A festival for the record books 

click to enlarge FILE PHOTO COURTESY OF WHSTLER BLACKCOMB - late 90's Village animation.
  • file photo courtesy of Whstler Blackcomb
  • late 90's Village animation.

It was 20 years ago today... more or less. Which is not bad considering the first two years were, if not forgettable, only marginally remarkable.

Twenty years ago was the first time I waxed enthusiastic about the nascent World Ski and Snowboard Festival (WSSF) on this very page of Pique. What had started out as St. Party Dude's ode to spring had just begun to take shape. No longer a bizarre collection of even more fringe snowsliding sports, as though skiing and snowboarding weren't fringe enough, the vision of what would become skidom's premiere spring celebration began to coalesce around the four pillars it rests on today: sport, music, art and culture.

The 1998 edition of WSSF was a watershed moment. Why? Music. As St. Party Dude described it afterwards, "Finally, there was some injection of energy as a result of the first outdoor music series of concerts. It seemed to flick a switch. The (festival) began to take on its own personality where music — and the energy that comes with the fusion of music and sport — started to let the flame build."

In retrospect, it's kinda weird the ignition for that flame came compliments of an obscure Canadian band from Hanna, Alta. But in 1998, Nickelback was years away from becoming the butt of all rock 'n' roll jokes.

In the two decades since that first musical year, WSSF has brought artists to its mainstage every day, year in and year out. Big names, names you've never heard of, and local acts you may have seen around town but ought to get a chance to see more often. All for free. All for the vibe. I won't pretend to even have heard of many of the artists who'll be playing this year — like most years — but I will say I've been introduced to some of my favourite groups because I heard them play for the first time at WSSF. Did I mention it was free?

If music kicked the festival into a new orbit, what happened next launched it into another solar system. Again, I'll let St. Party Dude tell it. "It was just another experiment. The idea was to let some of the industry's best shooters go head-to-head in front of a crowd. We were lucky. The images that first year were incredible. It made us realize how important photography is to our industry."

Those images were Eric Berger's and Jack Turner's. The first Pro Photographer Showdown could have been a miserable failure. Think living-room slideshow. Instead, it added another foundation to the festival and created an event virtually every mountain festival apes to this day.

Since that first Showdown, audiences have continually been blown away by some of the best action and travel photography from well-known and obscure photographers from around the world. Perhaps the only misstep the Showdown ever took was letting surf photographers get a wet foot in the door. A spring audience that's been eating frosted flakes for five months would sell their grandmothers for some sun and surf and the wet ones have run off with the grand prize too many times to chalk it up to random chance... or sheer talent.

The Festival was humming along. It was putting Whistler on skiers' and the ski industry's must-do spring calendar. It was ski season's last orgasmic splurge and Whistler's official segue into the uncomfortable and unsure transition between the season of skiing and whatever came next, between goggles and sunglasses. It was party time!

And the party got even better in 2002. It seemed like an organic extension of the Pro Photographer Showdown, but it was more a convergence of a really good idea and rapidly changing technological innovation. Like so many of the really good ideas that became events at WSSF, this one came from outside, too. That, in part, was the genius of the festival. The folks who ran it, St. Party Dude and his faithful sidekick, Sue Eckersley, never imagined they had all the good ideas. They brought athletes and artists and dreamers together and mined their vision and ideas for all they were worth, in the process taking some bold risks that seemed brilliant in hindsight and some... not so brilliant.

But one of the best was the 72-Hour Filmmaker Showdown. What a concept. Give anyone who wanted to pony up the entry fee 72 hours to shoot, edit and compile a three-to-five-minute film. On what subject? Well, there were more than a few of us certain this was going to devolve into an exercise in ski porn. But it didn't. The first winner the first year was, well, a comedy, The Last Cigarette. In fact, I can't recall whether a cliff-huckin' ski-porn film has ever come close to winning. You can see what happens this year, assuming you already have tickets or know a friend with an extra one. This event is a sure-fire sellout.

Events have come and gone over the years. I don't believe anyone misses the fashion show but I could be wrong. Everybody seems to get off on roller derby, Intersection, Multiplicity and State of the Art though. It's always been about keeping things fresh and taking risks.

The biggest risk is about to be taken. That's because the one touchstone over the festival's 22-year run has been the guiding hand of Watermark's Sue Eckersley. When the festival passed from St. Party Dude's hands to WB's and Tourism Whistler's, Sue stayed on and took the reins. Through good years and not so good years, she's managed to produce more go for less dough than any event producer out there. She's mentored many who have passed through Watermark and gone onto their own thing or other things. She's pissed more than a few off and made a few enemies along the way. How could it be otherwise?

But all good things must end and this is the end for Sue and the end of an era for the festival. The owners will take over management next year and what will be will be. But a few of us know there were more than a couple of times this passing might have happened sooner. Fewer know the times Sue's reached into her own pocket — against strong advice — when budgets were unnecessarily tight. It was impossible for the impresario to divorce herself from the creation. She would do what had to be done.

So if you feel a bit blasé about the 22nd version of WSSF; worse, if you feel it's just another festival that's been around forever and runs on autopilot, get to the Mainstage and shake it off. It is creation. It is art. It is hard work. Every year.

And if you bump into Sue, thank her. It would have died long ago without her efforts.



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