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Steep Measures

A look back at the legendary Saudan Couloir Ski Race Extreme, which makes its return after a 17-year hiatus

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Though it was against his will—and better judgment—Dave "Dr. Damage" Clement ultimately kept his unwritten rule intact at the inaugural Saudan Couloir Ski Race Extreme in 1987.

That rule? That he would never organize a race he wouldn't do himself.

With a maximum 42-degree angle to kick off the proceedings, the Couloir on Blackcomb Mountain was a treacherous challenge, especially with some of the other hazards on the course.

"The first thing they do on a guy like that is they make you the first forerunner. You're now the guinea pig," Clement said during a presentation at the Whistler Museum in late March. "I have a downhill suit on, 215 super-Gs ... no helmet, and I was the first forerunner.

"The top part, I thought I was doing pretty good. I got through the steep section quite well. Then as I started to flatten out, I was picking up a lot of speed.

"Then, I hit the berm (the groomers) left ... I did a double heel release at full speed and all I remember is blue, white, blue, white, blue, white."

That "bloodbath," as Clement referred to it, left the hundreds of fans who had trekked up the Couloir—lured by CFMI-FM announcer Don Andrews' siren song of "2,500 feet of thigh-burning hell"—cheering and screaming.

It also was a fitting opening moment for the wild race, which ran 15 times until its swan song in 2001.

For the first time in nearly two decades, a hardy crew of athletes ranging from former national ski racers like Robbie Dixon and Marie-Pier Prefontaine, to big-mountain skiers like Callum Pettit and overall legends like Brett Tippie, will test their mettle as part of the World Ski and Snowboard Festival (WSSF). The race is set to run on April 14, with the first racer dropping in at 11 a.m. (WSSF organizers have stressed that the schedule is weather permitting, and that the race could be moved a day earlier, to April 13.)

Starting out

In the mid-1980s, Blackcomb Mountain was starting to make some inroads on Whistler Mountain's dominance after the latter had a 15-year headstart on building its brand and attracting skiers to the resort.

Clement, then in Blackcomb's marketing department, and race co-founder Dave Perry sought to build an event that would create some buzz and help Blackcomb slip out from under the shadow of the resort's namesake slopes.

Over beers one night (Clement jokes a 12-pack was consumed, with him polishing off 11 of them), he and Perry started dreaming of the course that would eventually strike terror in the hearts of ski racers the world over. It would hold 75 gates, beginning in the Saudan Couloir before traversing into Blowdown and Hooker, and finishing in the Jersey Cream flats.

"We looked toward the Saudan and Dave Perry and I said, 'Well, what can we do with that?'" Clement recalled during his Whistler Museum presentation. "People were starting to think about things that were a little different.

"We knew we were going to draw attention from some of the crazies, and there were a lot of them in Whistler at the time."

Blackcomb was relatively progressive for its era, welcoming snowboarders at a time when Whistler wouldn't, and once brewing behemoth Labatt came onboard as a sponsor, the race was an easy sell to Blackcomb's powers-that-were.

Air Canada also came on as a sponsor in the first year, donating three trips that organizers awarded in a random draw. Clement says the airline and other eventual supporters came in through its connections to other major players like Labatt and Blackcomb.

Steve Legge, who headed up the mountain's alpine race department at the time, says the spring season in the mid-1980s didn't have the same level of hustle and bustle as today with events like the WSSF and Whistler Cup, so the race would slot in perfectly around Easter.

"At the time, Whistler and Blackcomb were competing for market share and we wanted to have a big year-end event," he says.

The event's timing made it possible to attract some high-level competitors, like Chris Kent and Gary Athans, early on. Both had recently retired from the national alpine team, while active Canadian competitors were also available after their World Cup seasons had wrapped.

Setting a course

While the safety considerations 30 or so years ago were, for lack of a better expression, laxer than today, Legge stresses keeping athletes in one piece was a major consideration from the get-go.

"You're negotiating how you're going to get the racers down safely through the rocks to the moraine," Legge says. "The course was pretty much there, we were just negotiating how we were going to get everyone down safely and at the same time, race."

At a time when a toque was considered just as good as a helmet, it was still of the utmost importance to ensure the skiers, snowboarders and Telemarkers taking part avoided the myriad rocky obstacles on their way down. Having organized numerous other events before going to the extreme, Clement knew for all its boundary pushing, racing on the Couloir was "doable" if done properly.

"We were very careful. We knew where the rocks were. We knew the snow. Our concern was making it safe, but a challenge," Clement says.

Other practical considerations included how to time each racer accurately without modern technology like computer chips and iPads. Legge says each racer set off in one-minute intervals and their starting and finishing times were used to calculate the interval. The low-tech system otherwise involved pens, waterproof paper, and a plethora of volunteers ensuring any on-course passes were noted and reported.

"Accuracy of timing was what my staff was incredibly astute to," Legge says.

The event also included a seeding race prior to the main event, so the faster competitors would drop first and the rest of the field would find themselves in pursuit. In theory, it was meant to minimize the number of passes on the track as well.

The first year

The aforementioned Chris Kent, the inaugural Saudan winner and three-time champion overall, admits he didn't fully grasp the course until the second-last running of the event, in 2000.

Speaking at the Whistler Museum, he recalls flubbing an early gate, but afterwards, put together the best race of his life. His reward? Taking second place to Rob Boyd by 11 hundredths of a second.

In a previous sit-down interview, Kent acknowledges that, in 1987, he didn't even race of his own accord—his then-girlfriend registered them both to take part.

Even in the start gate, Kent recalls having an uneasy feeling—the result of, as many racers including Kent refer to, a tightened sphincter—normally associated with the most challenging courses on the World Cup circuit.

"I have to treat this like Kitzbuhel because if you go half-assed into that course, it won't work. You've got to go full commitment," he says. "You're looking through your ski tips and going, 'Oh my God, what did I sign myself up for?'

"It was such a bizarre race course. None of us knew who was going to be the kind of skier that would win. Obviously, you have to finish first, and beyond that, you have to ski it reasonably clean.

"When I hit the flats that were less than halfway down, I was going, 'Oh my God, there's no way I can finish. I'm breathing so hard.'"

Kent remembers the bottom section being "very relentless," with nowhere to rest for even a moment. Though Whistler Mountain's Peak to Valley Race, which officially began in 1985, took over twice as long to complete, the sheer intensity of the Ski Race Extreme upped the level of difficulty and exertion required.

"I coughed for a week after that," he recalls. "I got what I call 'Couloir gullet' because my throat was raw for a week every time I raced."

The first couple years set the course all over the mountain and led to finishing times of roughly two-and-a-half minutes, though Kent explains other extenuating circumstances, like weather and snow conditions, also had an effect.

"You consider a World Cup giant slalom and that takes you to the max, and it's a minute and 10 (seconds), or a minute and 20," he says.

It wasn't just pros like Kent that showed up every year. Wayne "Cog" Coughlin was one of the age-group competitors who displayed true dedication to the race.

The Pemberton resident, who had a lengthy 26-year career as a groomer on Blackcomb, raced in the Couloir each and every time it was offered.

The schedules didn't always align, though, as Coughlin recalls the first edition of the race, when he worked a midnight shift on the mountain before heading to the Couloir to get in on the action.

"By the time I got off shift, I got to ski dead last. The ruts were absolutely ginormous. It was an awesome ride top to bottom, and it was a great party afterwards and a really fun race to be part of," Coughlin says, adding that Kent was always there, rooting on his fellow competitors after finishing his own run. "I got off work about 10:30, a quarter to 11, put my gear on and got to the top of the Couloir as quick as I could.

"It was a wild ride and I'm glad I made it down."

During his Whistler Museum presentation, Clement recalled how Nancy Greene Raine, champion alpine racer and now a Senator, first tapped him with her ski poles before the race encouraging him to call it off for safety reasons. A few competitors in, she tapped him again to express her frustration with how they were approaching the course, eventually doing a demo herself, going wide and banking off the sides, setting off a collective 'Aha!' moment.

A national spectacle

It didn't take long for the race to grab a foothold in the Whistler community. As Legge recalls, in the second year of the race, all the spots were filled in two hours, and then the third edition took all of eight minutes to sell out.

"We had people phoning in. There was no internet then, so there was no being lazy. You had to get out of bed and come show up at eight in the morning to sign up," Legge says. "Then we opened up the phone lines and it was done."

Add in the partnership of national broadcaster TSN, which filmed and played some editions of the race to a cross-Canada audience, and the legendary local race became a countrywide sensation.

Kent says the race changed over the years, as the course setter has some flexibility in a couple different sections. In one year, there were no gates in the top section of the course, leading to jaw-dropping entrances courtesy of Chris Winter (who backflipped) and Jody Dean (who helicoptered).

As well, one time the Couloir itself was groomed, which left Legge in awe as the machine operators were pressed right up near the front of their vehicles due to the extreme angles.

Racers regularly had to battle weather as extreme as the slopes, with only one edition cancelled because of the elements over the race's history.

"Some of the early ones were just a blizzard—and you made it through," Kent says.

Sandy Belczyk, who raced only twice before settling into family life, looks back on one year when she pulled off an upset win over Kathy Kreiner, the 1976 Canadian giant slalom champion.

One of the race's first major injuries happened before Belczyk was slated to drop in, and any warm-ups she'd just completed were quickly turned moot as she awaited her turn, attacked by wind gusts.

When her number was up, Bekzyk, talented but a relative underdog, defeated Kreiner.

"It was freezing cold and the ruts were out there," she says. "One girl crashed and she ended up breaking her tib-fib (tibia and fibula). It took her ages to get out of there. I'd sent my jacket down to the bottom already.

"I had a lot of support at the top ... there were people rubbing my legs and rubbing my arms."

Coughlin recalls the winds gusting between 60 and 80 kilometres an hour that day.

Pemberton legend Eric Pehota, meanwhile, skied the race only once, holding the lead through much of the course before crashing at the end of Blowdown. It ended up costing him more than just the victory.

"I had this sponsor at the time and they were pretty keen about the race," he says, noting the company had provided goodies like gear and a downhill suit. "Not long after that I crashed and rolled my ankle skiing and they came to my house and took all the gear back.

"I guess I didn't perform up to their expectations," he adds with a laugh.

Creating a community

It's no secret Whistler and Blackcomb were bitter rivals before their 1997 merger, and even to this day, countless veteran resort dwellers and visitors will draw a line in the snow between one and the other.

But Legge says Whistler Mountain employees were often eager to help pull off the race in the iconic Couloir.

"It was a community event," Legge says. "It didn't matter whether you worked on Whistler or Blackcomb."

Longtime local Jorge Alvarez, meanwhile, says the race not only brought together employees of the resort's two major employers, but created unity between those who preferred strapping their feet to one board or two.

"It was strong back then, snowboarders versus skiers, but the town was more cohesive. Everyone who used to live up here and be up here, it was about the skiing," Alvarez says. "They came up to ski, not to party, not to shop, not to conference."

Posterized

In addition to the major Canadian sponsors and TSN playing their role in growing the race, art also helped the Couloir event gain its legendary status.

Starting with the race's second running, Brent Lynch designed posters for the event that quickly became the hot collectible item everyone wanted hanging on their walls.

Legge says the posters, which often incorporated someone wearing a pilot helmet and mask, stressed the need for big air during the race.

The posters themselves soon took on a life of their own. Even recently, Legge, a realtor, was showing a home that had five posters hung up and his thoughts at least partially shifted to trying to strike a bargain for them—only to be denied.

Legge praised Lynch's sense of style and understanding of the race and its culture, both of which helped him design eye-catching visuals to promote the contest.

"Brent was very openminded," Legge says. "The accuracy and detail was second to none. Those posters grew legs real fast."

Alvarez, the owner of Toad Hall Studios, was a big fan of the race and regularly went up to shoot photos. He also collected the posters, but lost much of his memorabilia to a house fire.

Alvarez remembers the thrill of the hunt for non-racers trying to secure themselves one of the infamous posters.

"A lot of us used to look forward to the release of the posters and the challenge of finding them. They weren't for sale anywhere. You had to know somebody in the race department," he says. "It was a scavenger hunt. Have they been printed? Have they arrived? How many are there this year?"It was before the internet. It was all by word of mouth."

So, what lengths did Alvarez go to to get his hands on one?

"If I told you, I'd probably end up in jail," he says. "(By) whatever means, whatever it took.

"Being in the graphic business, for me, it was very important to have one."

Honouring a legend (properly this time)

If the race had started a couple decades earlier and word reached Europe, Sylvain Saudan would almost certainly have crossed the pond to see it with his own eyes.

Now in his 80s, the Swiss skiing legend, a Guinness World Record-holder for skiing the 55-degree Spencer Couloir in Chamonix in 1968, had his name grace both the Couloir and the race itself for the first several years of its existence.

The only problem was that he was initially unaware of the tribute and didn't find satisfaction with Blackcomb's owners when he raised the issue with them in the 1990s.

Speaking from Chamonix, Saudan was eager to let bygones be bygones, but said he was "sad" when he sued Blackcomb's owners to remove his name from the race in the 1990s. The matter was settled out of court.

However, when in Whistler last spring, Saudan began talks with current Whistler Blackcomb owner Vail Resorts, and last November, revealed he and the company had reached an agreement, though he declined to disclose the terms of the deal.

"It's a big honour for me to have my name on a couloir, especially in a ski area like that that's one of the best in North America," he says. "And it means, to me, they have respect for my name.

"It's a good example for the young people who want to ski very steep slopes, to have someone who has done many things and has his name on the couloir."

Saudan will be in Whistler for the race and is excited to be a spectator, knowing how effective the terrain will be at separating the contenders from the pretenders.

"First, it's steep, and many times the snow conditions are very good. And it can be dangerous if the snow is good," he says. "We have to check and know about the snow conditions before we try to ski.

"(It can be hard) to make the right play, to make the right choice."

The end of the party (and the reboot)

From its dizzying heights in the '90s, the then-named Couloir Extreme Race started to decline toward the millennium's end.

Kent says registration tumbled from its capacity of 150 to the 100-to-120 range, which wouldn't cover operational costs. Coupled with the loss of media interest, Whistler Blackcomb couldn't justify continuing the race, and held its final edition in 2001 to give competitors a chance to see it off in style.

"It had run its course," Kent says.

Legge, meanwhile, says snowboarding's ascent diverted the public's attention and hindered the race's popularity.

However, a gradual clamour started to rise in the following years, and in a time when '80s staples ranging from 21 Jump Street to Roseanne are seeing successful reboots, there's no reason why the Saudan Couloir Ski Race Extreme can't be successfully relaunched for a younger generation.

The posters are even making a return, though they won't be a Lynch design. Vancouver artist Morgan Jeske took inspiration from the originals, while also putting his own modern spin on the classics.

Clement, who only worked the inaugural race before moving into a sponsorship role after taking a job with Labatt, says while it was an ambitious effort to get the race started, some of the praise is perhaps a little bit exaggerated.

"I didn't think of it as the most extreme race in North America as they're calling it now. We looked at it and thought, 'That's a challenge and it would be an interesting race to do,'" he says. "We weren't just doing a crazy thing and we thought about it. We must have, because management wouldn't have signed off on it if we hadn't."

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