Old people are mostly ignored, yet we’re all intrigued by longevity. Scientists and journalists, for example, can’t make enough of the rare clusters of centenarian humans on islands like Okinawa and Sardinia. Although he’s a long way from 100, doesn’t shuffle, say random things, or smell like mothballs, Mike Douglas is the free-ski world’s favourite case study in longevity and that rarest of commodities: a still-relevant pro approaching 40.
Ten years ago, when he should have been hanging up his boards and transitioning peacefully into a job in sales, commentating, or opening up a chain of restaurants, Douglas bucked convention and pitched an outlandish concept to an industry that was itself starting to wheeze.
Skiing’s prognosis circa 1996 was akin to someone riding out the ravages of dementia in an old folks’ home: they could keep pretending everything was okay, but ultimately, the wall had been readied for writing, and that writing was likely to be done in their own shit. The best ideas the industry had come up with in response to the tidal shift towards snowboarding were “super-fun snowblades!” or “super-short carving skis!”.
The future, in short, made you want to look away.
Enter Douglas, evangelist of the New Era. Although his role has been well-documented [for a history lesson check out http://community.freeskier.com/videos/video.php?video_id=284 ], in short, he and collaborator Steve Fearing pitched the idea of a twin-tip ski to the industry in the spring of 1997 and by November, Salomon had signed on for the ride. The 1080 was born, and those willing to swallow the new medication averted the slippery-slide to oblivion that was “feeling the carve.” (Nevertheless, as a measure of the industry’s advanced dementia—or at least ultimate irony—Douglas et al. had to refer to what they were doing in half-pipes as “air carving” in order to garner attention.)
He followed the 1080 with the Pocket Rocket, turned himself into a perennial ski-film star with innovative big-mountain riding and brash camera angles, and then became a film producer in his own right. Along the way he brain-trusted the FIS Sucks campaign, Nippon Open, Whistler Blackcomb’s MSP booter, Deep Winter Photo Showdown… and he’s still generating new ideas.
A decade into it, Douglas has proved that reinvention is indeed the mother of longevity. Journalists naturally love this story, but being the scientists we are, SKIER took out the probe to uncover Douglas’ secrets.
It’s the 10th anniversary of the 1080. How does it feel?
I just found out that twin-tips have become the leading category in ski sales. I honestly didn’t know if that would ever happen.
Do you ever resent coming up with an idea that a corporation has made a huge pile of money on?
I think about it. I’ve definitely had people say over the years that I should have patented the idea. If I had a dollar for every twin-tip sold, I would be retired. But we didn’t know it was going to be a success. We didn’t want to own the technology so we could stifle it—we just wanted to get it off the ground and were honestly stoked to see the ski get made and be paid to test it. I’m not sure if we’d played the hard business line whether we would have seen the success we have now. It had to grow organically and be free-spirited.
You have a reputation as the sensible and sober guy in a world of rock stars and punks. Do you ever wish you were more of a badass?
Every now and then I’ll go out and party it up with the kids, and it’s like a news story around here. “Yeah, Douglas got drunk.” I think the only time the badass in me raises its head is when I’m skiing, and occasionally I’ll surprise everyone, like the year I won the K2 Back 9—I did a backflip off one of the holes, and nobody really saw it coming. I did my stint of partying on the World Cup Moguls circuit. But when the 1080 launched I was 28 and already the oldest guy. I was a coach and wasn’t really skiing professionally. I thought my career was over. Back then, pro skiers retired early. You’re 25? Time to retire. Now I laugh at that. I was just starting to hit my stride.
360 cornice drop. Gargellen, Montafon, Austria. Mattias Fredrikson photo
Are you still improving as a skier?
In some ways. But I think I hit my peak in my early thirties, in terms of where the sport was. I might have improved in other ways, but the sport has advanced faster than my ability to keep up.
Is it hard to pass the torch?
Well, yeah. That’s why I’m still skiing. I’m extremely fortunate because I get to do so many different things and projects and travel but the best part of my job is still the skiing. It’s the thing I love most, but it’s physically the hardest and mentally, too, because if I’m not performing at the level I expect of myself, it’s really frustrating. Two years ago I did a lot of television work and probably the least amount of skiing I’d ever done, and came away thinking, “Skiing is way more fun that talking about skiing.” This year, doing Salomon Freeski TV lets me be more core.
You’re one of the most professional athletes to deal with, emailing answers to questions from the road to meet deadlines or otherwise making yourself available. Do you ever worry that accessibility to the media works against you?
Sure. My rep with the core kids isn’t good because of that. They think I’m cheesy or a sell-out. When I look at someone like J.P. Auclair—who has a much more core image because he’s turned his back on the media and doesn’t do a lot of TV—there’s part of me that’s a bit jealous. I have a lot of haters. But I stay positive by looking at the people I respect: Johnny Mosley; Tanner Hall. Those guys have tons of haters too.
Are you on Facebook?
So you haven’t joined 1,000,000 strong rallying for ski Superpipe in the 2010 Olympics?
I’m on the fence when it comes to Olympic pipe skiing. Part of me is in favour because I think it’s badass and skiers at the top end are as good as the snowboarders. It would be a great show. But when the New Canadian Air Force guys and myself started the sport it was to run away from all that. We launched the FIS Sucks campaign to keep it out of FIS, and a lot of people who are gung-ho now weren’t around then and aren’t tuned in to why we had to stay away from FIS. We came close to losing control of what we’d created. To me, there’s nothing sadder than a sport that exists only for the chance of getting a medal once very four years. I pitched Whistler Blackcomb to do a big ski-pipe event on Blackcomb during the Olympics; it would be a really good thing to guerilla it up a little. I mean, as soon as Katie Couric says the name of your sport, its cool factor instantly drops.
Why does FIS suck so badly?
The way Superpipe and Slopestyle are judged is a kind of floating system. Judges get together at the start of the season and see who’s doing what and rank tricks accordingly. In the FIS system, every trick gets a certain standard point value. And when they added inverted or off-axis tricks, it didn’t make it better because everyone just learned the high-points tricks and it was like a bunch of robots going through the motions. What makes Superpipe and Slopestyle so cool is that tricks keep changing and the riders’ personalities are so much a part of it.
Days end powder turns. Lenzerheide, Switzerland. Mattias Fredrikson photo
Some of your film, photo and writer friends can be a bit crusty about how things have changed and where it’s all headed. Where are you on the optimism meter?
I’m probably a lot more optimistic than those guys. I think it’s all wide open. I mean, obviously global warming is a huge concern. Working on [Blackcomb’s Horstman] glacier for 15 years I watched that thing lose 10 metres, and when you know something so well—and I knew that glacier like I know my own house—it’s pretty devastating.
But right now there are many cool things going on with skiing and all these paths you can go down to be a pro. You don’t have to follow a single direction and there have never been more options. One of the most beautiful things about the twin-tip revolution is that you don’t have to be a competitor to legitimately belong. It’s the amount of creativity in the sport that makes me most optimistic. I was just watching some new helmet-cam footage of Dana Flahr and it seriously gave me goosebumps. If I thought this sport was stale I couldn’t sit in a studio and watch footage of it all summer.
Are ski films getting stale? You’ve worked in that end for 16 years and have more than 50 film credits to your name, but now you’re producing internet-based shows for Salomon Freeski TV. Is that just a new distribution channel for the same old porn?
Most producers are drifting from pure ski porn toward action-documentaries. There will always be a market for ski porn, but for the guys who’ve been doing this a long time there’s a yearning for different ways to tell stories. I think ski films have gotten a lot better in the past couple years. Producers are trying new things and we’re seeing more variety. I’ve been working on the new Poor Boyz release, Reasons, and I think it’s going to break new ground.
Where would you like to see the ski-film industry go?
I love to tell the stories of the skiers out there living the dream. Not clichés like “We just had ten days of bad weather…” or “I want to push the progression…” [editor’s note: we only include that word because Douglas said it], but stories about the real stuff that happens when you try to do what we do. One day I’ll make a real documentary about the sport.
What else do you see in the Mike Douglas Crystal Ball?
I think you can spot some trends. But I used to say “Oh, this will be possible and this won’t,” and I’ve been proven wrong so many times. Like, “You won’t be able to land switch off a cliff over 30 feet into pow,” and a year later someone does it.
But I think that generally, creativity will be the next trend, rather than going big or technical. Over the last decade we’ve seen the most spins, the highest cliff drops. I think the limits of the body have been reached, and now it’s in creativity that we’ll see the next exciting stuff. In the new crop of ski films you’ll see Sean Pettit do a hand-drag corked 360 off a cliff in the backcountry. When I saw that, I was just, “What? That is just rad!” And now that my kid (four-year-old Devon) is skiing, it’s crazy, it’s like a whole new thing. He’s already starting to hit jumps.
Does that scare you? Or are you like, “Yeah, give’r little buddy!”
Ah… it totally scares me.