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Feature - Untouchable

From humble beginnings the World Ski and Snowboard Festival has become the ultimate celebration of snow sports

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By G.D. Maxwell

One, is the loneliest number you can ever do. Coincidences happen in pairs. Disasters strike in threes.

But fours? Well-balanced meals come in four courses. Four is the elemental number of the fabled Consultant’s Decision Algorithm: Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Mo. There’s four on the floor, the Fab Four, the Final Four and the Fantastic Four. Not to mention four wheel drive, four strong winds, the four points of a compass, four seasons and lucky four-leaf clovers. Our tongues can only sense four tastes, five if you count ice cream.

And the World Ski and Snowboard Festival – simply the biggest and best mountain party to celebrate skiing’s season of death – rests firmly on four pillars: skiing, boarding, music and images. This year’s instalment promises to follow the trajectory of years past: bigger, better, wilder and with a few new twists to blow your minds.

Not bad for a hare-brained idea with humble beginnings.

The sound of one hand clapping…

Well, humble might be overstating the case. It was the early 1990s and Doug Perry was facing what some might call a premature mid-life crisis. To wit: how does a boy with a serious Jones for skiing keep making a living at it when his knees, or what’s left of them, tell him it’s time to quit?

And then he remembered a very cool event he’d attended while travelling the world on Salomon’s international pro team. Dubbed the All Japan Technical Skiing Championships, it was structured as a decathlon skiing competition – freeskiing, steeps, moguls, racing and variations on those basic themes. The goal was to find the best all-round skier and make him God for a Day.

Doug thought the idea might work in a North American context and it just might have. We’ll never know for sure because that first year’s instalment of what would become the WSSF – called at the time the World Technical Skiing Championships – was merely the anvil on which today’s festival was hammered out. Events included the World Speed Skiing Championships, freestyle, powder 8s and several other, long since abandoned extravaganzas.

"Sponsors were scarce that first year, spectators scarcer," he remembered. "But what did emerge from that shaky start was exposure. The events brought athletes together who’d never competed before – and who’d never been to Whistler – and it brought some key ski media to town who didn’t have a clue what they were missing."

What they were missing, of course, was two whopping big mountains that have unparalleled riding well into what other mountain resorts generally refer to as the "golf season," compliments of copious amounts of Wet Coast powder and down and dirty Canadian winters.

Dangling by a thread and sucking on a life support IV of brilliant ideas and cussed determination, the protoparty struggled for a couple of seasons. Blackcomb Mountain and the Whistler Resort Association came on board as partners. Events appeared and disappeared – think Bigfoot Challenge – and sponsors vaporized, only to be replaced by others. Snowboard events breathed life – or was that blew smoke? – into the mix.

And two things remained constant: Doug’s unwavering belief he could make an end of season festival work and his unprecedented notion that athletes should be the ones who shaped their events. The second idea kept some of the world’s best coming back for more. Tired of being jerked around by governing bodies – bureaucrats whose passion for the sport had long gone limp – the riders and skiers made the events theirs. Their enthusiasm fed the buzz during the lean years.

In a simpler time, what happened next might have been likened to a biblical visitation. If man does not live by bread alone, it suddenly became clear that festivals can’t live on a strict diet of sporting events, no matter how much bread is thrown at them.

Gimme the beat…

"The breakthrough year was 1998," Doug said. "The music was an experiment with the first Westbeach Classic. Finally, there was some injection of energy as a result of the first outdoor music series of concerts. It seemed to flick a switch; the event began to take on its own personality where music – and the energy that comes with the fusion of music and sport – started to let the flame build."

Kristen Robinson was the firestarter. Special K, as she’s known to those who understand her specialness, is a dervish of action, energy, ideas, angst, talent, and prescience. "You can get motion sickness watching her work," said one who has had the opportunity to observe up close and personal.

With a mandate to "rock the valley" and a budget more attuned to tossing pebbles in a lake, Special K scoured the indie scene for up and comers. One of the first acts to hit the Mainstage that first year was an obscure Canadian band from Hanna, Alberta, a town that would need a whole lot more exposure to qualify as obscure.

With none of the organizers knowing what was about to happen, Nickelback grabbed their instruments and laid down a sonic assault that lasted 60 minutes and tilted the village’s complain-o-meter. It probably helped that Kristen couldn’t actually hear much of what the RCMP had to say immediately following the concert. It didn’t really matter; the crowd loved it. Music was here to stay.

Although the following year there was some question of whether the entire festival might disappear from the face of the earth. The day was overcast and snowy. The crowd was ugly. Sloan, the band on the stage at the base of Whistler Mountain, was between sets. The snowboarders hucking big air were not coming fast enough to keep a fever pitch of interest sustained. The VIPs were vipping on the nearby deck of the GLC. Westbeach, who was managing the event, weren’t on their toes. Did I mention the crowd was ugly?

Idle hands and the devil’s work came together. No one knows for sure who threw the first snowball. For that matter, no one knows for sure who threw the ensuing 1,000 snowballs. The VIPs scurried for cover inside the restaurant, clutching cell phones speed dialling 911. The band abandoned the stage. The crowd grew uglier. The security was nowhere near adequate.

Maybe it was that famous Whistler secondhand smoke or maybe everyone’s hands just got too cold to continue. No one knows that either. But the riot that nearly was, caused everyone involved with the festival to take a sober second look. Security was beefed up, some events were toned down, everyone came away with a heightened appreciation for just how ugly a mob can be. And the beat goes on.

Shadows and light…

Resting firmly like a milk stool on three legs of skiing, boarding and music, the festival should have been rock solid. But something was still missing. On-mountain events hummed and music filled the village until late afternoon. Industry parties and general merriment carried on into the wee hours. There was a gap though.

Sometimes genius takes odd forms. It must have seemed that way to Doug when the idea first dawned on him that what the festival really needed was… a slide show?

"It was just another experiment," he shrugs offhandedly. "The idea was to let some of the industry’s best shooters go head to head in front of a crowd. We were lucky. The images that first year were incredible. It made us realize how important photography is to our industry."

The first Pro Photographer Showdown featured some of the best images Eric Berger and Jack Turner could cull from their files, a driving soundtrack and, surprise, surprise, a wildly enthusiastic crowd. It was the little idea that could. Stunning images joined music and mountain sports and rounded out the festival.

Subsequent years, the Showdown has expanded. More photographers, more images, wildcard entries featuring gifted amateurs slugging it out with the pros. A quick look through Transworld Anything would have foretold the success of the idea to the mountain sport set – all pictures, all the time – and if imitation is truly the sincerest form of flattery, the Showdown should be blushing. You can’t attend a mountain festival these days without stumbling over a photo show. Nice touch.

But what have you done for me lately?

Well, that was then, this is now. How do you keep the party fresh?

"It would be the kiss of death if people came back and it was the same old thing," Doug mused. "That’s why rigid events of years past have gone through their cycle of being well-attended and then forgotten about. Anything with a little bit of dust on it is gone. We have to make this festival the showcase of everything innovative. The key is to make sure events are designed largely by the athletes and artists."

Burning brightly on this year’s horizon is the Filmmaker’s Showdown, an event that wouldn’t even have been technically possible just a few years ago. The concept is stunningly simple and the "Wow" potential almost unlimited.

"We’re inviting everyone and anyone, amateur, professional or teams, to shoot and produce an original film in 72 hours." What could be simpler?

Jim Budge, Whistler’s original video guy, and one of the people who helped flesh out the idea, explained. "Technology’s changed everything. With an iMac and a digital video camera, anyone can make films that would have taken a huge editing suite just a few years ago. After a couple of hours instruction, my three year old daughter was mixing images with sound. Unknowns, kids with a great idea and a great eye will have a chance at winning this contest."

What they’ll have to do to win is produce a finished, scored, four-and-a-half minute film shot in and around Whistler. Imagination is the key element in this contest. A review committee, headed by Peter Rowe, head of Canada’s Directors’ Guild, will sift through the entries and choose the best six. They’ll be screened before a go-wild crowd who will, no doubt, influence a panel of judges charged with choosing the ultimate winner. With the techy-toys available on any worthwhile computer these days, you might find a compilation of the Best of Whistler films on a CD in your stocking this Christmas.

For those whose tastes run to films that take longer than 72 hours to make, Mike Todd is bringing a selection of films from last fall’s Sawtooth Film Festival. All of them sound great but two of them scream "Don’t miss this."

Unizaba is a 10 minute film that features some crazy guy named Kris Holm cycling down the face of a Mexican volcano, El Pico de Orizaba . No, this is not just another yawner of a mountain biking film. Kris only rides one wheel – a unicycle. You can figure out the rest for yourself.

And indulgent doesn’t even begin to describe Matchstick Productions’ Boat Trip . Think of skiing the best, untracked mountains along British Columbia’s inner passage. Think of being able to pick and choose which ones catch your fancy. You’d need a helicopter, of course. Say, an A-Star. And you’d need someplace to stay. How about a 110 foot yacht with your own private chef, hot tub, bottomless fridge… get the picture? Now go back to the pathetic hovel you live in and re-examine you life. Where did you go wrong?

Okay, man does not live by film alone. Don’t worry; Doug’s got you covered. He hasn’t forgotten about the on-mountain events. "We’re going to see an amazing World Skiing Invitational. A couple of years ago, if you were caught on a pair of skis you were simply not cool. That’s changed. There’s been this incredible rebirth of skiing.

"The skiers have been crying ‘Give us a chance’ for a couple of years. Well, now they’ve got it. We’re going to see the skiers’ Big Air take the grand finale on the second weekend of the festival and the snowboarders’ Big Air moved up to an opening event. I’m expecting to see some pretty amazing tricks from both of them."

Following with the theme of freeskiers going boldly where no skiers have gone before, there will be a Superpipe and Superhit competition this year, earlier the same day. All the usual suspects on the freeskier circuit will be showing the snowboarders what can be done in the park when two feet move independently of each other.

And providing a soundtrack to the whole festival, Special K has, as usual, put together a lineup of live music acts described as, "Simply the best bands you’ve never heard." Asked for her personal faves, she hesitantly suggested 3 rd Strike and Ozomatli were not to be missed. Then in the same breath and with no audible punctuation, tacked on the name of every other act in the lineup before melting down and suggesting anyone who missed any of these groups was obviously on an express bus to Codgerville, probably humming old Grateful Dead tunes in his head. I think she was referring to me but I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.

The rest of the distractions we’ve come to know and look forward to will also be back this year. The Pro Photographer Showdown will blow our minds with images we thought were impossible to catch on film. The snowboarders will wow us with their Big Air, pipe and park antics. Skateboarders and BMXers will more or less defy gravity in the Vert Zone. The Doggie Parade will be as cute as a 100-strong pack of dressed-up dogs can be. The Battle of the Ski Schools is back, making us all wonder why we can’t ski that well. And on and on.

Of course, there will also be virtually every single snowtoy maker in the world hawking their latest and greatest inventions, pressing the flesh, rewarding their best producers and holding some of the best parties you’re not invited to. Local’s hint: Crash early, crash often.

And the village will be temporarily converted into a logo farm with tents and marquees showcasing everything from cell phones to cereal. Somebody’s got to pay the bills for this party.

If you live here and see this circus every year, it’s easy to lose sight of just what an extravaganza it really is. Hell, rumour has it even one of the partners in this enterprise doesn’t fully understand what an important event it is. Any other resort in North America – or the world for that matter – would gladly lose body parts to call the WSSF home.

Skiing in Argentina last June with Brad Fayfield, publisher of Freeskier magazine, helped put it in perspective for me. We talked about a lot of things on that trip but somehow, we kept coming back to the festival; it was one of Brad’s favourite topics. His enthusiasm was boundless, not just because his magazine is a sponsor, but because he believed the festival was nothing short of incredible. I’ll let him have the last word.

"Skiing and snowboarding are as much about lifestyle as they are about riding. And when it comes to melding the two, Whistler throws down harder than any resort in North America. Add a festival like WSSF to the mix, and Whistler's untouchable."

Cool, eh?