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The Life of Thrash, and other ski bums

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NFB production profiles Whistlerites who live life on their own terms

What drives a person to give up financial stability just for the thrill of being the first to christen a bowl of fresh powder? What inspires a person to give up creature comforts just for the privilege of mounting a 7,494-foot monster each day? The answer lies in the passion, the spirit and the adrenaline that is captured in Ski Bum, a National Film Board production nearing completion.

The 70-minute documentary profiles half a dozen self-proclaimed Whistler ski bums and explores this counter-culture that lives behind the lights and glitter of an international resort. Filmmakers John Zuritsky and Johnny Thrash have managed to find a huge cross-section of people, each telling a different story, but with a common theme.

Take Mark Ludbrook, a longtime local and dramatic example of the healing power snow can have on the body and soul. As a teenager, Ludbrook lost his left leg in a snowblower accident. He emotionally recalls the moment doctors had to decide whether or not to remove the leg. His only comment: "But then I’ll never ski." The leg was amputated, but with the help of a prosthetic limb, Ludbrook has become not only a ski bum, but also a bronze medallist at the Paralympic Winter Games.

As a hyper-active child, Thrash also found solace on the snow at a young age. Taking on double duty behind and in front of the camera, his story also serves as part of the theme. Thrash’s angle takes the viewer through some of the "higher" points of life in the mountains. Partying, drugs and nudity have been associated with ski bums since the ’60s and Thrash is proof that some traditions never die. Footage from the always popular Pimp and Ho and Barely Whistler parties at Merlin’s graphically illustrates Thrash at his best, as well as the antics of other snow spirits after dark.

"There was some thought that maybe I should just be behind the camera because there was so much to co-ordinate, the action shoots, the interviews, the catering, and then I’d have to turn around the next day and be on camera," says Thrash.

"I wouldn’t hear of it," insists Zuritsky. "What, and miss out on all that great gyroscope footage?"

Gyroscope? Those who have been around the resort for a few years may remember the stunt that ended up with guns drawn. For the rest, you’ll have to wait for the film’s release.

Other familiar faces on screen include Canadian national freestyle team member, Sherry Newstead and extreme sport filmmaker, Christian Begin. The two exude that inexplicable inner glow that only comes from living life on your own terms. They’ve found a certain Zen through balance and motion in nature.

"I think I’m in the top percentile of people who really love their life," enthuses Newstead.

Reaching that peak isn’t easy in an expensive sport for people with little financial means. Surviving the challenges on the mountain is only half the battle. Anyone who’s spent a season in Whistler will appreciate the helpful – and humorous – tips to finding second hand skis, second hand meals and second hand homes.

Finding sex is a bigger problem for the male ski bum, especially in a town with a ratio of seven smelly men for every one specimen of the fairer sex. Thus the beds of ski bums are usually chilly. The film points out the sex may not be reliable, but the mountains are.

Of course Ski Bums also delivers stunning cinematography (with help from Begin), including breathtaking falls and avalanches. But amidst these obvious draws, the film has tremendous appeal even to those who don’t ski or snowboard. Anyone with a lust for quality over quantity in life will understand the pure sense of adventure and excitement Ski Bums communicates.

Perhaps that message comes through so readily because of the film’s creators. Zuritsky and Thrash met at a film industry party in Vancouver two years ago, instantly striking up a friendship and recognizing the career potential each presented the other. Zuritsky had the cameras. Thrash had the story.

"Every party I went to, friends kept saying ‘You have to meet John. He’s been in film forever and I know you would hit it off.’ Finally we were introduced and after the first Corona we were best of friends," laughs Thrash.

Within six months, Zuritsky left behind a career in print (where he has worked all over the world) as well as an extensive portfolio of film noir projects to embark on a fresh idea that would soon become an entire lifestyle. At the age of 58, Zuritsky hardly expected to find himself living with one of the most colourful characters a ski resort has to offer.

"It just gave me a chance to examine him up close," he jokes.

Although the final touches have been put on the film, Zuritsky shows no sign of leaving Whistler and Thrash has no intention of advertising for a new roommate.

"The people were just so much fun to get to know. They really welcomed me into their community," says Zuritsky. "I developed a whole new passion. I’m a ski bum!"

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