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Desperately seeking Vertbag

As the mountains open for another ski season, Caitlin Shea cracks last winter's biggest mystery to reveal Whistler's most hard-core and enigmatic skier

Like Keyser Söze from The Usual Suspects or The Stig from Top Gear, last winter Whistler had its own mysterious, elusive character: Vertbag.

Vertbag was the undisputed champion of last season, blitzing the mountain's inaugural vertical competition. In five months, the anonymous skier set an unofficial world record, racking up over two million vertical metres (six million feet) and riding nearly 4,000 lifts.

Maybe it was because I didn't have a job, maybe it was because I am slightly obsessive, but I became consumed with the vertical competition and Vertbag. To my children's embarrassment, I asked everyone I knew, even strangers on lifts, if they knew Vertbag's identity. I kept my eye out and thought I spotted him one day: A man in his late 20s, no helmet, skiing really fast.

I wasn't the only one obsessed with Vertbag. The Whistler Winter Facebook page and Twitter were abuzz. Some, like me, were in awe; others thought Vertbag must be cheating to achieve such figures. Some suggested Vertbag was a 'bot made up by WB to ramp up interest in the competition.

The reality was that next to no one knew who Vertbag was: young or old, male or female, skier or rider, fact or fiction. And when the competition ended, Vertbag never stepped into the limelight to claim the prize: a ski pass for this season. I had to know.

The competition

Last season was the first time that Whistler Blackcomb launched a competition to determine who skied/rode the hardest over the winter.

Enabled by new technology embedded in everyone's lift pass, the mountain tracked every day we skied, exactly which lift we took, and how many vertical metres we accrued in a day. Logging into the Whistler Blackcomb app allowed us to check our stats and earn virtual 'badges' for challenges such as skiing every lift in a day — the mega-day badge. And then, mid-season, the data was used to rank us in order on a publicly viewed leaderboard.

For the developers of WB Plus, who'd been working on the platform for a few years, the original intention of the data tracking was "guest engagement."

"It was all about encouraging guests to set their own personal goals, not necessarily a competition," says Yolanda Foose, who manages the IT team.

"But the leaderboard became a super way to motivate people to stay longer on the mountain and go out on days that weren't sunny or powder days."

Not everyone liked it that days on the mountain had been formalized into a competition. But many, like me, not only checked their vertical stats religiously at the end of each day, but sneakily looked up how we compared to our friends, and then used it as motivation to annihilate them!

But as consumed as I was by my own numbers, I was also invested in the amazing efforts of the skiers in the Top 10. These were people who were amassing more than 20,000 vertical metres daily by riding on 30 to 40 lifts, day after day. For mere mortals like myself struggling with sore knees after 5,000 metres, the numbers and Herculean efforts involved were inconceivable. Didn't these people have lives to lead? Laundry to wash?

The app's developers loved seeing how stoked everyone was about the competition.

"We had no doubt about the integrity of the top competitors. No matter what the weather, how tired they were from the night before, they stayed all day, right into May," Foose says.

It was a battle of epic proportions right to the end as Vertbag fended off late charges from runner-up Frank Blair and third place-finisher Phill Nicoll. By season's close on May 30, Vertbag had accrued 2,061,139 vertical metres (6,762,267 feet) in 163 days and had ridden 3,951 lifts. This was 200,000 vertical metres more than the runner-up and in 15 fewer days.

On the final day of the season, eager fans implored Vertbag via Twitter to come meet them for a drink at Blackcomb base. Vertbag was a no-show. I waited for Vertbag to be unveiled. I waited for the big announcement celebrating this amazing achievement. But nothing. Not an email from Whistler Blackcomb. Not an article in Pique. I resigned myself to leaving Whistler after my 12-month sabbatical never knowing the answer to the mystery that had consumed me.

The contenders

Most people didn't even know there was a competition until Feb. 25 when the leaderboard went live. That's when we realized that not only could we look at our own data but everyone else's. That's when things started getting serious.

At that point Blair, who ultimately came second, realized he was a contender.

"I thought 'holy crap, if I can be in the Top 10 without trying, what would happen if I went up early?' I started doing a bunch of laps before I met my friends and got into second place quickly."

The 74-year-old retired firefighter, who has been skiing in Whistler since 1972, says he wasn't overly focused on Vertbag.

"I wasn't looking around to figure out who Vertbag was," says Blair.

"I took a run at Vertbag early on but I realized if I wanted to be competitive, I would have to ditch my friends. It's fun but I didn't want to blow these people off just to win a silly competition. I didn't need to be King of the Mountain."

The third-place finisher was another local, 36-year-old Phill Nicoll. He says he was intrigued by Vertbag, but his buddies were way more obsessed than he was.

"My friends were like, 'We'll figure it out. We'll take him out for you.' I'd be like, 'No, no. This is supposed to be fun. He's killing it. It's awesome,'" he jokes.

Nicoll's personal goal was to ski every day of the season, originally preferring "powder and pals" to amassing vertical. When he realized there was a competition, he was in 40th place and became utterly focused on vertical, to the point where he didn't even take pee breaks.

"There was the odd moment of questioning, 'why am I doing this?' On rainy days it became a mental game. I'd think, 'why are you not at home, having soup right now?'" Nicoll says.

"My girlfriend thought I was mental."

Nicoll set the season record for the most vertical in a day, including 41 laps on Garbanzo Chair to amass 27,581 vertical metres.

"People said, 'you're doing the same run, how boring.' But it wasn't. There were always obstacles, little things that made it different," he says.

Luckily, Nicoll had an understanding boss who accepted his constant late arrival to work for the afternoon shift at Bounce.

Nicoll, according to Blair, was Vertbag's biggest threat.

"He's the fastest skier, he did the biggest days. Phill was the one to take out Vertbag but he just had a slow start to the season and couldn't make up the deficit," says Blair.

Both Blair and Nicoll were confounded by Vertbag's unusual ski pattern: Vertbag would catch the first lift up, stay until the mountain closed, but then mysteriously disappear for four or five days every month.

But while Blair and Nicoll didn't know who their elusive nemesis was, Vertbag had them both pegged. They wouldn't realize who Vertbag was until the season was nearly over.

Pedicures and revelations

It was a good month after the season ended and I'd given up looking at front covers of Pique waiting for the article to reveal Vertbag's identity. My obsession had moved on to mountain biking. And after 100 days of skiing, I took my damaged toenails for a pedicure and wound up sitting next to a nice woman named Tracey. We started chatting about ill-fitting ski boots, the season, and my obsession with the vertical competition. And then Tracey floored me: "I know who Vertbag is! But I can't tell you anything." I pleaded with Tracey to tell me something, anything about Vertbag. And she did. Vertbag was a WOMAN!

A few phone calls and emails later, Vertbag agreed to meet me and publicly reveal her identity.

Thirty-four-year-old Renee Lamoureux was not what I was expecting. Instead of a brash and gung-ho character, Lamoureux is soft-spoken, considered and charming.

Most gobsmacking of all is that Lamoureux has only been skiing since 2010 and has never had a lesson in her life. But virtually from the moment she clipped on skis, her life became focused on skiing, which brought her to Whistler four years ago.

"I love it. I look around when I ski and enjoy the birds and the smells. How can you look up at the mountains every day and not go skiing?" she says.

And the reason why she threw every ounce of energy she had into the competition?

"I grew up on a farm in the US. I'm not athletic. I was a bookworm. I've never won anything in my life," she says.

"It was about opportunity, fitness and desire. I had all three."

The big question though, and one I still don't fully understand the answer to: Why did she go to such lengths to remain incognito?

"I felt like an outsider to Whistler and I just thought it would be fun. I wanted to mess with people's heads."

Lamoureux's husband, a Whistler heli-ski guide, gave her the nickname 'Vertbag' because of her insistence on always squeezing in "one more lap." She skied every day except for the four or five days a month she travelled to Port Angeles in Washington state to work as a dental hygienist.

From the moment she realized there was a leaderboard, Lamoureux's focus on winning was laser-like. She spent hours studying her stats and those of her competitors.

"I woke up every morning and the name Frank Blair was on the tip of my tongue. I would do the math every night to work out what I had to do to keep ahead of him," Lamoureux says.

"Between patients (at the dental office), I'd log in and see that he was catching up to me and there was nothing I could do to defend my position."

Maybe it was to stave off boredom but once Blair was pointed out to her, she would play games to see how close she could ski to him without him seeing her. She remembers even jumping into bushes to hide from him.

"The thrill of hunting and being hunted at the same time, it was a game I created within the game."

Blair was completely oblivious.

Her network of informants would keep her posted on her competitors' movements but the lure of her other main enemy, Nicoll, was too strong. Lamoureux, who skis only Blackcomb, would venture over to Whistler Mountain to do reconnaissance for herself.

"He was easy to spot. He was that guy in a red toque skiing really fast, in a straight line, under Garbo's chair."

Somewhat shy of social media, Lamoureux had no idea about the online sensation she had created until she sat next to someone on a lift who told her about it. She enjoyed hearing the chatter about Vertbag while standing in the lift lines: "I hear he's an old retired guy. I hear he likes to go to the pub at 2:30 p.m."

She remembers one day sitting on a lift with some other top competitors who had no idea who she was. They boasted of their vertical exploits and told her to remember she shared a lift with them. She was loving it.

Lamoureux had managed to fly completely below the radar until everyone's worlds collided on Blackcomb for the last few weeks of the season. When Whistler closed, and all skiers converged onto Blackcomb, there were too few skiers and too little terrain to hide in.

Nicoll remembers the moment he sussed her out.

"I'd seen her around and I looked up at the lift and she put her skis up to hide her face. That's when I thought, 'Aha. I've got you pegged,'" he says.

Blair was still completely oblivious, even when he and Lamoureux began sharing lifts and skiing together.

"I dropped hints to him for four lift rides, told him I worked away in the States each month, and finally he shook my hand and said, 'Nice to meet you, Vertbag,'" Lamoureux says.

"She had to leave a trail of crumbs for me before I figured it out," Blair says.

And then for the rest of the season, when the snow had turned to slush and ski buddies had moved onto biking, the three skiers skied together and loved it.

"It was the highlight of the season for me. To find a community of people who loved skiing just as much as me," Lamoureux says.

"Even though I'm older than their combined age, we're all kindred spirits," says Blair.

"When the three of us were sitting on the lift, I'd look at them and add up all our vertical, and think, 'holy shit'," says Nicoll. "Renee made the competition a shitload of fun."

It's unlikely there'll be another competition this year after complaints that the quest for vertical encouraged reckless behaviour. Nicoll was disappointed to be pulled over by Blackcomb ski patrol for skiing too fast, something Blair and Lamoureux both disagreed with.

"There's no shortage of people who ski fast but it's a matter of whether they do it safely. Phill skies fast but he's not unsafe or out of control," says Blair.

This season, WB Plus will be redeveloped to encourage "different behaviour."

"There will still be a leaderboard but no prize for most vertical," says Foose.

"But there will be more prizes for a variety of different things."

Reunions and reminiscences

There was an obvious camaraderie when the trio met up in summer for the first time since the season finished.

The stories gushed out:

About the time when Blair outsmarted Nicoll by figuring out that you could get more vertical by doing laps on Excelerator rather than on Solar Coaster: "I didn't sleep that night trying to work out how you'd done it," says Nicoll.

About how Blair took so long to deduce who Vertbag was: "I'm such a klutz."

About why they did it at all: "Skiing all day long in shitty conditions, I don't know why I did that," Lamoureux laughs.

"Definitely the mountain did a great thing by having a competition," says Blair.

Now that Lamoureux's Vertbag alter ego has been outed, she's planning on doing more backcountry and less vertical this season. Blair reckons that skiing "keeps him going" and is planning on another big season. Nicoll, once again, is aiming to ski every day and crack 28,000 vertical metres in a session.

If you see three people skiing really fast together, you'll know who they are.

"I'm sure we'll find each other," says Nicoll.

(Lamoureux received a $1,000 prize but didn't take the season's pass as her husband works for WB.)

Author Caitlin Shea writes:

While my goal was to learn Vertbag's identity, it was an unexpected pleasure to meet all three skiers. Based only on a small icon on a screen, I had attributed both good and bad qualities to all three during the competition and the reality was they were just people who loved skiing. I was hardly in their league, coming 320th in 100 days, but Renee, Frank and Phill were congratulatory on my modest achievement.

My time in Whistler came to an end a few months ago, and I'm back in Brisbane, Australia, with its endless blue skies, warm spring breezes and a real job. Having checked WB Plus at least once a day last winter, I find now I've forgotten my password and can't log in. But I'll be back one day, and, mindful of my sore knees and missing toenails, I'm contemplating the pseudonym 'Hurtbag.'