The Youthful Years: Freeskiing’s rise at Whistler Blackcomb

The Youthful Years: Freeskiing’s rise at Whistler Blackcomb

Whistler and Blackcomb mountains are both rich in history, but it wasn’t until they came together that this tale truly began—the story of freeskiing.

It’s hard to imagine Whistler, BC before freeskiing. Modern day Whistler Blackcomb is synonymous with the spirit of doing things your own way. The resort builds meticulous parks, maintains one of the best superpipes in the world and plays home hill to some of the most progressive big-mountain shredders in history. Whistler Blackcomb truly is a freeskier’s paradise. Of course, the mountains were badass before twin tips and reverse camber came about. Then, the peaks were just called Whistler, and Blackcomb.

That’s right. At one time, the biggest ski resort in North America was actually two separate entities. While Whistler Mountain opened in 1965, the separately owned and operated Blackcomb Mountain started spinning lifts 15 years later. From day one, the mountains harbored the spirit of freedom but operated in competition to each other. The new movie 50 Years of Going Beyond celebrates the 50-year history of skiing in Whistler and tells a tale of two rivals one-upping each other as they leapfrog for the lead. It was during this era that the town of Whistler developed its unique freewheeling-yet-competitive character.

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Watch: 50 Years of Going Beyond

The ’70s saw Jim McConkey skiing deep powder on Whistler’s glaciated terrain, and Dag Aabye—the original Whistler rebel—dropping legit cliffs and straight-lining Coast Range chutes. In 1973, one of the most underrated aerials of all time went down at Whistler: Vancouver freestyle maverick Steve Corbett threw a world-record-breaking quadruple backflip. Hell, freestyle pioneers like Wayne Wong practically lived there, as did legions of LSD-loving, free-thinking hippies who didn’t work much but could set a skin track and bang moguls on the way down with the tenacity of a world-class competitor.

Yes, both mountains created rich histories as they grew—Blackcomb was the home of freestylers and snowboarders while Whistler harbored racers and traditionalists. That is, until 1997 when the two mountains became one resort—Whistler Blackcomb. Coincidentally, this was the same year the Salomon 1080 twin-tip ski design was conceived, otherwise known as the unofficial birth of freeskiing.

The visionary of this ski design and freeskiing icon, Mike Douglas, grew up relatively close to Whistler, on Vancouver Island. However, the town that would eventually become famous for the Olympics and Sushi Village wasn’t even on his radar.

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“It wasn’t a famous resort yet,” recalls Douglas. “When I was a kid, I was dreaming of Aspen and Sun Valley, where I saw the freestyle scene going off. It wasn’t until the mid ’80s, like ’85, that I remember hearing about how good Whistler and Blackcomb were. I finally went, and it blew my mind. I couldn’t believe there was terrain like that so close to home.”

[aesop_quote type=”block” align=”left” quote=”I did my first-ever misty flip on the wind lip. It was known as probably the best jump in North America… no one had shovels back then. You just skied up and hit it.” cite=”Mike Douglas”]

As both a skier and coach in Canada’s national freestyle team program, Douglas would become a return visitor to Whistler throughout the ’90s. During this time, the man who would become known as the “Godfather of Freeskiing” would help kick off one of skiing’s most cherished eras, one whose origins were arguably shaped by wind.

Perhaps the first evidence of the DIY, balls-out spirit of freeskiing in the Coast Range are the sessions that went down on the now iconic Blackcomb Glacier wind lip, igniting something special in skiing. “It was known as probably the best jump in North America,” remembers Douglas. “It was just the perfect shape. [It had] a natural takeoff. I mean, no one had shovels back then… you just skied up and hit it. I did my first ever misty flip on the wind lip.” Douglas and his misty were at the center of skiing’s revolution, and like so many revolutions throughout history, it dealt with exclusion. Specifically, it was the exclusion of skiers from Blackcomb’s ultra-progressive summer snowboard camps that pushed skiers to the wind lip, but it also lured them back to the camps; first to poach, and then to fight for access.

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(Click to expand) Extended Gallery: Celebrating Whistler Blackcomb’s 50th anniversary.

“No skiers went up the glacier in the summer unless they were racers or bumpers,” recalls born-and-raised Whistler kid, Feet Banks, who is also the director of Parental Advisory, perhaps the most influential freeskiing film to ever come out of Whistler. “That was for snowboarders. We weren’t even allowed in the terrain park.” Parental Advisory would steal influence from snowboarding in more ways than just poaching park runs in the snowboarders-only lane. It also played up the same “eff-it-all” attitude that drunken shred film series like Whiskey and Crusty Demons of Dirt were famous for. Parental Advisory featured hardcore rap music, scripted scenes of violence and lots and lots of insanely talented skiing, mostly on the Horstman Glacier. To say it resonated with freeskiers is an understatement.

“I grew up on that shit,” says Whistler’s most famous wild child, Sean Pettit, who was eight years old at the time of its release. “I had it on VHS and watched it every damn day. It had bank robberies, badass motherfuckers and mind-blowing skiing.”

As Pettit turned from preteen to adolescent, he watched as the cast of characters in the film developed into the same A-list talent the global ski community would recognize: Tanner Hall, CR Johnson, Rex Thomas, Phil Poirier, Skogen Sprang and, of course, the ragtag group that would blow the world of freeskiing wide open—the New Canadian Air Force.

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“Me, Shane Szocs, JP [Auclair], JF [Cusson], Vinnie [Dorion], … we all said ‘Screw this,’” remembers Douglas. “We’re skiers and there’s no reason we can’t ski park and pipe.” The next three or four years saw a rapid acceleration of what was possible. This was the Golden Age of Freeskiing, where fresh tricks, grabs, rotations and even equipment were being invented on a daily basis. It was only a matter of time before the glacier scene developed a gravitational pull that would attract young, hungry freeskiers from all corners of North America.

“The first media coverage coming from the summer camps got my attention,” says Whistler-based pro Eric “Hoji” Hjorleifson. “Being a teenage kid, I wanted to get up on the glacier. Oddly enough, I ended up meeting Shane Szocs [from High North Camp] and Ken Achenbach [from Camp of Champions] at Mike Wiegele Heliskiing while visiting with Peter Monod’s freeski team. They invited me out for one of the volunteer digger positions.”

[aesop_parallax img=”https://freeskier.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/whistler-13.jpg” parallaxbg=”on” caption=”Eric Hjorleifson chases Hugo Harrison down a chute at Blackcomb. Photo: Robin O’Neill.” captionposition=”bottom-left” lightbox=”off” floater=”off” floaterposition=”left” floaterdirection=”up”]

That summer, Hoji would step into a sun-soaked world surrounded by his heroes as he raked and salted takeoffs and landings. The list of names that populated the park in those days has now become almost mythical: Anthony Boronowski, the Three Phils, Trennon Paynter, Dave Crichton, Chris Turpin, Sarah Burke, Evan Raps, Shane Anderson. Even big-mountain’s biggest names would show up. It wasn’t rare to see Seth Morrison, Shane McConkey and JT Holmes on the glacier, rubbing shoulders with a whole new generation of kids who had no idea who 80s-era Whistler icons like Eric Pehota or Trevor Petersen even were.

“I look back at those years as a really cool time in skiing, and I’m pretty fortunate to have been up there participating,” says Hjorleifson. “Back then, everyone was around. Vinnie, JP, Candide, Tanner, a lot of the Tahoe guys were coming up. I remember one of the early years when Turpin really blew up. He was straight out of Red Deer, Alberta, and had only been skiing for a year or something. He ruled the glacier, pioneering switch corks 7s and 1080s. He went from no experience to killing it the next season. That was cool to see.”

[aesop_quote type=”block” align=”right” quote=”I remember Sarah Burke’s 1080. The news that she had done it flew like wildfire across the camps.” cite=”Feet Banks”]

“I remember Sarah Burke’s 1080,” says Banks. “The news that she had done it flew like wildfire across the camps. Next thing you knew, the women were in on the game, too.” The late Burke would eventually move to Whistler from Barrie, Ontario, marry fellow freeskier Rory Bushfield (whom she met at camp at age 14) and become an unofficial Whistler ambassador. Over the next 16 years, she grew into an icon of the sport, winning five X Games gold medals and leading a successful charge to get halfpipe skiing included in the Olympic Games.

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Primarily a summertime terrain-park fueled progression, freeskiing in Whistler revolved around what was built by the camps and the campers, but it wouldn’t be long before the mountain staff itself saw promise in a pro-level park that existed throughout the winter.

“Whistler was one of the first places to even have a park, in general,” recalls Douglas. “They definitely were one of the first resorts to have a great one.”

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Whistler Blackcomb was an industry leader from the beginning when it came to terrain-park design and construction. Nowhere was this more evident than in the monstrous end-of-season kickers the mountain would help construct for film shoots with production companies ranging from Poor Boyz Productions to Teton Gravity Research. A willingness to experiment became the hallmark for Whistler Blackcomb, and athletes, film companies and photographers knew where to go to sculpt the next massive, strange, breathtaking feature. Perhaps the most famous features are those built for and filmed by Matchstick Productions (MSP).

“Those shoots were always a big highlight for me,” says Hjorleifson. “There was a lot of collaborating between MSP and Whistler Blackcomb. They would bring in different guys to build the jumps each year. One season Jon Olsson spearheaded things and built one of his classic jumps. Jacob Wester built a jump there another year. One time it was Marty Gautrey. It was cool to hit something new each year.”

“I remember one year they built this jump, and everyone at the [MSP] shoot was complaining that it wasn’t big enough,” explains Hjorleifson. “WB said, ‘Screw it,’ and built it way bigger… like a 100-foot gap. No one would hit it. [Laughs] There were hundreds of speed checks. I ended up guinea pigging it, and it was one of the coolest jump sessions I’ve ever been a part of. It’s incredible that Whistler Blackcomb was willing to build such a huge feature.”

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“They’ve always embraced all the quirky, weird stuff that was freaking out other resorts at the time,” says Douglas. Over the years, Whistler Blackcomb would build the first-ever boardercross course and first halfpipe, not to mention maintaining 99 acres of finely tuned park terrain on a daily basis throughout the season.

Over the past 20 years, Whistler Blackcomb has built so much more than features, though. The community is also responsible for a slew of freesking events, from 1998’s inaugural World Cup of Freeskiing, in which Jeff Holden, Shane McConkey, Brant Moles and Seth Morrison all competed; to 2004’s World Skiing Invitational halfpipe “super hit” contest, where Dave Crichton won with his still iconic alley-oop flatspin 540; to Vincent Gagnier putting on a clinic in 2015’s World Ski and Snowboard Festival (WSSF) big air. Indeed, each spring WSSF continues to help nudge the entire sport of freeskiing forward. Next spring, it will be 20 years deep.

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It wasn’t just in the park and pipe where Whistler’s freeski scene was experiencing an upward shift. While the town’s big-mountain credibility was never to be questioned, there was a change on the horizon in the way freeskiers approached the peaks. The mountains’ rich heritage—fostering skiers like Trevor Petersen, Eric Pehota and Dan Treadway—had kept the resort in magazine pages and on VHS tape since the ’80s. Filmmakers like Greg Stump brought iconic Squaw Valley skiers like Glen Plake and Scot Schmidt to Blackcomb. But with the arrival of freeskiing—and most notably park and pipe skiing—all the youth were looking at those steep, powdery slopes in a new way.

“Dana Flahr, Hjorleifson, CR Johnson… they were all campers on the glacier,” says Banks. “Next thing you know, they’re bored of the park and now they’re up skiing the real mountain. What’d you think was going to happen?”

“The snowpack is generally stable here, and it sticks to the big, steep faces,” says Hjorleifson. “We could access this terrain that has such good snow… progression was a natural step.”

In 2004, freestyle skier and virtual unknown Mark Abma burst onto the scene, based on his mind-blowing segment in MSP’s Yearbook, which showed the young skier flashing huge, high-speed Alaskan lines in between switch powder skiing and giant jump sessions from Whistler to California. The amazing thing was, Abma stood in new territory on those Alaskan peaks.

“I had never skied big lines before,” he recalls. “The next thing I know, I am on top of this line, and I can’t see where I am going.” Despite the lack of optical vision, Abma used the progressive vision he had gained combining Whistler Blackcomb’s park terrain with sneaky inbounds mini-golf lines and put together a segment that still stands as legitimate today, 11 years later.

From Abma to Flahr to Hoji, the new breed of young Whistler skiers started treating the Coast Range like a terrain park, and they were getting really good at it. This was the era of taking the tricks to the backcountry, and Whistler Blackcomb’s class was leading the way. Arguably, they were ahead of the curve because their home resort had so much diverse terrain to offer—parks, pipes, alpine lines and easily accessed backcountry that modern professional freeskiers wanted.

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Pettit absolutely credits his playful-but-aggressive skiing style to the diversity of terrain. “People tell me all the time that all of us who grew up here have the ‘Whistler riding style,’” he says. “[It’s] fast… aggressive… we use the features. Style is hard to define, but Whistler definitely has it’s own.”

“The mountains here have a ton to offer,” Hjorleifson adds. “It’s a special place. The amount of terrain you can access from the ski area, with high, glaciated alpine terrain with a lot of really cool, steep skiing potential. That’s the main reason I am here. That access. That snow. That terrain.”

Almost two decades later, and 10 consecutive years atop FREESKIER’s annual ski resort rankings, Whistler Blackcomb is celebrating its 50th anniversary which serves as evidence of skiers’ drive to find new territory, even within the same physical boundaries. As skiers we look to new lines, new tricks and new equipment to push ourselves. Sometimes it’s motivated by exclusion from a terrain park or from the Olympic halfpipe. Sometimes it’s the glory of competition itself, like the World Skiing Invitational or the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. And sometimes, we are merely bettered by our peers’ influence, as when Blackcomb and Whistler mountains pushed and pulled their way to the top of the ski resort game.

Whatever the motivations, one thing remains at the heart of what skiers do. And that’s have a shit ton of fun while we look for the next best thing. From the first chairlift to the last rotation, we can only wonder what will come next at Whistler Blackcomb.

Learn more at whistlerblackcomb.com/50.

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