Powder Days – Ski Bums, Ski Towns and the Future of Chasing Snow

Powder Days

Our neighbours in Whitefish Montana at the Whitefish Review published this cool interview with Heather Hansman on the future of Chasing Snow and we are sharing it with you.

And they will be hosting Heather Hansman for a special reading and event on January 19, 2024 at 101 Central in downtown Whitefish. The event will include live music, an interview with Heather Hansman, a reading from her book, as well as a conversation with audience members.

The future is unknown for the people who have built their lives around a cold-weather obsession.
Heather Hansman: Interview by Maggie Doherty

In her new book, Powder Days, veteran ski journalist and former ski bum Heather Hansman takes readers on an exhilarating journey into the hidden history of American skiing, offering a glimpse into an underexplored subculture from the perspective of a true insider. Along the way, she reckons with skiing’s problematic elements and investigates how the sport is evolving in the face of the existential threat of climate change.

Heather is a freelance writer and editor. She’s the environmental columnist for Outside online, and writes for places like The Guardian, Sierra, and The New York Times. Powder Days: Ski Bums, Ski Towns, and the Future of Chasing Snow was released in November of 2021. Her first book Downriver: into the Future of Water in the West is about her trip down the length of the Green River, and the water system in the Western U.S. She lives in southwest Colorado, right by the river. heatherhansman.com

Heather Hansman
Photo: Colby News

Maggie Neal Doherty: I love this book so much! The ski bum life is hard to describe. There’s just something so ingrained with ski life on different levels. You introduce concepts that are layered upon that life, but we don’t always put them together, like mental health issues or the impact of what is actually happening in the sport. Sometimes we are only focused on snowpack. So, thank you on behalf of skiers everywhere!

Heather Hansman: That means a lot. When you put something like this out into the world, you wonder what people are going to think. Did I do it right? It was a lot of pressure to make it feel real and authentic for people who are in the ski life. And then not make it feel too entitled or too exclusive, because that’s another one of those ski industry problems, that it can feel so exclusive. It’s about skiing, but it’s also about climate change and economic inequality and history and quaffing and love and death and growing up—and all the other things that are tied up in skiing for me.

Maggie Neal Doherty: I think you did it so masterfully because, on a sentence and word level, you’re so descriptive. It doesn’t feel like jargon. The way you describe the action—“ski tips skittering as we curve…” or “knuckle of rock,”— your writing is powerful. There’s an affinity for the language on the page that makes it really intriguing. There’s a lot of movement in the book itself—the journey of traveling and visiting these different places. How do you think that physicality contributed to or shaped the writing of the book?

Heather Hansman: In the most obvious way, place is such an important part of skiing: where you are, what that mountain is like, what the topography is like, and what the weather is like. That is such a large piece of skiing and what makes skiing compelling. One of the most interesting parts for me to dig into for the reporting was the brain science side. Why do people want to ski, why are certain people drawn to it, what makes somebody kind of get obsessed, and, hook their life to it? I think a big part of that is this intrinsic need to be outside, a need to have a connection to a place.

I get into a lot of the tricky, complicated, problematic parts of the ski bum life—but I also wanted the good parts to shine there too. I think so much of that is the physical, the play-space in your body, moving—where are you? What do you see? It felt important to bring the physical life alive. And to have that sense of place—here’s why Big Mountain [the original name for Whitefish Mountain Resort] is different than Big Sky. That texture is such a big part of it.

Maggie Neal Doherty: I loved going on this journey with you. How long did it take you to do the trip? Was this all in one season?

Heather Hansman: It was pretty much all in one season. There are pieces that weren’t from that trip but it’s mainly winter of 2018 -2019. Structuring this book was one of the hard parts. I had initially structured it like a straight road trip, and that just didn’t work for a lot of the pieces—they were shoehorned in. So, the topic-based way it’s structured now gave me a little more latitude to pull in pieces and not just have to be like, “Then this happened, and then we went here, and then we went here…”

Maggie Neal Doherty: You’re a veteran of the industry and you’ve been a part of it in so many ways. What surprised you on this journey?

Heather Hansman: The brain science was the most interesting. There’s a guy at Alta, Dave Richards—head of Alta’s avalanche patrol—who was interested in PTSD—like what’s the past trauma we might be dealing with as individuals in the mountains? That was something I had thought a little about, but I hadn’t put words to it before. That was an interesting part of the puzzle. Housing is such a big issue, which is just getting more and more and more true. There were these patterns that repeated in different places. I wanted to try and figure out how all the pieces fit together and how they’re connected, wrangle and wrap my hands around the issues and show how interconnected they are. I feel like now you can’t untangle housing from income inequality, from climate, from what’s the history of these places.

Maggie Neal Doherty: The pandemic seems to have really exacerbated these problems.

Heather Hansman: COVID has just amplified all these things that were already problems like, who gets to live in a ski town? How are frontline workers treated? Who has economic security or health care? Who has stability? Who has the latitude for recreation and leisure and fun? So yeah, it turned the screws on all the things that were the issues there already.

Maggie Neal Doherty: I live in the northwest corner of Montana and moved here in 2004 at age 22 and a week out of college. I’ve been here a while to feel the changes—lack of affordable housing, a massive increase in real estate values, and employee shortages. And COVID really forced people to look differently at life, like I don’t want to be trapped in my New York City apartment with my family of three. Do you think that these types of conversations will become a national touch point, because mountain communities are so insular, and the sport is so insular? Would somebody in Indiana or Raleigh really care that a bunch of us in the West, a bunch of us “Peter Pans” are getting shoved out? Is there really resonance for this across the country?

Heather Hansman: That’s something that I’ve thought about a lot. Is this just a weird, elite bubble? But I think it does resonate. What’s happening in mountain towns is also happening in a lot of places and it exemplifies this economic disparity that’s happening across the country. In a lot of places, there’s no one to work at restaurants, there’s no one to work in service shops because they can’t afford to live there. And I think it’s not just exclusive to mountains. What is a livable wage? What does housing security look like? All that stuff is relevant across America. Maybe it’s more under the microscope here—it’s more compressed. But I think those issues are national and probably universal in a lot of ways.

Maggie Neal Doherty: What I’m trying to figure out is who actually belongs. I can’t be the gatekeeper. I can bitch and moan a ton about my little mountain town. It’s changed so dramatically, but I can’t say who belongs and who doesn’t. And, I don’t want to deny anybody the chance to live here. How do we reconcile this feeling of gatekeeping?

Heather Hansman: It’s such a hard question because it bumps up into this theory—yes, I want everyone to have the privileges that I had, I want everyone to be able to have the experience that I had, I want everyone to be able to be in the wilderness alone. That bumps up against a landscape carrying capacity, like at national parks and places similar. I think there is a ton of gatekeeping in skiing and often in surfing or climbing where it’s like, “I want to be the last person in and then shut the door behind me.” Everyone I talked to was like, “I was the last generation that could do it right.”

The outdoor industry is trying to reckon with this idea of equity and access. And we can’t just be the fit, straight, white, able-bodied, wealthy, dudes who can and should be able to access the outdoors. But, if you’re gonna open that lens, what does that look like? Land and outdoor recreation and wilderness is a finite resource in some ways. It’s so hard. It’s a huge reckoning. And it’s also just hard to have those conversations because people shut down. It’s so tied to a sense of self and identity and feeling connected. All these things are hard to talk about. I feel kind of lame being like, “I want everyone to have the same thing.” But then, in reality, I’m like, “The trailhead’s crowded, and my line is skied out!” To hold all those things in balance on a personal level is really hard. And also on a local government level and a land manager level. I think I came out of this book with more questions than I had going in.

Maggie Neal Doherty: I like that you are ready to admit this is hard stuff, you don’t have the answers, and you’re still filled with doubt about certain personal choices. It is nuanced, and not binary. Which is super fitting for skiing itself.

Heather Hansman: I don’t think in good faith I could have been like—here’s the answer to all these things in the book. It would have been a how-to book or something like that. If this was going to be, “How to be a Ski Bum in 10 Easy Steps” that would have been a very, very different book. But I don’t think I could have written that and felt okay with myself.

Maggie Neal Doherty: In your introduction, you write, “I don’t believe in God or fate, but some tangled part of me got sucked into a modern manifestation of the frontier fantasy, problematic as it might be. I latched on to the idea that if I went west, I’d be braver and truer, and more exciting. I wanted an adventure I could call my own and a way to grow up with the country. A path that feels hard to find now that so much is commodified and mapped.”

This is exactly how I felt and still feel. What is so unique about the West that this myth just keeps going?

Heather Hansman: I’ve thought about that a lot. Especially now, it’s so problematic when you think about who was out here in the “unexplored” frontier. When we were colonizing the United States, who was doing the colonizing? It’s this very race-based, gender idea. I think part of it for me, even though I know it’s fucked up—part of why it still persists is the sense of adventure and exploration. To have that sense of proving yourself and having an adventure—showing that you are tough and could be independent—I think it’s tied up in the coming-of-age idea.

I think part of why the West is still part of that, is because we got taught in seventh-grade social studies, “Go West Young Man,” here’s what the frontier looks like, here are cowboy and Indian movies—go to national parks. In a lot of ways, the ski bum is sort of like the cowboy myth—this kind of archetype of somebody who’s forging their own path and not really playing by the rules, and exploring. They’re exciting and a little dangerous. In a time where there aren’t that many archetypes for those who have fun or want to buck the rules, that is one of them. For better or for worse. It’s a safe place to enact this idea because you’re not literally having to drive your ox-drawn wagon across the country. But it still feels exciting and new when it’s a powder day.

I think part of why the West is still part of that, is because we got taught in seventh-grade social studies, “Go West Young Man,” here’s what the frontier looks like, here are cowboy and Indian movies—go to national parks. In a lot of ways, the ski bum is sort of like the cowboy myth—this kind of archetype of somebody who’s forging their own path and not really playing by the rules, and exploring.

Maggie Neal Doherty: You grew up on the East Coast and weren’t really a skier until you went West.

Heather Hansman: People back in New England are so much more hardcore than I am. Skiing in the rain and the cold. My friend Katie—one of the friends I moved to Colorado with—is back in Vermont and said it’s hard for her to motivate and everyone else is fired up to go skiing when it’s crappy and freezing cold.

Maggie Neal Doherty: That’s funny, but it makes you such a good skier. I didn’t know how to ski powder when I moved here. But skiing on hard manmade snow definitely makes you a pretty good skier. But I feel like if I went back after almost 20 years of living here, I’d be like: oh no, no!

The coming of age and “Go West Young Man” rituals: going outside, go to the woods to show that you can be a man. What does this message mean to us women? And I want to add that I want the idea of “woman” to be large, and not be too exclusive. Either in your personal experience or in writing this book, how is that message received by those of us who are trying to do that—go outside, go to the woods—but we’ve never been explicitly told we could do that?

Heather Hansman: There are so many layers to that. We were talking earlier about gatekeeping skiing. I feel like that’s such a crucial part of who—on any level—feels welcome, and who feels like they can identify as a skier. I think for me it’s my personality, or I almost took it as a challenge. Wanting to be the cool girl who can hang and the one who was good enough. For a long time, I was really spiky about that and was kind of a dick. I was so protective of being the one who got in. Being good enough and wanting to be taken seriously and wanting to be respected. Also feeling special. Feeling like I needed to prove myself. And I think that’s all tied up in insecurity. I think a lot of us are proving ourselves.

For me, a lot of times I was the one woman working at the magazine or the girl on the ski patrol, and that was such a part of my identity. Being special felt really important, or being the one who’s gritty enough. And I think now, maybe because I’ve gotten older, but that feels less important, and having community feels more important. I now have a group of really good girlfriends from the ski industry and it’s one of the best things in my life. But it took a long time to even be able to open the door to that.

I don’t know how much of that is kind of generational because it does feel like even women who are a little bit younger feel like they have more of a posse. It’s really cool to watch. There’s an industry woman’s group, a group of girls who are probably mid to late 20s, and they’re such badasses and they try so much harder. They aren’t trying to do the “I’m the one girl” elbows out. They just seem like they’re having way more fun. When I think about skiing as part of my identity, being a woman is such a big part of that. It’s impossible to separate the two. How I feel I’m being perceived and how I feel like I have to present myself and show up.

This is a little bit of a tangent but I dropped some skis off to get mounted a couple of weeks ago and I got a call from the ski shop. They left a message: “Hey Heather, we’re worried that maybe we got the tag switched on the skis because the ski with your name on it is a 181 and it says you’re five-eight. That seems long.” I was like, give me a fucking break. Can you imagine them saying that to a dude who’s five-eight?

Maggie Neal Doherty: No!

Heather Hansman: It’s still there, under the surface. Perception-wise, on some level, it’s like gender doesn’t matter. We can all say “Everybody just go skiing” but there’s still so much under the surface. Obviously, this isn’t just happening in skiing.

Maggie Neal Doherty: You talk about how the ski bum is performative. I feel like being a woman skier is so performative. Which I felt like you brought up in “The Odds are Good But The Goods are Odd” chapter. When you’re a chick new in town—one, fresh meat—and two, you have to be a rad ass skier. Then you’re kind of expected to be cute and fun. And then there’s this impulse to prove, to break trail going up a peak. I have to prove that I can do this, I can ski this. And then yes, for me, there were other women out there but they were gatekeeping. I don’t blame them for gatekeeping—they were a bit old and they were like, I earned this spot. It’s so toxic.

Heather Hansman: I think you’re kind of under the microscope too, where everyone’s like, “Oh, new girl!” You can get a reputation really fast. There are so many facets. It’s tied to how I perceive myself and also how people apparently perceive me. I don’t think that’s true everywhere, but with skiing, it is so much more gender stratified.

Maggie Neal Doherty: I love the honesty. You admit, in your book, it does feel good to be special. That’s kind of addicting. Especially when you’re young, you’re new in town, and you don’t know a soul. So you’re like “hell yeah, I want to be the girl who can drink a ton of beers, ski, and hopefully look okay.”

I’ve moved from this place where I was a chick ski bum to a mom of a 7 and 3-year-old. Now I’m a mom of skiers. There were people in my friend group who were bragging about who could skin up the mountain first with their newborns. So now we can’t just be who we are, we have to prove that even with kids, we can still do X, Y, and Z. We can still skin up with baby strapped to our chest or do all the stuff we used to. I’m part of it too. I had my kids on skis before two. For me, it is a generational thing. My family had me on skis before two. My parents were super low middle class but skiing was really important to them, and they did whatever they could do to get us on skis. That was a bonding experience for us all. And it still is. My brother is a kick-ass skier, and that’s how I met my husband. And I love skiing with my kids—it’s so much fun.

Heather Hansman: There is this performative level of that, too. Then you’re putting on Instagram to show how rad your kids got. Also, I think skiing is still new on some level. A place like Whitefish which is a year-round town that can support a community is not really that old of an idea. So I think part of it is that we’re in this generation where we are bringing up these mountain kids and what does that look like? Like pushing, pushing, pushing—what’s the next step of that? So I think there are all these levels of expectation and comparison. You’re looking around at your neighbors: you’re like, oh, they’re doing that. Should I be doing that?

Maggie Neal Doherty: Yeah, good point. But you see how it spirals? We’ve got to break that apart.

In the book, there’s a lot of emphasis on groms, tough guy culture, the Lost Boys, and broken toys. Many of the people you featured were men suffering from addiction and excessiveness. And I know that you take some parts of the narrative to say, hey, I’m participating in this, too. I’m drinking too. But what does this idea of the Lost Boys or broken toys mean for women who are raised in ski towns or have lived here for a long time? What does it mean to be raised by a Lost Boy or part of it?

Heather Hansman: That’s sort of tricky to parse out—this Peter Pan narrative, is it a dude narrative just because that has historically been more common? Or is it because women are sort of socially conditioned to be a little more responsible? I talked to this woman who was in Jackson, and she told me she gets all these people coming to her and saying “I don’t want to be a Peter Pan anymore, I want a real job, I want my life to move on.” She said it’s both men and women—but women come sooner. They feel this pressure to be like, oh, if I want to have kids or a real job what does that look like? It is and it isn’t gender—it’s definitely happening across the board. But I think we culturally give men more leeway way to fuck around.

Maggie Neal Doherty: Did you find on your trip that the conversation around substance abuse and excessive drinking really focused only on men? Is there any research on women in skiing or mountain culture with this too? Or is it that we don’t expect women to have this issue? But are we forgetting that maybe they’re also drinking too?

Heather Hansman: It looks different, right? I don’t know if there’s specific research about women and substance abuse. I know it definitely happens.

Maggie Neal Doherty: Maybe it’s my own personal lens—being a bartender for so long and when I was working in the alcohol industry.

Heather Hansman: What did you see?

Maggie Neal Doherty: I think there are substance abuse and mental health issues that are affecting women that just get glossed over. Like, the Instagram looks good—you just skinned up two laps! You did a 100-mile race but you are drinking hard. You’re conditioned to think, I can have these beers or wine because I skinned up the mountain.

Heather Hansman: I think it’s also proving that you can hang, too. It’s also in part the same reason why people drink to mask other mental health issues. Drinking is such an interesting one because there are positive sides to it. And there’s the negative there, too. There is a line between social, fun, community building, and unhealthy.

Maggie Neal Doherty: There’s a certain allowance with the ski bum-Peter Pan figure. We expect if we go into the local watering hole, the older guys and the younger guys will be there. We allow for that. They can still be the skiers who are kind of irresponsible and party, but we don’t have a clear-cut image of a woman doing it, or what the cries for help are. It’s just a really fascinating thing—perhaps because booze was my business. I’m also reading “Quit Like A Woman” by Holly Whitaker. She takes a bigger lens and looks at the patriarchal culture of drinking and recovery, and how it does target women. It’s such a fascinating book about alcohol, especially in America. She’s like, we drink at baby showers, we drink at weddings . . . And the only time people get freaked out is when you’re not drinking.

Heather Hansman: Yeah. Like: are you pregnant?!

Maggie Neal Doherty: It’s a fascinating story, a wider lens, and a personal story with a real, hard examination of what are the factors contributing to people drinking.

Heather Hansman: In ski towns, the bar is kind of the third place. If you’re not on the hill or at home, the bar is the place where you see everybody and you socialize. That can be great. But that can also be really toxic, depending on who you are.

Maggie Neal Doherty: I love the chapter “We’re the Grown Ups Now.” Can you talk about making inroads into the problems facing ski towns?

Heather Hansman: Showing up is the only way it’s going to change because otherwise the corporate forces or the rich people who come in and buy out all the houses will turn them into Airbnbs and murder the town. Ski bumming is kind of like anti-citizenship. You’re kind of like anarchy, “I don’t play by the rules.” But if you act like that, then you can’t get mad when things change around you. You have to acknowledge that. If you’re pissed off about housing, then you have to be there at the planning board meetings. You have to be the one introducing tax policy. It doesn’t stay good or get good unless we make it good. Otherwise, it can become soulless.

Maggie Neal Doherty: Another theme that was prevalent in the book is trust. There’s this tension. On one hand, you write, that there’s an element of the ski bum who’s wary of trust. You write, “Ski bums are the ones who operated below the surface, taking advantage of the system.” But this sport really requires some elements of trust. You need trust with your body, your gear, the conditions, or especially if you’re going backcountry or side country, your ability to trust or interpret conditions, and the people you’re with. It obviously doesn’t always happen. We know there are inexperienced people who do stupid things. Can you talk about this conflict or tension of trust? There’s almost this requirement of trust but also this rejection of trust as a ski bum.

Heather Hansman: I feel like it’s the same with the anti-citizenship stance—where you’re using all the resort infrastructure and living in the town, but also you’re shit-talking it. Or you don’t participate? Trust is a cool way to frame it up. You have to play by the rules or assume that people have good intentions. Like in the backcountry, you hope that the person above you isn’t going to ski down on top of you and put down a slide. This kind of gets back to that whole cowboy/individualist idea. “I’m different, I’m not playing by the rules, I’m going to forge my own way, I don’t need anybody” kind of attitude. I think there is this sort of anti-establishment tied up in the ski bum life, even though it takes living within the establishment to make it work.

Maggie Neal Doherty: I don’t know a lot of people other than skiers or climbers who have ditched their regular life for a sport.

Heather Hansman: Surfing maybe? People don’t give up their life for, like, tennis.

Maggie Doherty: Of course, we have to talk about climate. What happens if winters end?

Heather Hansman: I talked to a meteorologist about this and he said that the places in Michigan and New Hampshire that are low-lying and not as cold—Mom and Pop places that may not be able to invest in the infrastructure—are the places that are going to die. And they are often the entry points to skiing. A Breckinridge or Mammoth, that’s high and cold and, also, part of a corporate infrastructure that can throw more money at snowmaking, those places will probably be okay— at least for a while—or they might become more popular. This is where I get on my soapbox: we’re the grown-ups now, we have to protect the things we love. There’s a lot we have to do.

Maggie Neal Doherty: I don’t know if my kids will be able to ski when they’re my age due to climate change.

Heather Hansman: That’s another fundamental, core question. We don’t have kids yet, but if we’re going to have children—or for future generations—how do we not set them up for disappointment? Are we just making the world worse by sitting on our thumbs?

Maggie Neal Doherty is a freelance writer and book reviewer, focusing on contemporary voices of the American West. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Flathead Beacon, High Country News, Flathead Living, Whitefish Review, and more. Since 2018 she’s written “Facing Main,” a bi-weekly opinion column for the Flathead Beacon, where she examines the intersections of environment, parenting, civic life, books, and relationships. maggienealdoherty.com