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A Tribe Called Meat

Features
posted: 09/27/2004

11 a.m. Saturday, March 20, 2004. Burlington, Vermont. Fifty-eight North Union Street. The Meatheads are in repose. Rooster slumbers, dreaming of dollar drafts and a slim-hipped beauty named Renee. Geoff dozes, the flowing, dun-colored locks of his mullet spread across his pillowcase like fine straw. Jason and Simon command the living room floor, a not entirely enviable situation. Down the block, another weathered rental: Alec and Ermie softly snore, their bodies pressed into mattress (Alec) and sofa (Ermie) as if dropped from a great height.

Yes, for now, the Meatheads sleep. But within minutes, spurred by the wail of Geoff's alarm clock, they will begin to rise. One by one, like dominoes in reverse, they will lift themselves off beds and floors and sofas on Meathead legs, claw through the mental cobwebs cast by Meathead dreams, and greet another Meathead day. They will load cars with skis and backpacks and cameras and will begin to drive, seeking what all skiers, and especially those who rise before dawn, seek: Untracked snow, long vertical, and coffee.

That these Meatheads are skiers is clear. Less clear, however, is why these skiers are Meatheads. What misdeeds must one commit to bear such a title?

Tall and wide-shouldered, 22-year-old Geoff McDonald is the Ohio-bred mullet-in-chief. Three years ago, he founded Meathead Films, a company riding on his belief that what the sport of skiing really needs is more East Coast ski movies.

McDonald wields the Super8 and digital video cameras and does the brunt of the editing. His roommate and best friend, Chris James (a.k.a. "Rooster"), 23, shoots stills and works the business angle. The talent consists primarily of past and present UVM classmates (McDonald graduated last spring; Rooster this December) and skiers they've recruited from various northeastern competitions. There's Alec Stall, a sweet-faced, impeccably polite 22-year-old for whom silence is anathema. Ermie, 23, full name Ermelindo Teodoro Catino ("his family is more Italian than the Sopranos," McDonald tells me), is a national-caliber rower from Connecticut. Joe Morabito favors baseball hats worn backwards and is a wiry, effusively friendly 22-year-old who is highly fond of drink.

And then there are the Canadians. Jason Ghikadis, age 22, is compact and swarthy; Simon Thomson, also 22, is lanky, surprisingly graceful and, like McDonald, can grow a mullet with the best of them (or could, before his girlfriend made him cut it last spring). They live in Montreal, but spend most weekends cavorting with the crew south of the border. There are others still-a revolving cast of strong, young skiers willing to huck their meat in exchange for slivers of screen time.

Meathead Films was born from a Jackass-style student-cable-access television show called Ed's Corner that McDonald and Rooster produced during their sophomore year. "We were just a bunch of guys with a camera, doing stupid stuff," explains McDonald. By the time three episodes aired, the boys had received precisely 26 citations from the school for, among other things, promoting violence, threatening students, and smoking in dorm rooms. In one episode, a narrator asks the burning question, "What do you get when you combine fluorescent lights and people's heads and asses?" Then, for three full minutes, the narrator proceeds to smash lightbulbs over heads and asses both. In another episode, Rooster tries to decide whether his masturbatory fantasies will be best served by a pornographic centerfold or a ski magazine. He chooses the ski mag. Eventually the charges against the boys were dropped, but rather than operate under tighter censorship, they canned the show and turned their cameras to the hills.

The Meatheads' first ski movie, A Natural Force, was released in 2002; it was followed a year later by Elevated, a full-length feature that showcases, among other things, Rooster's bare ass. Rooster's butt and the Meathes are, in fact, inextricably linked: On their website, there's a photo of him buck-naked, furiously thrusting his crotch into the snow-covered summit of Vermont's Camel's Hump. Humping Camel's Hump. The joke is as juvenile and obvious as acne. In other words, the Meatheads find it hilarious.

Man-ass footage notwithstanding, Elevated was a hit for its impressive production quality and unique focus on a region that's often stigmatized by the larger skiing community. There's all the to-be-expected stuff-eastern jib sequences set to angry music, bloody faces, and an ambulance-but also a section on telemarker Mark Courville, a Stowe ski bum of some renown, that is so finely crafted it can only be described as elegant. Viewers are responding. In what seemed like a rotten twist of fate, the UVM premiere was the same night as game seven of the Red Sox-Yankees American League pennant race. "I figured we'd be lucky to get 50 people," says McDonald. Instead, 250 showed. In Montreal, they brought in 400 viewers. Local shops quickly burned through their initial shipments; in all, some 300 copies-at $20 a pop-were sold.

"I think people are interested in East Coast riding, but no one else is doing it justice," McDonald tells me as we down pints of Irish Stout at the Vermont Pub and Brewery. As they discuss their art, McDonald and Rooster are wearing green plastic hats and trying to figure out if they have enough money for a keg. It's Saint Patrick's Day.

The Meatheads' idea of doing the East justice is to document its gritty reality. Sure, there are plenty of deep powder lines in their films, but there's also ice, rain, and disappointment-things any easterner understands. "All those heli trips, people can't relate to that shit," says Rooster, who has never looked so much like a male chicken than he does right now, preening in that silly hat. "Look, the stuff we're doing is hard shit. Yeah, it's true that you can only show so much terrain in the East without repeating it, but I think we have a lot left to cover."

Which brings us back to the 3:15 a.m. wake-up call that began this story. The project is titled Epoch. It's McDonald's brainchild, a quest to document ski ascents (and descents) of the highest mountains in the five Northeastern states that have mountains worth documenting. The working cover note McDonald e-mailed me invites viewers to "Join seven young skiers on their quest to conquer five of the Northeast's highest peaks in a single season. Witness their struggles, laugh at their antics, and enjoy incredible backcountry skiing in places you've never seen before."

So far this winter, the Meatheads have knocked off New Hampshire's Mount Washington (6,288 feet) and Massachusetts' 3,491-foot Mount Greylock. Today, we're tackling the 5,344-foot peak of New York's Mount Marcy. Still to come: Mount Katahdin (5,267), in Maine, and Vermont's Mount Mansfield (4,393). This is in addition to a weeklong trip to Quebec's Chic-Choc Mountains to film a segment for their second '04 release, Schooled, as well as dozens of day trips to terrain parks, superpipes, and backwoods chutes throughout the Northeast. All of which is pretty ambitious for a two-camera, one-and-a-half-car operation. (McDonald's Pathfinder has more than 125,000 miles and failing brakes; Rooster's '86 Volvo wagon is reserved strictly for emergencies. It has 307,000 miles and doesn't enjoy a reputation for reliability.)

We make Marcy's base just after 7 a.m., gas station doughnuts and weak coffee sloshing rudely in our stomachs, my ears ringing from Stall's constant chatter. Three times I'd tried to turn on the radio. Each time, he simply spoke louder, delivering a verbal thesis on skiing ("sick"), women ("hot"), and alternative home-building techniques ("straw").

For all their strength as skiers, the Meatheads are relatively new to the practice of earning their turns, and there is much commotion and confusion involving borrowed climbing skins, Alpine Trekkers, and duct tape. As I watch them struggle with the gear, it occurs to me that the Meatheads are caught in a void between old school and new; between boy and man. On the one hand, they ski on gargantuan Head MadTrix's and call skiing "riding"; on the other, they say things like, "If you don't fail at anything, it just makes everything feel easy." On the one hand, they talk ad nauseam about pimples and pussy; on the other, they shake my hand and thank me for coming each time we meet.

It takes us nearly seven hours to make Marcy's summit. The Meatheads do not climb quickly. During one of our many breaks, Rooster and I pop into a pair of trailside outhouses. Rooster's dietary habits-mostly cheap beer and canned soup, from what I've seen-are such that it takes him nearly 20 minutes to regain the group. McDonald films sporadically, but he already looks worn from the climb. Near the top, I look down from an outcropping just in time to see McDonald stumble into a clearing and collapse in the powder. Carrying 30 pounds of camera gear, he constantly breaks stride to film. When I mention this to Ghikadis, he shrugs. "That guy suffers," he says. "But you'll never hear him complain."

On top, the wind is blowing a sustained 70 miles per hour. It's hard to stand, much less walk across the ice-rimed summit cone. Celebrations are cursory and hunched. If the Meatheads are truly looking to document eastern skiing, then this is it. We've just worked our asses off for mediocre snow and questionable terrain. The only skiable line is the hiking trail we just skinned up. It's narrow, boot-packed, and populated by dozens of snowshoers sporting earth-tone L.L. Bean jackets and daypacks. Worse yet, the pitch is more or less green-circle shallow.

McDonald is nonplussed. He directs us quietly but firmly, before descending to catch the action from below. Later, long after we've come off the mountain, after Simon knocks down the old man on snowshoes (it's a mistake, and he apologizes profusely), after the sleet starts in earnest, after Jason and Simon collapse, exhausted, in the parking lot, after Rooster overestimates the Pathfinder's braking prowess and almost rear-ends my Subaru-after all that, I ask McDonald if he's ever frustrated by shooting in the East.

"Yeah, but that's just part of the deal. And sometimes the failures are as interesting as the successes. We're making East Coast ski movies, man. We gotta tough it out. Besides, we don't have enough money to do anything else."

The meatheads plan to release 3,000 copies of schooled-a tenfold increase over the Elevated run-and 1,000 copies of Epoch. Dave Hudacsko, event manager for Teton Gravity Research-a veteran ski film production company with 18 feature-length movies to its credit-met the Meats last fall when they piggybacked a TGR premiere in Burlington. Hudacsko thinks they might be onto something. "The East is a difficult market to capitalize on, but there are a ton of skiers and riders out there," he says. "It's hard for the majority of skiers in Boston to relate to our films." It is worth noting that TGR, which has been making films for eight years and is based in Jackson, Wyoming, filmed their first eastern segment-at Mount Mansfield-in March 2004. Hudacsko is also impressed by the Meatheads' business savvy. "They conduct themselves professionally and they get things done. That's a crucial part of the game."

Getting things done is harder than it sounds. McDonald figures Epoch and Schooled will cost a combined $33,000 to bring to fruition. The money comes from sales of Elevated, Rooster's annual commercial fishing jaunt to Alaska (he pulls down about $5,000 for six weeks spent gutting salmon), and the boys' odd summer jobs. Both Stowe Mountain Resort and The Skier's Shop, a Stowe fixture, have kicked in some dough, but that still leaves the Meatheads more than 25 grand shy of their budget. This year Rooster put together a very professns, Alpine Trekkers, and duct tape. As I watch them struggle with the gear, it occurs to me that the Meatheads are caught in a void between old school and new; between boy and man. On the one hand, they ski on gargantuan Head MadTrix's and call skiing "riding"; on the other, they say things like, "If you don't fail at anything, it just makes everything feel easy." On the one hand, they talk ad nauseam about pimples and pussy; on the other, they shake my hand and thank me for coming each time we meet.

It takes us nearly seven hours to make Marcy's summit. The Meatheads do not climb quickly. During one of our many breaks, Rooster and I pop into a pair of trailside outhouses. Rooster's dietary habits-mostly cheap beer and canned soup, from what I've seen-are such that it takes him nearly 20 minutes to regain the group. McDonald films sporadically, but he already looks worn from the climb. Near the top, I look down from an outcropping just in time to see McDonald stumble into a clearing and collapse in the powder. Carrying 30 pounds of camera gear, he constantly breaks stride to film. When I mention this to Ghikadis, he shrugs. "That guy suffers," he says. "But you'll never hear him complain."

On top, the wind is blowing a sustained 70 miles per hour. It's hard to stand, much less walk across the ice-rimed summit cone. Celebrations are cursory and hunched. If the Meatheads are truly looking to document eastern skiing, then this is it. We've just worked our asses off for mediocre snow and questionable terrain. The only skiable line is the hiking trail we just skinned up. It's narrow, boot-packed, and populated by dozens of snowshoers sporting earth-tone L.L. Bean jackets and daypacks. Worse yet, the pitch is more or less green-circle shallow.

McDonald is nonplussed. He directs us quietly but firmly, before descending to catch the action from below. Later, long after we've come off the mountain, after Simon knocks down the old man on snowshoes (it's a mistake, and he apologizes profusely), after the sleet starts in earnest, after Jason and Simon collapse, exhausted, in the parking lot, after Rooster overestimates the Pathfinder's braking prowess and almost rear-ends my Subaru-after all that, I ask McDonald if he's ever frustrated by shooting in the East.

"Yeah, but that's just part of the deal. And sometimes the failures are as interesting as the successes. We're making East Coast ski movies, man. We gotta tough it out. Besides, we don't have enough money to do anything else."

The meatheads plan to release 3,000 copies of schooled-a tenfold increase over the Elevated run-and 1,000 copies of Epoch. Dave Hudacsko, event manager for Teton Gravity Research-a veteran ski film production company with 18 feature-length movies to its credit-met the Meats last fall when they piggybacked a TGR premiere in Burlington. Hudacsko thinks they might be onto something. "The East is a difficult market to capitalize on, but there are a ton of skiers and riders out there," he says. "It's hard for the majority of skiers in Boston to relate to our films." It is worth noting that TGR, which has been making films for eight years and is based in Jackson, Wyoming, filmed their first eastern segment-at Mount Mansfield-in March 2004. Hudacsko is also impressed by the Meatheads' business savvy. "They conduct themselves professionally and they get things done. That's a crucial part of the game."

Getting things done is harder than it sounds. McDonald figures Epoch and Schooled will cost a combined $33,000 to bring to fruition. The money comes from sales of Elevated, Rooster's annual commercial fishing jaunt to Alaska (he pulls down about $5,000 for six weeks spent gutting salmon), and the boys' odd summer jobs. Both Stowe Mountain Resort and The Skier's Shop, a Stowe fixture, have kicked in some dough, but that still leaves the Meatheads more than 25 grand shy of their budget. This year Rooster put together a very professional ten-page media kit, which has resulted in some product sponsorship-but no additional cash.

To make their company work, the Meatheads live exceptionally close to the bone, a fact that's driven home when I observe Rooster trying to withdraw keg deposit money from an ATM. His balance? Twelve dollars and fifty-five cents. "It's a chronic problem with him," McDonald whispers to me, before stepping up to bail Rooster out. Later, when I ask him about his dearth of disposable income, Rooster admits that he hasn't bought new underwear in two years. He's not the only one to feel the pinch: On the Chic-Choc trip, the Meatheads slept six to a $30 hotel room. McDonald just finished a four-season run on the same pair of Dynastar Concepts. "By the end, I was missing an entire edge," he tells me. It almost sounds like he misses them.

8:30 a.m. Saturday, April 10, 2004. Underhill State Park, Vermont. Meathead fingers load Meathead packs; reeking Meathead feet slip into battle-scarred Meathead boots. McDonald, Rooster, Stall, and the Canucks are in attendance. Morabito tweaked his knee the day before going huge for the camera. And Ermie? Ermie is MIA. "He's a vadge," says Stall.

We're at the base of Mount Mansfield for the final push in their five-summit quest. Since we last met, there has been a fair bit of partying-they finally kicked the Saint Paddy's Day keg at four a.m. They also knocked off Katahdin, arguably the most daunting piece of ski mountaineering in the Northeast. Their sixteen-mile skin was rewarded with bluebird skies, untracked powder, and sweet footage. Call it Meathead karma.

We hike up the Sunset Ridge Trail to the Chin, then traverse across the resort's spine and ski the Bruce Trail, which was the first piste cut on the mountain in 1933, but is now considered a backcountry run. When I explain the Bruce's history to the Man-Boys, they seem slightly stunned, as if unable to master the idea of something so aged.

Thanks to hikeable, spring-hardened crust, we're spared the confusion of climbing skins and Trekkers, though McDonald- who, remember, is from Ohio-finds himself mired in another gear-related dilemma: "Is it better to wear my cotton shirt against my skin or over my polypro?" He asks no one in particular, and when no one in particular answers, I provide a brief explanation of the thermal virtues of a sweaty Beefy-T.

We make fantastically good time and are standing proud atop the Chin by noon. Rooster extracts a cigar from the depths of his jacket. There are stiff hugs all around, the sort of hugs 22-year-old men give each other when they know they should be hugging but don't really want to. McDonald wields the camera with frost-nipped fingers and Rooster shoots stills of us standing shoulder to shoulder. The cigar goes round.

It's raw and windy on the Chin, so the Meatheads beat a hasty retreat and make the 20-minute hike to the top of the Bruce. The conditions are miserable, as if someone spread the ground with a thin smear of mashed potatoes, then stuck it in a deep freeze. I half expect McDonald to suggest an alternate route down a groomed run. But he just shrugs, pulls off the lens cap, and starts filming. And then, one by one, the Meatheads-the faithful and the fearless Meatheads-drop in. They're not making history. They're making ski movies.

Sept. 2004fessional ten-page media kit, which has resulted in some product sponsorship-but no additional cash.

To make their company work, the Meatheads live exceptionally close to the bone, a fact that's driven home when I observe Rooster trying to withdraw keg deposit money from an ATM. His balance? Twelve dollars and fifty-five cents. "It's a chronic problem with him," McDonald whispers to me, before stepping up to bail Rooster out. Later, when I ask him about his dearth of disposable income, Rooster admits that he hasn't bought new underwear in two years. He's not the only one to feel the pinch: On the Chic-Choc trip, the Meatheads slept six tto a $30 hotel room. McDonald just finished a four-season run on the same pair of Dynastar Concepts. "By the end, I was missing an entire edge," he tells me. It almost sounds like he misses them.

8:30 a.m. Saturday, April 10, 2004. Underhill State Park, Vermont. Meathead fingers load Meathead packs; reeking Meathead feet slip into battle-scarred Meathead boots. McDonald, Rooster, Stall, and the Canucks are in attendance. Morabito tweaked his knee the day before going huge for the camera. And Ermie? Ermie is MIA. "He's a vadge," says Stall.

We're at the base of Mount Mansfield for the final push in their five-summit quest. Since we last met, there has been a fair bit of partying-they finally kicked the Saint Paddy's Day keg at four a.m. They also knocked off Katahdin, arguably the most daunting piece of ski mountaineering in the Northeast. Their sixteen-mile skin was rewarded with bluebird skies, untracked powder, and sweet footage. Call it Meathead karma.

We hike up the Sunset Ridge Trail to the Chin, then traverse across the resort's spine and ski the Bruce Trail, which was the first piste cut on the mountain in 1933, but is now considered a backcountry run. When I explain the Bruce's history to the Man-Boys, they seem slightly stunned, as if unable to master the idea of something so aged.

Thanks to hikeable, spring-hardened crust, we're spared the confusion of climbing skins and Trekkers, though McDonald- who, remember, is from Ohio-finds himself mired in another gear-related dilemma: "Is it better to wear my cotton shirt against my skin or over my polypro?" He asks no one in particular, and when no one in particular answers, I provide a brief explanation of the thermal virtues of a sweaty Beefy-T.

We make fantastically good time and are standing proud atop the Chin by noon. Rooster extracts a cigar from the depths of his jacket. There are stiff hugs all around, the sort of hugs 22-year-old men give each other when they know they should be hugging but don't really want to. McDonald wields the camera with frost-nipped fingers and Rooster shoots stills of us standing shoulder to shoulder. The cigar goes round.

It's raw and windy on the Chin, so the Meatheads beat a hasty retreat and make the 20-minute hike to the top of the Bruce. The conditions are miserable, as if someone spread the ground with a thin smear of mashed potatoes, then stuck it in a deep freeze. I half expect McDonald to suggest an alternate route down a groomed run. But he just shrugs, pulls off the lens cap, and starts filming. And then, one by one, the Meatheads-the faithful and the fearless Meatheads-drop in. They're not making history. They're making ski movies.

Sept. 2004

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