The first time I went skiing could best be described as me tumbling down a small hill while happening to be wearing skis. I enjoyed the 10 or so subsequent descents, but I haven't skied since. I mention this as an explanation of why, after reading In Search of Powder, I desperately want to ski again. The seductive menace of the slope has always allured me, but it wasn't until Jeremy Evans' tersely lyrical descriptions of mountains and men that I feel motivated to strap on a pair of skis and give it another shot.
In a sort of beatnik travelogue voice Evans conjures the life of the ski bum: a hedonistic outcast, usually in the throes of some drug, promiscuous, seeking an existence of undiluted adventure. Above all, the archetypical ski bum is out for fresh powder. Beginning at Crested Butte, Colo., the author brings to the page a troupe of colorful ski bums: Wall Street investment bankers, trustafarians and down-and-out construction workers taking menial jobs that won't interfere with skiing. The ski bum's destination is a good and furious slope, and once he finds it he gets a job nearby, ideally as an instructor or lift monitor.
Evans is outstanding at conveying the excitement of these underground enthusiasts: at Heavenly Mountain (now just Heavenly) Resort at Lake Tahoe, he tells of the Face Rats, a group of young skiers founded in the '60s and hellbent on imitating freestyle champion Jean-Claude Killy. The author revisits Telluride and its seedy ski bumming culture of the 1980s, when the undeveloped city was a notorious drop point for Mexican drug-runners and would inspire the hit song "Smuggler's Blues".
But the heyday of sex, booze and the search for powder is vanishing, Evans asserts, for a number reasons: immigrants willing to work resort jobs for less pay, second home-buying near the finest ski areas and the shifting priorities of resort owners "focusing on amenities other than the sport itself." He believes that it's not just ski bums who are disappearing, but also the ski towns that they created. In the chapter "Resorting to Madness," he gives a detailed history of the Ski Arms Race that had small, family-run slopes competing with the Big 4 resort stockholders, and were forced either to mimic their competitors' excesses or go bust. It was during this period in the late '70s and early '80s, Evans says, that skiing itself enjoyed its peak popularity—thanks to an aging baby boom generation eager to empty its savings accounts—and has been declining ever since. And, although his take on Wall Street's usurpation of ski bum-friendly locales is thorough and engaging, it seems largely parenthetical as he momentarily loses sight of his subject amid a confusing vortex of greed and cynical politics.
In Jackson Hole, Wyo., he finally concedes, the plight of the ski bum is not so stark, and it is in this last chapter that Evans fully expounds his views on the psychology and modern twist of ski bumming, especially in distinguishing ski bums from pro skiers. Evans follows the daring exploits of the Jackson Hole Air Force (JHAF), a group of skiers who spent their days navigating the Tetons, comprised of some of the biggest names in ski bumming, including Benny Wilson, who would disguise himself in a Halloween costume to evade ski patrol, Whitefish native Micah Black, and Dougie Coombs, whom some believed to be the best skier in the world. The rockstars of the JHAF made a career out of skiing for the sake of skiing and were sometimes given gear by famous outfitters and shot by local documentary film companies like Teton Gravity Research.
Considering that this is a book about a sport not usually admired for its hardboiled disposition, In Search of Powder has no right to be so trenchantly written or poignant. But it is. The author, a journalist and avid snowboarder who decided one day to stop social-climbing and start enjoying, neatly crystallizes the mythic story of ski bumming in a way that is reverential yet unaffected, using the actual voices of actual ski bums to tell a story of powder and power.
There is, unfortunately, one problem: ski bums aren't necessarily disappearing.
According to many skiers and in recent articles from the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Park Record (plus Chelsea Clinton's husband, who was publicly denounced for deciding to go ski bumming all winter), ski bums are making an impressive comeback. The argument could be made that Evans' compulsive skiers and the media's accidental ski bums (recession-plagued individuals who find jobs at resorts) are two entirely distinct classes of skiers. Still, if it seems that In Search of Powder tries to resurrect something that is not quite dead in order to give it an air of doomed nostalgia, it can easily be overlooked for Evans' filial devotion to pioneering ski bums. Regardless of the veracity of his thesis, Evans has written a smart chronicle of an intimate exodus, comprised of disillusioned people seeking out the best of all possible snow.