Putting things in context — the taming of a teapot tempest 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY MARY ELLEN HICKS - Sunset On The Grand
  • photo BY Mary Ellen Hicks
  • Sunset On The Grand

'There's less critical thinking going on in this society on a Main Street level — forget about the media — than ever before."

- Actor/Activist Alec Baldwin

Egad, am I naïve sometimes. I thought people would be more open-minded about the competition. I mean, we used to be the darling of the ski/riding media. We wore SKI magazine's "Number One" crown with the insouciance of the born to lead. Noblesse Oblige and all. Besides, that much-coveted title fit us so well — it looked so good in our brochures and advertising — that we assumed it would be ours forever.

I was part of that crowd. I wrote the resort reviews for SKI in those days. And when I wrote about my home hill, I let my pride in its "number one" status shine. My editor always had me tone it down a bit, admittedly. But that was OK. We were at the top of the heap, baby. The young mountain upstart that had managed to eclipse America's most iconic resorts — places like Aspen and Vail and Snowbird and Squaw and...

It was OK to be young and brash and rebellious back then. That's what this place stood for in those days. And we weren't shy to broadcast it to the world. "Vail makes intermediates feel like experts; Whistler makes experts feel like intermediates." As in: When you've graduated from them first, then you're ready for the best. Yahoo!

Those we're great days. And we rode the wave as far as it would take us. We were the finest in the land. Didn't even need to consider the rest. WE ARE NUMBER ONE.

But Whistler Blackcomb isn't number one in SKI's book anymore. Hasn't been for some time now. This year that honour was bestowed on Wyoming's Jackson Hole Resort. And that was a surprise to many.

Jackson Hole? Why that's... why that's... why that's in the middle of nowhere. How the hell did some backwater ski hill in some backwater mountain state ever make it to "Number One" status in the eyes of SKI staff and readers? I mean, these guys barely score 500,000 skier days a winter. They're pipsqueaks by Whistler standards. Small time players at best.

Hmm, I thought. Maybe the goalposts have changed a bit. Maybe ski consumers are looking for different things today than they were a few years back. And I reflected on the Teton resort's particular assets.

Hold on a minute. Let's set the stage a little better. Yes, Whistler Blackcomb still rates as number one in other ski/riding publications. Yes, it's still tops with the Brits and the Australians. But in the North American market, SKI's title reigns supreme; it's the gold standard by which all others are judged.

Whether SKI's status is justified is a conversation for another day. Regardless, that dippy No. 1 crest the magazine allows you to paste on your collateral is as coveted among ski-area managers as a Robert Parker 98 score is for a winemaker. And WB, alas, has not sipped from that cup in some time.

Some more stage dressing: have you ever heard of the Snoweater tribe? Or the tussle between Raven and Eagle that resulted in the tribe learning how to slide on snow? Or how Snoweater culture grew and grew and became a beacon for a hardy, outdoor lifestyle based on climbing and sliding on mountains in wintertime?

No? Well then, I guess it's hard for you to understand what "Alta States" is all about.

I wrote that little mountain fable back at the turn of the 21st century — and it was that very story that launched my weekly columns. The idea is simple: Skiing/riding — sliding on snow — is an uncommonly generous gift for the gods to have bestowed on the Snoweaters. It made them fly like Eagle, made them playful like Raven... it freed them of their gravitational handcuffs. Made them superhuman... able to leap tall cliffs in a single bound. Yeah to float above the ground, to be suspended in mid-air, and then to land in frozen pillow flakes. Sublime. Addictive. Like nothing any one in the tribe had experienced before.

And it gave them power. Forget Sisyphus and rolling the rock back up the hill. The Snoweaters were channelling Icarus. Flying higher and higher... closer and closer to the sun. But unlike the unlucky Icarus, they rarely got burnt. Seemed like they were having too much fun most times... and the tribe thrived. Which eventually caught the attention of another group. This tribe, however, was much less interested in sliding on snow than in finding a way to make profit from this practice. And slowly, slowly, the Snoweaters lost control of their own culture...

I know. I know. Such a silly story. But my editor at the time thought it was kind of fun. And with the rapid changes happening at Whistler in those years, that goofy, little fable resonated with readers as well. All good, right?

Alta States, then, would be the ongoing sequel to the story: One Snoweaters' quest to link up lost members of the tribe... to fight for the culture's renaissance... to celebrate the best of what the once-and-future Snoweater folk could offer the world.

It's a conceit that writers use sometimes to create a consistent voice that drives a weekly column: you know, like "angry suburban man," or "concerned soccer mom" or "avowed neo-environmentalist," or even "rabid no-holds-barred capitalist." Mine was "Snoweater Bard" — the teller of tall, mountain tales; the protector of all things "sliding-on-snow;" the scourge of profiteers and carpetbaggers.

Yes, I would write with my tongue firmly held in cheek from time to time. And I'd tilt at ski-business windmills with the best Quixote wannabes. And hopefully, I would also make some people laugh... and maybe even help them consider an alternate point of view.

My bard's job, you see, was to keep the "money-seeker" tribe from sucking the life right out of the "Snoweater" tribe... something that was happening at the time at frightening speed. For this thing to work, went the conceit, balance had to be found between bottom-line culture and mountain-lover culture. That was the challenge: how to satisfy everyone's needs... while not killing the great mountain goose that laid our golden eggs.

But enough of the tortured metaphors. It's clear my latest missive on Jackson Hole culture stirred the pot a little too hard (Pique April 3). And I really didn't see it coming.

You see it all started with an invitation. I'd been talking up Whistler to a Texas-based friend of mine for years. Biggest, best, wildest, funnest... Yadayadayada. "You gotta come up here," I kept telling him. And then he did... and he brought a whole posse of keeners with him.

Yes, they all had fat skis. Yes, they were all advanced skiers and well-travelled men (this wasn't their first mountain rodeo). And yes, they spent a lot of money to make sure they'd have a good time here.

So how do you think I felt when they revealed to me how disappointed they'd been with their Whistler experience? (see "Letters to the Editor" this week pg.9)? I was devastated. Embarrassed. Frustrated. But I wasn't that surprised. After all, I'd recently had similar feedback from another group of first-time visitors (but long-time skiers). Things, apparently, weren't all golden in Tiny Town.

And that's how I ended up in Jackson Hole. I was shamed into it. Taunted. Challenged. And what I found there, well... you all read about it last week. Free bus service in Teton county for anyone with a season's pass; a big dinner party hosted by the president for all riders with 100+ days on the hill. Bottom line: Snoweater culture is still alive and well in Wyoming's Teton county. Which begs the question: is Snoweater culture still alive and well in Sea to Sky?

Of course it is!!! I mean, look around you. Look at everything we have. I love this place. I've always loved this place. It's my home. My refuge. My mountain haven.

And when I forget sometimes just how good life is here in Whistler, I think of the words spoken by my wise friend Bonny Makarewicz (goodness I'm going to miss her smile): "I think people here should take a moment every day to look around and see — really see — the beauty around them," she once told me. "We're not at war. We're not starving. And nobody is beating us up for our political views. In fact, we're pretty well off by any standard you care to measure us by. Whistler is a wonderful place. We should be thankful for our good fortune..."

Note: I made a couple of key mistakes on my Jackson Hole story last week. The family that owns the resort is called Kemmerer (not Kemperer as I wrote). Also — I suggested that 4,500 skiers constituted a busy day there. A fairer figure, I was later told, would be around 6,500 skiers (the season's biggest day topped out at 8,900). Finally — long-time residents suggested that my story might have romanticized their plight a bit. Given their "Number One" ranking this year, Jackson Hole is, indeed busier than it's been in the past. That said, their problems seem so containable compared to ours that I still stand by my words... it's a soulful place with a great ski vibe.

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