The last and only other time I went skiing was on a second-grade field trip to Blue Mountain.
At the time, I had trouble wrapping my head around the concept of hurtling oneself down an ice-covered rock armed with nothing more than an intense fear of God and two disturbingly sharp sticks.
Is this supposed to be fun? I wondered. Or an intricate plot by my school to off the very children it had sworn to nurture into adulthood?
My sinking paranoia was instantly confirmed later in the day. As I was perfecting the timeless art of Pizza/French Fry, I caught sight of a classmate's probably lifeless body being ushered away on a snowmobile.
Sarah had a little accident, kids. You probably won't see her at school for a few weeks.
But I knew better.
So to say I had a little trepidation about hitting the slopes again after my self-imposed ski sabbatical would be a vast understatement. I had spent three-and-a-half years in Canada's winter mecca, but had never so much as set foot in a ski boot. (I'll wait while you pick your jaws off the floor.) I can't tell you the difference between a Cake Hole and a Flute Bowl, and the only black diamond I'm familiar with goes inside a grilled cheese sandwich.
Most people come here to ski. But there's a small minority who come to Whistler for different reasons. For me and my fellow reporters — Braden Dupuis and Dan Falloon — it was a career calling. Our close proximity to a world-class ski resort was simply icing on the cake. All three of us being relatively new to the sport, we decided it was high-time to put down the pen and pick up some poles. So we approached Whistler Blackcomb (WB) about heading up for a day on the mountain.
In the interest of mirroring the experience an average group of new skiers might have here, we got the full treatment; we hit up the rental shop, took a private lesson, ripped some runs, and, to top it all off, we ventured to the local watering hole for a little après sesh. We're just committed to quality journalism like that.
So without further adieu, strap on a GoPro and shred along with us gapers as we slide, glide and stumble our way though a little fresh pow. Only God can save us now.
FINDING THE RIGHT FIT
This may or may not surprise you, but not everyone from Saskatchewan can send it like Mark McMorris.
While I usually went "skiing" once or twice a winter, it never became anything more than a novelty (and I use the term skiing lightly, because I've been told by many since arriving in Whistler that Saskatchewan skiing is not, in fact, skiing).
The closest ski hill was more than an hour away and consisted of a single T-bar lift and four precarious runs.
Before moving to Whistler, it had been 10 years since the last time I strapped on a pair of skis.
As a non-skier, the concept of choosing gear is maybe the most daunting aspect of heading up the mountain.
Starting out, you're largely at the mercy of your rental shop — and that's a good thing if you can't pronounce any of the ski brands and have no idea what you're looking for.
In our case, once the necessary forms are filled out and signed, we're shuffled through a painless but mildly humbling assembly line of gear fitting.
The only knowledge I provide is my shoe size (13, I think) and expertise level (beginner, undoubtedly).
"You want your toes to be touching the end, but not painfully so," our boot fitter Olivia says, before instructing us to try them standing up.
"The boots are actually not designed for when you're sitting down," she explains. "So when you bend your knee and then your heel kind of slides back... that's how the boot is actually going to fit."
So far, so good.
The next step is the all-important skis, and my technician Tomas has some very important questions for me: Do I have a preference for skis, and do I have any experience with a specific style of ski?
I answer a confused no to both questions, and before long I'm issued the same pair of Rossignol Experience 84s as my fellow Jerrys.
The next step is helmets — "to protect our precious brain juice," Dan says wisely — and as he walks away from the fitting zone I offer some helpful advice.
"Don't die," I say.
"That's the plan," Dan answers.
"Dan looks so natural in a helmet," Brandon adds, once out of earshot.
Life (and Ski) Lessons
Once we were all geared up, it was time to hit the slopes, although I'm not sure the soft undulations of the Learning Area really qualify.
We were introduced to our instructor for the day, Luke Mortner, the man who would be entrusted not only with imparting the knowledge he's gained after 10 seasons as a ski guide but also no less precious a commodity than our very lives. (See our Q&A with Luke below.)
One of the first things we noticed about Luke was his customized WB name tag — instead of being billed from his native London, England, the tag read "From a Galaxy Far, Far Away." Was he just a giant Star Wars nerd, or an intergalactic angel sent from the cosmos to usher us off this mortal coil? There was no way of knowing for sure.
BB: So guys, what was going through your heads as you rode the Magic Carpet for the first time?
DF: I was definitely a little tripped out and a little worried about getting swallowed up, since you see the devastation escalators can cause. (Well, maybe that's just in horror movies.) But it was definitely a good spot to pick Luke's brain for tips and to find out a little more about him, too. But later on, especially when taking it on my own, it got to be a little tedious, especially being four minutes and 17 seconds long without stopping. (Yeah, I timed it. I'm a dork like that.) It was longer when there were stoppages since all the sweet pow would jam it up. I was thrown off-balance pretty much every time it jerked into inertia and was worried I might snap my shins, but I never did, thankfully.
BD: When I went up earlier this year, I approached the Magic Carpet and expressed my slight terror to the guy watching over it. "It's just a carpet," he told me. Wise words if I've ever heard them. That was all the confidence I needed.
BB: At one point in the day, I saw a French-Canadian toddler in a Finding Nemo helmet burst into tears at the sight of the carpet. I know that pain.
DF: Just keep swimming, Brandon.
BD: My five-minute carpet ride was used for questioning all of my life decisions up to that point. But when we reached the top I was clearly the most advanced out of the three of us. Not even close.
BB: The carpet is nothing if not a grand metaphor for life: An excruciatingly slow-moving, monotonous ride carrying us to our next catastrophic failure.
BB: So what pearls of wisdom did you pick up from Luke in the Learning Area?
DF: For once in my slovenly life, hunching forward was not only accepted but encouraged in order to gain speed and avoid a wipeout. (Anyone who knows me will find this hard to believe but I didn't go down once the whole day, though there were a couple close calls.) But the biggest thing for me was learning to control the speed. When I went up last spring with my dad and sister, I got out of control more times than I'd care to remember and if I didn't go down by accident, I went down intentionally to avoid a more serious crash downhill. But by putting weight on the outside foot and then double-tapping the inside foot when making a turn, I was controlling my speed much better. I did much better putting weight on my right side than on my left side, though, which nearly brought me down a couple times.
BD: Once we got to the top of the Olympic Chair I learned that Brandon loves to host yard sales. His prices can't be beat.
BB: EVERYTHING MUST GO! Whatever, I can't help being a speed demon. Sometimes you gotta live life on the edge. Also, my geriatric ankles prevented me from Pizza-ing effectively, so every time I started to pick up some steam, my epic man-mass propelled me into yet another spill. Luke very quickly sent me back to the Learning Area — I was just too reckless (Read: Badass) for my own good.
BD: No judgment here. I ditched my skis on one particularly frosty biff. Some teenagers made fun of me from the chairlift above when they saw me struggling to get them back on. Hey kids, if you're reading this, I have a message for you: shut up.
BB: Damn Millennials.
THE SHAME GAME
Beyond the obvious physical and financial limitations at play, one of the biggest things that has kept me off the mountain for so long is the fear that I'm going to do something stupid. Although it's probably more accurate to say I'm afraid of being ridiculed for doing something stupid — a constant threat when you're as uncoordinated and inexperienced as I unfortunately am. And in a sport where disparaging newbies is not only accepted but a thriving online phenomenon — the popular Instagram account Jerry of the Day has at last count amassed over 370,000 followers and has been featured in just about every major ski publication under the sun — it makes you wonder how many potential skiers have been turned off of the sport. "Skiing is already an intimidating enough sport as it is; It's cold, the gear's uncomfortable and the last thing we need is to increase that intimidation factor by shaming or making people who are new to the sport feel bad because they're not carrying their skis the right way," says Powder Magazine executive editor John Clary Davies, who last month penned a divisive column "In Defense of Jerry" that called out the culture of shaming in the ski world. Laughing at the expense of gapers is nothing new, of course; Legendary ski filmmaker Warren Miller's bunny hill clips go back decades. But the Internet has offered up some prime digital real estate for the trend to flourish.
It also doesn't help stave off the long-held notion that skiing is a pastime of the (mostly white) upper crust.
But Davies offered up a glimmer of hope.
"The skiers I know and the skiers Powder speaks to are a different breed. It's not about elitism; they've committed their lives to skiing and they've found a way to keep skiing at the forefront of what they do.
"Skiing was really founded on this sense of freedom, on rock n' roll and letting go and just doing you. The shaming feels contradictory to that."
TAKING IT TO THE LIMIT
After we had lunch at the Roundhouse, Luke and I decided to finally ditch the Jerrys in favour of some sweet turns down the mountain.
Luke said he'd take me to Ego Bowl — I'm not 100 per cent sure, but I think it was named that way because that's where all the best skiers meet to try out their tricks, hence stoking their egos.
And after a morning of Magic Carpeting I was ready to show my stuff.
Luke and I made our way down the mountain together in perfect harmony, as if we'd been skiing together our entire lives. For every smooth-as-butter turn he made I was right there in his tracks, mirroring his style with effortless grace.
For anyone watching, they must have been confused over who was teaching who!
Luke gave me some tips — arms forward, lean into the downslope of the mountain with each turn, dictate your turns with your poles, etc. — real beginner stuff that I totally already knew.
But just to humour him and make sure he didn't feel like a lesser skier than I, I mimicked the moves as he laid them down.
Building the various pointers one on top of the other was very helpful. I mean, it would have been, for someone less skilled than the two of us.
Before long, we arrived at the Enchanted Forest — terrain marked exclusively for only the best, most promising skiers.
It wasn't easy, and I'll admit the Enchanted Forest really tested all of my skills, but like every good skier, I love a challenge.
Luke told me that when you're learning to ski, you want to be constantly pushing the envelope as your ability progresses, and blurring the line between confident comfort and pants-shitting terror.
We were often closer to soiled pants than confident comfort, but that's just the way I like it.
When things were about to get extra steep and hairy, Luke and I would stop to discuss what we were about to tackle — just two ski buddies, conquering the mountain using nothing but our wits (and hundreds of dollars of ski equipment).
I obviously didn't need the additional warnings and pointers but I can see how they would be helpful to someone less advanced than the two of us.
Even with my encyclopedic ski knowledge and peak physical fitness, Luke's pointers had clearly benefited my technique by the time we rejoined the Jerrys in the Learning Area.
I was impressed. I don't plan on getting married anytime soon but if I do I might ask Luke to be my best man. I have a feeling he's the type of guy who makes everyone around him better.
**EDITOR'S NOTE: Braden's account during this period cannot be verified.
THE JERRY WRANGLER
The following interview with Luke, who, it should be said, is a rockstar, has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Q: What's your strategy for dealing with people like Brandon who are extremely uncoordinated and awful skiers?
It's all about baby steps. That's the key. At one end, it's reading the student. It's all about pushing the envelope and making sure something's in that challenge zone where it's not boring and it's not scary. That's sometimes where that skill lies in going, 'Do we push him forward? Are they ready to move on?' Or, 'Are they the kind of person you see who are pretty gung-ho, but aren't a million per cent there, but let's put them on something a little steeper,' and those skills will start to develop.
Q: Is your approach to teaching pretty universal across all nationalities, cultures, etc.?
We all have similar fears and most normal people have a slight trepidation around doing something new. Whether it's skiing or it's snowboarding, everyone makes quite similar mistakes.
It's about getting people to trust the equipment, which we're doing today, and understanding some of those basic skills you need.
Q: Do you find private lessons are a good way to remove some of the barriers that prevent people from getting into the sport?
Yes... You might have somebody come all the way from the U.K. or Europe or somewhere like that. They paid a lot of money for flights, accommodation, transport and the rental gear, and at the very last minute... they decide, 'We won't bother taking a lesson.' They've just spent five days here and they've got so close, and the learning experience would be so much less painful, quicker and more enjoyable rather than doing trial and error for five days.
Q: How much progress can a skier make with you in, say, a week?
You can go from nothing to a blue run in a week, for sure. But it's also that, 'how long is a piece of string?' question because you're dealing with different human beings. A 16-year-old lad who skateboards is going to progress a lot quicker than a 50-year-old mom. Sometimes it's a caution thing, and sometimes you have to throw caution to the wind. Some people who are more timid are going to take a lot longer to progress.
From Never Ever to Forever
WB certainly gave us the royal treatment not only because we were documenting our trials and tribulations, I'm sure, but also in the hopes of retaining the three of us as customers for as long as we're here.
My downhill experience before moving to Whistler was all of one day as a tween at Winnipeg's Springhill Winter Sports Park — which at a whopping 130 vertical feet (40 vertical metres) earned its derisive nickname of Springditch. But as a prairie boy, I put my sporting eggs into the flatlander sports baskets of hockey, curling and baseball.
Reining in myself and my compatriots would be a win, as ski resorts are always looking to bring in beginners, according to outgoing Canada West Ski Areas Association (CWSAA) president and CEO David Lynn. In recent seasons, different mountains have put forth enticing offerings to hook those who may have missed out earlier in life.
"Those kind of programs are, in my mind, critical to the future of the sport, because there are barriers to entry. We compete with other sports obviously, other winter sports, and we also compete with things that are completely unrelated to our industry," Lynn told Pique in an earlier interview. "You can't be complacent, and you have to find ways to keep people involved in the sport and to keep young people interested in the sport."
WB is at the forefront of the movement, as the mountain pioneered Never Ever Days, which recently ran on Jan. 9 and 10. Adult ski school general manager Bartosz Barczynski explains the day-long excursion includes a Level 1 Max4 lesson, rentals and lift ticket for $25. In its five years, over 2,000 new skiers have been introduced to skiing or snowboarding.
Barczynski says the program retains over 30 per cent of its participants, whereas the industry average is between 16 and 18 per cent. Rolling out the red carpet and providing top-of-the-line equipment and instruction is a major factor, he says, and the employees know they need to be at the top of their game.
"Our pros believe in it," he says. "We have a little pep rally with all the pros prior to the Never Ever Day weekend and we stress the next few days are going to be the future of the sport and of their livelihood.
"If the adults are doing it, then the chances of their kids doing it greatly increases," he adds.
WB offers retention deals to the new participants, while Discover Whistler Days during slower times of the season offer Max4 lessons at 25-per-cent off.
Big White Ski Resort near Kelowna and Mount Washington Alpine Resort near Courtenay have subsequently added Never Ever Days to their programming and Barczynski hopes to see the Canadian Ski Council pick it up to make it a nationwide option.
Other Canadian resorts offer deals for newbies, with Blue Mountain Resort near Collingwood, Ont. boasting beginner packages starting at $69 plus tax. Public relations manager Tara Lovell says the hill offers lessons in a Discover Skiing and Snowboarding drop-in format with mobility, turning/linking and stopping stations to provide flexibility from the structured hour-long lessons. The format has been used for roughly 10 years, with about 80 per cent of the participants being new Canadians aged 25 or older.
"You can do an hour and if you find, for your learning ability or whatever you're comfortable with, you're at a certain stage and you think 'I need to stay at this and figure out this stopping thing before I move on,' you can hang out there for a bit and then you can graduate. Or you can come back to a spot if you have to go in for a warm-up or connect with your friends and come back to something you want to keep practicing," she says. "It makes it easier for people to work at their own pace."
One longstanding program to get kids — and potentially their parents — to the hill is the Canadian Ski Council's SnowPass program, which has introduced over 600,000 Grade 4 and 5 students to mountain sports in its 19 years, including 26,000 this year. For $29.95, children receive three days of skiing at all participating resorts — over 150 in all.
"We felt if we could knock down more of the barriers, it might encourage more families to actually get out there and really enjoy the sport," SnowPass coordinator Randy Swain says.
Though he couldn't provide exact numbers, Swain says the program has been successful in getting young people to carry on with the sport. One major factor is the age of the children when they get drawn in, as they are beginning to form their own opinions, he notes. As well, many families, particularly from Ontario, will travel out-of-province because they have the pass.
More information is available at snowpass.ca.
Resorts of the Canadian Rockies (RCR), which operates six destinations in Canada, offers a Community Ski Day at its resorts in Fernie, Golden and Kimberley. All residents receive a free day of skiing. As well, among other lift ticket and rental discounts, the company offers a free Fun Pass to Grade 2 students to experience its B.C. and Alberta resorts.
-Dan Falloon with files from Braden Dupuis
Back in Black's
Finally, the portion of the day where we are all rather experienced — après!
A day on the mountain must have worn Braden down pretty quickly, since he was nearly a pitcher deep by the time Brandon and I showed up to Black's Pub as the GLC pub was closed for a private party. But we caught up quickly enough, reminiscing on the day — our successes and failures, our pride and our pain.
The pub didn't seem laden with folks who had spent their day on the slopes, as they inhabited the other Skier's Plaza watering holes Braden checked out while trying to dodge the former potential pow that had transformed into driving rain.
But even if we couldn't eavesdrop on others boasting or bemoaning the day's war stories, we still had plenty of our own to share as we enjoyed some well-earned brews (that seemed to go right through me and make me pee so much).
Finally, exhausted, we all went our separate ways for a little naprès.