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One Bourbon, One Cliff Drop, One Beer

Features
By Charles Glass
posted: 03/06/2001

The World Ski and Snowboard Festival might just be the best party in all of skiing. If you can keep it under control.

I'm hanging halfway down a rope. It's looped over my shoulders and under both arms and bolted to a rock at the entrance of a near-vertical chute that's narrower than the length of my skis by a good foot and a half. Above me, a fellow SKIING editor, Mike, is peering down with concern. Below me is a tree, a rock, and Marc Schoenrank, safety supervisor at Blackcomb Mountain. "You okay, man?" Marc calls up.

I gulp, I dry heave, but I hold on. I was out late last night, and this -- the first time I've ever used a rope for anything save hanging up laundry -- is my first run ever at Whistler/Blackcomb. It's barely nine o'clock in the morning. The bars and sundecks are some 5,000 vertical feet away. My ski tip is stuck in the crack of a rock, and I'm starting to lose my grip on the rope. The World Ski and Snowboard Festival, for me, is just beginning.

More than any party I've ever been to -- more than pretty much any party I can think of -- Whistler's World Ski and Snowboard Festival (WSSF) is worth such a trip through the birth canal. Spanning ten days in April, it's like a high-octane, hormone-charged Super Bowl halftime show spun off into dozens of separate venues and events. There are ski competitions and snowboard competitions. Fingerboard competitions and photography competitions. Ski-patrol, lift-op, and dog competitions. There are impromptu drinking competitions of every description. There are also concerts, raves, parties (public and private), sundeck sing-alongs, mountain-bike-film premiers, skateboard-inline-BMX halfpipe demonstrations, and streakers popping up around every corner. People occasionally get arrested. Free equipment demos are available.

But more than all the chaos -- both organized and spur-of-the-moment -- the WSSF is worth coming to for the people. Nowhere else in skiing is it possible to find yourself in such a crush of people and be totally, obliviously psyched about it. People here are young and healthy. Everyone is hiding a beer in a coat pocket. Everyone is cracking up about something. At the same time, there's a diversity in Whistler -- of looks, of languages, of styles -- that gets you amped the way a trip to New York does. But it comes without the claustrophobia: Every time you look up in the sky, you see white peaks or bright stars or fat, falling flakes. Or all three.

The bar hopping, let me tell you, is unbelievable.

I survive the rope dangle and find myself standing at the top of a 500-foot patch of untracked powder with Mike and Marc. We're on a control route that's off limits and pretty much impossible to find for everyone except patrollers, and I'm feeling giddy with undeserved privilege, like a kid who's just found his Christmas presents a week early. We chew up the vertical in a handful of turns, stop, ponder our options, and then I duck off to the left to claim an entire north-facing chute as my own; Marc and Mike drop off to the right to ski another route. Inside, I'm knee deep or deeper, cranking hard right to scoot past a rock in the crux, then dropping, weightless, into deep shadow and light, cold crystals that blast up from my ski tips and swirl over my shoulders. I swoop down into a gully and then back up the side of a ridge, where I reemerge into the sunlight, the snow getting firmer and heavier with every turn. Marc, Mike, and I link up again and make monstrous GS turns through the chop, straight-lining into the bottom of the ravine, across the flat, and coasting up to a traverse on the far side of the ravine. Mike and I look back over our shoulders to check out our line and can barely figure it out; there are so many skiable lines threading through the chunk of Blackcomb Mountain we just skied it's impossible to digest them all in a glance. I'm good and winded, but I can't stop grinning.

Mike and I leave Marc to his dutiesnd make our way down a half dozen runs and up what seems like that many lifts until we're standing ringside at the Orage Big Air competition on Whistler Mountain. A huge kicker looms above a steep, long landing, which ends in a quarterpipe. Skiers twist and contort into the sunshine high above us, plummet back to earth, and, if they stick it, come zooming into the bottom quarterpipe, boosting high above us again for a second neck-risking aerial stunt in a matter of seconds. Big, athletic, pipe-savvy Philou Poirier wins, and Mike and I and Greg, another colleague (hello, junket!), push off to explore Whistler Mountain's massive heights. It's sunny, the snow is corny, and we cruise at high speeds. We never quite orient ourselves, and it's only by a series of lucky guesses that we find our way to the bottom to look for an après beer.

We find it at the Garibaldi Lift Co., upstairs from the Whistler gondola entrance. It's huge inside -- 30-foot ceilings at least; long tables ringed with young, sunburned skiers and snowboarders. A pair of tall blonds -- with obvious, ahem, enhancements-- circle the crowd, giving massages to the bar's male clients with an odd, eucalyptus-smelling lotion from a bottle marked "Love Potion." The après buzz kicks in as Mike, Greg, and I swill our second beers, and we grow ever more clever with our "silicone" cracks as we watch the massage girls make their rounds. Suddenly, I feel a cool hand on the back of my neck. What can I say? It's only 20 bucks -- Canadian. I relent.

After an hour of downtime, the night immediately picks up steam. We have dinner at Thai One On, where we do just that. Then we go to a movie premier; an after-movie-premier party; an after-after-movie-premier-party party; and a full-on, Red Bull-fueled pseudorave hosted by FreezeMagazine at Maxx Fish, where the decor draws influence simultaneously from the Mall of America aquarium and the school-dance scene in Footloose.

Supercool, semifamous pro skiers are everywhere: Lee Anne Patterson, looking like a victim of spousal abuse after having taken a slide ride down a 1,000-foot couloir, breaking her nose; Brad Holmes, administering complicated handshakes to young, green-haired, admiring bros; Rob Boyd; Daron Rahlves; Sarah Newman; Robbie Robinson; Jon Johnston; Josh Loubek. At one point, I look down to discover that I'm holding a greyhound in my right hand and a double greyhound in my left. We leave when the lights come up.

Needless to say, the following morning I discover that my ski technique has declined appreciably. I adopt this strategy: high speed until my legs and rear are screaming; throw 'em sideways until I'm back in control; pant like a dog. It works. I make it to après.

Tuesday afternoon, in the sunshine on the deck at Merlin's near the Blackcomb base, we're recovering from a full-bore day on the slopes by drinking Kokanee Gold and listening to acoustic tunes cranked out by longhaired Guitar Doug, probably Whistler's best-loved après-ski minstrel. Guitar Doug, we're told, once paraglided down from the top of Blackcomb Mountain, strumming his guitar the whole way, his song broadcast via remote mike at Merlin's deck, where he eventually landed. For a ski-town crooner, his set is stunningly eclectic: "Dueling Banjoes," "Boy Named Sue," "Folsom Prison Blues," "Werewolves of London," "Willin'," "Jammin'," "Blister in the Sun." A hot tub has been set up on the deck, and at one point everyone in it stands up with their suits around their knees and does a little twirl, to hoots from the crowd. Just off the sundeck, a kid bunny-hops off a bridge on his mountain bike, drops 20 feet to a grassy slope and then a sidewalk below, and rides away. "Three more beers," Mike says, "and I'll do that in ski boots."

The WSSF reaches its crescendo Saturday with the nighttime snowboard big air, and in the hours before it kicks off, Gondola Square feels like the staging ground for a massive outdoor rock concert. The sun isn't down yet, but people are already up on the grassy knoll on the sunny side of the kicker, drinking beers and holding their spot for the event. Within the square proper, there are banners and flags galore, techno music blaring, and little tents where people are standing around drinking beer out of plastic cups. I duck into a coffee shop, where everyone in line is visibly giddy -- to the point of telling bad jokes: A pair of snowboarders express good-natured shock that all the cookies are gone. Says one: "I hear all the cookie-producing nations have organized a, uh..." "A boycott?" suggests his friend. "Yeah, a boycott." Everyone smiles graciously. With the sun still up, innocence is intact.

Killing time before the start of the competition, I wander into the center of the village. The wooden halfpipe is going off, skaters and BMXers boosting to vintage A Tribe Called Quest beats, and all the bar decks surrounding it are packed with people soaking up music and booze. I spot Guitar Doug doing his thing -- singing a tune by the Band on the deck at Citta. Next to me, a chubby, Mediterranean-looking guy in a checked button-down shirt yells into one of those hip two-way radios: "Bancho! Bancho!" Or something like that. I feel dizzy and effervescent, like I've just stepped into a can of Mountain Dew.

I make my way to a balcony above Gondola Square in time to watch the competition get underway. As the snowboarders huck themselves into the spotlights, the square becomes a seething, multi-epochal spectacle, like a heavy-metal Dead show where all the acid tabs have been replaced by caffeine. Fire dancers twirl flaming batons; go-go dancers grind in story-high cages; a giant robot on stilts peg-legs up the side of the knoll to the crowd's wild applause (I later learn that Mr. Roboto was, in fact, flashing the crowd at the time); beach balls and roman candles fly through the air.

Suddenly, off the kicker comes the Pink Panther on a snowboard, spinning, tumbling, grabbing, face-planting on the runout. It's a bizarre sight: ridiculously difficult athleticism melded to wacked-out, hell-raising zaniness. And that, it occurs to me, is pretty much what this week's been all about.



This year's World Ski and Snowboard Festival runs April 13-22. For info, check out wssf.com.

For ten more spring festivals, check outBREAK IT DOWNin the related links above.oor rock concert. The sun isn't down yet, but people are already up on the grassy knoll on the sunny side of the kicker, drinking beers and holding their spot for the event. Within the square proper, there are banners and flags galore, techno music blaring, and little tents where people are standing around drinking beer out of plastic cups. I duck into a coffee shop, where everyone in line is visibly giddy -- to the point of telling bad jokes: A pair of snowboarders express good-natured shock that all the cookies are gone. Says one: "I hear all the cookie-producing nations have organized a, uh..." "A boycott?" suggests his friend. "Yeah, a boycott." Everyone smiles graciously. With the sun still up, innocence is intact.

Killing time before the start of the competition, I wander into the center of the village. The wooden halfpipe is going off, skaters and BMXers boosting to vintage A Tribe Called Quest beats, and all the bar decks surrounding it are packed with people soaking up music and booze. I spot Guitar Doug doing his thing -- singing a tune by the Band on the deck at Citta. Next to me, a chubby, Mediterranean-looking guy in a checked button-down shirt yells into one of those hip two-way radios: "Bancho! Bancho!" Or something like that. I feel dizzy and effervescent, like I've just stepped into a can of Mountain Dew.

I make my way to a balcony above Gondola Square in time to watch the competition get underway. As the snowboarders huck themselves into the spotlights, the square becomes a seething, multi-epochal spectacle, like a heavy-metal Dead show where all the acid tabs have been replaced by caffeine. Fire dancers twirl flaming batons; go-go dancers grind in story-high cages; a giant robot on stilts peg-legs up the side of the knoll to the crowd's wild applause (I later learn that Mr. Roboto was, in fact, flashing the crowd at the time); beach balls and roman candles fly through the air.

Suddenly, off the kicker comes the Pink Panther on a snowboard, spinning, tumbling, grabbing, face-planting on the runout. It's a bizarre sight: ridiculously difficult athleticism melded to wacked-out, hell-raising zaniness. And that, it occurs to me, is pretty much what this week's been all about.



This year's World Ski and Snowboard Festival runs April 13-22. For info, check out wssf.com.

For ten more spring festivals, check outBREAK IT DOWNin the related links above.

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