When Sue Eckersley eases into the largest, softest, couch in Nita Lake Lodge's Cure Lounge, her trademark wan grin set like a level, it could be construed as a giant sigh. I make no such judgment, however, Eckersley being one of the more inscrutable persons I know. But with snow retreating up the mountain at the speed of the water flowing down, and the 20th incarnation of Whistler's much loved World Ski & Snowboard Festival — an event that has become a virtual season unto itself — nigh, it's clear to Eckersley what I'm thinking.
"It's pretty quiet in the office; people are beavering away but it's not stressful. And I'm happy about the line-up we've got this year," she offers before I've asked, fixing me with those always alive eyes. "Of course... there have been some unique curve balls that I've never seen before; I think the universe signed up a new pitcher."
Indeed five years ago, when snow was plentiful and Telus was still on board as title sponsor, Eckersley, along with presenting partners Tourism Whistler and Whistler Blackcomb, couldn't have imagined the money and weather issues the festival would soon have to surmount. But because events are filled with challenges by their very nature, it's maybe not so surprising. "There are no event-free events," Sue reminds me.
"If it were easy to pull off, what would be interesting and fun about it? Anything worth doing has an element of challenge. Putting the festival together is like doing a giant puzzle — every year a piece or two is missing, sometimes it's from the corner or outer edge, sometimes from the centre."
Fortunately for Eckersley and her dedicated crew at Watermark Communications, the metaphor can be extended positively: each year has made them more expert at solving puzzles, a skill honed not just on the WSSF juggernaut but on the other large-scale events they put on — like Cornucopia (you may have heard of this little wine-and-cheese fête). And much like the good ol' forest-for-the-trees analogy, Eckersley never lets problems get in the way of seeing the bigger festival picture. Especially on so auspicious an occasion.
"I'm so psyched — twenty years and I've had the privilege of being around for fifteen of them. I had the unbelievable fortune to be mentored by (festival founder) Doug Perry and make sure the legacy he created was carried on. The festival is run pretty much the same today as it was then because it has always been based on the same things — community, passion, and the many different talents that exist here."
There's more than a hint of pride in this recollection and with good reason. The festival has been a fecund birthing ground: it's launched ski, snowboard, music, art, photography and filmmaking careers, yielding opportunities that wouldn't have otherwise existed. Skier Tanner Hall broke through as a youngster by winning the WSSF Big Air; a women's division was launched at the World Ski Invitational specifically for Sarah Burke. Eighty per cent of the talent in State of the ART (formerly Brave Art) still draws from the Sea to Sky corridor. Think of the international photographic talents parlayed by the Pro Photographer Showdown, from humble beginnings as a slide show by local shooter Eric Berger and Colorado writer Jack Turner. The Filmmakers Showdown was launched to complement what quickly became a favourite central to the festival's persona. "We left (Filmmakers) very open to start to see how it turned out," recalls Eckersley. "We wanted to let it make itself. Only 25 per cent of the films that first year even had snow in them and that told us something. Suddenly we knew we had all this amazing and creative non-sport focused filmmaking talent and that dictated how it evolved."
The creative energy of Filmmaker's was a big reason that about a decade in, a shift occurred in which more public interest fell on the festival's cultural offerings than its sporting events. Top photographers are always a draw, and the supply of musical talent remained steady. "Sometimes we got lucky and snagged a big-name act on tour in the area, sometimes it was someone just starting a career. Music is so ingrained in today's society, a free concert is a draw for anyone," says Eckersley. "You'd have to be a real curmudgeon to not enjoy some of the national and international talent that's presented."
And there has been plenty. Swollen Members — who return this year along with Yelawolf, Mstrkrft, Top Less Gay Love Tekno Party and Humans — has probably occupied a WSSF stage on the greatest number of occasions. Well, except for local DJ Mat the Alien.
Beyond its standards, the rest of the festival package has always been a case of trying and evolving. Multiplicity started slow but has gained traction in the hands of the Mountain Life publishing crew, and this year's line-up is the strongest ever. Not everything promising has worked out, however, like the ill-fated 3PO, which stood for "three points of origin" — film, photography and graphic design. "I always give things three years to see if they pick up," says Eckersley. "3PO was a cool little event that really reflected who we were as a community artistically, but it just didn't stick." It could be said it was ahead of its time, and indeed with new events timing is everything — like the already popular Whistler Comedy Showdown. "We've brought in comedians before from outside the area, but now that we know there's funny people in the corridor and we have a format, it's something I think is going to work."
Inevitably, I ask what Eckersley most looks forward to in this anniversary edition. The answer is likewise inevitable. "That's like asking a parent which child is their favourite... I'm excited about the ski event, having all three freestyle disciplines and world tour finals with global TV distribution. I'm incredibly stoked about the Olympus Pro Photo, because we went back to an invite format (the last decade has seen a worldwide call for juried submissions). We have seven teams in Intersection who had no time or geographic restraints this year because of weather challenges, so I'm interested to see what they come up with. Has Mother Nature forced our hand into creating something better?"
Regardless, in the end, it's the eternal Living the Dream trope of people working and playing hard that makes the festival special, a last opportunity for pretty much everything before the slow season — though it seems few slow down. "There's a marathon being run out there every day of the festival," Eckersley summarizes.
And that would make us all winners.
Next week: Twenty & Counting II: stories and recollections from festivals past.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.