When former Arapahoe Basin ski patroller Heather Hansman set out to write a book about skiing in 2017, she knew one thing: It wasn’t just going to be about skiing. From the World War II veterans who moved west to seek their fortunes by opening some of the country’s greatest resorts to the ski bums who quickly followed, her resulting non-fiction, Powder Days, covers a multitude of political and environmental topics showing that skiing, Hansman argues, is actually the story of America in miniature.
To celebrate the book’s launch on November 9, Hansman is speaking at Tattered Cover’s Colfax location on the 11th. To prep for the event, we chatted with her about how chasing powder has changed and how it hasn’t.
5280: Powder Days is just as much about the fantasy that’s been built around ski towns and ski bums as it is about actually skiing. As a former ski bum, what was it like to pull back the curtain?
Hansman: I was a little bit burnt out on the sport when my agent approached me about doing a book on skiing, so I didn’t want to write a story that was just, “Here’s this rad thing that we do!” Digging into why people fall in love with these mountains and these communities and untangling what is real about that obsession, and what is performative and fake, was what interested me. And that question also felt tied to income inequality, equity, climate change, and all these other bigger issues.
You went on a big reporting trip during the 2018-’19 season that took you across the country and saw you chasing storms and sleeping on strangers’ floors. Did getting back to your ski bum roots help when it came time to sit down and write?
It was interesting and scary how easily I slipped back into that mode. It was like, “I’m 35 instead of 25. Is there something wrong with me that I can still call up a friend of a friend and ask if it’s cool if I sleep on their couch?” On one level, that openness is just part of the culture in a really good way. On another level, though, there is this element of Peter Pan-ness, and a lot of the book is me investigating my own growth and if this is a stunted way of living.
A major theme is how the growth of the ski industry mirrors the growth of America. Was that something you knew would play a role in the book from the start, or did that come out of your reporting?
The whole idea of “go west, young man” has always been a theme for me, but I think the problematic parts of that became a lot clearer the more research I did. And because of how the conversation has changed over the past few years about colonialism, who owns what land in the U.S., and how the frontier narrative was just so broken to begin with. So I had this framework, and the more I dug into it, the more complicated and interesting it became.
From affordable housing shortages to a lack of well-paying jobs, it’s tough to be a ski bum these days. If you were starting all over again, do you think you would be able to stick it out?
That’s a core question of the book, and I think the answer is both yes and no. On some level, there’s always this kind of nostalgia. Everyone I talked with was like, “Oh yeah, I am the last generation who could really do it.” That was true for people in the 1970s, and that was true for people in the 1990s.
I feel that way about myself and how I got in before the internet changed everything, and I am sure people feel the same way right now. On the other hand, I do think there are a lot of factors that are different today, such as the question of who can actually afford to live in a mountain town. Since so many people can work remotely now, maybe instead of being a liftie, you get a remote job and live in Vail. That experience will be very different from mine.
The book spans the country, but roughly half of it takes place in Colorado. What does the state mean to you both as a skier and as a writer?
The history of the sport is just so rich and so emblematic here. Colorado is also a really big part of my own story, and my personal narrative is a big throughline in the book.
I’ve also noticed how welcoming the sport can be … if you can act and look the part.
I think about that a lot. About how much of me rolling into these towns and having people be willing to talk to me is because of the way I look, the gear I wear, or the way I can ski. There is this insider-outsider dynamic, and I think about all the different kinds of privilege I have. That’s one of the things that the ski industry and all the pieces of that world are really wrangling with right now.
If you go: Hansman will discuss her new book, Powder Days, in conversation with Icelantic CEO Annelise Loevlie during a free event on November 11, at 7 p.m. at Tattered Cover’s Colfax store, located at 2526 E Colfax Ave. Powder Days releases November 9, and is available for pre-order at tatteredcover.com