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World Ski and Snowboard Festival — beyond the big leagues

From the ashes of the World Technical Skiing Championships, the World Ski and Snowboard Festival has risen to an unsurpassed expression of snowsports culture.

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April is a month of transition for Whistler. The plentiful snowstorms of March have left a deep snowpack, and the cool alpine temperatures of spring extend the season well beyond that of other resorts. The park riders are in their element with sunshine, slush and soft landings. Those touring inclined are working their way through the spring checklist, ticking boxes on end-of-season goals by climbing summits and descending couloirs.

But the folk of this mountain town are also yearning for the comfort of shorts and the freedom of flip-flops. Feet that have been encased in stiff plastic shells for the past five months are crying out for UV rays, fresh air and sand between the toes — the summer is coming.

There is still one last hurrah before winter in Whistler can be put to rest, the one big party to end all winter parties and cap a stellar season of pow days — and it culminates with the who's who of the ski and snowboard industry making the pilgrimage to Whistler. It's time to get ready for another 10 days of unrelenting excuses to let loose. Watch the world's best free skiers fly through the air for your spectacle, mosh, groove and dance your way through the eclectic line-up of live performing artists, sit back in your chair and enjoy the visual extravaganza of films produced in 72 hours and world-class action sports photography. And above all, at the 2012 Telus World Ski and Snowboard Festival (TWSSF) you must party like the world is going to end.

Of humble beginnings

The roots of the TWSSF traces back to Blackcomb Mountain in 1994 in the form of the World Technical Skiing Championships (WTSC). Event organizer Doug Perry had pitched the idea to the then-separate competing companies of Blackcomb and Whistler Mountains to host a series of competitions to crown the world's best all-round skiers, both male and female. As well as the Technical Skiing Championships, 1994 saw race events such as the World Master Alpine Open and the Air Canada Whistler Cup, revered events such as the Westbeach Snowboard Classic and the Lifty Olympics, the not-so classic World Ski Instructors Festival and the legendary "2,500 feet of thigh-burning hell" — the Couloir Extreme Race.

Such a cavalcade of events hosted in the spring-melt month of April would require a sizable mountain venue with the terrain to challenge the world's best skiers and a healthy late-season snowpack. Whistler and Blackcomb resorts had both been looking at ways to boost spring tourism and increasing the effective length of the skiing season. What better way than to host a competition event in April?

"The thinking then was if we could use this as a way to promote and highlight April skiing at Whistler," said Rob McSkimming, VP of business development at Whistler Blackcomb.

"It was one of the key strategies behind the evolution of the festival and it worked. It's amazing how important the festival was, and is, in terms of building our reputation as the best place anywhere to ski in April."

The soul of the World Ski and Snowboard Festival was still in gestation during these prologue years, and was in need of some media fanfare to put Whistler on the international radar. The WTSC may not have drawn the crowds that the festival sees today, but it did attract members of ski industry media; many of whom had not been to Whistler before.

"It was such a different era back then," said McSkimming.

"There was really no Internet at the time, your objective was to get picked up (by) magazines and maybe the odd film."

In an era before YouTube, live Internet streaming and ubiquitous POV cameras, ski films were only attempted by those with the skill and know-how.

"Film at that time was Warren Miller and Greg Stump and ... Warren Miller and Greg Stump," recalls McSkimming with a laugh.

"We definitely got picked up by a few of the mags, but I don't remember whether we got into any films or not."

One particular publication that was taking notice was California-based Powder Magazine, though the theme of the WTSC was not considered as a positive direction of the sport by the publication.

"All we did was make fun of it," said Les Anthony, author and former managing editor at Powder.

"Any kind of regimentation, anything that took the freedom out of skiing was not cool in those mid-90s days of the early freeski revolution. We were at a loss to understand what the hell was going on here. But it kind of evolved pretty quickly into much more than that and then it became something that not only did you not deride, you had to be there."

That evolution was the transition of the WTSC into the WSSF in 1996, the revised format gaining fresh media attention.

"I was writing a feature about Whistler in the late '90s and already I was basically affirming that this was a not-to-be missed event," said Anthony.

That 1996 WSSF signified the first joint-event marketing initiative between the two rival mountains, and a significant increase of skier visits and hotel occupancy during its 10-day period, won the support of Whistler's stakeholders. Snowboarding was more popular than ever, with marquis events such as the Westbeach Winter Classic, while skiing was experimenting with fads like snowblading in the form of the Kokanee Big Foot event.

In 1998 the festival had a breakthrough year, not from celebrating the next big thing in skiing or snowboarding, but with the addition of the visual and performing arts to the festival roster. The introduction of a free concert series and the first Pro Photographer Showdown widened the appeal beyond core ski bums and sparked a major increase in visits of the general public. The party to end all end-of-season parties was beginning to find its footing in Whistler.

The only other winter sports competitions that came close at the time were the Winter X-Games and the U.S. Open (which were scheduled quite close together), but neither of these events could match the fun that everyone was having in Whistler during those 10 days in April.

"WSSF quickly became a critical mass of industry and athletes all there at the same time, basically trying to outdo each other," said Anthony.

"It was more of a party atmosphere than any of these other events. It was very different because it was embedded in this event that had a depth and breadth to it that no other competitions did. That spoke a lot to what skiing was really all about, which is fun. To have a serious competition with the top athletes in the world embedded in this giant fun balloon every spring was important — it became this thing where business was transacted on the decks of the GLC in inflatable hot tubs and on a mechanical bull. As a magazine editor you would have an incredibly full schedule not only attending events, but meeting with people, because everyone was going to be there. If you couldn't catch up with someone during the season, it would be, 'see you at the WSSF.'"

Skiing's return to the Golden Age

As the artistic spectacle gained popularity, the sporting arm of the festival continued to develop. In 2000, the first World Ski Invitational (WSI) competition was held on Blackcomb with Big Air, halfpipe and skiercross events. The following year, skiercross was removed from the event roster and replaced with slopestyle, a move motioned by a change in sponsorship and an increasing demand by athletes for the new discipline. The superpipe event has long been regarded as the most popular daytime event during the festival, with plenty of game-changing tricks being busted out for the first time to the ecstatic reaction of the pipe-side crowd. The Big Hit contest, (where the skiers use the lower half of the pipe for one long run-in into one massive jump) has been where some the most impressive tricks of the entire festival have been thrown down.

"I remember (in 2002) Dave Chrichton doing the biggest alley-oop flatspin ever, and that was at a time when you didn't really see things like that," said Mike Douglas, professional skier and former WSI competitor. That one trick went down in freeskiing history as "shocking the ski world" by demonstrating just how huge skiers can launch out of a halfpipe.

Sarah Burke was a regular in the superpipe event, even before she was allowed to compete. Every year she would return with bigger and better tricks, always surprising fans and friends. Many recall the first time she landed a 1080 in the pipe, one of the many boundaries of women's freeskiing that Burke shattered. Sadly, Burke died while training in the U.S. in January.

"You would see shit go on that was mind boggling," said Anthony.

"Top photographers like Scott Markewitz had to be there because C.R. Johnson, Tanner Hall and Simon Dumont were going to throw down in that pipe. "

Those superpipe athletes would often also compete in the Big Air event in Skier's Plaza, where the open space could fit thousands more spectators. The Big Air, with anybody and everybody able to attend, is traditionally the big Saturday night event and the climax of the festival. Since the days when Douglas competed throwing 900s and the occasional 1080, the standard has progressed beyond 1440s and adding double and triple corks. Recent footage from the Jon Olson Invitational (JOI) in Are, Sweden, has shown athletes performing even bigger tricks. However, even with some of those athletes attending TWSSF it is unlikely that we will see the same tricks at the Big Air on April 21. Being situated at the bottom of the mountain, it is much more difficult to construct a jump to the same dimensions as seen at the JOI. Triple corks have been attempted at the WSI Big Air, but none have been successfully landed yet. The three WSI events at TWSSF were recently awarded platinum status by the Association of Freeski Professionals, the highest rank attainable by the organization and the same rank currently held by the Winter X-Games and the Dew Tour.

On the verge of the X-Games

Now in its 17th year hosting the TWSSF, Whistler has grabbed the attention of X-Games as a potential venue.

"It's a waiting game to see if ESPN thinks that our bid is worthy of them coming here," said Sue Eckersley, president of Watermark Communications.

"It would obviously have a huge influence on us moving forward. I wouldn't support it except for the fact that we know that the arts, culture and music side of things is going to remain strong and the spirit of the festival will live on."

While the potential advertising value from the exposure of a major television network far eclipses anything that the TWSSF can manage, those campaigning for X-Games realize the cultural value that the TWSSF has built up over the last 16 years.

"It's different," said McSkimming, after visiting X-Games in Aspen in January.

"They're able to collect all their sporting events together in one small-ish footprint at the base of one of their mountains so it's very concentrated. It's kind of weird — you fly into Aspen and the event venue is right at the end of the runway."

As McSkimming describes, the concept of marrying the already established sporting events at TWSSF with the X-Games brand, and retaining the draw of the arts and culture events, could be a powerful asset to Whistler as a whole.

"Here, if you were to add the X-Games, the energy of the festival would continue to build in and around the village and would be quite a bit bigger I think. However, if it doesn't happen, we've got a great thing going. So we can continue to build and evolve on what we've got and we're in one of those situations where I don't think we can lose."

The bid for Winter X-Games has been submitted and Whistler expects a decision from action sports network ESPN in the next few weeks.

WSSF ­­– A cultural bastion of the arts

With the addition of a free concert series in 1998 came crowds, and with more people there has been an increased demand for entertainment. The key was to cater not just to skiing and snowboarding party animals, but to all those seeking entertainment, regardless of mountain riding ability.

"Eighty per cent (of TWSSF attendees) name the music and arts as the most important factor in them coming to the festival," said Eckersley.

"Even now at this stage you're looking at attendees that are only about 60 per cent skiers and snowboarders, so people who come (that aren't actually going up on the hill) may still get to experience the Big Air (and this year the Big Hip) in the Skier's Plaza. But largely they are hanging out in the village checking out the arts and music."

Eckersley recalls her first year as a volunteer for WSSF in 1999, when event organizers realized that the Village Square was no longer the most suitable venue for the concert series.

"A little band called Nickelback may have had something to do with that," she said.

"(The sound) shook all the windows in the surrounding hotels and the festival had to go and buy flowers for everybody as sort of a 'sorry for rocking your world.'"

Another event that quickly outgrew its venue was the Pro Photographer Showdown, which had its first incarnation in 1997. Pro photographer Eric Berger had recently returned from a media trip to post-revolution Iran with writer Jack Turner on assignment for Transworld Snowboarding Magazine.

"Jack was in Whistler for the festival and had been asking to see the photos and I was thinking to myself, 'why don't I put a slide show together and show it?'" said Berger.

After approval and endorsement from festival chief Doug Perry, it was decided that a small venue would be suitable as a trial, and to make sure there were not any potentially embarrassing voids in the room.

"My idea when presenting that original show was to tell a story of the trip with the photos," recalled Berger.

"I felt a slide show could, like a short movie, tell a story and bring you on a journey. I just knew there was potential to put something with music, time it so the slides flipped to the beat of the music, and that kind of stuff. Back then it was a slide projector and (manual) hand controls so you had to rehearse it."

The bar in the then Fairways Hotel (now the Aava Hotel) was the designated venue for this unscheduled event, complete with home projector, roll-up screen and compact disc player. The invite show ended up being a packed house and quickly became the talk of the town during the 1997 festival.

After the runaway success of that first solo impromptu show, Turner suggested they invite a handful of the world's best action sports photographers the following year and hold a judged "showdown" at a larger venue. The next year saw Berger competing against Paul Morrison, Scott Markewitz, Dano Pendygrasse and Mark Shapiro. Berger walked away with the Best of Show.

"After we did that first little slide show, I can't begin to tell you when I was selling the idea how many people said, 'it will never work,'" said Turner.

"I remember the photography editor of Transworld Snowboarding, John Foster, looking at me and saying, 'Jack, first of all, no photographer is ever going to want to enter this — it's too much work. Secondly, no one's going to want to watch it.'"

But every year the tickets to the Pro Photographer Showdown sold out earlier and earlier, now making it the most in-demand arts event at the festival. The calibre of photographers continues to rise, with the gaps between finalists narrowing.

"It's taken a little while for the photographers to really understand what we're trying to achieve, but it's really (getting) figured out, which is making the show that much better and becoming way harder to judge," said Berger.

"Every year before we do it we get all the judges together and review everything. We try to keep the judging panel as qualified as we can and maintain as many returning judges as possible for the consistency throughout the years. We try not to move the goal posts too much."

Just as the judging criteria remains relatively unchanged, so remains the judging process. While those chosen to select the winner may have slightly more comfortable seating than the huddled masses, they are no more privy to the photos seen on the night.

"We watch the shows live with everybody else and during the deliberation (the judges) write on a piece of paper who they're voting for and there is either a winner or there isn't. If there is no clear winner there is a process of eliminating whoever is out, voting back on whoever is in then potentially getting into a debate after."

And just how often is a winner chosen unanimously?

"Less and less. It's getting harder because the participants are figuring it out and they're bringing the kind of shows that we're looking for."

Camilla Stoddart from New Zealand was selected as one of five finalists (selected from a pool of 32 entrants) for this year's Pro Photographer Showdown and like her fellow competitors, is feeling a heightened sense of nervous excitement leading up to the night of April 19.

"It's a bit of an unknown how to put together these kind of slide shows," said Stoddart.

"You're not given a very specific brief, you are told what you can and can't do, but at the end of the day you've just got your own personality and your own work to go on. We're all the same, we're going in blind."

What will the World Ski and Snowboard Festival bring in the coming years? At the moment it all hinges on the decision of ESPN on whether Whistler is worthy of the X-Games brand. While a successful bid may bring further commercialization during those 10 days in April, having over 26 hours of live action sports footage broadcast across North America and the world is an opportunity that Whistler cannot ignore. The arts and culture events that played the lead role in defining the TWSSF will remain and continue to grow, regardless of which banner the sporting events are sanctioned under.

"(We're constantly) re-inventing ourselves," said Eckersley.

"But I think what's remained the same is the spirit and the core nature of the festival. That's what makes (it) pretty special."

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