called, “kind of dumb thing.”
However foolish it may be, the sport has helped shaped the 37-year-old Hansman’s life. She grew up skiing with her parents at local areas like Cannon Mountain and Nashoba Valley, but her passion truly began during her high school years at Cambridge Ringe and Latin. There, she became obsessed with the school ski club and found herself taking trips every weekend with her friends to the mountains of northern New England. “All my friends were doing it and the cool, older boys were doing it. So that became my friend group,” Hansman said.
While attending college at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, Hansman proudly became a Sugarloafer. Upon graduation in 2005, she spent the summer rafting, trying to figure out what her next step in life would be.
That’s when she made one of those random decisions that end up shifting your life.
“I was kicking around at a party, and I said, ‘I might move to the mountains,’” Hansman said. “This guy I didn’t know very well said he could get me a job. ‘I work at Beaver Creek,’ he said. ‘We can make this happen.’”
So, Hansman and two other college friends moved to Colorado, sight unseen. “I had never been there before,” she said. “I packed up and moved to Colorado because this random guy was like, ‘yeah, I’ll get you a job.’”
While her friends eventually moved back to New England, Hansman never returned. She received her graduate degree in journalism from Colorado University, and landed an internship at Ski Magazine. She has since contributed to outlets like the New York Times, Powder, Popular Science, and Outside, where she also serves as the environmental columnist. Hansman’s first book, “Downriver,” which details a trip down the Green River and take a look at the sustainable water rights in the western United States, was released in 2019.
Thus, her role of covering the outdoor scene in the west had become her life.
“A lot of people are like, it’s skiing, whatever. You can break out of ski towns and get a real job,” Hansman said. “But when it becomes your community and your family, the work that you’ve done, I think it becomes something bigger than skiing.”
That’s the sort of fervor Hansman researched in “Powder Days,” diving into the emotional, social, and physiological aspects of what makes people dedicate their lives to skiing.
“Once you start going down a wormhole on this stuff I think it’s hard to know what’s going to become a big deal,” she said. “Economic inequality and housing issues in a lot of recreation towns, having to live in a place that is super economically-stratified. That became a much bigger deal than I thought it would be. [So did] mental health. Who wants to be a skier? What’s the sort of brain power science and genetics of who gets drawn into it?”
Many of the skiers Hansman spoke with while writing the book figured they had similar feelings that they were the last group of ski bums to really have it good; those who fled to Tahoe in the 70’s, or Aspen in the 80’s. Today’s housing market and financial challenges that potential ski bums face in resort towns might even signal an end for those carefree days that end up defining a life.
Hansman doesn’t think so.
“Fresh out of college, it’s harder,” she said. “But it’s different with internet and social media. Who can work and what does that work looks like? Maybe if you’re 22 now you get a remote job and live in Vail and get paid a Boston salary.
“I think it’s definitely getting harder, but I think everyone says that.”