Words by Donny O’Neill
The saying goes that if you’re single in a ski town, and don’t know how to pole whack, you’re going to have a bad time. Pole whacking does wonders for a skier’s sanity, but aside from the obvious innuendo, it reminds everyone that skiing is fun, and shouldn’t be taken so seriously.
At times, it’s a necessary act, right? If a pesky cornice invades your line of sight on top of a burly chute, you’ve got to lay waste to that block of snow to clear your view, give you peace of mind, and allow you to rip the shit out of it.
But unbeknownst to you, something else happens when you assault that cornice. A crowd of other skiers gathers behind you, attracted by your vigorous whacking. Onlookers point in your direction from the chairlift, and there are murmurs. “Are they really going to drop into that?”
“I remember shooting with Shane [McConkey] at Squaw Valley and we couldn’t believe the crowd that was gathering down below Mainline Pocket,” says Matchstick Productions’ Scott Gaffney. “We just realized, the longer you stand on top of something, especially if you pole whack, the bigger the crowd gets because they all think they’re about to witness something amazing.”
Like a pheromone secretion from a dog in heat, skiers are drawn to radness, or the possibility thereof. When a skier stands on top of something consequential and beats their pole into the snow, it’s like sending out the bat signal. But instead, the outline of Saucer Boy appears in the sky and lets every skier in close proximity know that something big is about to occur. Practitioners of the pole whack owe a lot to the godfather of ski humour, Shane McConkey, for this entirely serious and important act. The primal need to whack one’s pole earned mainstream success following the 2011 film, G.N.A.R., which saw a group of McConkey disciples travelling the western United States to check off boxes on Gaffney’s Numerical Assessment of Radness—a game created by McConkey and Scott and Robb Gaffney.
Following the release of G.N.A.R, nearly every skier on the mountain, whether a local or visiting tourist, was playing the game with their friends. Mountain guides had clients calling them out just for getting their bearings with a simple pole slap.
“Half the time I’m doing it I don’t realize that someone is going to pick up on the fact that we’re going to drop into something,” says Marty Schaffer, founder of CAPOW Guiding. “They call me out, ‘Are we about to send it?’”
“A year after G.N.A.R I met a Silverton guide and he told us that we just killed his whole program,” says Gaffney. “Every time he’d be guiding clients he’d ski down and look up and all of his clients would be up there pole whacking and just wasting time, all fired up about it.”
No matter the setting, skiers cannot define why pole whacking is so entertaining, but what is true is that smashing our aluminum (no carbon, please) balance sticks into the frozen earth keeps us present and aware of our amusing position—willingly strapped into greased-up wooden sticks on a snowy mountain somewhere.
“There’s something about the energy of it that draws attention. People love it,” says Schaffer. “It cuts the silence. Someone throws a pole whack and everyone stops what they’re doing and it actually works.”
While the pole whack inherently shows off personal radness, it also ironically makes the ski experience more accessible. It brings people together with the promise of seeing a moment of wondrous athleticism. Whacking your pole on the precipice of a line is akin to King Kong beating his chest atop the Empire State Building. But any true pole whacking Jedi only does it sparingly for real, and exceedingly in jest, poking fun at the “take-me-seriously” attitudes of the blowhards who consider themselves the best skiers on the mountain.