Heather Hansman on Her New Book ‘Powder Days’
The Outside contributing editor’s latest release was the November pick for the Outside Book Club. We spoke with her about the appeal of chasing powder and the many crises facing the ski industry.
Before writing Powder Days: Ski Bums, Ski Towns and the Future of Chasing Snow, Heather Hansman was asking herself a lot of questions about the life decisions she’d made since moving from Beaver Creek in Colorado, where she turned lifts and waited tables to be able ski as much as possible, to a bigger city and a more stable desk job. She was now living in Seattle and working as a writer (including as Outside’s environmental columnist). While skiing was still a big part of her life, her world was completely different than the one occupied by the ski bums she used to be surrounded by in mountain towns. She wondered whether she should have continued that level of devotion to skiing, but she was also aware of how precarious such a life had become, thanks to everything from a climate crisis threatening snowpack to a housing crisis making it impossible for locals to find affordable places to live near ski resorts.
In Powder Days, Hansman tries to find out if there still is a way to create a life around skiing that contains meaning, community, and stability in the face of such massive forces. The result is a compelling look at an activity that on its face might seem trivial—sliding down snow on sticks—but that provides something much more profound to the people who put it at the center of their lives.
Powder Days was the November pick for the newly relaunched Outside Book Club, and we’ve been discussing it for the last month in our Facebook group (which we encourage you to join). I recently talked to Hansman about how the book came to be and what she found out about what it’s like to be a skier today.
Outside: What made you want to write this book?
Hansman: There are a couple of different strands to it. One of them is that it felt like there wasn’t that book about skiing—a state of the ski world and industry. Most of what has been written about skiing before has either been like a wonky history of the Tenth Mountain Division or an “I went to a rad place and did a rad thing,” which both felt tired and not that interesting to me.
I also thought a lot about the books that I like to read, and a first-person narrator and strong voice is always so much more compelling to me than the dry, pulled back thing. And there were all these questions that I was sitting with about the life choices I’ve made. I was thinking a lot about how much skiing has been a part of my life, and, for better or worse, it has been this throughline for me. I was watching my friends, who I was 21 and 22 with when I entered the ski community, who are now in their mid-to-late thirties and trying to figure out having kids and having a house and trying to solidify these lives that have become their careers. It felt like there was this really tricky tension point and that wasn’t really getting talked about. There are these myths about life in the outdoors, but it just felt like some of them weren’t really true or were glossed up and cleaned up. The interesting, hard parts hadn’t really been talked about.
These issues facing ski communities, like the housing and climate crises and inequality, are also extremely urgent for the society at large—did it feel like the ski world was a prism through which you could look at these huge, intractable problems?
I had the first draft of the book basically done in January 2020, and then COVID-19 hit. And I was like, Is skiing even going to feel interesting or important to anyone? Is anyone going to go skiing? That was a real down point.
But in a lot of weird ways, COVID just magnified these issues even more, in terms of affordable housing, in terms of who has access to being outside, in terms of income inequality and who has access to healthcare and basic social services. So sometimes I think I’m too far down the wormhole of skiing, but then actually, in these towns where the highs are so high and the lows can be so low, you have this kind of compressed view of these issues that are happening pretty much everywhere.
Did you find anything hopeful or promising in terms of efforts to reverse some of these forces that are making skiing so expensive and inaccessible, or is the momentum behind these huge conglomerates like Vail and Alterra too strong?
Yeah, the barriers are so high and the momentum is really, really big. And if you look at a winter like this winter, which is not shaping up to be that great anywhere, Vail or Alterra have deep enough pockets where they can float places for a couple of years. Or if Tahoe has a bad winter, but Colorado has a good winter, they can shuffle money around. But if you’re just a Tahoe resort and you’re independently owned, the margins are so skinny anyway, and then it becomes really hard for those places during a bad year.
There are some places that are still independent and really community-oriented that are thriving. Like you look at a Bridger Bowl, or Mad River Glen, or Mission Ridge, they’re local, they have their own culture.
I have an Ikon pass, I get the appeal. And I get on some level, it makes those resorts more stable and Vail resorts can pay people $15 per hour across the board. There are some ways that it does pull up the baseline, but at the expense of who exactly?
It felt like in the book there was this reckoning with the loss of the soul of skiing, because of how corporate and expensive ski towns and resorts have gotten.
It’s hard to articulate, but there is something that is meaningful and powerful and feels important about skiing, even if it is superficial. If we’re losing that, what else are we losing with it? Is it community? Is it access to being outside? Is it joy and fun? One of the core questions of the book is why is this thing so important to me, and I think it is because it’s all of those things.
What did you discover about why people become so obsessed with skiing and being in the mountains?
It turns out there are certain people who are just more geared to get obsessed with skiing. In the DSM, there is one personality factor called sensation seeking and there are people who really do need more of that. There is this nature component that certain people just have higher set points for adrenaline and dopamine and risk. And then there is this nurture side of it, where when you are embedded in these communities and immersed in it and everybody is charging really hard around you, your baseline gets totally skewed, and when you’re doing that kind of stuff all the time, your tolerance goes up. This addiction counselor and extreme athlete named Ryan Burke who I talked to in the book was like: dopamine isn’t a satisfaction chemical, it’s a wanting chemical. When you take a really great powder run and you get down the bottom, you’re not like, “Oh, cool. That feels good.” You’re like, “I want that again.” And that can be healthy and exciting and fun. It can also be totally toxic and disruptive for people. So that tension of what’s healthy and good is another interesting piece in all this.
Could you talk about mental health in mountain towns and among outdoor athletes and professionals, and how the conversation around it is changing?
I do think that conversation is changing, even just a little bit. Look at Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, these people who are like, Hey, the pressure of operating at a super high level based on my body is really real. And it’s that idea of, I’m doing something that’s really fun and cool and it’s a privilege. But it’s still hard and exhausting and traumatic in certain ways. I think that’s why someone like Simone Biles got so much shit at the Olympics. It was like, you’re lucky to be there, what a privilege. But also it’s hard.
It’s the same thing with ski patrollers: doing CPR on somebody in the backcountry is traumatic. But there’s this culture where all the time you’re supposed to be like, “This is awesome! This is awesome! Best day ever!” But it doesn’t always feel like that. It’s really hard because you don’t want to be the downer when your whole community is based around this idea of stoke.
People are talking about it more and it is a little more normalized to bring that up. But then when a ski patroller wants a day off because they’re, you know, emotionally exhausted, they don’t get it. It’s definitely a long road.
There’ve been a lot of conversations around inclusivity in the ski industry and in the larger outdoor industry. You use the phrase in the book “hidden entry requirements” and talk about the signifiers that can make some people feel automatically included and some people feel excluded. Can you talk about that dynamic?
I think about this a lot for myself, because on some level I’m like, Skiing is so great and open and welcoming. In a lot of these spaces, I could text a friend of a friend and show up and have people to ski with. But is that because of the way I look or what I wear or what gear I have on? Skiing is so image based and gear based and there are all these things that you need to have to even start—physical things like the right gear and enough money. It’s not even necessarily what you as a person look like, it’s how you present yourself. It’s hard to take yourself out of your own skin, but “Was this easy for me because of what I look like?” was something that I thought about all the time. The fact that I’m white, able-bodied, all these things definitely play into this.
This is a conversation that’s starting to happen among skiers, but it needs to come from resorts, from brands, from that kind of thing. The economic barrier to getting people in is a big part of it.
What do you think skiing is going to look like in 30 or 50 years if the climate crisis keeps progressing?
I mean, it hasn’t snowed here yet. And maybe it’s just me getting anxious and vociferating, but every year it feels like the climate crisis is coming sooner and happening faster. In the book, I talked to meteorologist and skier Joel Gratz, who’s a nerd about this stuff. He was like, some places are going to do better, like a Breckenridge or a Mammoth, places that are high and cold and have solid snowmaking. As the places around them start to fade, they’ll get more traffic, but that’s at the expense of the little dinky, suburban Massachusetts resort or the Snoqualmie in Washington, or like these places that are lower down or don’t have any infrastructure currently.
Our Book Club members are always looking for new recommendations, so we have a few rapid fire questions for you on your favorite books. First one: What is your favorite book about the skiing
Whiteout by Ted Conover, which is about his stint as a cab driver in Aspen, and Deep Powder Snow by Dolores LaChapelle, which is a little tiny book full of huge ideas about why skiing and snow and being outside is important.
What is your favorite book about the climate crisis?
Elizabeth Rush’s Rising is so gutting and so beautiful at the same time.
What is your favorite book about the housing crisis and inequality?
Having and Being Had by Eula Biss is more about broad scale economics and capitalism, but the book of essays has wormed its way into so many of my thoughts about inequality, and money, and how that frames up pretty much every choice we make.
What is the best book you’ve read this year?
Site Fidelity, a short story collection by Claire Boyles, is like nothing I’ve ever read before about living in a warming world.
What is the book you’re most looking forward to reading next?
How Strange a Season by Megan Mayhew Bergman doesn’t come out until the spring, but I’m already excited about her story collection.
Which author would you most like to meet?
Barbara Kingsolver. I want to know how she’s so good at every kind of writing.
What is the book you’ve learned the most from?
I always go back to John McPhee, and particularly Encounters with the Archdruid, for structure and simplicity.
What is the book that most influenced your writing?
Raven’s Exile, and really anything by Ellen Meloy who was so funny and clear and on point.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.