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Dave Murray ski camps

Ski coaching lives on — thirty years and going strong

The crowd stands shoulder to shoulder in Dusty's.

Conversation ebbs and flows as it does so often here – but in this case it has a common theme.

Those gathered are here to remember and celebrate Dave Murray — a name that not only conjures up memories of the days of the Crazy Canucks and the kamikaze flair they brought to the alpine World Cup circuit in the 70s — it's a name that has become synonymous with top ski coaching, giving back to the community and inspiration through passion.

With the final Dave Murray Ski Camp of the season drawing to a close coaches and campers — both past and present — have come to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the camps by drinking beer and swapping stories, just how Dave would have wanted it. They've come to celebrate the longest running camp of its kind in North America.

"I just think it's so cool how the legend of Dave is living on in so many different ways," says Julia Murray, Dave's daughter and retired ski cross champion at the gathering.

"Thirty years later that this many people still come and appreciate what he did for the sport and who he was as a person? It's really, really cool to see."

It's a legacy that deeply resonates with Murray's widow Stephanie Sloan, a three- time World Champion Freestyle skier.

"He's taught thousands of people to ski better," she said.

"David always said the best way to improve your skiing is to go through gates, and it's still true."

Scattered around the room are some of Whistler's legendary skiers — Chris Kent, Dave Traynor, power skiing couple Kim McKnight and Ken Pedersen. Mike Hurst, who worked as the vice-president of marketing for Whistler Mountain in the early '80s and helped get the camps off the ground, delivers a speech speaking fondly of his first experiences working with Dave and gifts a limited edition print of a hand drawn sketch of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains to guest Steve Jefferson, who has just completed his 100th camp.

"I saw him as the personification of the mountain," says Hurst, speaking of his first meetings with Murray.

"In the old days, Whistler was seen as a big old rugged mountain, the grooming wasn't the best, the food service wasn't the best, the attitude was that we're in the lift business not the ski business. What we were able to do with Dave was to move beyond that and start to engage people and start to get kids and regular Whistler skiers all tied in with Dave as the image of the mountain. He softened the image and made it personal.

"That's what I think his genius was. Not only his vision for the camps but his ability to engage people. The camps would always start with a session down at the base of the mountain and Dave would come and talk to people. Then at some point during the weekend of the camp, Dave would be sitting there, coaching people at the start gate then giving them a pat on the back and saying 'go for it!'"

Murray's vision for a unique ski camp experience still resonates with guests 30 years on.

"There's just nothing like it anywhere." says Jefferson, an Englishman who has been coming to Whistler for the Dave Murray camps for 10 years:

"For an advanced skier, nowhere I've been have I found anything that compares. Even all the people I've met on the camps (say the same thing), no one has found anything like this in the world."

In the beginning

There are many who have helped shape the history of Whistler over the last century, from the pioneering efforts of Alex and Myrtle Philip to the Olympic visionary Franz Wilhelmsen.

Amongst these, many who have had a hand in growing Whistler into the successful resort it is, is Dave Murray. He was more than just a Crazy Canuck, more than a husband, partner and father — he was a visionary who saw that his passion for the sport of skiing could be shared in a way that could touch people all over the world. And he took that dream and with Whistler Mountain's help made it reality. It's a legacy beyond the namesake structures and ski runs of today.

Growing up in Abbotsford, B.C., Murray was named to the national alpine ski team in 1971 at the age of 18 along with fellow teammates Dave Irwin, Ken Read and Steve Podborski. These were the Crazy Canucks, the four Canadians who managed to wrestle the World Cup podium away from European domination in the 1970s. Their reputation was not only earned through consistent performance at the World Cup level, but also from the perilous style of ultra-fast skiing which occasionally, ended in spectacular falls on the racecourses of the European Alps. In Dave's own words, they were "badass crazy."

While he never brought home a World Cup win during his career, Dave placed in the top 10 fifteen times between 1976 and 1982 and was ranked third in the world in 1979 by the Federation International de Ski (FIS). On the two occasions he placed second, it was behind teammate Ken Read. While he always desired to win, Dave thought it a greater achievement to have two Canadians standing first and second on the podium. The Crazy Canucks was a team and while some members did better than others on the circuit, they all considered themselves equals.

What drove them was their great passion for skiing and their sport.

Campers find their passion in the turns

It's one of those Gore-Tex spring weather days on Whistler Mountain — pouring rain in the valley with an acceptable freezing level for the first week of April. The crowd in front of the mountaintop ski school building is buzzing with 83 campers and 14 coaches for the final Dave Murray Ski Camp of the season. Today I've been assigned to tag along with veteran coach John Kindree and his flock four capable skiers from Seattle and the U.K. After quick introductions Kindree skates over to Roundhouse Roll — his flock in tow — for the warm-up lap down to Red Chair.

The pace is reasonably quick as we descend down Pale Face to Jimmy's Joker, the fresh 10 centimetres of snow a treat for the final day of the camp. Kindree doesn't worry about checking over his shoulder, after the last two days with these campers he knows exactly what they are capable of and how fast he can ski without losing them. At the bottom of the first pitch of bumps the heavy breathing from his campers is a sure sign that they are warmed up. Kindree looks relaxed, like he just stepped off the gondola. He gives a quick no-nonsense tip to Cristin Goodwin, mother of two, who is on her fifth DM Camp in two years and her third for the season.

"Round your back Cristin, with better balance over your skis you won't wear yourself out so much on the first run."

Goodwin nods her understanding and adjusts her body position.

"Here, why don't you follow me."

Kindree takes off down the remaining bumps with effortless turns, his ability to make the terrain look so easy still impressing the group after two days.

"Oh captain, my captain!" Goodwin grunts as she dives after Kindree into the bumps.

There's good snow on the ground but in typical coastal fashion it has come with the baggage of poor visibility. The wind whips our faces as we ride up Red Chair and I ask Goodwin — who is a former collegiate racer in the U.S. — what keeps her coming back to these camps.

"The coaching is better," she says comparing the camp to other ski programs she's tried at resorts all around the U.S.

"If you want to get really detailed and specific you can get that, if you want to work on overcoming your fears you can get that as well. It's all mixed in with a lot of irreverence and humour that you don't often get in a lot of places, so it's sort of a perfect combo."

In this program campers are not placed on any sort of pedestal. Kindree's style of coaching, and the style of most DM coaches for that matter, is to treat guests like you would your friends. With a return rate of around 75 per cent, many of the coaches and their guests have skied up to a dozen or more days together, drunk beer together and already consider each other friends.

"When you have a group and have two or three people in that group who have been to the camps a bunch of times and you're friends with them, you treat them in a different way," says Tom Prochazka, the current head coach of the DM Ski Camps over lunch in the Roundhouse. He hasn't coached much this season after tearing the meniscus in his knee back in December, but still comes up the mountain to stay involved.

"You can be a little more rough around the edges, you can joke a lot more. Then you pull the new people into that same fold and they go, 'wow, is this ever fun.'"

Most of the coaches are of the racing pedigree and have attained Canadian Ski Instructors' Alliance (CSIA) Level 4 and Canadian Ski Coaches Federation (CSCF) Level 3, pretty much the maximum amount of certification one can achieve as a ski instructor in Canada.

"But its beyond that, it's not really about qualifications," notes Prochazka, quick to take the focus off what credentials his coaches have on paper.

"We've developed our own way of teaching really. We've been around long enough to figure out what works, whether it's technical, tactical or psychological. I think that's why people come back and ski with us."

It's not just the campers who enjoy the program; the average length of service of the coaches is around 20 years. But while holding a position of coach in the longest running ski camp in North America may be heralded as the pinnacle of Whistler Blackcomb Ski School, it's far from being elitist.

"We don't go out of our way to elevate ourselves above anybody," says Prochazka.

"But I think there's kind of a feeling in the ski school that it's an honour to get to coach the DM Camps. The biggest thing for us is that you follow our template rather than doing the ski school standard — when you ski down 100 metres, talk for half an hour with the class lined up and doodle in the snow."

I catch Kindree on my way out of the Roundhouse, he's inside taking a quick break but doesn't bother stopping for lunch — the time is better spent skiing, he says.

The morning fog has lifted and the sun is out, revealing surprisingly few tracks around Peak Chair for one o'clock in the afternoon. Kindree leads us straight over to Christmas Trees, not stopping until he's well into the bottom of West Bowl. I can hear Goodwin whooping in delight as she links turns down the face without crossing a single track. Smiles splash across the faces of the entire group, the fellas from England have probably just had the best run of their lives. Kindree snaps a few photos of his delighted flock before gunning it down to Highway 86 for another lap. The entire group is lagging now, tired from the full day of powder skiing — Kindree shows no sign of slowing down.

The new start in Whistler

When it came time for Murray to retire from racing (1982) he wasn't interested in slowing down either — he wanted to develop a concept he had been working on for years, using race training techniques to improve recreational skiing capabilities. He wanted specialty camps for kids and adults in winter and on the glacier in the summer and he wanted a national series based on the same concept. And the way forward, believed Murray was for the coaches to be experts — like himself.

Settled in Whistler with his wife, they saw that the early 80s was a time of rapid change for Whistler as a resort and Murray was already envisioning what part he would play in that change.

"The whole game was changing up here," said Hurst, who was captivated by Murray's plans.

"Whistler Mountain had to change its marketing methods from being the only game in town to having a new, young, slick competitor coming into the market place."

That competitor was Blackcomb Mountain. Rivalry between the two mountains was stronger than ever in 1982 and the senior management teams resorted to constant one-upmanship in order to gain the advantage.

"Shortly thereafter I was asked to have a chat with this young Dave Murray retiring from the Crazy Canucks and wanting to settle at Whistler Mountain, raise a family and have a career here. I said to (Whistler Mountain) management that I'd see what he wants to do. In the course of a couple hours he laid his whole vision.

"When (Murray) got excited about something his eyes actually sparkled. I listened to him and I thought, 'he's got it, he's right, this is perfect! He's a big name and if I get him on Whistler Mountain then I've got another competitive edge.'"

Hurst recommended to senior management that Murray be made the director of skiing for Whistler Mountain and for the company to form a partnership for the camps. The Atomic Dave Murray Ski Camps were soon running at the top of Whistler Mountain during the summer for kids between 10 and 18 years old and they still run today. But the demand for race coaching extended beyond competitive kids and teenagers at the time.

"He was trying to bring the enthusiasm of World Cup racing to guys that he knew," said Kindree, who has coached DM Ski Camps since the beginning during the '82-'83 season.

"Dave brought around 45 of his buddies that were doctors, lawyers, dentists and accountants, wearing spandex suits and helmets, and strapped 225cm skis to them. He built jumps and sent these guys down with no speed training. Some went backwards off the jumps, blowing up with pieces equipment going everywhere. I looked at Dave and said, 'maybe we should change the format, so you don't kill all your friends.'"

Murray and his initial team of six coaches — all with strong racing backgrounds — soon had an attractive program beckoning the "master's class" of weekend-warrior ski racers to learn how to ski faster.

"When I started coaching the camps the 'masters' racing was really big at the time," said Prochazka.

"The ('masters' races) would get 300 people, it was almost like another league beside FIS. The (DM) camps were like race camps; people would come train slalom and GS. In those days when there was a race in Whistler people actually watched it. Dusty's had the biggest parties you could imagine and Dave Murray was a local hero, people always wanted to follow him. If he said, 'let's all jump off Air Jordan together,' they'd all line up and go. That's the kind of persona he had."

But as popular and heralded as racing was for campers, there were those who didn't have a race background, or didn't feel like smacking bamboo for the entire weekend.

"I was coming from speed skiing so the joke was I couldn't turn," said Prochazka.

"Dave had coaches who were fresh off the national team so they would get all the people who wanted to run gates. I was given the people who wanted to actually go skiing. We'd go up the peak and jump off cliffs and ski couloirs."

The brand was taking shape. Racing was still at the core of the experience though, with Murray making frequent appearances throughout the camps — his encouraging comments at the start gate never failing to get campers psyched about their upcoming run. The skills built up in the gates were making campers better all-round skiers, what Murray saw as the ultimate goal of his camps from day one.

"(Murray) brought in mostly race coaches, but a smattering of freestylers as well," said former national team member Chris Kent, who has coached DM Ski Camps since 1986.

"Having a focus on racing skills, and not necessarily racing, is what lets you perfect, or at least improve a lot, on fundamental ski skills. That was really the whole premise of the camp, playing around on the gates then playing around on the playground at large."

Kent, who won Blackcomb's coveted Couloir Extreme Race four years in a row, witnessed the slow migration from the race course to the big mountain as much as anyone else. He also skies on fatter skies than he did 10 years ago.

"It's much more freeski-centric now. When it started there was a lot of people who had raced (earlier) in their lives and there was a void — there were no racing programs and Dave kind of filled that. The real interest in participating in racing dwindled but the focus on using racing-centric skills to improve the fundamentals has always been at the top. In my opinion that's the way you learn to be a good skier."

The DM Ski Camps were just beginning to reach their pinnacle when Murray began to succumb to malignant melanoma, an advanced type of skin cancer. Though it began to affect his strength he continued his appearances up the mountain for as long as he could.

"When he started to get sick he wasn't able to get up the mountain as much," said Hurst.

"I remember talking to him about that and saying, 'Dave don't worry about that. You've got your name on it, you've established the camps with your vision, you do what you can.'

"He said, 'The problem with that Mike, is that it's my name on the door, I really need to be up there on the mountain with my students.' And he tried, he would go up there even when he wasn't well and eventually he had to stop. He was the most visionary, passionate guy that I've ever met."

Dave Murray died in Vancouver on October 23, 1990.

But his legacy lives on, as do the camps.

Back at Dusty's the stories continue.

There is nothing more dear to the people in the room then Murray's legacy. He built the camp program from the ground up and worked with some of the best skiers in the country to help improve the skiing of thousands of campers over the years. The spirit of this Crazy Canuck is alive and well on Whistler Mountain and hopefully his name will live on through his ski camp for another 30 years.

"To us, Dave is the God," says Prochazka.

"He's up there, he started it, he's the guy that made it all happen. That's why we're so passionate about the name."