April 09, 2015 Features & Images » Feature Story

We are Whistler 

Twenty years of World Ski and Snowboard Festival

click to flip through (8) STORY BY BRANDON BARRETT - We are Whistler: Twenty years of World Ski and Snowboard Festival
  • Story by Brandon Barrett
  • We are Whistler: Twenty years of World Ski and Snowboard Festival

Today, Whistler is a big-time player on the event scene.

It has played host to some of the largest festivals and sporting competitions the world has ever seen, with hardly a weekend going by that does not see something on the agenda.

And in this post-Olympic era, with millions of dollars in provincial tourism dollars up for grabs each year, it's up to event producers to convince the powers that be that what they have to offer is the right fit for the resort.

But there's one festival that was born not out of a desire to fill room nights and attract RMI funds, but out of the locals' love for their mountain mecca, showing everyone that Whistler was ready for the limelight, that their adrenaline-fuelled lifestyle was not only something to extol but something to share with those unfortunate enough to be on the outside of the bubble looking in: the World Ski and Snowboard Festival (WSSF).

As the community prepares for its annual 10-day bacchanalia celebrating the three pillars of Whistler life — sports, arts and culture — Pique explores where the festival is going by taking a look back at how far it's come in the last 20 years.

Buckle up and get ready for the ride.

Uniting the Tribes

The origin story of World Ski and Snowboard Festival can be traced back to a series of seemingly divergent points coming together at last.

The first and most important of these mergers was revelatory, and would ultimately lay the groundwork for the following two decades: An event that combined the rapidly evolving sport of skiing with the brasher, bolder new kid on the mountain block — snowboarding.

It seems intuitive today, now that the cultures of both sports are so intertwined, but at the time the belief was that the two made for strange — and often adversarial — bedfellows.

"The early '90s was the apogee of the snowboard-skiing schism," remembers writer and 40-year Whistler resident Michel Beaudry, who worked with festival founder and former Whistler Blackcomb executive Doug Perry at the time.

"The whole idea of the ski and snowboard festival was to unite these different tribes. We talked about it a lot — bringing the tribes to Whistler and giving everyone an excuse to come here."

It's important to remember the factors at play that set the stage for this unlikely marriage, and ultimately allowed it to blossom.

By the '90s, Whistler was booming with unbridled optimism. Locals were still coming down from the epic high of Rob Boyd's historic 1989 World Cup downhill win on home soil, and the municipality had managed to come back from the brink of bankruptcy a decade earlier, finally paying off the boatloads of debt it had amassed when overzealous developers tried to transform a sparkling-new village built on top of a landfill "into a world-class ski resort almost overnight," at least according to an editorial written at the time in the Vancouver Sun.

Of course, Whistler was still light-years away from becoming the crown jewel of Canada's ski industry it is today — relatively few British Columbians outside of the resort were even aware of its unparalleled terrain and snow conditions that were soon to be the envy of most.

So a select few mountain missionaries made it their goal to preach to the unconverted, to proselytize the many virtues of a ski resort sitting on the cusp of mainstream recognition.

"There was this real sense that Whistler was this kickass place and nobody knew about it yet," Beaudry says.

"There was this great hope. There was still so little known about the idea of drawing people to Whistler for a 10-day festival. It was like Woodstock in '69. There was that sense of evangelicalism."

It was also an opportunity to tout — and effectively create — Whistler's "second season," as Beaudry called it.

It seems a no-brainer today, with Whistler regularly proclaimed as a year-round resort (whether that's accurate or not is a debate for another day), but back at the event's birth, downhill enthusiasts across North America already had their gear packed up in storage by the time April rolled around. The festival was an opportunity to show the world Whistler's superior springtime riding conditions, and close the season with a bang instead of a whimper.

Innovation Nation

Before the party that is WSSF officially kicked off, there was its forebear: 1994's World Technical Ski Championships, which Perry had modelled after the all-around ski championships he'd seen while visiting Japan. It would be the first international freeski competition the world had ever seen, and Perry racked up $10,000 in phone bills calling every world champion he could think of. "And they all came," Perry said in an earlier interview with current festival producer, Watermark Communications. "But what was so interesting was that all these athletes and high-level media had never before been to Whistler." (Perry declined an interview for this story, while his brother, Dave, who was also integral to the festival's development, did not return a request for comment by press time.)

And while the championships would set the bar for the spirit of innovation that WSSF's ski and snowboard competitions would eventually become known for, it was a bit of a tough draw for those not familiar with the more technical aspects of the sport.

"It was a pretty cool event but you had to kind of be cognoscenti to appreciate what was being asked of the competitors," remembers Ed Pitoniak, former editor of Ski Magazine, who would later go on to work for ski resort developer Intrawest. (A fun sidenote: Pitoniak still has the odd, triangular trophy awarded to the first winner of the World Technical Ski Championships, Olympian Felix McGrath, who gave it to his friend and fellow New Englander after complaining it was too heavy to take with him on the plane.)

Up until that point, mainstream skiing mostly fit into the narrow definition the sport had held for decades under the race club system, but its boundaries were being tugged at on a near weekly basis — and folks like Whistler icon and proclaimed "Godfather of freeskiing" Mike Douglas were largely responsible. They also had Perry's ear, and the former ski instructor was more than willing to incorporate their suggestions on how to make WSSF the biggest, boldest snow-sport competition on the planet.

"It was one of the major influencers in evolving the sport," Douglas says. "When I think back to what events ushered in the new age of skiing, two come to mind: the X Games and the festival. It seemed that every other kind of ski event at that time was just rooted in all these years of tradition, and the X Games and the event here were kind of the only places that were able to react year to year to what was going on at the core levels of the sport."

Armed with newfound access to both Whistler and Blackcomb mountains after the rival resorts merged in 1997, the festival's second year, and the young blood of legions of 20-somethings who began flocking to the community in the early- to mid-'90s, it was clear the festival had its finger on the pulse, and its ever-changing slate of sporting events reflected that.

"I remember one year quarterpipes were the big thing and all of a sudden we had a quarterpipe competition. The village big air, that was one of the first urban-style big air events that was going on, and now it's one of the longest running," recalls Douglas, who competed in the festival's first big air contest in 1999.

"As a skier, it was super fun because it wasn't all the time that you got to jump in front of 10,000 people and hear a kind of stadium roar when you stuck your trick. It was definitely something pretty cool."

And rowdy WSSF crowds definitely had a lot to roar about in those halcyon days, with the festival offering a perfect chance for elite athletes to unveil a bag of tricks they've spent the whole year filling up before the season shut down. The warmer springtime conditions also gave the competitors a bit of cushion to try stuff they normally wouldn't.

"Most of the halfpipes that these guys and girls ski in during the year are rock solid. You come here, you get a good-shaped pipe with a bit of soft wall and it gives you a bit more confidence," says Douglas. "There are a lot of tricks that happened here for the very first time."

Case in point: The late, great Sarah Burke hitting the first ever 1080 in women's halfpipe skiing. Or there was Canadian freestyler David Crichton resetting the height-o-metre for an alley oop flatspin. More recently, WSSF served as a coming-out party for eventual U.S. ski halfpipe gold medallist David Wise, a relative unknown until he blew the roof off in Whistler.

But, as we'll see, the seed of ingenuity first planted by Perry and a host of gravity-defying athletes in the festival's golden age has also stretched to the other realms of the event.

Funky Little Weirdos

In those first years of WSSF, the focus would remain primarily on the sporting side of things. Sure, there were other, small-scale cultural events on offer — a circus-themed, alcohol-free party called Heaven, modelled after the all-night raves that were all the rage at the time, started in 1997 — but it wouldn't be until an emerging young Canadian band by the name of Nickelback hit the stage in '99 that WSSF's musical programming began to rival the ski and snowboard competitions that would pack Skier's Plaza.

"I always remember Doug (Perry) telling me that after Nickelback played, they had to run around and give flowers to all the hotels around Village Square because all the windows had been shaking for 90 minutes," laughs Watermark president Sue Eckersley.

It soon became clear that WSSF crowds were hungry for the perfect soundtrack to back their weeklong debauchery, and organizers were more than happy to feed their insatiable appetites.

The list of major music acts that have graced the festival's mainstage are almost too many to mention, but no matter how big the names got — and WSSF has had some of the biggest — they always easily fit in with the Whistler culture.

"If you look back over the years at who's played on our stage, from Spearhead to The Black Eyed Peas, from the Marleys to Toots and the Maytals, from Swollen Members to Nas, all these groups reflect Whistler," explains Eckersley.

But it wasn't just the A-listers who performed; WSSF has long been a haven for local talent, like electronic DJ duo SkiiTour.

One half of the group is Dave "Canosis" Rollie, the mop-headed turntablist who got his big break at WSSF thanks to a lot of persistence and the grace of festival organizers. A Whistler Blackcomb operations staffer, Rollie begged Eckersley to put him on the bill back in 2009.

She did, under the name "DJ Ops," and Rollie and his SkiiTour partner in crime, Tim Livingstone, have graced the WSSF stage several times since, including a bonkers set at the festival's closing party three years ago that inspired partiers to climb up the stage's scaffolding — much to Eckersley's dismay.

"Sue was freaking out," Rollie says. "It was pretty awesome."

This year SkiiTour will open the festival, a box Rollie has wanted to check off the bucket list for some time.

"It means a lot," he adds. "Other musicians see these big names (perform at WSSF) and think, 'I gotta get up there.' It's not so farfetched now to play on that main stage and share it with such big acts."

Sharing that stage hasn't come easy for all of the festival's performers, but it's a minor inconvenience the bigger acts will just have to continue to live with, says Eckersley.

"We've had some conflicts with some big-name acts when we've said, 'So and so is opening for you.' It's a deal breaker for us," she says.

"We need to be true and loyal to the locals, and never get so big that we don't think they should be included in what we're doing."

DJ, artist and event planner Ace Mackay-Smith's own history with WSSF has come full circle in a way. She was the brave soul who asked Perry to host Heaven in only the festival's second year, and oversaw it through several iterations and struggles that come along with organizing any growing event — including when she was told in the early '00s that an event planner was being brought in from Toronto to take over her beloved party.

While she admits to "falling in and out of love" with the festival at different points over the years, she's ecstatic to have been brought back into the fold as the organizer of this year's State of the ART, a mixed-media art exhibit showcasing some of the best young talent in the country and beyond.

And as long as the fest maintains its locals-first approach, she thinks it will always have a place in Whistlerites' hearts.

"It's all to do with the people who live here and ski here and take part in the arts, the sports, the everything," she says. "Those people are still the same funky little weirdos they always were, so as long as they're involved, I think the festival will do alright."

The Imitation Game

A line can most definitely be drawn from Mackay-Smith's early all-night parties to the raucous atmosphere WSSF has become known for, but while those events were mostly intended for the locals, there's one aspect of the fest's cultural programming that has gone global in scope: The Pro Photographer Showdown.

It's impossible to overstate the impact this showcase of the world's best sports action photographers has had on the industry. Today, there are many competitions that have followed in its footsteps, including a number of WSSF's own events, like the 72-Hour Filmmaker Showdown and Multiplicity.

But what is now a gathering of the crème de la crème of the industry actually began with just one man: Whistler's Eric Berger, a titan of sports-adventure photography in his own right, who showed off some snowboard shots from a trip he took to Iran with writer Jack Turner for Transworld Snowboarding at the second edition of the festival.

"This was long enough ago that it was actually a slide show. There was a slide projector, (Berger) had a soundtrack and I'm guessing there might've been a dozen or two dozen of us in attendance," recalls Pitoniak. "And it was absolutely magical. It had been born of Jack's belief that not enough people got to see really wonderful ski and snowboard photography."

The slideshow evidently left an indelible mark on Perry as well as the small group of attendees cramped into the now-defunct Fairways Hotel, because by the following year, this low-key affair had morphed into an invite-only gathering of the best action sports shooters North America had to offer.

Perhaps fittingly, considering his role in inspiring the contest, Berger took home the win at the first ever Pro Photographer Showdown in '98, which he attributes to his novel presentation approach.

"I had helicopter sound effects when there were aerial views and choppers landing. With the photos of the markets in Bolivia, I had layers of sound, like dogs barking, cars honking, hustle and bustle, placed over the music. There was all this stuff going on that was real tangible," Berger says.

"That was the idea: to push slideshows further than they'd ever been pushed before."

Beyond inspiring countless other sports action photo and film contests, the Pro Photographer Showdown was also the spark that ignited WSSF into an event that encompassed all aspects of mountain culture.

"When everybody sits in a room and sees incredible snowboard photography from someone like Eric Berger, they are all participating in the same way to the same degree. That inclusiveness, I think, was a very powerful part of the festival from the beginning," notes Pitoniak.

"I think what Doug and the guys deserve credit for is recognizing that the culture of the people within the industry, and within a small ski community like Whistler, is a culture which has great appeal to people who can't live in that culture day to day."

Parallel Paths

You don't have to look too far beneath the surface to recognize the paths of Whistler and its signature festival largely run along parallel lines.

As Whistler emerged from its DIY, hippie-era roots into a period of increasing recognition at home and abroad, so too did the World Ski and Snowboard Festival, which helped convince locals that their little resort town actually belonged on the big stage.

"It played an incredible role in giving Whistlerites confidence and courage," says Beaudry. "I would go so far as to say it had a role to play in inspiring Whistlerites to go for the Olympics."

Inevitably, however, with that success came the calls for commercialization, and not everyone was happy about it.

Perry, the man whose clear vision was so etched into the festival's first decade, would eventually part ways with Whistler Blackcomb in an ugly power struggle over its direction, and today has distanced himself from the event entirely.

And, like those who yearn for the so-called glory days of Whistler, when the lift lines weren't packed with out-of-town gapers, and a bluebird day could still get you several uninterrupted hours of virgin powder, there are those who wonder if WSSF has lost some of the essence that made it so appealing to begin with.

Beaudry, who believes the festival still has a place to play in Whistler's spring culture, feels WSSF has become "boring" compared to its previous incarnations.

"There's no testing events anymore... and Whistler's become the same way; it's corporate, it's boring, everything works but there's nobody at the lift going, 'Hey, hi! How's it going? What's up?' in terms of management. They're too busy running numbers in the office.

"I would challenge the festival to get an advisory committee together made up of people who are less than perfect and more on the racy side, to get some racy ideas going again. But this is the challenge: Does Whistler still want to be racy?"

The festival, which has shrunk in size since Telus jumped ship as title sponsor in 2012, certainly has room to grow, but as long as it keeps the community and its residents at its heart, Eckersley doesn't see expansion as a barrier to its evolution.

"There have been sponsors who've... actually wondered if the festival is getting too big, and I'm not sure if it can get too big, but I think so long as we're cognizant of the whole notion of it, not changing its core value and always being reflective of Whistler, I think that's important," she said.

"The moment we get stagnant, the moment we get comfortable resting on our laurels, the moment we're happy with the festival's storied history, that's the moment it starts dying.

"If it doesn't genuinely reflect who we are as Whistler, then we're missing a mark that's truly important."

The 20th annual World Ski and Snowboard Festival runs from April 10 to 19. For more information, visit www.wssf.com.   

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