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“Leadership, communication, technical understanding, safety, and risk management—these are at the core of the job.”
What job is this you might ask?
This is only some of what Jeff Slack—a 10-year veteran of the Whistler Blackcomb Snow School, Justin Trudeau’s former place of employ—had to say about his chosen profession during an interview earlier this week.
While the vast majority of Canadian journalists were focused on Thursday night’s debate, I went in a slightly different direction, wanting to clear the air about Snowboard Instructors, who’ve been collateral damage in the interminable chewing of the fat about the Liberal leader’s Salad Days.
Jeff, the 33 year-old Mountain Nerd (@mountain_nerd) and I talked about how his work has been mocked and denigrated simply because one of our Prime Ministerial candidates “Shredded the Gnar” for a living, however briefly, unknowingly forfeiting the Prime Minister’s Office, or so the cynical narrative goes. It is a narrative, by the way, which only reinforces the hopelessness of millennials, many of whom see holding out for a management position as the only way to fulfill their greatest expectations.
Really, he was pretty much screwed one way or another. At least he got some fresh air; that it was as far away from Ottawa as possible is just a bonus.
As a ramp-up to my interview, and this earnest attempt at traditional journalism, I spent part of a day studying The A-B-Cs of Snowboarding, boning up on the lingo which includes phrases such as ‘Ancillary Stoke’, when a snowboarder accomplishes an “insane maneuver” and, my favourite, ‘Asspass’, when a snowboarder “falls on his ass but going so fast that he passes people on his ass.”
In the end the snowboarding semiotics proved unnecessary. Jeff is a skilled communicator and a freelance writer with a specialty in mountain history and culture. He didn’t use the word “dude” once during our conversation, which was kind of disappointing.
As for the “ski bum” stereotype that Justin Trudeau’s political rivals and the media have gone way out of their way to perpetuate, Jeff was unequivocal: “It is completely false.” Snowboarding “can be a serious job”, he says, especially at Whistler Blackcomb which presents some of the most “dangerous and challenging skiing terrain on earth.” The hazards are plenty and considerations of risk are quick and constant. “There are lots of distractions,” says Jeff, “People are on vacation, so they kind of turn their brains off. You need to be constantly communicating very clear demands to your group.”
In a further attempt at professional journalism, I spared Jeff my sad skiing story: The Grade 8 class trip to what qualifies as a mountain in Ontario, when, through my inability to master the pull versus sit concept, I kept rolling off of the palma lift while my classmates clutched their sides with laughter. When I did finally make it to the top, I was unable to cope with the 700 ft drop, walked to the chalet and haven’t skied since.
Instead, I simply gave Jeff the scenario of a “reluctant mountaineer” (Snowboard Dictionary says ‘Hoedad’) and asked how he deals with people like that. He assured me that snowboarding instructors are trained to deal with all kinds. “The number one skill,” he says, is “Having a vision, getting people to follow you and inspiring them to feel confident.”
And, if being an inspirational visionary isn’t enough, there’s communication, too: “Good communication is essential. From children to adults, beginner to expert, you need to be able to describe movements that are very foreign to people in a way that they can understand.”
Jeff says where some students are terrified others can be overconfident: “Some people tend not to take Snowboard Instructors seriously so they don’t always give us respect right away. These people often get themselves into trouble because they underestimate the challenge of the terrain.” (I wanted to ask if these are the ‘Blazin’ Raisins’ I learned about—the old-timers who just “gun it down the mountain”—but decided against it.)
Jeff’s turnaround approach in these cases is diplomacy: making strategic use of chair lift time for “conversations about politics or cultural issues.” So much for sparking up a doobie and getting laced.
“At a place like Whistler Blackcomb you’re meeting people from around the world every day and interacting with them on a pretty meaningful level. It’s an eye opening experience in terms of understanding the world.”
It remains to be seen, of course, if one-time-Snowboard-Instructor-turned-PM-wannabe Justin Trudeau will pull off an Ancillary Stoke or an Asspass come Election Day.
But if we can agree that everybody has to start somewhere maybe it’s not such a stretch that a former King of the Mountain—if given a chance to prove his mettle—might one day be The Big Cheese on Parliament Hill.