Deep Winter in High Style: Rags-to-Riches Reporting at Whistler’s Iconic Photo Contest

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Item: Deep Winter 2016 — Dan K
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Words: Dan K

Photos: Rene Crawshaw, Chris Ankeny, Dan K and Michael Overbeck

The Entry

The morning started like many of mine in Whistler with a mandatory stop at the Mount Currie Coffee Company. Canadiano and a veggie breakfast burrito—nothing out of the village ordinary. But ten minutes later I had landed in an unfamiliar universe, rolling into The Upper Village and parking, legally, in front of Whistler’s original luxury-class hotel, The Fairmont Chateau Whistler.

Walking into the lobby my ski pants were out of place, displaying the caked-on patina of consecutive tailgate weekends in Washington’s ski-area parking lots. But I walked with confidence as wealthy Aussie families and San Francisco software executives sipped cucumber waters or sported thick spa robes while bellmen shuffled baggage to and from ski shuttles in the highest class of ski accommodations. We were on the list.

“Yes, Mr. Kostrzewski, we have you in a deluxe room at a media rate. And complimentary valet parking is included with your stay,” informed the Australian at the front desk. “Your room isn’t ready yet, but you can stow your luggage with the bellman and we will bring it up when it is ready.”

We were obviously in a different club now.

“Our assistance comes with the cart,” was the bellman’s helpful but direct reply back outside as we tossed spare Lib skis, K2 boots, expedition duffels, Float packs, club soda and a bottle of Japanese plum wine from my dusty Nissan—adorned with its own ski Washington patina—onto an empty luggage cart.

As we buckled up, sleepy and stunned on the tailgate, the local dog walker picked up a lucky poodle. A floor below, the ski valet system was crushed as Australian winter holidays hit full ski-week stride after once of the biggest Decembers in recent memory. The hill was firing with international tourism and weekend traffic.

Preflight check, booted up, bags stowed, truck keys turned over and a cash tip for the valet then we shoved off for the queue. We merged with the multi-cultural, international, social-media-posting weekend crowd. But the upload entry to North America’s biggest ski resort seemed a bit surreal. There was a reason we were here and a story behind the experience. The reason was the 10th anniversary of the Deep Winter Photo Challenge, but the story takes a little more explaining.

The Backstory

Last time my wingman Rene Crawshaw and I hit Whistler, it was in old school, lowbrow style. We poached the free parking lot in a 1986 Slumber Queen truck camper for the World Ski and Snowboard Festival, saving our slim season in the process. The story was a good one for a semi-retired writer—good enough at least to earn a few high fives from the media relations folks at Whistler/Blackcomb.

For the Deep Winter Challenge—a heavily local and highly respected tradition among Whistler’s creative class—the media department generously offered, officially, to usher us to the other side of the velvet rope. Press passes, VIP lift tickets, more than a few drinks and a free room at The Fairmont would all be part of the, no-poaching-required, rags-to-riches deal. They didn’t have to say free twice.

But honestly, Deep Winter had always appealed to me. Sponsored by Arc’teryx, the photo challenge has been running strong for ten seasons and counts heavy hitters from Paul Morrison and Russell Dalby to Ashley Barker as past winners—or The King or Queen of Storms, as they are officially honored. It’s a tough win to earn with pros planning out slideshows months in advance and A-list PNW talent such as Jason Hummel, John Scarth and Colin Adair all part of the past competitive set.

Jordan Manley has won three times. It’s even spawned a Deep Summer version and elevated the careers of many of the photographers who put their heart and soul into capturing the inside stories behind one of North America’s biggest mega-resorts. The rules are simple—72 hours on Whistler and Blackcomb to shoot photos and a five-minute slideshow that is judged in front of a packed ballroom at The Fairmont. But the output is a direct expression of creative mountain energy that thrives in the Whistler community like few other places.

Whistler’s biggest draw for me is that creative energy and the underground community formed around that vibe. Not only is it an action-sports economy that supports the creative classes, but it’s a critical mass of folks who migrated here for the same reasons then stuck around because it became home. Long before the Aussie invasion, Whistler has given our culture influences from the Wildcats to the Treadways, Paul Morrison to Blake Jorgenson, Mike Douglas to Les Anthony.

In the greater Whistler universe, these mountain creatives exist, shred and thrive—and even raise families. Most of the winter you have to dig deep to find it, but Deep Winter is an outward expression of that energy. The event is far from some banger-after-banger bro fest. It’s about community and something I’ve always wanted to see first hand rather than just consuming on Vimeo.

In 2014, Zoya Lynch won Deep Winter a show that spotlighted the artists of Whistler, including my personal favorite Vanessa Stark. In 2010 photo legend Paul Morrison took second place with a slide show featuring his son Ian. And, in 2009 Jordan Manley won with a behind-the-scenes look at the Whistler/Blackcomb ski patrol, bootfitters, ski techs and locals that make the massive ski machine work. When high-pressure reigns—as it did this year—the format forces an inward focus that tells deeper stories of a famous place we think we all know.

The Alternative Universe

The slide show was Saturday so we stopped in Squamish after dinner at Mags 99. Even at responsible adult stage, couch surfing continues so we crashed in the spare room/former nursery of Squamish dentist and hard-charging skier Chris Kelly. Kelly welcomed us to his stunning two-doctor home in the heights with a few pints of local brew from his keg in the garage. Kelly is winning at life, with two young daughters, a thriving practice, a powerful sled and Tuesdays free to get after it in the Whistler backcountry. We traded ski cabin stories and kid’s skiing stories, and then crashed out after his snow report.

After getting lost in the cul-de-sacs, we navigated north to our welcome package of lift tickets, drink tickets and event tickets at The Fairmont. With no new snow on the hill or in the forecast—and temps stuck well below zero—we took ourselves on the high-speed tour of Blackcomb as the clouds lingered far below in the valley. Stiff boots and stuck buckles be damned, we lapped the hardpack. As the day warmed, we spotted Hugo Harrison, on a coaching assignment, in the Jersey Cream lift line.

We figured we were already on the country club program, so we caught the Peak-to-Peak gondola to the Roundhouse deck for drinks in the sun. Mid-winter Saturdays on Whistler are a spectator sport, especially with all of Canada priced at 40% off for my fellow Americans. We took in the view of the mass of humanity funding the tourism industry and enjoying the mountains.

The ski down was a mix of Red Bull Crushed Ice and Asian-Canadian Downhill. Slightly frightened, our day transitioned into more of a mix between poker run and pub crawl—landing at the GLC for aps and après. Refueled with liquid courage, we uploaded again back to the Blackcomb Gondola and ripped the grippy, edgy manmade snow on the lower mountain back to the ski valet who stowed our skis and boots for tomorrow. Hot chocolate in hand I eased into quiet luxury again.

We reclined in the room watching The Strife, sipping plum-wine-and-sodas as the bellman brought up our luggage. Not missing a beat, room service delivered

four ice-bucketed beers courtesy of the Fairmont public relations department a moment later. We had clearly arrived.

The Event

We met our crew downstairs at the upscale Mallard Lounge but migrated to casual Milestones due to an overflowing après crowd. Trading shop talk, trip reports and weekend touring plans with editors Sakeus Bankson and Colin Wiseman as well as Sarah Morden and Chelsea Moen from Whistler/Blackcomb, we warmed up for the main event with a few adult beverages. I’m not sure why Rene ordered the Bellinis, but it seemed fitting for the highbrow experience.

We ushered ourselves into the Smirnoff ice bar and Arc’teryx sewing demo scene inside The Fairmont ballroom with a pocketful of drink tickets. No outside alcohol allowed. Five minutes, two minutes, one-minute warning. Before long the sold out and well-lubricated ballroom—1,500 strong—responded and migrated inside for the show. We took our seats in the front row.

Feet Banks owned center stage with his trademark Whistler wit. Video interview, on-stage Q and A, transportive slideshow was the cadence as BC locals Russell Dalby, Ashley Barker, Zoya Lynch, Chad Chomlack and Israeli import/King of Dolomites winter Guy Fattal presented their 72-hour work. Family, localism and unrelenting love for the mountains threaded through show after show. Treadways living in a camper, mountain hosts loving life, drone bootpacking shots and cover-worthy, creative-angle ski shots of Whistler and Blackcomb ruled the day.

While four photographers on the stacked roster had all ticked previous wins (three at Deep Winter and one at King of the Dolomites), Chad Chomlack was the clear local’s favorite. His entry profiled the adult antics of Whistler’s Wildcat legends JF Pelchat, David Carrier-Porcheron and Devun Walsh.

Contrasting homage shots on iconic Whistler spots with a montage of family and fatherhood images, Chomlack tugged at a longing for both the past and the future.

His black-and-white show was dedicated to the recently deceased Chris Brunkhart, an influential and soulful creative figure in action-sports photography. But his effort was summed up with one line he uttered on stage, “It came from the heart.”

There are more comprehensive and more local recaps of the show—including Natalie Langmann’s—but my personal review is that the heart behind the shows struck a deep chord with me. They inspired me to create and write again. You should really watch them all.

In our communities, we get overwhelmed by life, we move away, we have kids, we grow up, we get sick or get injured. We need to pay rent or mortgages. Time and powder days become more scarce. But life does not change who we are or what makes us tick. Chomlack’s show faded with a quote that read, “If you think men climb high mountains for the view of the glory or the hero pictures, then you don’t know much about men or mountains.” He nailed it.

When the screens went silent, there was something in the air at The Fairmont. Seeing old friends, like Jordan Manley and Chad Sayers, similarly motived to get after it was confirmation. At first, I wasn’t sure what I had come to Whistler for, but during this moment in the madness, I had found it.

I wasn’t the only one inspired. At intermission, I bumped into long-time friend, Chris Ankeny—local father, coffee shop owner and former pro photographer—a few steps removed from the beer line. He was equally moved and motivated by the shows, hatching a plan a few drinks in to break out the long lens and shoot with Rene on a backcountry tour to Fissile the next morning.

The judges— heavyweights Eric Berger, Paul Morrison, Jordan Manley and former Ski Journal editor Mike Berard—agreed with the popular sentiment and picked Chomlack as the winner. The crowd exploded and JF Pelchat charged the stage in his underwear for a celebratory nearly-naked-man bear hug. The Wildcat families—kids, wives and all—followed, swarming the stage in celebration. Ashley Barker and Zoya Lynch took home respectable second and third place finishes—plus a big prize bag of expensive vodkas. The ten grand paper check was almost an afterthought.

The Afterparty and The Recovery

Whistler never disappoints in the category of après or afterparty. We rallied to one of two official ragers—skipping Merlins and landing deep in the Smirnoff House Party at the GLC. DJs Kori K and DJ Surgeon spun and the base boomed. The place was packed. Ladies danced on tables. Fireball was consumed. We exchanged a few misconstrued words with Jeff Schmuck and Ryan Proctor. Dalby convinced his mom to do shots with his crew. An official photographer captured it all for the website.

The night ended, in odd Whistler style, with a local literally chewing on my ear. I don’t know what that was all about—but it’s Whistler man. Not long after the lights came on and we walked it back to the Fairmont as the snow guns blasted a fresh coat of white on the lower mountain.

The next morning came early with a reminder call from Ankeny. We checked out, stowed bags and braved whining kid drama in the ski-valet madness before snaking through the Whistler Gondola queue at ski school rush hour. First-world problems. Harmony to Symphony, or Symphony to Harmony, I can’t remember. I bid adieu to the touring crew and lapped a few personal rehab runs inside both areas. My day ended with a victory lap to the new ice cave at the bottom of the Blackcomb Glacier. Then an unfortunate return to reality hit me as I checked us out of The Fairmont.

For Ankeny and Crawshaw, the ender was even more brutal. While I waited anxiously after dark at the Brewhouse, they created their own mini-epic, returning to Singing Pass at sunset then navigating the rutted traverse back in bounds with only one headlamp. But an XL coconut water later we were back on the Sunday-night road to our adult realities. My mind wandered. As a creative soul, I was conflicted. On one hand I was calculating the number of nights at The Fairmont a winning Powerball ticket would get me. On the other, I was plotting how to quit my day job and move my little family back to the mountains. It’s an odd dichotomy, but Whistler always has that effect on me.

A huge high five and thank you goes out to Sarah Morden and Chelsea Moen from Whistler/Blackcomb—as well as Michelle Leroux at The Fairmont Chateau Whistler—who lit the fire to get me up to Whistler for my first Deep Winter. Seriously, thank you. I owe you all a Bellini.

Bio: Even at a slightly advanced age, Dan K can still send it when the season or a story is on the line. Now semi-retired as a freelance writer for the major ski and snowboard pubs, he makes his living and earns a steady paycheck as the Senior Content Editor for Eddie Bauer. He still claims Baker as his favorite Washington hill and is now teaching his beautiful two-year-old daughter that the mountain is all about french fries, snowmen and friendship. She really wants to ride the chairlift.


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