"I think the World Ski & Snowboard Festival will always occupy a special place in Whistler's annual event calendar — despite how busy that calendar is getting," Sue Eckersley tells me on the eve of the venerable event's 20th anniversary. We're still talking over bococcini-and-tomato flatbread in Nita Lake Lodge, and by this point I'm hoping that a tall vodka sprite will help pry some colourful reminisce from the festival's otherwise taciturn head honcho. And things are looking good.
"I don't think there's another event that encapsulates who we are as a community quite as well. Or embraces changes in tastes quite as quickly — look at roller derby coming out of left field and becoming so popular in the Sea to Sky corridor. And I don't just mean the people who live here, but the greater mountain community as well — people who are drawn here for vacation or even weekend warriors. Everyone who comes for WSSF is a 'local' in some way, whether they live here or not."
That's a great way to cast the demographic net and she's right. The cultural aspects of other big Whistler events like Crankworx — say, the Deep Summer Photo Challenge — are transplants. Wanderlust, the Whistler Film Festival and other marquee events are more focused on a singular thing. But WSSF has huge bandwidth — arts, culture, sport and the way they all intersect in both theory and practice.
That bailiwick serves the town's and Whistler Blackcomb's interests as well: the best way to spread the love of skiing and snowboarding is to get folks to the mountains and slap some gear on them under ideal conditions — which April usually offers. "In the beginning that was a definite lever: here's your opportunity to get people up the mountain, and here's a plan how to do it."
Though I'm not too interested in beginnings per se, it's indeed the past I'd like Eckersley to dish on — things that have stuck with her over her fifteen years of being deeply imbedded. So maybe the best place to start is the party known as The End.
"That was always crazy. But many years ago, when we still went to five a.m., someone without a ticket was so desperate they went home and got a crowbar, then came back and tried to pry open metal doors to get in. Remember, it was one of only two opportunities all year to go past the local 2 a.m. closing time (the other being Gay Ski Week's big shaker)."
An odd thing Eckersley recalls is wanting to change the name after a decade or so, feeling the event had evolved past its simple snowsport-echoing moniker. But the urge didn't last and she's glad it didn't. After 20 years of cutting-edge, year-end bashes, for most of us "ski & snowboard festival" immediately invokes all the art and music and lifestyle aspects that go with sports anyway. "That might be hard to explain when I'm trying to sell it in Toronto," notes Eckersley, "but for those in the know it makes total sense."
I ask about the Barely Whistler party in 2000, one of the highlights of many locals' festival experiences. "There's a segment of the population that was into nakedness bigtime, so it meant it was bound to be part of WSSF at some point."
Which aspects has she most cherished over the years? "I love the Big Airs, even though I'm usually running around with my head spinning. I love watching other people eating up the events. The Olympus Pro Photographer is always special even when I don't see all the slides. And the music? I just lap that up."
And lest we forget, WSSF has serious cred when it comes to presenting quality music, whether it was someone you'd heard of at the time or not. Even a partial list of these acts will boggle your iPod: The Black Eyed Peas, Jurassic 5, Justin Timberlake, K-os, k'naan, Metric, Naz, Nickelback, Our Lady Peace, Sam Roberts, Sloan, Soundtrack of Our Lives, Spearhead, Swollen Members, The Tea Party, Tokyo Police Club, Toots and the Maytals and, separately, both Stephen and Damian Marley.
"It's hard to say whether it was Metric or Naz that brought the wildest crowd," recalls Eckersley when I ask about memorable behind-the-scenes stories. "How about this: the first time Swollen Members played it was for a 26er of vodka and a case of beer."
"One thing I'll always remember is after The Black Eyed Peas played. We had to drop them off at the chopper in Lot 8 so they could fly back to Vancouver; Fergie had to pee before she got in it and freaked out all the guys in the maintenance shed. Then the helicopter looked like it was out of WWII and the seats were just bare buckets. Fergie and the rest wanted pillows. So the Pan Pacific people gave us pillows. I said 'We'll bring them back,' and they were like, 'No, don't worry about it.'"
Now the story tap is running. "There was the time Toots and the Maytals played in MoJos. It was $5 for everything that night and you couldn't get near the bar so you had to pass your money through the crowd. As a result it was one of the worst sales nights' ever but (the proprietor) just wanted everyone to enjoy the experience."
Parties and crowd scenes are one thing, but what about a more personal take? Eckersley has more than few golden moments.
"Over a decade ago, I think, I had to go up the hill to help the ops team, who were behind in something. We ended up finishing just as it was getting dark. I got to snowboard down in the dusk with seven other people. The colours were amazing and we totally took our time going down and ended at the plaza in total darkness. I'll always remember that."
One happy memory comes standard issue every year. On the final Sunday of every festival the entire ops and management crew gets together on the deck of the GLC to watch as everything begins to wind down. "It's the Last Hurrah," says Eckersley, "kind of like our own private event. It's always a favourite moment for me — not just because it's over, but because at that one last concert all the people who've worked so hard to put it on get to be participants for the only time during the entire festival."
One imagines that the upcoming 20th Last Hurrah will be a memorable one.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.
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