Annals of a Spring Festival — Part I 

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF TOURISM WHISTLER - Arkells closing the WSSF on the main stage last year.
  • Photo Courtesy of Tourism Whistler
  • Arkells closing the WSSF on the main stage last year.

All across the ski world there's a common sound this time of year. It's the sound of ski hills being closed for the season, mountain resorts winding down and segueing into the nether world of shoulder season, the slap of flip-flops replacing the clunk of ski boots, sunglasses carrying the load goggles did all winter.

And in Whistler, April has risen, spring skiing days have made their first, tentative appearances and it's that time again. Time to get down and party one final time before this season's instant locals take off for adventure, home, and the absolute certainty that life, wherever it plays out, won't play quite as hard as it has since they first arrived, livers and savings intact, in the final weeks of... was it just the end of last year?

So with two-and-a-half metres of snow still on the mountain, days that bounce between frigid and wilting, bank accounts and immune systems drained of reserves, what's a Whistlerite to do? Hell, get down and party. It's Festival time. Motto: Party in April; detox in May.

Finally old enough to buy its own drinks, the World Ski and Snowboard Festival is getting ready to rock Whistler for the 19th time, an anniversary no one thought it would reach given its shaky start.

The story's familiar by now, except to those celebrating their first installment of the Festival to end all festivals. Back in the dark ages, when Whistler pretty much celebrated April like most ski resorts, with a smattering of econotourists and hard-core locals who can never get too much of a good thing, a gentleman who prefers to remain anonymous — but we all know who he is and remember him with deep affection — was desperate to find some way to make a living out of doing what he loved most: skiing.

Having come to the grim realization that he had the grace and skill of a pro skier and the knees of a pro curler, Mr. X couldn't reconcile himself to the usual options available to post-competitive skiers: ski instructor, ski bum, ski sales rep, ski bum, ski coach, ski bum. He figured why die a slow death, when he could blow his brains with one Quixotic, ill-timed extravaganza. Thus was born the World Technical Skiing Championships... in April.

Boasting such traditional, crowd-pleasing events as speed skiing, powder 8s, freestyle and something called the Bigfoot Challenge, the festival was about as successful as most people kept telling him it would be, which is to say the Second Annual World Technical Skiing Championships seemed like a very, very long shot.

Ever mindful of the life-affirming joys of selling life insurance door-to-door, Mr. X and the festival limped along, staggering on that fine line between lunacy and outright stupidity. You see, the thing was the festival was a big hit right from the start with the people who mattered the most to Mr. X — the athletes who participated. They were stoked because finally, here was an event organizer who was not only asking them how they thought the competitions should be run, but was actually naive enough to let them set the rules.

Now, if this were Hollywood that would have been enough for a happy ending. But this is Whistler, where good ideas and noble intentions melt away like snow in May. Had Mr. X hewn to his original vision, he'd have gone broke after year two and we'd be celebrating nothing more momentous than the second week of April right now.

But, in keeping with the whole Easter theme of holding an event in April, what happened next might be likened to a biblical visitation. If man — and festivalgoer — doesn't live by bread alone, why should festivals try to live on a strict diet of sporting events... no matter how much bread is thrown at them?

"What this festival needs," mused Mr. X, "is music. After all, music seems to be woven into everything else we do." How insightful, I hear you smirk. Remember smartypants, iPods hadn't been invented yet.

So three years into the experiment, girl-about-town Kristen Robinson was tasked with making the festival rock. Given a good idea and an inadequate budget, Robinson plumbed the basement of the indie music scene and brought an unknown band to town from Hanna, Alberta, fronted by a guy she described as a "dead-ringer for Jesus," a not altogether unwelcome visitor to a festival taking place during Easter week.

The band, Nickleback — remember, smartypants, this was before they became a punchline — was about to burst onto the national music scene and part of their strategy for making a breakthrough was volume... as in loud... as in very loud... as in many, many complaints. "We pretty much blew the budget sending flowers to the people staying in the condos around Village Square," lamented Robinson.

But if the neighbours — not to mention the RCMP — hated the addition of music, the crowd ate it up. Suddenly the festival rocked and the centre of gravity began to vacillate between the on-mountain athletics and the in-village vibe. The magic was most definitely in the music and music was here to stay.

At least until the following year when there were serious doubts raised about whether the festival would be allowed to ever happen again. Ever!

The day was overcast and snowy. The crowd at the base of Whistler Mountain was ugly. Big and ugly. Sloan, the band on the mainstage — relocated to its current location to reduce the number of complaints about NOISE — was between sets. The snowboarders hucking big air were not jumping fast enough to keep a fever pitch lukewarm. The VIPs were sucking back complimentary alcohol and food and vipping each other on the nearby deck of the GLC. Westbeach, who was managing the event, were light in the security department. Did I mention the crowd was ugly? And big?

Idle hands and the devil's work came together. No one knows for sure who threw the first snowball. For that matter, no one knows for sure who threw the ensuing 1,000 snowballs. The VIPs scurried for cover inside the restaurant, clutching cellphones and speed dialing 911. The band abandoned the stage. Impossible as it seemed at the time, the crowd grew uglier. Security vanished like a fart in the wind.

Maybe it was that famous Whistler secondhand smoke or maybe everyone's hands just got too cold to continue. No one knows that either. But the "near riot," as it came to be called, caused everyone involved with the festival to take a sober second look. Apologies were made; contrition rendered. Security was beefed up and brought in-house, some events were toned down and everyone came away with a heightened appreciation of just how ugly a mob can be. The alternative was 86ing the festival and going back to sleepytime April, something no one wanted. After all, the party was just getting started.

To be continued....

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