Archive for October, 2010

North Shore Skiing Heritage

October 29, 2010

On Tuesday night, I attended the monthly meeting of the Vancouver Section of the Alpine Club of Canada. The guest speaker was a fellow named Don Grant of the Hollyburn Heritage Society, whose members have been working tirelessly to document the history of skiing on Vancouver’s North Shore. And… what a history it was. Though Grant’s narrated history could have used the ‘voices’ of some old timers spliced in for added interest, it is really something to think that ski jumping attracted crowds of over 4,000 people on Hollyburn Mountain – in the days before the Lion’s Gate bridge, when you had to take a ferry, streetcar, and then walk for hours just to get to the BASE of the hill. (And… of course there were no lifts. A fellow I went with observed that “the trees sure look a lot shorter back then…’ testament to the amount of precip Hollyburn/Cypress annually receives. I hope to explore this topic more in the future – like, this history goes back to the 1920s! – there were actually some outstanding action shots that would make great prints.

Apparently, the 2010 Winter Games was the impetus for putting this presentation together, commemorating the early ‘heroes’ of skiing on the North Shore. Alas, VANOC wasn’t really interested in it… though hopefully Don and his presentation will receive a wider audience in the years to come. It would really help to have some audio interviews with even sons of some of these pioneers, most of whom have passed away.

It was interesting to note the presence of Jordan Manley, easily the most creative photographer working in snowsports right now. His family has deep roots skiing at Mount Seymour; indeed, some of his earliest published photos were from there.


Skiers, riders not blue at Bluewood…

October 19, 2010

Lots of anonymous posters who populate various ski-oriented internet forums love to ‘fantasize’ about buying some local br0-mountain to go tele skiing with their bearded brethren. And it’s safe to say that 99 percent of ’em have a hate-on for ski instructors in their goofy shower-curtain suits of armor and ‘groomers only’ style. Well, you can bet that the locals down in Dayton, WA, are pretty happy that a husband and wife team of ski instructors has bailed out Ski Bluewood, a local hill with a half-assedly respectable 1135 vertical feet (that offers as much vertical as a lot of chairs at many resorts throughout the West…). Looks like the kind of place that a lot of families would enjoy, though it won’t likely be featured in FREESKIER anytime soon. Maybe Powder‘s Jaded Local will relocate there. NOT. Guess the Mountain Riders Alliance couldn’t get their act together to come up with the dough.

Read the full story, here:

Ski Porn – Not Dead, Yet…

October 15, 2010

Well, with all of the attention that documentary focused ski videos and Vimeo clips (TGR’s Deeper, and Jordan Manley’s “A Skier’s Journey”) have been getting recently (from me, at any rate), I wasn’t super enthused about The Way I See It, especially after Garage Sale Frank had been lukewarm about it. (This is the movie that WAS supposed to play at a sold out Park Theatre last month, but was pulled at the last minute because it didn’t have a censor rating!). In fact, it was all very ‘last minute’ – I found out about it around lunch time, scrambled to get review tix, and enlisted my son Cameron to attend the show with me (which, though he’s a snowboarder, he was more than agreeable about. He must have had homework to do).

We cut it pretty close and grabbed our seats as the opening credits came on, then were treated to THE most explosive big mountain/big air seggy ever, courtesy of Sean Pettit, who riffed on Shane McConkey – but who – hey, RIP, Shane – is clearly in ANOTHER LEAGUE. A whole new league, in fact. The steezy way Pettit butters those hugely rockered boards down a mountain side is a sight to behold. And the clip went on, and on, and on. How much better could it get? Well, not QUITE as great, though the deep pow seggy in Niseko was awesome, as was a James Heim/Hoji segment in Bralorne. Hoji scored two seggys in this pic, the second one was a very soulful touring based trip out of the Meadow Cabin operated by Golden Alpine Holidays in the Selkirks. Outstanding pow and some sweet pillow line action. The seggy with Ingrid Backstrom and her brother (deceased) Arne was truly heartbreaking, but they never really told the story of what happened to Arne. Still, the skiing was great and I felt really bad about his death afterward. My son LOVED the sickter Bobby Brown seggy from the XGames and at Alyeska. Sverre and Kai Zackrissson have some huge AK bails and wipeouts (I wonder if any big mountain guys have actually ever fallen into a bergschrund), and there was a truly killer AK finale.

The music was generally excellent, with Pettit – like Shane – channeling some classic 80s rock (I would tell you the songs, but the sountrack is not available through CDN ITunes), and the high def is really super crisp. Excellent helmet cam footage, and some of the very best and sketchiest heli work done yet. Loved the way the heli panned sideways across the jump at Alyeska.  4.5*/5.0. State of the art.

A Whistler IPO, and the best story, yet…

October 14, 2010

Though my former business colleague and good friend Mike McCullough might have wished he’d waited until this week’s news about the Whistler-Blackcomb IPO was out before his feature story in Canadian Business was published, there’s much to praise about Mike’s reporting and I hope that people following the W/B situation will read it. McCullough brings in some new voices to the conversation that raises some serious questions about whether W/B is a good investment or not. Choice quotes include:

While home prices across Canada rose like never before between 2002 and 2007, in Whistler they were already flat to falling. “O-four might have been the real peak of our market,” says Patrick Kelly, an area Realtor for 30 years and president of Whistler Real Estate Co.

Actually, resort/residential real estate has taken a beating at places like Apex Resort, Kimberley, and Big White, too. Hard to believe that real estate has likely gone up more substantially in Fort St John than it has in the mountains of BC.

Buried in the middle of the story is the true kernel of not only the woes of the resort industry, but gets at the heart of the global economic collapse. Alas, as anybody who follows resort real estate knows, many of the buyers of Intrawest condominiums are financial advisors blowing off their annual bonus money, or ‘first in’ flippers putting very little money down and waiting until completion to sell their ‘deposit’ for a hefty profit. Snow eaters, they are not.

Fortress would take itself public the next year and quickly double in value to US$14 billion in a textbook case of unseemly rewards flowing to the hedge fund’s insiders.

Two of the best quotes are attributed to long time Whistler local and international resort planner Brett Harley:

They may have to improve the customer experience in other ways — for example, by limiting the number of tickets sold on any one day… A few top-ranked American mountains have tried that approach with some success, says Harley, noting, “On the crowded days, it’s not fun to be on the mountain right now.”

This is absolutely, 100 percent true. While I have certainly enjoyed most of my weekend ski days since moving back to Vancouver from the Okanagan and Big White, I got WAY more first tracks there than I’d get on a moderately busy weekend day at W/B. I think a lot of people are really going to get turned off by paying for parking this winter and that the local Vancouver skiers will be considering the Sun Peaks, Big Whites, and Silver Stars – though they will still need at LEAST a 3-day weekend to make that option palatable.

Harley adds that the recreational tastes of today’s generation X buyers lean more toward a wilderness experience than those of the big-spending baby boomers. They’re more likely to use a condo as a base camp for the backcountry, often avoiding the ski hill altogether…

Actually, this might work out well for W/B, a ski resort with a truly enormous backcountry. It’s amazing how great Whistler looks from the rear view mirror as you leave the area boundaries, skinning over to Cowboy Ridge or even beyond, to explore fabulous descents on Mount Fissile and in the Spearhead Range. Perhaps the best bargain might be one of those ‘backcountry one-way passes’ that right now is pretty much W/B’s best kept secret.

Turkey Sale trip to Whistler, and another WB feature

October 10, 2010

Just got back from a quick day trip to Whistler, where the `legendary`Turkey Sale of used, rental, and discontinued gear was taking place. Wasn`t quite as lined up as I`ve seen in the past, but there were certainly deals to be had. I picked up a VANOC padded ski bag (a nice, if not belated, souvenir of the 2010 Winter Games – for $10! (List price: $70). Garage Sale Frank bought some Salomon DH boards for $50 – don`t ask me why – while I actually unloaded a couple of pairs of skis and was more than happy to turn over the 20 percent commish to the Whistler Mountain Ski Club.

Dropped in to the Escape Route, where shoppers were busy loading up on half price clothing from Arc`teryx, Icebreaker, and Patagonia. We Canadians love our bargains!

Also squeezed in a great moutain bike ride down the switchbacks on Binty`s High Trail – which was in outstanding condition. At one point, the trail was completely carpeted by yellow leaves. (Sorry, no pix). Eat your heart out, Utah and Colorado.

There was tons happening this weekend with the TGR presentation `Light the Wick`and an apparently really solid new bike movie called Life Cycles by some new film crew (Stance Films) out of the Kootenays. (Is everybody in the Kootenays a filmmaker… just asking!)

Another observation: Resort Muni of Whistler and ITW again owe a huge debt to Australia, whose booming resource-related economy is driving its young people to work at Whistler for their `gap year.`- Cheery smiles and nasally accents all over the place.

A superb story on Intrawest and WB hits the stands this week in Canadian Business magazine. I`ll have some comments on it tomorrow, but reporter Mike McCullough (disclosure: he`s a friend and former business partner) – has done a hell of a job and brought some new voices to the conversation who haven`t been heard from, yet.

I also got some very cool news about ski touring in the Spearhead Range that I`ll be investigating at some point.

Whistler Cypress?

October 8, 2010

Hoo-boy, now HERE’s a PR challenge I bet no one considered. The Globe & Mail reports today (story by Dave Ebner – all round good guy and splitboard backcountry rider) – that ‘confusion’ about snow conditions during the 2010 Winter Games might be hampering early season bookings at Whistler Blackcomb. Quoting: The Olympics brought Whistler tremendous television exposure. But those images of the mountains, which enjoyed their second snowiest winter ever, are getting mixed up in tourists’ minds with pictures of the winter rainstorms and lack of snow at Cypress Mountain, two hours south of Whistler, near downtown Vancouver. Cypress was home to freestyle skiing and snowboarding.

“It’s something we absolutely have to counter,” said Arlene Schieven, vice-president of marketing at Tourism Whistler.

Hmm, that is a bit of a stretch, to me. During the Games, with commentators shifting back and forth between Whistler and Cypress, the non-serious skier or boarder might have confused the two venues.

I’ll say it here and I’ll say it loud – “if you can’t tell the difference between Whistler and Cypress, then you don’t really belong at Whistler…”

In fact, let’s get a few things out of the way, here. a) the Games were awarded to Whistler because the runs for the alpine events at Cypress were too short b) Listen up! Whistler is a wild-ass mountain resort with s**t kicking terrain and fabulously expensive dining and accommodation. I appreciate that TW and WB wants skiers and riders of all budgets to enjoy their mountains (and at many times of the year, it is fairly affordable…) but get over it! Hammer away at the kids attending business schools (everywhere in the world), sponsor all the big air/big mountain contests you possibly can, and go fishing where the sharks are! Single people have only themselves to look after. What Whistler offers, frankly, is lost on most families. Go to Big White (disclaimer: I used to work for ’em) and you’ll see what I mean.

What Dave’s story did NOT mention is this: whether you’re flying from Seoul, Munich, Tokyo, Dallas (especially Dallas) or New York -getting to YVR is a REALLY expensive air ticket and the schedules suck. The sooner that Transport Canada ends the farce that is cabotage and allows foreign carriers to fly domestic routes, the better. We need more direct flights and charters into YVR, but right now the prime gate spots are all taken up by your wonderful Air Canada

Look, the Olympics were a great party, but it’s yesterday’s news from a tourism standpoint. Bring on the big snows and the keen riders will come!

Time for Snoweaters to Put Money Where Mouth Is!

October 6, 2010

Whistler based pundit Michel Beaudry has consistently created a ‘commercial tension’ if you will between the moneyed interests that run Whistler Blackcomb and the “snoweaters” tribe who are the proper guardians of core ski and mountain culture. Well, snoweaters may get their chance to  voice how things at Whistler Blackcomb are run, if enough of ’em pony up to purchase shares in a new IPO (initial public offering). According to a story in today’s Globe & Mail, ITW is considering spinning of its gold medal asset to retail and institutional investors in the form of a publicly traded company.

Buried two thirds of the way down the paragraph is the key nugget of information: “The assets slated for inclusion in the sale process include the leases on the hills, the lifts, parking lots and lodges. The bigger real estate developments around the resort are not part of the package, sources said.”

An IPO for WB could be every snoweaters dream – even if they don’t have a penny to put towards it.  Here are three reasons why – 1) new majority owners with deep pockets and a local connection – and there are plenty of ’em out there in the Vancouver area – won’t be looking to turn a quick buck the way that Fortress Capital was. In fact, they may run the place more like the owner of a sports team – not terribly interested in making a huge profit, but providing a nice, clubby atmosphere for like minded people to ski and re-create (can you say “Sun Valley?”) 2) Due to both the Olympics and, well, the damned good skiing and riding, Whistler’s reputation is sky high amongst the ‘snoweater’ core and – far more importantly – the wealthy young entrepreneurs who want to hang with the bros n pros. 3) Whistler is year round mountain resort. Though often disparaged in the local press, the Peak2Peak is truly an engineering marvel and will prove its worth once tourism bounces back (lower summer prices for riding the lift won’t hurt, either).

Before you phone up your stockbroker or open an online trading account, it’s worth looking at ITW’s history as a publicly traded company. Even when ITW was flush with assets and selling real estate out within minutes of announcing a new project, it was not giving shareholders a decent return on investment which is why Fortress Capital bought it in the first place – during the go-go years of resort real estate in 2003 – 2007, they believed that more blood could be wrung from a stone than ITW was producing. One challenge ITW has always had with investors is determining its valuation – there aren’t many companies around quite like it. By taking real estate deals – not that there are many of THOSE happening these days – out of the equation, WB will have to make a profit on its core operations – lifts, lodging, ski school, and commercial/retail.

Ski and snowboarding numbers are flat – and in the case of visitors from south of the border – downright dismal. So while it may seem like half of Vancouver is there on a crowded Saturday, your fellow Vancouverites aren’t stayin’ and payin’ like those rich Californians did back in 2001 or so, when WB was winning all of those awards.

Alas, I’m in the ‘buy’ camp for one big reason. Vail Resorts – WB’s largest competitor – has seen its stock TRIPLE since March of 2008 during the trough of the crash. It’s trading in the $40 range right now, and though American skiers are more cost conscious, Vail is not a cheap place to ski. Their CEO Rob Katz definitely thinks that the worst is behind them; which can only be good for the resort business generally.

A weird blog coincidence… GPS goggles?

October 4, 2010

I’ve been meaning to write about the new Zeal GPS enabled goggles for a couple of days now. Ironically, when I went onto the last blogpost I made, there was a Google AdSense advert wondering if I was interested in GPS goggles. I’m telling you, this internet business is getting spooky when it comes to ‘determining’ your likes and dislikes. As it turns out, my interest was further piqued by a story in yesterday’s Vancouver Sun about a local Vancouver-based company that was involved with the software development of these goggles. The Sun reports that:

“Vancouver-based Recon Instruments on Friday released their new Transcend Goggles, aimed at delivering real-time measures on everything from speed to altitude, temperature and vertical distance travelled.  The information can be seen on a tiny LCD screen in the bottom right-hand corner of the wearer’s goggles as they move.”

The Sun story is interesting in that it refers to the company that developed the software for the goggles – Recon Instruments – but fails to mention the actual goggle maker – Zeal Optics out of Colorado. The partnership with Zeal is interesting; Zeal’s a niche player in a field utterly dominated by Oakley, Smith, Spy, to name three – companies that have mega-budgets to bankroll the top stars (Lance Armstrong with Oakley, anyone?) in every sport.

Personally, I would likely get depressed about the kind of stats that the Zeal/Recon Transcend would detail. I’m a slow skier who doesn’t really give a rat’s a$$ about how much vertical I rack up in a day – number of face shots are the only meaningful measurement in my ski world. Now, if the Zeal were ‘enabled’ with some kind of ‘fogcutter’ technology that might make skiing and riding at Cypress and ‘certain resorts in the BC Interior’ more tolerable, I’d be all over it.

Logging vertical is all the rage for Type A businessmen who love to brag about the number of vertical feet they rack up on heli-skiing trips. (Heli ski companies love to ‘encourage’ this kind of competition as well; due primarily to the fact that they charge a pretty outrageous premium for ‘extra lift’. Oh well – heli-skiing is the kind of sport where if you have to ask how much it costs, you really shouldn’t be there in the first place. But that’s a discussion for a different blogpost.

WESC returns to AK, CA nixes helmet law…

October 1, 2010

What a day it’s been for free will and liberty in the good ol’ US of A. First, Ski Area Management reports that California “Guvah-nator” Schwarzenegger will veto the state’s pending ski and snowboard helmet law, and now reports that the World Extreme Ski Championships will be returning to their rightful home in AK in 2011! What next, replacing the white stars with Red Bull cans on the stars and stripes? Ya betcha, by golly!

I am not sure how many skiers wear helmets in California on a percentage basis; or if the average skier/boarder is more competent than in Canada or not (out of control skiers or riders shouldn’t have accidents, I would think…). But I do know that ski resorts do not likely need another – literal – headache when it comes to enforcement, rules, waivers, and the other layer of bureaucracy that helmet laws would bring to the sport. Oh, and of course the added COST that it would bring to a lift ticket.

For the longest time, I never really saw skiing or snowboarding as ‘helmet sports’, though I started wearing one when they first came out in the early 90s. Ironically, if I feel around the contours of my scalp I can still feel the scar from a head injury sustained while skiing at Jay Peak in Vermont in the 1970s. Of course, no one wore helmets in those days, but we all skied with runaway straps. I was skiing some heavy, rain sodden glop, dug in a tip, catapulted through the air, and had a windmilling ski smack me in the back of the head. I wasn’t knocked out, but it bled like crazy and marked the first – and only – time I’ve ever been in a ski patrol toboggans. “Progress” in the way of ski brakes killed the inconvenient runaway strap. Helmets, by contrast, are here to stay and most skiers and riders are probably better off for it.

On cold days, I usually don a helmet. On warm spring days, I like to go toque-less. I never wear one if I’m backcountry skiing, and seldom ever don one in the alpine. I have never felt ‘invincible’ because I’ve put on a helmet, but don’t feel particularly vulnerable if I don’t wear one. Contrast this to riding a bicycle in traffic, where I wouldn’t even think of riding without a helmet. Let’s face it, there’s a lot more space (and snow – even the packed stuff – is generally softer than car bumpers and concrete. Interestingly, full face helmets have never caught on with skiers like they have with freeride DH mountain bikers; where theyweight outnumber bucket style lids in the various bike parks around the country.

Some of it’s safety, but a lot of it I think is fashion. Park rats ride with toques and headphones jammed underneath their lids, and my son ‘replaces’ his lid every other year or so.

Now, if you check out this pic of Doug Coombs slashing his way across a steep AK face, you’ll see he’s not wearing a lid. I would bet, though, that almost two decades after this pic was taken, that everyone who participates in WESC 2011 will be wearing a lid. In fact – and here’s an odd twist – the organizers will likely insist upon it.

As event organizer/FREESKIER publisher Christopher Perata says, “This is the only place in the United States we have that is uncontrolled. People can get out there and they can do whatever line they want to do depending on their ability levels,” Perata said.

Lidless or helmeted, maybe event organizers will extend a special invite to Arnold to come up and check it out… I bet he wears one when he vacations at Sun Valley.