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Brett Tippie - making it real

He's the happiest guy I know. And I don't even need to see him in person to know he's around.

He's the happiest guy I know. And I don't even need to see him in person to know he's around. All I need to hear is that booming laugh of his - an exuberant, half-crazed chortle that rises up directly from the pit of his belly and envelops everything around him in a joyful buzz - to realize that Brett Tippie is in the house.

And it doesn't really matter what he's doing. His laughter follows him wherever he goes. On his board. On his bike. Before a crash. During a crash. After a crash. With his buddies. With his young daughter. Or just talking about the good o' days. Simply put, the man is as high-spirited as a human being can possibly get.

But just because he's always laughing doesn't mean life has been a cakewalk for the legendary freerider. Or should I say Frorider TM ...

Pioneering snowboarder. Groundbreaking mountain biker. Bold. Fearless. A risk-taker in every sense of the word. But approachable - totally approachable. The guy is the quintessential working-class hero. He treats everyone the same - insider or fan, casual participant or hardcore stud. "Hey guys - nice to see ya," he'll say. And pull out a few more chairs to make room for the newcomers. "C'mon in - join us," he'll add with a chuckle, "The party's just startin'." Truly, there are few in the dog-eat-dog world of action sports that are as naturally friendly as he is.

Given these qualities, one might be excused for being just a bit envious of the Kamloops-raised Tippie. But careful - this same personality mix can lead to some very scary places. "I've gone from the most amazing highs to some dark and nasty lows," says the 42-year old. Laughs - but this time there's just a hint of a cloud behind his good humour. "And if it wasn't for my family and mountain friends - I'm not sure I could have come back."

Hold that thought. We'll get back to it later...

Born in 1969, Tippie spent most if his youth exploring the adventure-friendly geography in the hills and draws of the place the local First Nations call "The Meeting of the Great Waters."

"I was blessed to be raised in Kamloops," he says. "Everybody there was a little bit nuts, you know, but in a good way..."

Meaning? "It's a working town," he explains. "People are tough there. They aren't afraid of a few cuts and bruises." More laughter. "It was also a great place to grow up if you were an athlete," he adds. "It was a big enough town to create good competition among the kids there. But not so big that there were big-city distractions." It also meant, says Tippie, "that if you wanted to be cool - if you wanted to be kissed by the girls - you had to shred hard!"

He pauses for a breath. Burst into happy, gurgling laughter. "And since I really liked being kissed by the girls," he says, "I had to learn to shred hard..."

His first sports epiphany came in Grade 8. "That's when I got my first dirt bike," he says proudly. "Holy! Did that ever change my life." He started on a tiny Yamaha his dad bought for him. But within a year, he'd graduated to his cousin's full-size race bike. "It was the cat's ass," recounts Tippie with a grin spread across his face. "I'd ride that bike from after school till dark - every day! There were no fences back then, so I could ride miles and miles of single and doubletrack." He laughs. "I had more cuts and bruises than I could count - but I wanted to keep dirt-biking so I just sucked it up and kept riding."

It was during this time that Tippie discovered the magical qualities of his home geography. "You see," he explains. "Most of the area around Kamloops used to be lake bottom. So there are all these clay hills around that have been eroded and wind-shaped." A big guffaw. "It's kinda like Blackcomb's Disease Ridge - only all made of clay, you know. So you can rip to your heart's content - and not get too badly mashed up. No jagged rocks or stumps or stuff like that..."

But wait. Didn't football also play a big part in his early years? "Yeah, no question. As a kid I wanted one of those High School football jackets so-o-o-o-o badly." A pause. A naughty smile. "Now that's one jacket that got me some action with the girls."

Seriously though, legend has it that Tippie was one devastating middle linebacker. "We won the BC High School Championships two years in a row," he says proudly. "I was even invited to a training camp with the BC Lions. But they said I was just too small..."

Too small maybe, but the guy known as 'Headbutt' by his teammates was fearless on the football field, "It's true," he admits. "I just loved hitting. At the Lions' camp I'd go head-to-head with 300-pound linesmen." Ouch. He shrugs. "I just wanted to be sure that when I looked back, I'd know I left it all on the field."

His introduction to snowboarding was just as crazy. "I started skiing at Harper Mountain when I was six," he says. "It was a totally awesome local ski hill. And the family who owned it - the Daburgers - allowed snowboarding there, so we just decided to build our own boards and see what this sport was like."

Build your own? "Yeah, you know, it was around 1983 or so. I saw this ad for a Burton snowboard. So I gridded it out on a piece of paper and built my own version in my dad's worskshop."

He laughs and laughs and laughs. "I remember my dad coming down and shaking his head at me. 'You should go to the local ski swap,' he said, 'and buy a monoski. I've seen these Spademan bindings that you could mount sideways. I'm sure that would work better than what you've designed.'" He stops speaking for a moment. Shrugs. And laughs again.  "Years later," he finally says, "When I was competing on the World Cup, I realized he was right. There I was racing on a board that looked just like a monoski." His tone turns serious. "My dad was always a smart guy, you know. I miss him a lot..."

But back to the start of it all. "Snowboarding just clicked for me," he explains. "I always loved playing in the mountains. But now it was so cool to be surfing downhill. That floating feeling in the powder - so magical! -- I just couldn't get enough of that feeling."

The years went by. Alas, tiny Harper Mountain couldn't cut it anymore for the young adrenalin hound. So when graduation time came, Tippie headed for the only other place that allowed snowboarding at the time - Banff's Sunshine Village. "I got a job as a liftee on the mountain," he says. Another wave of laughter hits me. "But that was a b-i-i-i-g mistake. I immediately realized that the last place I wanted to be was standing at the lift line and telling everyone to have a great run while all my buds are ripping up the powder. That's when I decided that I'd go tree planting in the summer instead."

So he quit his job and joined Sunshine's growing posse of snowboarders - one-plank pioneers like Alex Warburton, Greg 'Cheeseball' Daniels, Ken Achenbach and Don Schwartz. But even Sunshine Village couldn't hold Tippie's attention for very long and he started crisscrossing the west in search of alpine epiphanies.

"I met Craig Kelly in '91 in Rossland," he remembers. "Actually found his car keys for him in the snow. So we went riding together." At the time, Kelly was arguably the best-known snowboarder in the world - and one of the smoothest, most competent riders in history. "I guess he must have liked what he saw," adds Tippie, "because he insisted that I start racing." The young Canadian took him at his word: "So with no preparation or coaching I went down to the U.S. Championships - and finished 11 th in the GS! I was stoked. 'I must rip,' I thought." He laughs some more. "So that was the beginning of my race career."

The 1991 winter was a big one for Tippie. "Yeah," he says. "That was also the year I met Christian Begin..." Turns out, Brett was surfing the powder under the Granite chairlift at Red Mountain while the then-fledgling filmmaker was riding up the lift. "I was getting maybe 130 days of riding a year back then," he explains. "So I was pretty fit. I was on a 172cm GS board, so I guess I was going pretty fast too."

Indeed. Begin finally caught up to the snowboarder. "I didn't know this guy from Adam," continues Tippie, "but he accosts me on the side of the hill. 'Ey - you ride pretty good,' he says. 'I wanna put you on camera. Meet me at the lifts tomorrow - 8:30.' So I just went with it." Although Tippie didn't know it at the time, this chance encounter on a Kootenay ski hill would lead to some seriously interesting times. "It was quite a trip," he admits. "I was the first snowboader Begin ever shot. And the film we made - Alpine Commando - was an incredible piece of guerrilla filmmaking. It was awesome."


Next week: Tippie moves to Whistler, hits the big time, struggles with familiar demons and comes back stronger than ever.