Heather Hansman is an award-winning journalist, a contributing editor at Outside Magazine, and the author of the books “Downriver” and “Powder Days.” She lives in Durango, where she’s at work on a book about women in the outdoors.
SunLit: Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?
Heather Hansman: A lot of the backstory comes from my history. I’m a former ski town gig worker, and a ski magazine editor. In 2005, when I was 21, I moved to Avon, sight unseen, to work at Beaver Creek. I had a vision of what being a real skier would be: full of adventure and exploration and deep snow. And my life scanning lift tickets was like that, but it also wasn’t.
I was stressed about money. I got hurt, which threatened my ability to stay in the mountains. I felt climate change creeping in, and I watched the places I love change deeply, in large part because of outside economic factors. And that’s been increasingly true as time goes on.
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So this book is an exploration of the idea of the ski bum dream, and what makes people fall in love with something like skiing. I traced the history of the idea, and I also looked at the forces that challenge that dream, and the ways we can make skiing better, more open, and more accessible in the future.
SunLit: Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?
Hansman: This excerpt, which comes from the section about housing and income inequality and takes place in Aspen, gets into some of the core questions woven through the book: How do we make ski towns, and skiing, sustainable into the future? Is that even a realistic question to be asking? And who needs to make changes or take action if we want that to happen?
SunLit: Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write?
Hansman: It felt really important to me that this was a deeply reported project that reflected the reality of what was happening to real skiers in ski towns…so I had to go do a lot of skiing! I had more than a decade of lived experience, but I spent a winter on the road, driving around the West, talking to folks in different mountain towns.
It’s their story, so I had to go out and listen. And one of the best things about skiing, I think, is that chairlift rides give you the opportunity to talk to total strangers. That feels rare these days, and I learned a lot.
SunLit: Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions?
Hansman: I think every book project, or any kind of big story, has a mind of its own. That’s the interesting and challenging part. I was really surprised at how much mental health came up in my conversations about skiing. It’s deeply tied to why people choose to live in the mountains, and why that choice can be both beautiful and hard.
Many places across the mountain west are struggling with mental health crises, and high suicide rates, and those are concentrated in mountain towns, where life can look really shiny on the surface, but be dark underneath.
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Many of those places also have a deep tough-guy culture, where avoiding hard feelings is socially normalized, even when people are struggling. It feels crucial to talk about the factors behind that, and what communities need to do to keep their people healthy and safe. We need to be talking about it.
SunLit: What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?
Hansman: I finished a first draft of this book in February of 2020, right before COVID crushed us, and I was worried that a book about skiing would feel petty and irrelevant in the face of a global health crisis. I was worried I should scrap the book.
But many of the factors I was trying to address in the book, like how we treat front line service workers, who has the ability to move, and who has access to safe outdoor spaces, became magnified in the pandemic. In some ways ski towns, where the highs are so high and the lows can be really low, are a microcosm for a lot of crucial social issues, and are on the front lines of important choices about income inequality, dignified housing, and fair wages, and that’s really come to light in the past few years.
SunLit: Has the book raised questions or provoked strong opinions among your readers?
Hansman: Yes, absolutely, both positive and negative, and I’m glad it’s starting conversations about how we can make skiing sustainable, diverse, and welcoming into the future, and why it’s important.
It’s been really great to talk to people about how it reflects and mirrors their experience in mountain towns, and it’s been honestly shocking to see who feels threatened by the idea of skiing changing.
SunLit: Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
Hansman: I try really hard to get as much down as possible when I’m out in the field reporting. So that means a lot of frozen finger note taking, and yelling things into my phone’s voice recorder, to make sure I’m not missing anything. That’s the fun part.
Then it takes a lot of painful, slow screen time to translate those experiences and feelings into something legible and interesting to read. I’m a slow writer, I’m in awe of people who can bang out drafts.
SunLit: Tell us about your next project.
Hansman: I’m working on a three-stranded biography of women who were pivotal in the outdoor and environmental world in the last century, but who never got much recognition. I’m excited to dive into history, and show how it still plays out now.