The funicular was not running when I got off the bus in Bourg St. Maurice, so I caught a cab up to Les Arcs 1800. It was hard to say exactly why I’d been invited to the B&E Invitational. The athlete list itself defied logic in a way that muddled the line between a freeskiing chronology and an arcane mosaic of—dare I say it—style skiers, a mix of vanguard hot shots like Torin Yater-Wallace and Emile Bergeron all the way up to the thirty-year-old vets whose video segments the younger competitors had cut their teeth on. Dave Crichton. Adam Delorme. There were even whispers of an appearance by Candide, which piqued the interest of the cabbie as we climbed the switchbacks above town. “Oui, Candide Thovex,” I assured her, adding “Le Cat!” in the annoying brand of pidgin French I tend to affect wherever the Tricolour is flown.
Bad French aside, it felt good to be back on the continent, where the mountains are young and the ski culture is older than time itself. And a summons from Phil Casabon and Henrik Harlaut (the eponymic B-Dog and E-Dollo) for their inaugural event had certainly warmed the heart of one washed up “pro” skier. It wasn’t hubris I felt as I sat down to fondue with B, E and Eric Iberg that first night before the rest of the invitees arrived. It was something else entirely—the sensation that the scales had tipped, once again, in my favor.
After fondue we repaired to a bar called Chez Boubou for a digestif. Although Boubou himself never appeared (the name conjured visions of an absinthe-addled circus clown), the bartenders treated us to an entire bottle of a clear liqueur called génépi that they swilled with the solemnity of priests administering the sacrament, clutching the tall shot glasses between pinky and index finger. Génépi is supposedly endemic to the Savoie region of the Rhône-Alps in the same way that real Champagne belongs to the province of the same name or Chartreuse to some ancient order of drunken monks. The drink would prove to be my undoing in the days to come.
Morning rain in the village had amounted to a half-inch of snow in the public terrain park—a flowy run in the lee of a coulee-veined caldera that wore the last of winter’s paltry snowfall like a skimpy bathing suit. After a dozen park laps, we made our way back to 1800, traversing through jack pines and bracken that had popped up through the sublimating snow. The rest of the invitees had arrived en masse from the airport and were sitting outside the Boubou. We enjoyed blonde beers and the last of [Corey] Vanular’s Viceroys while the sky faded from vermillion to mauve in the west. As I looked between the smiling faces that lined the picnic tables, the crew finally made sense. The B&E would not be a contest between once and future generations of freeskiing aesthetes or even an anti-comp, which I believe is an oxymoron rife with its own queer implications. The strength of the B&E cast—and by extension the event itself—was also its only weakness as a concours: the notion that skiing is always better in the company of friends.
This happy realization was soon spoiled by Paul Bergeron, who came reeling out of the bushes next to the esplanade to fall face-first into a mud puddle. He’d been doing a bit of drinking on the bus ride. Event organizer Raf Regazzoni told me later that there had been a very bad tableau at the Hôtel du Golf when Paul had checked in. The concierge had felt that he might be in need of medical attention, psychiatric treatment or some combination thereof. The public rancor brought on by almost any interface between our crew and the locals would soon become a running theme, and I felt Raf’s pain when things got out of hand. He had gone to great lengths to bring the B&E to his hometown, and I often worried that his political future hung in the balance.
Someone put Paul to bed while a guy named “Adam from Monster Energy” treated the rest of us to dinner. I’ve always had a categorical aversion to energy drink companies, which are essentially sugar-water brands that make their nut selling diabetes to idiots via guerilla-marketing sticker campaigns. But these Monster guys were as cool as they come. Adam and his cronies spared no expense to make sure that everyone was well fed and generally blackout drunk whenever possible.
In fact, there was an unsettling absence of fat wallet corporate types anywhere to be seen. The starting gate at any major freeskiing contest is typically choked with a serried mass of credential-toting ex-racers that serve the office of team manager. You can spot them by the rolled up snow pants, which only thinly disguise the presence of scaly bifurcated tails, and unbuckled race boots, loosened to allow breathability for cloven pig feet. Such scum ought to be corralled and herded off the cliff of industry along with the rest of the swaggering shitheels that pull rank in this backward business. But like I said, none of these were in attendance at the B&E, which probably accounted for the high mood of the whole event.
After dinner we amassed outside—a weed-stinking enfilade of longhaired pirates that seemed to have acquired our wardrobe over the course of some rapacious history. Pako Benguerel’s terrier, Point, weaved in between us like a harrying sheepdog, driving the group down the main drag while passing spring breakers rubbernecked at this cultural phenomenon that must have looked to them like the sport d’hiver version of the Hell’s Angels on a transcontinental debauch. In fact, this is the last un-blurred image that I have of the crew from the entire weekend. Over the next twenty minutes, I drank enough génépi to kill a Clydesdale.
The next morning—practice day—the vague aroma of shame and body odor permeated a riders’ meeting. Phil officiated while Henrik played silent partner. I could only imagine what it must mean for the pair to host 20 of their friends (protégés and mentors both) on a course that seemed to materialize directly from the mad genius of their mutual consciousness. It was too much to think about, especially with a head that spun like a pedestal fan as I tried to piece together the night before…
Pako questioned by gendarmes after micturating in the street: “Do you do this in your country?”
“Only when I have to piss,” he’d told them.
There had also been a beef with some fringe-buckle loafer types, who had perched around the Boubou foosball table like squawking shit birds above a highway of Yankee carrion. “You can play, but you’d better get the fuck out after you get beat,” Delorme told them while Chris Logan stared out the tops of his eyes like a boxer preparing to touch gloves at center ring. Miraculously, Parker and Casabon beat the pricks by a single goal, seconds before Parker projectile vomited outside the door.
My knee had swollen to the size of a cantaloupe from injuries sustained on the dance floor of the Club Apocalypse the night before, so I sat a few plays out with Crichton and Vanular while everyone else tested the course under the watchful eye of the head builder, Tony. Tony was nice enough, but the defloration of his hand-carved masterpiece before competition day was more than he could bear. I became very nervous as he paced back and forth just a few feet away, spewing French invective, “Putain! J’en ai rien à foutre. Merde!”
After practice, we caught a bus to another part of Les Arcs for a private hors d’oeuvres function at an après-ski bar with vaulted ceilings stanchioned by old-growth pine. It wasn’t long before a bottle-cap snapping fight broke out between the loft and the dining room floor, serrated projectiles whizzing over the heads of local dignitaries and a pair of well-endowed Monster girls whose English glossary seemed limited to one phrase: “You wish to take picture with me?” On the bus ride home, P-White nearly lost a tooth when the driver maliciously slammed the brakes during Parker’s grab rail pull-up exhibition.
“Have you notice that this course is shape like a penis?” a small child asked me candidly from across the mesh fence that lined the drop in. I hadn’t really thought about it, I told him. Competition day had arrived with all the grim certainty of a Christmas without presents; any excitement I’d felt that first night had been replaced by the ear-ringing horror of a man facing the scaffold. If anything was for sure, it was that this phallus with its testicle-shaped bowls at bottom was about to be thrashed to the heights of fantastic climax while the whole world watched. Which was a good thing, on balance, but I suspected that I’d be doing very little thrashing myself.
It seemed that most of France had turned out for the show. An invisible hype man amped up the crowd over crackling loudspeakers, but the only words I could make out from the top were “Harlaut,” “Casabon” and “Caaaaaandide.” The rest of us were, at best, ancillary to the main event. I took comfort in that and began to breathe easier. An odd calm had descended over all of us, and as the first skiers dropped in we cheered on the homies. Not the nervous, made-for-TV cheers that beset the Dew Tour or X Games competitor as he faces the rush of air but the bona fide encouragement of friends.
What began to take shape was a session of epic proportions—an amalgamation of skiing styles hemmed by some common, intangible thread. The sport of freeskiing seemed to breathe and grow before our very eyes, like a strange organism of which we were all part and parcel. At the center of this impetus was Candide: the G.O.A.T., the originator, the sole controller. It was as though time had no effect upon him. He’d been the best when I watched him ski at Mount Snow in 2000, and he was the best now in 2014, even at a contest put on by the two most influential skiers in the world.
By the end of the jam, only Emile Bergeron and Candide were still skiing. Candide was fiddling with his pole straps on every in-run now, which prompted some wild speculation from those at the top of the course. “He’s gonna do something maaad,” said Henrik. To the well-trained eye, a nervous tic like a pole-strap adjustment is analogous to a tell in a poker game or the behavioral cues of a buck in the rut. It means that something big is in the offing.
Sure enough, his skis broke loose in the middle of the course and started on a beeline for the skier’s-left bowl/nut. Candide has an animal magnetism that exists independent of his fame, a certain je ne sais quoi that trumps the mythology of the garden-variety stunt skier like Mike Wilson or Wilson’s modern iteration, Jesper Tjåder. The faster he went, the more control he had as fast twitch muscles and nerve endings attained a kind of hyperdrive. By the time he hit the wall of the bowl, he was going mach loony, and when he took to the air he seemed to hang in suspension as he arched a double backflip before disappearing behind the mass of snow.
The contest was over for all intents and purposes. We took a group victory lap to the bottom, where we wrote down the names of skiers whom we felt should win for different categories: Best Trick, Best Style and Best Overall. I wrote Candide and Dave Crichton for all three. The votes were tabulated, and then many fine things were said in a language I couldn’t understand, after which Torin Yater-Wallace was called to the podium and handed a magnum of Harlaut Champagne. I was pretty sure that he’d won. The mayor of Bourg St. Maurice found it incumbent on himself to take the stage after the awards, where he spoke glowingly about the “B and G Invitation” and clapped his hands into the microphone.
Afterwards at the Golf restaurant, a crapulous feeling began to take hold. Too much food and booze. Strange mixtures of wine, cheese and paper-thin cured meats from cantons unknown. It was the fourth time I’d had either raclette or fondue in the last three days, and I found myself wondering if the French had somehow evolved beyond lactose intolerance.
Henrik’s parents had flown in from Sweden for the event. He shuttled them around the room, making introductions in a polite voice that seemed to drop a few octaves at the end of every sentence. It was a tone of absolute deference—one that I had only heard once or twice before at our dinners with Joy Warnick after Tom’s passing. “Erik,” Mr. Harlaut said, introducing himself as we shook hands. But then his face puckered as he sipped a fresh-poured Bordeaux. “This wine tastes like a truck!” he exclaimed loudly as Mrs. Harlaut blushed. I laughed, seeing for the first time the way that his mother’s shyness and his dad’s jocularity had come to represent equal parts in the son.
It was obvious from the increasing volume and the musical-chair movement between the Biergarten-style benches that sustenance had become a secondary concern. We were drunk again. Parker and B-Paul fashioned morisco masks out of tin foil from the charcuterie while we whined Bob Dylan songs and pantomimed guitar licks, much to the chagrin of the servers, who had begun to bustle around tensely in their traditional milkmaid uniforms. Suddenly, amidst the gathering frisson, Ahmet Dadali wrenched a wheel of cheese from its coupelle and took a massive bite out of it before hurling the unpasteurized grenade across the room, yelling, “Cheddar bomb!”
The cheese landed with a thump, pirouetting in diminishing circles until it wobbled to a stop in the middle of the floor. In the resulting silence echoed the keen embarrassment of every transgression from the whole trip, every affront and cultural faux pas laid bare. Then, from behind me, came the sound of Chris Logan’s voice:
The word itself was not loud but exigent, lilting upwards on a rising scale that promised more to come.
“Quack,” came the second as we all joined in, pounding the tables with mug and balled fist in time with the words.
“QuacK… QuaCK… QuACK… QUACK, QUACK,
James Joyce would likely turn up his nose at the notion that epiphany could be born from a Mighty Ducks chant, but as the air filled again with babbling laughter, I knew a powerful sense of fulfillment. It was a ridiculous thing to feel such reassurance in the presence of twenty drunken idiots, but sometimes the right to be weird is reassurance enough.
What had we been doing out here, halfway around the world? We’d been partying and jumping around on skis, celebrating our own legend in a kind of narcissistic bacchanalia, each of us a giant of his own invention. At the same time, each was nothing in his own estimation compared to any and every one of the others, which was exactly why Phil and Henrik had brought us all together in the first place. What strange and beautiful lives we must have lived, to bring us to this point, I thought. Some people are lucky. Some are good. But not many are both.