Words by Matt Coté
There was a time when skiing was different. Not just the actual turns, but the people making them. Look at those representing the fringe elements of our sport these days, and they’re not fringe at all. Nearly everyone is perfectly polished; to have any foothold in the ski industry now you have to be a consummate role model, fit for Disney. Where once freeskiing was a giant middle finger to the establishment, it now has the sparkly veneer of a furniture showroom. Of course there are still loads of degenerates out there (incidentally, that was the name of a groundbreaking ski movie back in 1998), but we don’t celebrate dirtbags like we used to, and there’s a big cultural loss in that.
Freeskiing, freeriding, freestyle: these were originally framed by the four-letter word that roots them all. And to be free, by definition, means there’s something to be free of. In the early days, this was the formalism and elitism of skiing. The Hot Dog era rejected these tenets through visionaries like Wayne Wong, who renounced both the planted upright turn and the Norwegian sweater that came with it. At a time when skiing looked like a well-coiffed Arian wet dream, Wong—an Asian Canadian—insisted on looking and skiing differently. His bowl-cut, mod-rocker hair and audacious, glam-rock white sunglasses appealed to outcasts and non-conformists alike.
Then came those who chose not to work: the ski bums. A barter and trade economy emerged that revolved around couch surfing, “clipping” tickets in the parking lot and (much of the time) selling weed. Skiing, in turn, became a counterculture that promoted anti-social behaviour. Nowhere was this more evident than in the 1984 film Hot Dog, which reveled in sex, drugs and rock and roll. It denounced the uptight rigours of the sport’s upper class, as channelled through the villainous Rudi Garmisch, who referred to the protagonists as “you people.”
In the years that followed, shamanistic cosmic drifters took their cues from this growing fuck-you attitude. Legends like Ptor Spricenieks and Troy Jungen found ways to ski the world’s biggest lines without any money, or actually living anywhere. Their entire existence centred on doing things people said weren't possible, on snow and off. Including partying nearly full-time.
Next, the punk rockers entered the scene: Glen Plake, Seth Morrison and more. Skiing merged with this debauched musical movement in the late ’90s, when every ski movie was set to brazen anthems of social resistance. Seth Morrison had fluorescent dyed hair, flipped the bird, smoked cigarettes and got drunk on camera. He presented the absolute antithesis of traditional athleticism, yet still became the best “extreme” skier in the world.
Freeskiing was inherently sloppy in those days, in culture and form, and was meant to be. Our magazines and movies made heroes of these socially depraved misfits. Then, over time, the meaning behind it all disappeared. The partying and disregard for other humans became more a function of hedonism than anything else. Dirtbags started burning out, and social media took over. Now the weight placed on those representing the sport isn’t so much on how they perform, but how they act. And it does so often feel like an act: a heavily bleached one.
There are of course exceptions in the park and street skiing scenes. But amidst the whitewashing, there’s also been a lot of necessary correction, too. Women were never adequately invited into the sport, and that’s better now. And it’s come to pass that alcoholism, drug addiction and mental illness followed a lot of freeskiing's avant-garde pioneers out of their hay days. These are all lessons we learned at their sacrifice—those pariahs that insisted on being a part of something no one wanted them to be.
And while we do need to change and adapt, there are things we should also hold onto. If only in attitude (and not so much self-destructive behaviour), we need the rebels, the rule breakers, the dirtbags. Lest our sport become the living embodiment of a white Polo shirt.