Archive for April, 2009

Powder Magazine owners file for Chapter 11, but don’t worry…

April 30, 2009

You know the media biz ain’t what it used to be when you hear about three major restructurings in one day! First, an email from former SKIING magazine contributor Rob Lovitt at 8:30 this AM informed me that Conde Nast had officially shuttered Portfolio magazine, it’s uber-slick business porn mag launched at the height of the tech bubble, er, private equity fund bubble a couple of years ago. I’m sad to see it go – the last issue featured an outstanding story by Michael Lewis on the Day Wall Street Died. Alas, I read it online and printed all fifteen pages out on my printer, so no dollars were exchanged in that media transaction! Literally minutes later, snowdogskier (his handle on epicski.com) emailed with word (from Transworld Business’s website) that Source Interlink, the parent company of Powder, Bike, Surfer, Surfing and other action sports titles, had filed for Chapter 11. And the just after dinner, I went to the Globe & Mail website only to find that the number one story of the day was an announcement that the National Post would not be publishing on Mondays for nine weeks starting later this year. The media dominoes are starting to fall as the blowback from the financial meltdown of 08 percolates through the economy. The rich aren’t taking vacations, buying or leasing expensive cars, purchasing vacation properties or even, so it seems, buying vanity magazines about their peers. The rest of us are either unemployed or underemployed, and ‘waiting for things to turn around.’ Some of the best comments re: Source Interlink and Powder can be found on the TGR chatroom, where a spokesperson (I have not checked the masthead but it sounds like either a managing editor or someone on the business side) has weighed in to assure contributors and readers alike that Chapter 11 is, in fact, a good thing… especially if they get some kind of government bailout (kidding!). Usually, media conglomerates buy and sell blocks of publications like we trade baseball cards; but these are different times. Big Media thrives on access to capital (read: debt financing instruments) and while publishers often attempt to hive off non performing assets for a song, in this case it’s unsure who will actually buy anything. I think the financials for Powder should be pretty sound, still, we are living a very tight times and marketing folks on all sides are being told that ‘print is dead’ and to ‘invest in social media.’ Time will tell, but here’s hoping that the greatest ski magazine ever published continues to find solid investment footing and thrives well into the future. After all, I have 95 percent of ’em going all the way back to issue number 3!

Report from TELUS World Ski and Snowboard Festival

April 27, 2009

The TELUS World Ski and Snowboard Festival wound up today, and I attended from Thursday PM until Saturday. Caught the Pro Photographer Showdown, the invite-only “PowWow” by Origin Design (check out my blog post at MediaTent) on that event, the Metric concert on the Kokanee stage and even did some fine skiing’ over on Blackcomb on Saturday. Hard to believe that this is the 13th annual festival – I was invited to the very first one, which I wrote up (and kinda slammed) for Powder magazine in 1996. It truly bloody amazes me that there are so many people that come out for this event at such a late date in the season – truly a testament to the organizers at Watermark and the foresight of the event’s founders like Doug Perry, Skip Taylor, and Don McQuaid. After watching Jordan Manley (check out the guy’s blog) win yet another Pro Photographer Showdown, it’s perfectly obvious to me why the guy wins so consistently – he really ‘gets’ the storytelling concept of a slide show; outstanding images (of course), well-conceived music, and more than that – a flair for storytelling by ensuring that each and every image flows from the one before and leads to the one after. One thing I will say, though – Manley’s vision is pretty dark for such a joyful sport as skiing. I guess he’s spent too much time in the gloom at Whistler and on Vancouver’s North Shore shooting his subjects. I really enjoyed Christian Pondella‘s seggy as well; though I think that the constant  Red Bull logos didn’t work in his favour.

Globe story on Steve Omischl, freestyle skier

April 17, 2009

I almost forgot, I had a Globe & Mail story on Steve Omischl, the Canadian freestyle skier who is the odds-on favourite to win an Olympic aerials medal. There were some interesting points edited out; the unedited version is below.

In a day or two I’ll summarize some of my thoughts on Olympic aerials which, one has to admit, have become increasingly irrelevant to the recreational ski experience and have been eclipsed at the sponsor level by X-Games and Dew Tour slopestyle and Big Air comps.

When it comes to Olympic athletes who go “faster, higher, and stronger,” no one flies as high as the freestyle ski aerialists.

The airborne routines performed by the likes of current World Cup champion Steve Omischl are the hardest and most advanced gymnastic manoeuvres in any comparable sport like diving or trampoline. Omischl says, “Our sport is unique in that we both go up and then come down.”

To win Olympic gold next February at Cypress Mountain, site of the freestyle aerials for the 2010 Winter Games, Omischl may attempt the most difficult jump allowed in international competition―three back flips combined with five full twists. At the highest point, he’ll be seventy feet off the snow. However, fear of heights and falling is something that Omischl dealt with a long, long time ago when he first started flying off his own man-made kickers as a teenager growing up on Ski Club Road in North Bay, ON.

Indeed, the aerialist’s shot at Olympic fame and glory is fleeting―seven seconds, to be exact. The finals consist of two scored jumps and each jump takes three and a half seconds of air time.

Omischl hopes to atone for a mental lapse made in the 2006 Winter Games in Torino, an event he could very well have medalled in if he had made it out of the semi-finals. “What happened there was that I chose a jump that carried a high DD (degree of difficulty) in the semi-finals and it didn’t go well. It’s sort of like a hockey team―you can’t be in the Stanley Cup if you don’t make the playoffs.”

The penultimate Olympic year was a self-described “up and down” season for the 30 year-old veteran. He successfully defended his aerials title and placed third in the overall standings (behind fellow teammate and overall winner Alex Bilodeau), but only won two World Cup events outright.

Fortunately for Omischl and for Canadians, both of those wins came at a preview event at Cypress before the 2010 Winter Games. “I was really on a roll during the 2008 season,” he says, “and I’m happy that I came up with good performances on demand in 2009. But this season also reminded me that I can be on my game and there are still some incredible jumpers from around the world who can beat me.” Omischl felt that he jumped flawlessly at the World Championships in Inawashiro, Japan, but was nosed out by long-time rival, Ryan St. Onge of the USA for the gold medal.

For the summer leading up to what will be his third Olympics, it’s pretty much going to be “business as usual.” He says, “I’ve created great success with this routine and am not going to change anything because the Olympics are coming.”

Omischl uses the months of April, May and June to attend to “little aches and pains” that accumulate over the season. “I get lots of deep tissue massage and try to work at re-balancing and stabilizing muscle groups which get ignored in the winter. During the competition calendar, you are always putting out other fires and don’t really have time to work on your conditioning,” he says.

The ‘quint twisting triple backflip’ has been performed in competition before, with Czech star Ales Valenta striking Olympic gold  in 2002 at Park City. It is, however, an extremely difficult jump to master.
Omischl says, “I have done five twists in practice before – about a hundred times on the water ramp and ten times on snow. It is definitely pushing the limits of what we can do and we’ll have to wait until next year to see who is attempting it in competition.” Right now, Omischl speculates that American Jeret Peterson and some members of the Chinese team are working on it.

Much of the training to perfect that routine will take place from July through September at Freestyle Canada’s outdoor water ramp and training facility in Quebec City. “I’ll do anywhere between seven and nine jumps each day,” he says, “we have video monitors right beside the pool so that we get instant feeback.” Common errors include not holding a straight body position while in the air doing the twists, and coming apart or the landing, either by sitting back or catching an edge and crashing. Hitting the water in an awkward position can lead to serious injury and Omischl has seen a fellow freestyler break his neck in the past.

Oddly, Omischl compares freestyle skiing to golf when it comes down to the mental discipline and preparation necessary to be a successful aerialist. “Like golf, mastering aerials is all about the fundamentals. You need to be exceptionally skilled at mastering four twists before you attempt five twists.”

From takeoff to landing, he is always focused on the next move in his routine,  and always ending with the perfect landing. “The way our sport is scored, the landing is extremely important. You can be clean in the air doing a very difficult jump, but you must have a smooth landing,” he says.

Putting in an extra twist doesn’t necessarily require more technical skill, the added difficulty comes from the fact that you are making one more twist in the limited amount of hang-time.
Like his teammates Alex Bilodeau and Jennifer Heil, Omischl credits working with a sports psychologist since the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino as a key to his success. Omischl’s guru is University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee professor Barbara Meyer, who also advises Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller.

“Barbara and I work a lot on focusing on one task at a time. At first, it was very difficult for me since I like doing several things at once. To begin with, she even prohibited me from listening to music or the radio when I’m driving a car,” he says. “I needed to be ‘more present’ in whatever it was that I was doing, and these are skills that I can develop away from the hill as well.”

He admits that it’s taken him three years to get to the point where he’s only “kind of good at it.” “Look, I have a Blackberry, but I have learned to do things like let the phone ring instead of having it interrupt me. I’m trying to deal with the world on my own terms.”

In the near future, Omischl’s looking forward to a surf trip to Nicaragua. “The whole team is going down there, but we’re going to quite a few different spots,” he says. Though he finds the sport to be challenging, he has surfed extensively in Costa Rica, Mexico and the west coast of Vancouver Island.

For Omischl, freestyle skiing is a serious job that demands constant planning and preparation. But he’s used to it.

“I know what to expect, I’ve been around the block. I don’t have anyone to answer to but myself.”

Intrawest troubles grow, Tremblant spinoff possible.

April 17, 2009

According to a story in today’s Globe & Mail, time is running out for restructuring debt at Intrawest, the resort company who owns Whistler-Blackcomb, Mont Tremblant, Copper Mountain, Steamboat Springs, Mount Stratton and several other high profile resorts. The financing deal that was patched together last fall is coming apart at the seams, and, similar in a way to CanWest – the Canadian newspaper chain – the company is hobbled by high debt, lousy payback terms, and a falling real estate market. I have followed this story for years now and always wondered why ITW’s share price lagged so badly when the company was selling tons of real estate and putting up record-breaking attendance, year after year. Fortress, which started out with a minority position in ITW, believed that new management was needed to ‘get the most out of’ Intrawest’s holdings and its potential.

ITW founder Joe Houssian, in a remarkably prescient move, sold out pretty much at the top to Fortress Capital, a private equity fund with real estate holdings but little operational experience on the resort side. Much of the real estate that is for sale by ITW at it resorts is in the nosebleed fractional market (would you believe 1/10 shares for $200K and up? You can buy a two bed and two bath outright at a place like Big White for that price. I would be surprised if ANY of the units in the At Nature’s Door complex have sold this winter – as an agent put it to me “the resale and equity market for fractionals has yet to prove itself…” Well, guess what, it’s a concept that could be done like dinner; definitely some similarities to Tamarack in ID (see earlier post). Whistler, unlike Tamarack, is hardly located in the middle of nowhere and will receive a huge publicity boost with the 2010 Winter Games next year.

I predicted that last year when the sale to Fortress occurred was that we would now see where the profitability on the operational side of Whistler Blackcomb lay since the ‘easy real estate’ had been sold. While finances of the resort itself have not been laid bare, WB must be struggling under the costs incurred by the massively expensive (yet, it must be said, very popular) Peak 2 Peak gondola, the lousy start to the season and the general malaise that has descended upon the resort. There is talk now about spinning off Mont Tremblant into a separate company and I’m sure everything but the crown jewel of WB itself is on the table to the highest bidder. The challenge is, there just aren’t any bidders left. Recreational real estate at ski areas is likely to be in the tank for a long, long time. Hats off to Mr Ebner at the Globe for reporting on this story.

Shane McConkey obit (long)

April 4, 2009

I wrote a shorter version of this obituary that appeared in yesterday’s Globe & Mail. Here is the unedited version.

Lives Lived: Shane McConkey, Extreme skier, BASE jumper, Goofball.

In the Scott Gaffney directed ski movie, “There’s Something About McConkey,” Shane McConkey’s mother Glenn says that ” When he was 3 or 4 years old, he was definitely very afraid of heights, but it seems like he’s gotten over it.”

Smiling impishly, the extreme skier/BASE jumper begs to differ.

“Unh-uh. That’s what makes it fun.”
Shane McConkey, who once said, “There’s something really cool about getting scared. I don’t know what” experienced his final thrill last Thursday when he died during a BASE jump mishap in the Italian Dolomites.

Word about his death was posted almost instantly on the Teton Gravity Research website internet forums, where McConkey occasionally contributed under the alias “Cliff Huckstable” (“hucking” is a ski term that describes jumping off a cliff).

Jim Sloves, McConkey’s friend from Lake Tahoe, succinctly wrote “It’s like hearing that Superman died.”

Superman might have died, but in McConkey’s case his alias was Bart Simpson, not Clark Kent. McConkey was known for his oddball sense of humour as much as his ability to leap off mountain cliffs in a single bound.

The 39 year-old from Olympic Valley CA was the product of a brief marriage between Whistler Mountain ski school director and heli-skiing pioneer Jim McConkey (there is a ski run on Whistler named after him) and his second wife Glenn, a renowned ski racer who still regularly wins age-category races. Ms. McConkey once said that “Shane did so many flips in the womb that he got the cord wrapped around his neck and wouldn’t come out.”

Though born in Vancouver, Shane McConkey was raised in the United States and attended the prestigious Burke Mountain Academy, a breeding ground for some of America’s top racers. He moved to Boulder, CO, to attend college and ski race, but dropped out to compete in the nascent world of big mountain freeride skiing in Squaw Valley, CA and Alaska. “He set out to create his own future,” says filmmaker Scott Gaffney, who became McConkey’s muse.

Though schooled in both racing and freestyle mogul skiing, McConkey’s fame shone at this farthest fringe of adventure sport, skiing near-vertical faces and couloirs in Alaska, South America, and Europe.

Jake Bogoch, editor of Skiing magazine, says, “I first met Shane when I was 17, when   I drove all the way from Calgary to Alaska to watch the 1994 World Extreme Skiing Championships. As you might expect, there was a lot of swagger and testosterone among the competitors. Shane, though, was super-friendly and really impressed that someone had driven all the way from Canada just to hang out. He was a funny, self-deprecating guy.”

McConkey was instrumental in forming the International Free Skiing Association tour and was twice crowned tour champion.

During this time, videos were proving to be a popular way for ski and accessory manufacturers to promote their products to an eager, testosterone filled audience. Though he placed highly in several freestyle and extreme skiing competitions and even dabbled in the new Olympic sport of ski cross, McConkey’s fame will forever be linked with fifteen skiing movies produced by Matchstick Productions, an insurgent film company based in Crested Butte, CO, and directed by Mr. Gaffney. When MSP released the feature documentary There’s Something About McConkey in 2001, his career was really only getting started. McConkey’s reputation was not just as an adventure skier, but as a free-spirited personality who loved nothing better than having a few good laughs at his own expense.

Creating his alter-ego “Saucerboy,” McConkey chugged Jack Daniels bourbon straight from the bottle, wore tacky neon clothing, moonwalked on super-short ‘snowlerblades’, and shredded everything from snow banks to Alaskan peaks on a plastic flying saucer toy. Bogoch says, “Shane was not afraid to send up the whole ski film/sponsorship industry. He had little time for people who took themselves too seriously.” McConkey’s segments were often the ‘grand finale’ of the annual MSP movie.

Yet there was genius in his goofy stunts. He became the first extreme skier to embrace “fat skis.” Nominally designed for beginners so that they could ski powder more easily by skimming along the surface, McConkey pointed his fat skis straight down the fall line and arced out super-fast, high speed turns while surfing on top of the snow.

For the movie Focused, (2003), McConkey mounted a pair of bindings onto an old pair of water skis and tackled a near vertical Alaskan mountain face – and they worked wonders. McConkey developed the Volant Spatula, a super-fat powder ski that challenged not just conventional ski design wisdom but also the way that people skied. The owner’s manual (authored by McConkey) encouraged skiers to slide their turns (a ski instructional heresy) for maximum thrills. A decade later, virtually all mainstream ski companies manufacture reverse-camber skis for deep powder.

“Catching air” was McConkey’s favourite aspect of skiing, which led to embracing parachuting and later BASE (Building, Antenna, Span, Earth) jumping. In 2003, McConkey began to incorporate BASE jumping into his ski film segments, launching a double front flip from near the summit of Switzerland’s Eiger and then deploying his parachute for the ride back to terra firma.

Two of McConkey’s most infamous BASE jumping stunts took place in Canada. In August, 2004, high winds slammed McConkey’s chute into the granite wall of the Squamish Chief, 45 kilometres north of Vancouver, while his father Jim looked on from below. (Father and son reconciled several years ago, and regularly visited when Shane was in BC on film shoots). After his rescue, McConkey sheepishly admitted that he should have been better prepared.

Whistler-based freeskier Mike Douglas often accompanied McConkey on photo and film shoots throughout North America, and every year they teamed up with Chris Davenport, another extreme skier, to go to South America and coach “fantasy skiers” in Davenport’s Ski With the Superstars camp.

“Shane was always scheming about new projects to try, which is what attracted him to BASE jumping,” Douglas says. “When rumours first swirled about this gigantic gondola joining Whistler and Blackcomb, Shane immediately said he wanted to BASE jump from it. We approached Whistler-Blackcomb General Manager Stuart Rempel and he gave Shane the green light to do it.” Two years earlier, McConkey had filmed a parody of James Bond ski films on Whistler’s slopes for Seven Sunny Days which ended with a BASE jump above Garibaldi Lake.

“He was always on us to get us to try BASE jumping, but my wife would kill me if I did,” Douglas says. “I tried to be the voice of reason and often said ‘Shane, you’ve got to chill on this stuff.’ He had suffered through a lot of skiing injuries over the years and BASE jumping wasn’t as hard on his body.”

Douglas says, “though he had this really goofy personality, he was never careless. He really was Mr. Detail when it came to packing his chute and safety equipment.”

Gaffney concurs that McConkey was a BASE jumping zealot; indeed, one of the first people he got to try the sport was his wife Sherry. Gaffney says, “He started something he called “Plunge to Your Death Camp” which entailed taking friends and acquaintances to the Perrine Bridge in Twin Falls, Idaho (the only legal BASE jumping bridge in the US) and sending complete novices BASE jumping off the 500′ high structure spanning the Snake River. He always boasted about having a 0% success rate – no one plunged to his or her death.”

BASE jumping, though, is not a sport to be taken lightly. Will Gadd, a Red Bull sponsored paraglider pilot and ice climber from Canmore, AB, says, “I peered down the rabbit hole of BASE jumping with Shane a few years ago and decided to let him have it. I’d watch Shane jump and say “Wish I could be like Shane,” but I couldn’t. He was always trying to keep his passions fresh and interesting – you look at how he died, combining three sports – extreme skiing, wing suit flying, and BASE jumping – any one of those sports present serious technical challenges. He was at the ragged edge of a ragged sport where you have to be one hundred percent right, every time.”

McConkey made a return to skiing in last year’s movie, Claim. Tinged with a sense of his mortality, McConkey’s opening monologue seems oddly prophetic. “At 38 years old, I was beginning to wonder if I could keep up with these young whippernappers.”

Douglas explains, “Around the time we turned 35, we realized that we were the oldest guys still in this game so we placed this bet about who would be the first person to get too old to have a film segment in a skimovie. We started out by betting each other’s houses. but got it down to the more sensible amount of one dollar.” The segment in Claim features the long-running bet between McConkey and Douglas going public.

Sadly, Mr. Douglas can now collect his dollar. With Saucerboy on it, instead of George Washington.

Shane McConkey, 39,  is survived by his wife Sherry, of Olympic City, CA, and their three year-old daughter Ayla, his father Jim and his mother Glenn.