Whistler (BC), Canada – Summer skiing on a glacier in Whistler. Just saying the words
out loud made my friends jealous and my primary care physician cringe. Why?
Because it’s a strange, exotic, dangerous, adventure that is just plain cool.
After all, how many people do you know who get to work on their tans by skiing
atop 1,000-year-old glacial snow while wearing board shorts and Hawaiian shirts?
Besides, this wasn’t just an ordinary ski trip taken at an unusual time. Whistler is the No. 1 ski resort in North America, recording more than 2 million visits last year, and boasting a nightlife that can only be legal in Canada.
And I was going there to rip and get ripped. To spend my days skiing, and my nights partying, with some of the hottest mogul skiers and new-school hucksters in the world. We’re talking about the guys who appear on World Cup podiums and in Warren Miller movies. Coaching me. Videotaping me. Analyzing my skiing. And pouring me tequila shooters.
Not a bad diversion from the summer heat and mosquitoes, eh? But how does a first-year skier like myself hook up with World Cup mogul meisters?
Go to camp. That’s right. Embrace your inner child. Pack up your ski gear, write your name on your underwear, and attend a session of professionally-coached skiing camp.
One of the best and longest-running such operations in Whistler is the Smart Mogul Skiing (SMS) camp. For more than nine years, camp director John Smart and his crew of World Cup mogul masters have been teaching skiers of all ages and ability levels how to rip it up on the bumps and off the jumps.
Smart knows his stuff. His credentials include 13 World Cup medals, two Olympic appearances, three Canadian championships, and the 1999 World Pro Mogul championship. John is also an incredibly nice guy. A mere conversation with him will improve anybody’s skiing by a magnitude of ten.
When I discovered that SMS was offering a week-long, adults-only summer session
with a maximum ratio of six skiers to one coach, I waxed up my skis, paid up
my major medical insurance, and lit out from Seattle to the Great White North.
My German shepherd Max rode shotgun.
Travel Day: Negotiating a Border Crossing and Acclimating to New Surroundings
Most of the 50 campers in the session arrived from across the U.S. and around the world – some flying in from as far away as Boston, England, Sweden and Germany. That first evening, we attended a brief orientation meeting during which everybody collected itineraries and struggled to memorize names.
We danced around the room like boxers in the ring, each of us trying to determine who was the best skier, the craziest huckster, the hardiest partier, and who would get hurt the worst. The group was a motley crew of die-hard skiers and wannabe studs, representing all walks of life, 90 percent male, ages ranging 17-60. Each of us was determined to learn to ski better than we’ve ever skied and fly higher than we’ve ever flown. Some also planned on getting trashed and getting laid.
Coming to grips with the fact that we would be skiing in 12 hours, we called it an early night and broke to acquire our individual supplies for the week: Advil, snacks, sunscreen, liquor, and in many cases ganja – which is a controlled substance in Whistler only in so far as everybody has access to it.
On the Hill: Hard at Work Behind the Big White Desk
Reaching the 7,494-foot-high Horstman Glacier on Blackcomb Mountain requires
two lift rides, a school bus ride around the side of the mountain, and then
a third lift ride up a viciously steep slope. A one-way trip takes at least
90 minutes. Secure your plumbing accordingly, unless you posses the confidence
and agility to hang it off the lift. By August, the skiable terrain becomes
relatively limited. SMS had assembled four competition-style mogul lanes, two
of which included a top and bottom air ramp. We also had access to a non-bump
slope, the terrain park and the slush pond. Other training areas included smaller
kicker ramps, and the absorption tank, a series of in-line bumps designed to
teach ski-to-snow contact, the secret behind maintaining speed and control in
Camp schedule called for skiers to take the hill by about 9:30 every morning, but that deteriorated as the session rolled on – mostly due to injuries, hangovers and nocturnal hookups. Timetables are flexible in skiing. The age of consent is much younger in Canada. And we were on vacation, after all.
We were warned not to expect miracles on our first ski day. Our legs hadn’t made a turn in several months. The snow was a bit sketchy. Our circumstances and surroundings bordered the surreal. And blondes snowboarding by in bikini tops tended to distract.
After some warm up runs, the coaches spent considerable time evaluating everyone’s skiing abilities and dividing the campers into small groups. Everybody laughed at their own sorry-ass performance. Then we skied. Hard.
As the camp session progressed, the coaches rotated among the groups, imparting different techniques, strategies and practice drills. They also devoted individual attention to each skier, harnessing strengths and eliminating weaknesses.
Watching the coaches demonstrate their skills, they ski larger than life. We’re
talking about mogul racers like P.A. Rousseau, currently ranked 3rd in the world.
And new-school air freaks like Scott Bellavance and Mike Atkinson, who routinely
nail 140 feet of distance off “The Windlip,” the sickest jump on the mountain.
Local lore has it that attempting anything bigger off the Windlip borders on
suicide. But my money says one of these guys will eventually rewrite that legend.
Yet there they were, sharing their secrets with us regular shmucks.
The coaches did not blow sunshine up our skirts regarding our abilities. They did teach us World Cup style, and helped improve our overall skiing by 1,000 percent. The only rule was that everyone must have fun.
This is ski camp, after all, not Mrs. Johnson’s algebra tutorial. Lessons are informal. Ski as long as you want. Practice the drills that work for you. Or commandeer a lounge chair, work on your tan and practice looking cool. You’re a big kid now. Want to learn how to land a back flip? Just ask one of the coaches to show you. Hint: Speed is your friend – until it kills you.
Afternoon Activities: Because Sleep and Chiropractic Care Are for the Weak
By about 2:30, our ski boots were off and we were riding a lift down to mid-mountain for lunch. The lucky ones secured the chairs directly downwind from the guys blazing British Columbia’s finest. Extensive research indicates this alleviates muscle and joint pain.
The further down the hill we traveled, the more ski gear we shed and stuffed into our backpacks. As we downloaded from the final chair, pausing casually to flirt with the liftie, we were practically naked – bare-chested, shorts, soccer flip flops – and ready to hit the nearest patio bar for some après ski libations and snacks. For many campers, afternoon activities started and ended here.
For the hardcore, organized activities began at around 4:30 and included mountain biking, river rafting, paintball, working the trampoline, and jumping off the Canadian National Ski Team’s water ramp, always a highlight. Even people too drunk to jump showed up to heckle their buddies.
For the uninitiated, the water ramp is a sloped, wooden platform covered with wet patches of plastic spikes that can only be described as astro turf on steroids. You stand at the top of the ramp wearing a wet suit, life vest, helmet, rented boots and beat-up skis. Awaiting you at the bottom of the jump is a pool of icy water, your friends’ merciless taunts, and possibly a trip to the hospital.
The up side of the water ramp is that you get to practice your landings on a much softer surface. On the other hand, if you snag an edge on the ramp the “turf” will rip the flesh off your body. So keep your skis flat and don’t fall.
Every day on the hill, the trampoline, or the water ramp, coaches rolled videotape – sometimes candidly. After devouring a family-style dinner at about 6:30, everybody regrouped at the hotel for videotape review and sports psychology sessions.
Watching yourself bite it hard – especially in slow motion – is a humbling experience at best. Snow flies. Skies get launched. Stuff gets mangled. And people laugh.
But do yourself a favor: Stay sober, pay attention and take notes. Although shrouded in an air of no-holds-barred fun, video analysis and psychology are serious components of professional coaching. They represent a great opportunity to identify a skier’s mistakes and develop corrective techniques. They also keep you focused on skiing, even as you set out for the bars later that night to re-inflate your ego and numb your aching knees.
Nocturnal Demolition: Jagermeister, Cougars and Other Indigenous Species
The two abilities most coveted in Whistler are skiing and drinking. During
the height of ski season, it is not unusual to be jarred awake at 2 a.m. by
the drunken blather of revelers stomping through the village, still in their
But for all its worldliness and international appeal, Whistler is still just
a small ski village. And the big raves unfold at only one of several spots on
any given night. We tore up Tommy Africa’s for 80s Night. The single guys hit
Buffalo Bill’s to be mauled by “cougars.” And we went to the Savage Beagle for
Before proceeding, a word about cougars. I’m not talking about four-legged
mountain critters with sharp teeth and savage claws. The cougars stalking the
Whistler bar scene are much more aggressive, God bless them. They’re one of
the main reasons some of the guys attended camp.
These cougars are women who know exactly what they want – rabid, blinding,
monkey sex with hot skiers. That’s an important safety tip to remember when
you descend on the bar with your newest best friends – a hoard of world-ranked
mogul racers and a pocket-full of devalued currency. You lucky bastard.
Kick back. Indulge. Dance like a banshee. Suck down a couple dozen brain hemorrhages.
Or better yet, run up a $600 tab slurping tequila shooters off the luscious
waitress’s body. The Whistler spirit encourages this kind of debauchery. So
don’t be surprised when a cougar pulls your drunken carcass out of the bar and
drags you back to her den. Just remember, you only score partial credit if you’re
not on the hill skiing by noon the next day.
The Walking Wounded: There’s Nothing Like a Vacation Boasting a Body Count
Judging by all the waivers I signed at the beginning of the camp session, skiing
is a dangerous sport. That’s one of the main reasons it’s so cool. And skiing
for six days will ding up anyone. Sore muscles abound. Knees ache and quads
But attending a hardcore camp makes skiing that much more perilous, and potential
injuries more serious. Because unless you are like my fat-assed aunt Betsy –
snowplowing your way down the same bunny slope for 8 consecutive years – you
will push yourself and shatter your limits, and possibly your bones.
No one wants to get hurt. But injuries are a small price to pay for the glory
you will reap when telling your tale at the bars back home. Note: Scars, splints
and limps add substantial credibility to any story.
By the end of the week, our on-mountain tent resembled the triage ward of a
MASH unit. One skier tore his MCL on the second run of the first day. A woman
in the group required numerous stitches to close the gash she ripped into her
leg while mountain biking. Another skier ruptured an eardrum in a flat-spin,
crash landing off the water ramp. A camper partially broke his fibula landing
a jump incorrectly, and a coach slightly tore his LCL the same way.
My own injuries included: scraping several layers of skin off my thumb during
a slide on hard ice; a wicked sunburn; sore knees, one of which had cartilage
damage before camp; a bronchitis infection bordering on walking pneumonia; and
the onset of psoriasis of the liver. Nothing that a couple of weeks at Betty
Ford with my orthopedic surgeon can’t repair.
Let Me Out of this Country: The Drive Home and the Aftermath – BYO Tetanus
Shot and Antibiotics
Shot and Antibiotics
There was a brutal party on the last night, and when I woke up on the afternoon
of the last day, I knew it was time to go home. A vacant spot in the last camp
session tantalized me, but deep down I realized my knees and liver would reject
it. More to the point, I was out of cash.
There was nothing left to do but collect my laundry, distribute the remnants
of my party supplies, and prepare myself and Max for the five-hour drive down
the mountain and across the border. Chocolate croissants, double espressos and
cheap Canadian cigarettes paved the road – all the way to my doctor’s office,
where I collected a handful of antibiotics and a tetanus shot.
I spent the next eight days on my couch, elevating my knees, reviewing my videotape
footage and selling shares of Microsoft to pay off my bar tab.
All in all, it was indeed a small price to pay for glory. Besides, the way
I see it, I have four months to recuperate before next ski season.