They travel in packs of three or four, usually after the sun’s set beneath the horizon. With smaller numbers and less light there’s not as much of a chance that they’ll bother others or that others will bother them. There was that one time when the security guard who was having a slow night kicked them out of the industrial park somewhere in the northeast, but that kind of stuff doesn’t happen too often. The cops don’t even care.
Handrails, concrete walls, underpasses, even trees are the targets of these late night missions. After an hour or so of work to set up the generator, floodlights, jump, bungee and camera gear, the real work begins. Occasionally, they’ll nail it the first time, but it usually takes dozens of attempts. Once the site is conquered, the crew will clean up and vanish, leaving little evidence of their work.
This is the new generation of ski bums, born of the era of moguls and racing. Their focus isn’t on precision or technique. Instead, it’s a seemingly unquenchable pursuit of creativity, style and danger that drives them to launch off eight-metre buildings and grind down quad kink rails. Most are barely out of high school. They call themselves the “newschoolers.” Urban skiing is their rebellion.
Twenty-year-old Rob Heule has been in the urban scene for around five years. He got involved because he saw examples of it in professional ski movies and “got stoked.” Now, he spends the winter months driving around with friends and film crews to find new spots in Calgary’s parks and schoolyards.
“Oh man, everything,” he says when asked what kind of objects he targets. “Ledges, wall rides, places where you can build a jump. There are lots of possibilities. It’s not just limited to handrails anymore; it’s whatever you can think up in your head, pretty much. You see a hill over there. You see rolls. You see concrete walls. You see basically anything in an urban environment, and you try to ski on it.”
It’s all about the claim; that is, the pride stems from footage taken of you in a place that’s never been seen. It’s a tad narcissistic, but it’s the same philosophy that’s driven the extreme sports of big mountain skiing, skateboarding and surfing to levels that would’ve been unthinkable a decade or two ago.
“What it comes down to is how fast you can shoot that spot and get it out in your webisode,” says Brent Callow, a 19-year-old urban skier and cinematographer for his film company, 403MEDIA. “If you’re the first person to show that spot then you’re going to get much more credit.” Credit turns into sponsorship, and sponsorship turns into film shoots. It’s not that simple, but that’s the underlying idea.
Urban skiing has been around for a while, but Steve Saranchuk, owner of Fresh Sports in Kensington, says it’s ramped up in the last year. The sport is especially popular in cities like Montreal, where terrain parks are sparse and mountains are, well, not really mountains. So why do local enthusiasts put so much work into the sport when our city’s nestled in the Rockies?
“It sort of breaks away from the norm of doing the moguls and competing, and gives you the freedom to do what you want,” says Mark Slotboom, a 20-year-old skier. “There’s so many different options to get creative with. It also doesn’t cost anything, so you don’t have to buy a season’s pass. It’s super accessible.”
Helmets are worn by most, but not all of the jibbers. Massive bungees cords are often used to propel the skier towards the rail or jump, which is often positioned on flat land; skitching behind trucks or attaching a winch to a generator are other alternative accelerators. This isn’t your dad’s sport.
“The culture of skiing is getting way too serious, and us younger guys want to branch out, be creative and do our own thing,” says 18-year-old Brandon Phillips. “It’s something different and new to do instead of going to a hill and lapping all day.”
Locals and visitors
It should come as no surprise that Calgary’s regarded as one of the top cities in the country for big mountain and alpine skiers to live and play. But the local urban scene’s reputation is just as stellar. Major film crews frequently come to Calgary to shoot their skiers launching off kickers and grinding rails. That fact, combined with the perfect storm of conditions for jibbing — long winters and rolling hills — has resulted in an explosion in Calgary’s popularity.
Frustrations inevitably emerge when people get cramped. Feuds, although not amounting to much, have ignited over issues such as locals showing newcomers all of the rails and jumps, and an out-of-town film company gaining the username and password to a secret Google Maps page that documented all of one crew’s urban spots.
“I don’t have a problem with them coming here,” says Dane Ulsifer, a 20-year-old skier and member of the REAL.media film crew. “But you should search around and find your own spots. That makes it more worth it than just asking people where all the spots that have already been hit are.”
If it sounds slightly territorial, that’s because it is. These skiers spend tanks of gas and hours of free time scouring the city for rails. For some, skipping that step lessens the quest-like nature of the experience. But considering that the latest movie by Poor Boyz Productions — one of the most highly regarded ski film companies in the world — features a segment of urban scenes filmed in Calgary, that problem likely won’t be going away.