The state of the ski bum
In ‘Powder Days,’ Heather Hansman looks at past, present and future of ski town life
272 pages, hardcover; $26.99
Hanover Square Press, November 2021
The ski bum has long been an endangered species with shrinking habitat.
Half a century after the drop-out era of “soft snow, hard drugs, casual sex” began here in Aspen, is it even possible to forge a ski bum life here or anywhere without a trust fund? If you can, what does that life look like and what combination luck and pluck do you need to make it work? Has this historically white dude-bro-dominated subculture gotten any more equitable for women and people of color? And, hey, why should anybody care if this fundamentally selfish way of life dies?
Journalist Heather Hansman – a once and (hopefully, she says) future ski bum – had been asking herself those questions for years, so she started studying the ecosystems of ski towns and the increasingly inhospitable economic and environmental conditions they impose on people trying to drop out and live the dream. She bounced around ski country – mostly Colorado – talking to people on all sides of the industry and the lifestyle and reading up on the histories of these fast-changing resort towns.
The result is her new book, “Powder Days: Ski Bums, Ski Towns, and the Future of Chasing Snow,” a deeply reported and fluently written state of the ski bum account that should serve as a conversation-starter on chair lifts and barstools this winter.
“I feel like I have more questions going out that I had coming in,” Hansman said in a video interview from home in Seattle. “That’s also because I didn’t approach the book trying to find one simple answer for how to do it. That would have been untrue and much less interesting.”
Hansman is beginning a stretch of mountain town events in Colorado and Wyoming over the next six weeks including stops in Durango, Crested Butte, Vail and Jackson (coronavirus surges willing).
Hansman checked out of ski town life and left Arapahoe Basin for Boulder and graduate school in 2010. Watching friends try to stick it out from afar, and the enduring allure of going back, made her want to write “Powder Days.”
“I was watching my friends try and buy houses and have kids and like, try to grow up,” she said. “The question has been kind of sitting in my mind of ‘Where do I fit in?’ and all that has been sitting in my brain for a decade now.”
An environmental columnist at Outside magazine and former editor at Skiing and Powder magazines who was an Aspen Words writer in residence last summer, Hansman did most of her reporting in 2018 and 2019. It included a stop at the Skiers Chalet here in Aspen in the last days when local rippers like Pat Sewell and Chris Tatsuno were living there. Hansman devotes a chapter of the book to the Skiers Chalet, charting its evolution since 1960 – from a simple ski lodge to a starry destination to ski bum central to its current lamented tear-down status – as a way of seeing Aspen’s story from the hippie era to today’s supercharged economic inequality and dire housing crisis.
“Aspen is kind of an interesting example of a ski town where it’s like, ‘We let it go really far, but we’re also trying really hard to find solutions,” Hansman said, noting that Aspen ran into livability issues earlier than most ski towns and started implementing progressive policy to support down-zoning, affordable housing and transportation issues long before others.
Hansman was surprised by some of what she learned about mental health in ski towns. She had been aware of the outsized suicide rates in the high country, but digging into the latest on brain behavior shed new light for her.
“That ended up being the most interesting, surprising thing – the brain science and the mental health questions of, like, ‘Why do people get pulled into this arbitrary, kind of dumb thing?’ ‘Why did I get pulled into it?’” she said. “I was really interested in, ‘What is the reality of the not so shiny side (of the ski lifestyle)? Why did I get obsessed with this thing?’”
The book lands in a winter that will be a historic turning point for ski towns amid cascading crises brought on or or exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. Resorts are struggling to hire would-be ski bum lifties and maids and the wage workers amid the “great resignation,” locals are fed up everywhere with bearing the brunt of raging virus surges, while the existing housing crises have been accelerated by the pandemic’s urban exodus and the rise of short-term rentals, all while the threats of climate change and wildfire threaten the future of snow and public safety.
“It does feel like a lot of things are coming to a head,” Hansman said. “And I think there is an awareness of, ‘Okay, if we want to have affordable, healthy areas, what can we do to make that happen? How do you participate in the system?’”
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