If you can track former head coach Chris Peel down these days—say, for example, in the basement of Freewheel scraping wax—he can tell you what competitive freestyle skiing was like two decades ago.
“The vibe was pretty cool, we were definitely doing something different. Marmot Basin was pretty race focused and here we were, hitting jumps, practicing spins off the booter on T-Bar Ridge and skiing with snowboarders.”
The North Rockies Freestyle Ski Team, as it was then known, was started by Jon Standing, along with Bryce Carvell, Hamish McPherson, and Peel. They were the top-ranked mogul skiers in Alberta but Standing wanted to build a separate program from the provincial team. He felt that Marmot Basin offered the perfect place to build and grow a group that would challenge the provincial team, and he recruited a 19-year-old Chris Peel to help him in that aim.
“Jon convinced me to move from Red Deer,” Peel said. “I began working as a liftie, which turned into a full-time coaching job as the team grew.”
This wasn’t Marmot Basin’s first flirtation with freestyle. Beginning in 1973, Whitecourt native Robert Kalboum, along with former Jasperite and restauranteur “Tokyo” Tom Akama (and several others), started an informal freestyle team focusing on the three disciplines: moguls, aerials and ballet (ballet, a fusion of figure skating and skiing, eventually went extinct as a freestylee discipline after it failed to gain Olympic status in 1994). Kalboum said they would glean what they could from magazines, even travelling around to the occasional contest.
In that sense, how Kalboum was learning wasn’t too much different from how Peel and his freestyle buddies were progressing 20-odd years later. The North Rockies Freestyle Ski Team members would take what they saw in the popular magazines and VHS tapes and bring it to Marmot Basin. Back then, there was a big focus on free-skiing; Peel said the coaches wanted their members to ride the whole mountain well, rather than spend the entire day on the mogul course.
“We were hitting cliffs, hiking the peak…you’ve got to think that jumping off cliffs into the chunder would make you pretty good, and it did,” Peel remembers.
One of the early adopter families were the Timmins. Both Randy and his younger sister Sabra were part of this fast-forming group. The free-ski approach was important in recruiting families who saw the sport as less-structured and intensive than race programs , however, the freestylers were still getting results. Sabra and Randy both competed at the national level and both returned to Jasper to coach. Randy still coaches with the team today.
“The relationship with the hill has really grown,” Randy says. “And with Marmot Basin’s ability for snow-making in the early season, the athletes can begin training much earlier.”
Peel remembers a time when freestyle skiers weren’t always regarded as serious athletes. They were a rogue bunch who couldn’t get the equipment their sport demanded in a race-centric town. As freeskiing was changing through the late 90’s, 195cm straight skis were fine for the mogul line but what they really wanted were the shorter, fatter, twin-tipped skis—the precursors of what today’s rippers ride on. Edge Control was the first shop in town to answer the call.
“It wouldn’t have happened without Blair Timmins” (no relation to Randy) Peel said. “He was the first to support us, early on with team uniforms and then bringing in the early twin-tip skis that K2, Dynastar and Volant were making.”
The team wouldn’t have been in the position to continue on, however, if another family hadn’t gotten involved. It was the dedication of the MacDonald family, from Edmonton, which ultimately made the club sustainable.
“The turning point was the MacDonalds,” Peel said. “Ken and Janet became involved when the club was owing money. They dug it out, they put it back in the black.”
Linked to the healthier financial situation, the club’s numbers grew, too. Soon there were 25 skiers from Jasper and the Edmonton area wearing the freestyle ski jersey. Today, Ken and Janet still get up to Marmot Basin regularly, although not as much as their son Kerry. Kerry, who along with his sister Tracey, was one of the young skiers who benefited from his early days with the team. Today he is the head of public safety at Marmot Basin.
“We were straight-up freestyle back then,” laughed Kerry, who was the first Jasper skier Peel can recall who launched a jump backwards in a mogul competition (unfortunately there was no precedent and the progressive trick netted him zero points). It was at about this time the name of the club was changed to the Jasper Freeride Team to reflect the diversity of training. A few years later, during the 2003-2004 season, the International Ski Federation (FIS) finally sanctioned inverted maneuvers in moguls. Suddenly a twister-twister-spread was no longer good enough to get on the podium. To win competitions, skiers now needed to go upside down. To learn these tricks, summer training on water ramps became an important part of the Freeride program.
“There is a huge focus now on trampoline work, water ramps, and dry land training,” Randy says. He added that he expects a push from parents and coaches for Marmot Basin to get a slopestyle course and halfpipe in the future.
“Marmot does a ton for us,” he said. “Unfortunately right now we don’t have the facilities to train slopestyle or half-pipe.”
If anyone knows what it takes to build freestyle facilities, it’s Cam Jenkins. The father of four freestyle skiers and seven-year past president of the Jasper Freeride club once spent 26 straight days in ski boots building a mogul course for the 2011 Junior Nationals at Marmot Basin.
“But it was all worthwhile,” he remembers. “A mogul course can take hundreds of man hours and 40 hours of cat time, but if I ever won the Lotto Max I would do this full time.”
Jenkins said besides seeing his children excel and use their skiing experience to grow as young adults (his daughter Imogen coached with the Edmonton ski club while going to university), what he loves about the club is the people.
“Some of the best friends I have I’ve met at the ski hill,” he said. “You develop a life-long love of skiing with a really broad cross section of people.”