"Skiing is not about the money. But it's really hard to enjoy it when you can't afford it..."
- Brett Crabtree
He's not the flashiest guy on the hill. And he rarely takes the biggest risks. But in the high-stakes world of big-mountain skiing, local rider Brett Crabtree has shown time and again just how solid (and smart) a competitor he can be. Maybe there should be more fanfare for this guy...
Last year, for instance, Crabtree rode his way to the very top of the heap, finishing the 2007-08 season in first place overall on the venerable World Tour of Freeskiing. And he did it with the precision of a laser-guided missile, winning Colorado's Crested Butte event with some impressively cool-minded skiing before going on to earn another podium finish at the U.S. Championships in Snowbird, always a hotly-contested affair.
For American observers, it was definitely a case of "Who is this guy?" But for those of us who'd been paying attention, Crabtree's rise to prominence was clearly well earned. In a style that eerily mirrors his own understated personality, Brett simply put his head down and made his dream happen. "It was always my goal to win the overall title," says the 28 year old with an almost-guilty grin. "I just didn't think it would happen so soon..."
What? You've never heard of Brett Crabtree? Let me tell you: this kid's for real. And he's classic Whistler. Strong, bold - and technically savvy - he can deconstruct a mountain line with such precision that he transforms impossible-looking passages into merely improbable ones. Did I mention solid? In an event where razor-thin margins separate success from disaster, Brett's brand of calculated power-skiing is the envy of many a big-mountain rival. "It's all about finding that trust between the mental and the physical," he explains. And laughs. "It's also about figuring out exactly what the judges are looking for. And I've gotten way better at that in recent years."
His name still doesn't ring a bell, eh? In a town so dedicated to the pursuit of self-propelled fun - with an alpine playground that embodies all the best qualities that big-mountain freeriding seeks to celebrate - the current lack of visibility for its top practitioners intrigues me. Heck, this is the same place that launched the pro careers of standout skiers like Hugo Harrison, PY Leblanc and Ian McIntosh a decade ago. Back in the day when W/B hosted one of the most popular big-mountain ski contests on the circuit (the much-lamented Canadian Freeskiing Championships) the word "Whistler" was synonymous with "big-time rider."
It may not matter all that much in the big picture. It may be that big-mountain freeriding is such an obscure discipline that it has little impact (positive or negative) on the overall Whistler brand. But I tend to think otherwise.
Think big-wave surfing for a moment. Think of the image that discipline projects out to the world. Think of the prestige it bestows on its top riders. Do you think a surf town - whether in Australia or Oahu or South Africa even - would, even for a moment, think of ignoring its resident big-wave champions? Not on your life!
But I digress, yet again. Back to the subject at hand...
Brett grew up in Wetaskawin, a small Alberta farming community light years away from the mountains and skiing (at least in attitude). Like most other prairie boys, hockey was the sport of choice for the young Crabtree. That is, until he happened to view a segment from an old Warren Miller film. "There was this great sequence where these two guys were jumping out of a helicopter with their skis on," remembers Brett. "And that really caught my attention. I decided I wanted to be those guys."
Brett didn't need any further invitation to get involved. "It was all me, I guess," he says almost apologetically. "I started skiing at this tiny local area, Gwynne Valley Ski Hill." His eyes squint with pleasure. "We had a great time. We didn't know any better so we just made the best of it. We'd hit anything in sight. We'd build jumps everywhere." A sudden burst of laughter. "We did a lot of it secretly too. I mean, 'jumping' at ski areas was illegal in those days..."
Crabtree soon gravitated to freestyle. Moguls to be more precise. "I was really inspired by guys like (Olympic gold medallist) Jean Luc Brassard," he explains. "I really wanted to be the Canada's next big moguls champion."
Alas, his mogul mastery dreams never panned out. But that was okay too. For in the meantime, Brett had discovered Whistler. "I spent my first summer here in 1999," he says. A sudden glow appears on his features. It's clear that particular summer still means a lot to him. "I lived in my van in the day-lot," he says with the smile of a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. "I skied all day and rode the skatepark all night. Took showers at Lost Lake. I had no money, no job and no pass." He stops. A hint of a grin appears. But just a hint. "I even got caught while trying to poach a ride up the mountain. The lift supervisor said they were gonna call the cops but I quickly explained that I was already saving for a pass. And I'd give them all the money I had. I just didn't have enough to pay for the whole thing yet."
At the time, Brett admits, his only form of income came from collecting quarters from abandoned IGA carts. "I ate a lot of rice," he says. "And a lot of beans." But that was a small price to pay, he insists, for the kind of no-strings lifestyle he would lead for the next three years. "Ski bumming was a dream for me," he says. "And I got to live that. It was fantastic. Didn't matter that I lived in a van or didn't have money. As long as I was in the mountains, I was happy."
And the cops? "They never called them," he says with a chuckle. "They even let me buy a pass in the end. I think all they did was charge me $50 more for trying to get up for free."
Brett was definitely living the dream. But the dream was also changing his focus. "You're a ski bum," he says. "You first come to Whistler for the winters. But over time, it's the other seasons that keep you here. The lakes, the rope swings, the fishing, the riding - and the summer skiing of course - it just hooks ya."
Hooked or not, Brett thrived at Whistler. And his skiing just got better and better, His first big-mountain competition was at Red Mountain in January of 2003. "I didn't go there with high expectations," he explains of his road trip to the Kootenays. "I really didn't know what I was doing at that point. But despite it all, I made the finals and finished sixth overall." His face breaks into that little kid smile again. "That blew my mind. I thought to myself: 'Hey, I'm just a rookie and I'm already good at this.' All my skills - my mogul training, my park skiing, my jumping, even my skateboarding - were coming in to play here." He stops speaking. "That's when I realized that I could win one of these events..."
But big mountain competitions cost big dollars. "That's always been the toughest challenge for me," he admits readily. "The skiing I can handle. But it's all the other stuff - the promotion and publicity and fundraising and sponsor relations and stuff like that, that drains me." He laughs but for the first time in our conversation there's a bit of an edge to it. "There's way more to skiing than just skiing," he says. "Finding sponsors isn't easy. If you really want to be successful, you have to work just as hard off-the-hill as you do on-the-hill." He sighs deeply. "Sometimes harder!"
Crabtree was committed though. It wasn't always smooth. In fact, it was mostly bloody hard. Still, he persevered. He pushed through his grief when a young friend was killed at a freeskiing contest in Tignes in the spring of 2007; stifled his doubts when yet another competitor lost his life in Alaska the next year. "We know the risks that come with our sport," he says. And tries to find a way to put it all in context. "For me, I feel a lot more in control when I'm on the side of a cliff with my skis on than in downtown Vancouver at the wheel of a car." He laughs again. "Know what I mean? I feel way more sketched out in city traffic than I do at a freeskiing comp..."
And it shows. One of Brett's biggest talents in competition is his ability to remain calm in the face of scrotum-tightening situations. His skiing never looks ragged; he exudes confidence at every turn. And when he launches his signature cliff drops he rarely fails to stick his landings. It's this consistency, mostly, that earned him the overall title last year. That and all the gym work and ski time and rehab and fundraising and organizing and travelling that he had to do just to reach the level where he could become a contender.
"Winning that title taught me that anything is possible," he tells me. "It taught me that when you set your mind on something and work really hard and don't get sidetracked, you'll eventually get there." He hesitates. And for just a moment I see a hint of concern in his eyes. "Now all I have to do is figure out my next challenge and I'm all set..."