Decades after she dedicated her life to seasonal jobs in mountain towns and even after she wrote an entire book on the subject, Heather Hansman can’t quite put her finger on the core appeal of being a ski bum. “Why does something so intangible become something we’re so obsessed with?” In her new book Powder Days: Ski Bums, Ski Towns, and the Future of Chasing Snow, the Seattle-based writer ruminates on the fibers that weave together for a life of seeking “snow and freedom and wildness.”
Hansman made her way to Beaver Creek, near Vail, from a Massachusetts childhood, working in guest services at an elite resort just so she could ski for free every day. In Powder Days, she traces how the rugged, rebellious old guard at resorts like Jackson Hole or Aspen defined levels of cool, literally breaking boundaries in search of perfect lines. To hardcore skiers, nothing can match the adrenaline rush of a powder turn.
But as much as she recognizes the “indulgence and immature, selfishly exclusive” aspects of ski bum culture, she’s also found how ski towns are shaped by economic and racial disparities, and how a stew of substance abuse, rootlessness, and exposure to death can affect mental health. “Ski towns are obviously not reality but they’re also like compressed slices of reality,” she says. The dearth of low-income housing may have felt like a quirk of the remote mountain enclave when it was highlighted in, say, the 1993 cult classic Aspen Extreme, but today all of America can understand what happens when all the apartments in town convert to vacation rentals and low-wage workers have nowhere to live.
Of all the idiosyncratic ski locales Hansman profiles in Powder Days—the tram line at Jackson Hole, the treacherous north ridge of Bridger Bowl—none are in the Pacific Northwest, where she’s lived for the last eight years (though Crystal gets a mention). Given our lack of true ski towns, there are fewer ski bums slinging pizza or living four to a room in a
slopeside hostel; still, there are plenty of obsessives sleeping in Washington state parking lots. “There’s such an American narrative fantasy part of this, all about, ‘Go west, where the mountains are bigger,’” she says. “You totally have that in the Cascades.” Ski bumming has changed in the days of remote desk jobs, but it still isn’t easy to chase powder. Says Hansman, “It’s about living the dream, but it’s not always dreamy.”