Heather Hansman will always be a ski bum.
There was a time when the Seattle author wanted nothing more than to live her life chasing fresh powder, moving from couch to couch and run to run as slope karma and the proper weather conditions dictated.
“I moved to the mountains when I was 21,” Hansman said. “This was kind of like my dream of how to grow up and have an adventure and live the ‘Go West, young man,’ kind of life.”
Like many ski bums, though, Hansman eventually drifted away from the slopes, gave up the nomadic life and settled down in Seattle. But she never really took the skis off. She continued to work for ski magazines, kept in touch with her network of friends and spent as many days in the mountains as possible.
Over time, Hansman noticed something: The world of the ski bum — and the sport itself — was going through a series of changes that mirrored American society. Her second book, “Powder Days: Ski Bums, Ski Towns and the Future of Chasing Snow,” was born from this revelation.
The idea gave Hansman permission to pack up the car and head back to her old haunts in the Rockies and other steep places. For a time, she relived her ski bum ways, and what she found was very different from the life she lived back around the turn of the century.
This conversation between Hansman and The Seattle Times has been edited for clarity.
“Change happens fast” is one of the themes in your new book. The ski industry seems to be facing an extraordinary amount of change right now.
I worked at ski magazines — that was kind of my dirtbag, right-out-of-college job — and I saw really concretely how these things were changing. How climate change is impacting an industry that’s based on the idea of having snow, how economic inequality is really kind of sweeping these places. And it felt like all these sort of big-picture social, cultural, political, environmental issues that a lot of people are thinking about right now were so sort of drilled-down in a way in this skiing framework. And maybe part of it is that I’m too far down the wormhole, but it felt like a way to put some boundaries around this story that I think is happening in a lot of places.
How much has changed since you left the life?
I think it is harder. And I think maybe there will be a point where it doesn’t feel worth it. Like employee housing is really hard to find and you’re making 12 bucks an hour and inflation is rising. I think that there are sort of big-picture reasons why it’s getting harder and less sustainable. I moved to the mountains in 2005. My brother, who got into college in 2009, he was like, “No way am I going to go just stick around and not work for a couple of years. I have to get a job.” I think the recession, the national economy has changed. I think that puts a lot of pressure on ideas like, “I’m going to go chase my dreams and try and have an adventure.” I think it’s made that a lot harder, and I’m not saying that it was ever really that easy for a lot of people. It just feels like everything’s more pressurized, I guess.
The life of a ski bum was never easy, as you illustrate, but one of the themes in the book is how the corporatization of these once-locally owned resorts is starting to squeeze folks out. There are few cheap passes or affordable housing opportunities. Our area resorts were recently bought by large companies, too. What shift does a sale like that cause?
You have potentially a lot of new skiers and high-dollar people who could be coming in, and it’s kind of like, who gets squeezed out? The XXX people or the wage workers or lefties? What happens to those people in that squeeze? And can people actually live close to their jobs? Can you sustain yourself working on the mountain? All those questions are amplified.
You also spend a lot of time on the striking ways climate change will affect the sport. Our skiing infrastructure here in Western Washington seems particularly vulnerable to climate change. What did you learn about how climate change might affect our slopes in 20 or 25 years?
Or even five years. You look at somewhere like Snoqualmie Pass where the snow line’s fairly high, you’re not always getting snow down to the base. And then you have all these people moving to Seattle who want to ski. And you have these vast conglomerates that are pumping more people to those mountains. There’s a shift that’s going to have to happen really soon.
Climate change is really the big story here, the shadow that hangs over it all?
I think that’s the big, big factor. There was this idea of climate change as a thing that was just loose, vague concept in the back of your mind. Now it’s just so front-of-mind and you can really see the impact. You look at [Mount Ashland Ski Area] in Oregon, they’ve had trouble staying open. I’m from New England originally, and there’s been a ton of areas there that have moved away because snow isn’t consistent. You need big pockets and some capital to make snow and I think there’s not really many places a ski mountain could viably go. They’ve been used or have been tried. One of the meteorologists I talked to said some places are going to lose out and some places are going to be winners. With climate change, places that are higher up and colder and have the finances and infrastructure to make snow may do better because there will be more skiers funneling to them. Some places will definitely lose out.