"Time flies when you're having fun."
Yes it does, and the proof is that Whistler's World Ski & Snowboard Festival is 20 years old this year. That's two decades of free outdoor concerts, massive film/photo/art events, and the best riders in the world congregating in Whistler for ten days of celebrating everything that makes life in the mountains amazing.
"I would say the WSSF is exactly who we are as Whistler," says festival Director Sue Eckersly, who has been steering the ship and running WSSF for the past 16 years. "It's about celebrating mountain culture in Whistler – ski, snowboard, photography, art, film, comedy, dogs. The festival is not about warping the town to try and meet a corporate brand or be something we are not. It's about who we are and how we live, and the festival will continue to evolve as we do. You can't rest on the laurels of the past."
Even if the laurels of the past include some of the most awesome events in Whistler's history. The free outdoor concert series helped Whistler Village fulfill its destiny as a true gathering place for thousands of people at a time. For a decade and a half WSSF festival-goers have congregated daily in Skier's Plaza at the base of Whistler for blissful tunes and a good excuse to dance. Other successful festivals like Crankworx and even the 2010 Winter Games have followed a path forged by the WSSF.
"The fest really helped realize the vision of the Village as a venue," Sue explains. "And the concert series has always been the soundtrack that sets the vibe for the whole fest," Sue says. "As musical tastes have changed so have the types of bands we bring in but one of the best things is the music is always free, there's always a beautiful mountain backdrop and you can ski down into 3000 people grooving."
Fort Knox Five Returns!
Our first time in Whistler was amazing," says Fort Knox Five DJ Jon H. "I think it was just coming in and instantly feeling that family vibe. Ski towns are full of people who are having fun and they like music, especially funky music. Whistler was our first introduction to that mountain culture but it feels like you can be in a mountain town anywhere in the world and get a similar connection. It really is about the sports and the landscape bringing people together to enjoy life."
Based out of Washington, DC but known around the world as purveyors of funk and providers of endless dance party vibes, Jon and Fort Knox Five have been playing WSSF (and the legendary local Hot Doggin' parties) for the past decade. They've DJ'd during the Big Airs, rocked the main stage and, in 2010, toured their last album with a full funk band – horn section and lyricists included. This year, Fort Knox Five has just completed a new album and Jon and band mate Steve Raskin will be bringing new tracks to mix in with old favourites in a special two-man simultaneous funkmaster throwdown."I'd say this is the one free festival show that we will do this year," Jon says. "We've been working hard on this album since last September so the show will definitely be heavy on new material, hopefully we'll have some remixes of the new stuff done too. I'm looking forward to getting some turns in too, I'm loving skiing these days. But mostly it will just be good to show the Whistler family what we have been up to."
Fort Knox Five play the WSSF mainstage Friday April 19, 2015. Their new album, "Pressurize the Cabin" drops April 28 so the Whistler show will definitely be a sneak peek .
WSSF concerts have featured huge acts like the Black Eyed Peas (with Justin Timberlake), Spearhead, Fort Knox Five (see sidebar) and even Nickelback (!) but Sue's team always balances things out with local talent and classic bands that everyone can love. "Toots and the Maytalls," Sue says, "Every time they hit the stage is a highlight for me. Swollen Members always bring an amazing crowd and energy to their show. Mat the Alien always backtracks one of our big air shows, The Hairfarmers do their thing. One highlight was DJ Ops, aka Canosis, now part of SkiiTour. He was young and on our ops team and he begged for an opportunity to DJ on the main stage. We jokingly put him in as 'DJ Ops' and he said OK and did it. Now SkiiTour are opening the Festival for us this year."
The ski and snowboard events also act as a showcase for local talent, with Whistler athletes competing against the best in the world. "Last year's Monster Energy Shred Show was the best snowboarding Whistler has ever seen," Sue enthuses. "The progression of the sport over the past decade has been amazing and I was stunned at the level of riding at that event."
Sue is equally impressed with the arts events. The WSSF Pro Photographer Showdown has long been the hot ticket event and is probably the most prestigious action sports photography events on the planet. "Over the past 16 or 17 years we've had over 80 of the best action sport photographers in the world come to town with their life's best work," Sue says. "This year I'm excited this year for Reuben Krabbe. Five years ago he was a WSSF volunteer standing at the back wall as a spectator, and now he is in the show with the best in the world."
Sue makes a good argument. WSSF is a showcase, incubator and pure representation of the Whistler spirit and culture. "We might try and add a mountain bike race this year," Sue says. "That is the one part of Whistler culture we are missing and the weather is right for it this time around."
The weather is always the Fest's biggest challenge and Sue's team is constantly tweaking and understanding what they can do better. Sue is unlike most festival directors in that she is incredibly hands-on. It's not uncommon to see her with a "security" vest on working crowd control and handling the mosh pit at the headliners for the concert series. This translates into an intimate knowledge of the festival, and how to make it better.
"You have to look to the future without messing with the success we've already built," she says. "Now we have a full slate of amazing events, the hardest thing is to shuffle something out and switch in something new. I remember [original WSSF founder] Doug Perry once said we should do this over three weekends and we all said, 'well then we quit. We can't survive 17 days of Ski & Snowboard fest!' but now, I mean, everything needs to grow so who knows…I think it keeps us young and speaks to anyone who loves Whistler…. Party in April, sleep in May. Right?"
The 2015 World Ski & Snowboard Festival runs April 10 -19, 2015. Get all the info you need at Whistler.com, and get as much sleep as possible before you arrive.