"Talent is God-given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful"
- Legendary basketball coach John Wooden
He was never really comfortable in the spotlight. Shy and retiring in public — a man of few words at the best of times — the young Quebecois was the last person you'd pick out of a crowd of big-mountain skiers as the man to beat. He just didn't look the part — way too low-key to be competitive. Far too humble.
But put him on his skis... and the whole equation changed. For that, my friends, was when Hugo Harrisson became seriously eloquent.
I still remember well the first time I saw Hugo ski. It was in January of 1998, during Whistler's inaugural IFSA Freeskiing World Cup event. It was early in the qualifying rounds and the international cast of competitors was showing the judges their stuff on Blackcomb's Chainsaw Ridge. There was a lot of talent on the mountain that day — skiing was in full renaissance and the start list read like a freeride Who's-Who — which made our judging that much more difficult. Cutting this field by two-thirds would not be a simple task.
Fortunately, some skiers made it easy. Like the kid with the duct-taped ski pants and grotty anorak who'd just carved up Chainsaw like it was some super-groomed race hill. I'd never seen anyone ski exposed offpiste terrain like that before. So clean. So poised. So dynamic. And when he jumped... yeah... the guy flew twice as far as anybody else. There was boldness to his skiing that day — an in-your-face self-confidence — that was as refreshing to me as a glass of ice-cold water after a long, hot ride. This kid, it was clear, was moving on to the next round.
And thus began the proskiing career of Hugo Harrisson.
Another memory: Introducing myself later that day to Hugo and his posse — Robin Courcelles, Slinky Gerard and company — and marvelling at their passion... and their poverty. These guys, I quickly realized, were virtual ski monks. They ate, slept, breathed skiing. The rest was inconsequential.
"It's funny to think about that time now," says Harrisson. "The only reason I entered that freeski contest was because it was being held at Whistler." He stops. His smile turns to a quiet chuckle. "I was so poor then.... Just barely able to ski and eat. Even the entry fee was a stretch..."
Harrisson didn't win that first event. In fact, he crashed in spectacular fashion during the final run in Diamond Bowl. But the line he chose to ski that day — and his Icarus-like leap to fame — will remain etched in my brain forever. "I kinda knew I wasn't going to stick that jump," he says with a nearly straight face. "I was going so fast and flying so far..." He bursts into laughter. "I mean, I was skiing on Dynastar Bigs... with store-bought 12-DIN bindings. There was no way those springs were going to absorb the impact." A few beats go by. "Still, I'm pretty sure I would have stuck it if my bindings had held."
Like the other judges, I had Hugo framed in my binoculars through the whole sequence. And I think he would have stuck his landing. I'm not so sure about the next turn though...
But that's neither here nor there. For within a year, the 21-year old had risen to the top of the world's very competitive freeski standings. Indeed, Harrisson's hard-charging, offpiste-racer style pretty much re-defined the sport. And it was as far from the smear-turn and hip-check style popularized in the ski-media du jour as you could get.
Maybe that's why he was so loved in Europe. The young Whistlerite had skiing soul. He was hip. He was cool. He was like a jazz lick on a sultry night. Ah, but I digress...
The early years of the new century were all Hugo's. Following closely in (Whistlerite) Jeff Holden's footsteps, Harrisson was crowned overall World Freeski Champion three years in a row (2001-2003). He became a film star with iconic companies like Teton Gravity, Matchstick Productions and France's Nuit de la Glisse. Did consulting work on freeride skis for the prestigious Rossignol group. Made VIP appearances around the world. I mean, for a while there, he was The Man. A true skiing celebrity. And then one day, he just walked away from it.
Injuries played a role in his decision. Don't they always? But it was more than that. "Something inside changed when I became a dad," explains the 36-year old Pemberton resident. "I guess I just lost my hunger for putting myself on the edge like I once did. To be honest — it kind of took the fun out of it." He sighs. "I guess it was the realization that I now had bigger responsibilities..."
Hang on a second. I've gotten ahead of myself again. Let's take a few steps back.
"Well," he begins. "I guess it all started when I blew my knee out in 2007." He takes a long breath. That injury, my friends, was a traumatic one... let's just say Hugo's lucky that it didn't turn out worse. "After my surgery, I knew I wouldn't be skiing for a while," continues Hugo. "But I had some money set aside, so I decided to partner up with a friend and build a spec house in Tofino. My friend was the one with the building skills... me not so much... so it was a real learning opportunity for me."
Hugo spent the next five summers in Tofino. "From May to November," he says. " I became a pretty good carpenter, too." That's also where he met Marie-Helene, another Quebecoise who had moved west... but in her case for the surf not the snow.
"We hit it off pretty good", says Hugo in his typical understated manner. Indeed — so "good" did the skier and the surfer hit it off that it wasn't long before they were starting a family. "As soon as Marie-Helene got pregnant, I dragged her back with me to Pemberton," he confesses. And shrugs. "It was a bit of an adjustment for her... Especially since I was back doing my pro skier thing. But this is a pretty cool place to raise kids. So it worked out."
Must have. For the couple now have two sons. Sebastien, their first, is four years old. Xavier, the youngest, is only two. "It kinda snuck up on me when Marie-Helene was pregnant with Xav," he says. "Suddenly my old 'risk-it-all-on-every-run' way of skiing didn't work for me. And I knew it was time to leave all that behind."
But what to do? He was already over the Tofino construction thing. "It's a tough career," he admits. "And not all that healthy a lifestyle." But now that he was dumping most of his ski income — how would he keep his family afloat?
That's when fate decided to intervene. Says Hugo: "I ran into a former Pemberton neighbour of mine, Kevin Sibbald, and he told me the RMOW was looking for new summer trail crew workers. So I immediately applied." Too late, they told him; they'd already filled the posts. "But later in the season — I guess some people had quit — they got back in touch with me. Was I still interested in applying for a trail crew posting, they asked. I didn't even hesitate..."
The new job, he says, is like a dream come true. "The people I work with are cool. It's seasonal and mostly outside work, which I love. And the stuff we're doing — you know, trail maintenance and bridge building and projects like that — to me, it's really meaningful." Another pause. He smiles. "I'm so passionate about this job, I'll even spend some of my own free time completing unfinished work."
And then he says something really interesting. "You know, 20 years from now, we'll be hiking or riding along a trail and we'll stop at some random old bridge and I'll be able to say: 'Did you know I built this bridge twenty years ago?'" He lets another few beats pass. "Cool, eh?"
Now I don't want to leave you with the wrong impression. Hugo did drop out of the pro skier lifestyle. But he didn't drop out of high-performance skiing altogether. "I'm still into exploring the local peaks," he admits. Take last April's epic snowmobile expedition to Plinth Mountain with Pierre Yves Leblanc, Curtis Kroy and Will Goodwin.
"It's the biggest face I've ever skied," Hugo confides. "Spine central! And it's super exposed... as impressive as anything I've seen in Alaska." He stops. His eyes shine with excitement. "We skied 7,000 feet of vertical that day. It was awesome and scary and totally draining... and if it hadn't been for Curtis' snowmobile skills, we would have never made it." Another pause. Another ear-to-ear grin. "And yet, there it stands, right in our own backyard..."
Ah, but that's a whole other story.