Mountain madness; perry schmunk and the wb merger

     
"Love is whatever you can still betray. Betrayal can only happen if you love." – John Le Carré They came for the mountains. The snow. The crazy, wild people who called this place home. Whatever.

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"Love is whatever you can still betray. Betrayal can only happen if you love."

– John Le Carré

They came for the mountains. The snow. The crazy, wild people who called this place home. Whatever. Suddenly everyone wanted to be a part of Whistler. It was like being a member of some exotic tribe lost in the coastal bush — apparently the civilized world had just discovered our twin-mountain magic. And anyone who spent time here in the early 1990s knows exactly what I mean.

Imagine. Rob Boyd had just won a World Cup downhill in his back yard. Trevor Peterson and Eric Pehota were laying ski tracks in the most outlandish of mountain places. Paul Morrison and Greg Griffith were shooting photos like there was no tomorrow. And Greg Stump, well, he was filming it all for posterity.

Whistler was thriving. Whistler was humming. Whistler was finally living up to all the dreams and promises and hopes that its people had entertained for nearly 30 years. The infrastructure was in place. The recent recession was now a bad memory. And the snow just kept falling and falling. It was the best of all worlds.

Picture it. Two different mountain operations — two complementary cultures — it was everything a ski bum could want. Family-owned Whistler Mountain on the right — with its meandering trails and laissez-faire management; while on the left, hard-charging Blackcomb, with its falline runs and a toilet stall for every derrière. So much competition. Such finely-tuned rivalry. And the winner? Every rider who ever set foot in this valley.

But it was the inspired silliness of its inhabitants that really set this place apart. I remember watching Arthur DeJong after a monster storm, binoculars around his neck, exhorting his charges to open the upper Blackcomb lifts before the neighbours could open theirs on Whistler. Or what about the stunts the two patrol teams pulled on each other? Mad. Mad. Mad...

No wonder Perry Schmunk was excited when he first arrived here in 1991. "I thought I"d died and gone to mountain heaven," exclaims the recently elected mayor of Tofino.

For those who missed last week"s missive, hizzoner is the rarest of snow-sliding creatures. A non-skiing flatlander at 18, he raised himself up to the highest certification level in Canadian ski teaching in less than four years. By the time he hit 26, he was the new training coordinator for the Blackcomb Ski School. And that was just for starters.

The guy was full of ideas. Never stopped thinking. Never stopped doing. He also delivered results. The school was a cash cow, and Perry knew exactly how to milk her. But the mountain always came first. I mean, this guy ate, drank and breathed skiing. Passionate doesn"t even come close. No surprise then, that by 1993-94, Schmunk was running the whole darn shebang.

And again, skiers won. On Whistler, Dave Murray and Don Barr and Otto Kaamstra were turning on people to skiing like dealers selling dope. On Blackcomb, it was Schmunk and his team doing their part. Yet both mountain programs were ridiculously successful. Everyone was happy.

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"It was such an exciting time to be involved," explains Schmunk. "The word "No" didn"t exist back then. Come up with a good idea — find a way to pay for it — and you pretty much had all the authority you needed to get it done."

Times were changing however. By the winter of 1998, Intrawest had swallowed up both hills. And Whistler culture felt the hit. What was once a spunky mountain village entirely committed to sliding on snow was inexorably slipping into company-town bondage. Meanwhile the resort"s artificially bloated real estate was being pushed on whoever could pay the inflated prices. You know, kinda like those Florida homes with the Disney Park in the backyard.

But where was I? Oh yeah — Schmunk. Boy wonder. Tireless worker. Respected by his staff. Esteemed by his colleagues. You know, a glass-half-full kinda guy. Take a listen. "Sure, we were rivals back when Whistler Mountain was still independent," remembers Otto Kaamstra. "But Perry was always straight-up with me. He even hired an instructor I had to let go once — with my blessings." He stops. Chuckles. "I could fire a guy, but in those days he had an option."

It"s not like Schmunk was perfect. His marriage had hit the rocks. His young daughter was caught in the middle. And he"d struggled with that. But otherwise? Surprisingly few wobbles. So when the merger was announced, our man blithely threw his toque into the management ring. He figured it was between him and Don Barr. Kaamstra as a dark horse maybe. Forget about it. The new Whistler-Blackcomb Ski School boss was a former soft-goods guy who, to be honest, didn"t really like skiing all that much.

"I was really disappointed with their decision," admits Schmunk. "Don decided to quit. Maybe that"s what I should have done. But I didn"t. I swallowed my ego and accepted my new duties as head of the adult ski school."

Sadly, there"s no room here to go into detail about what happened next. Let"s just say the soft-goods guy didn"t really work out.

Great, thought Perry. Another chance. So he applied for the top job again. And this is where it gets really weird. "I remember walking in for my interview," he tells me. "I have my resume in hand, ready to present my WB successes: exponential growth in revenue and contribution, solid proven leadership — all that stuff." His voice is tense now. Edgy. He continues: "I"m feeling pretty confident, you know. Top of my game. But just as I"m about to sit down I"m told "We"re not interviewing you for the job." What? What do you mean, I ask. You don"t even know me." Too bad. Not interested. Next. "And that was all I got. I remember walking back to my office just stunned...."

For Schmunk, the last act had begun. "I should have known right then," he says. And then sighs deeply. "But I"m a team player. And I was so much in love with Whistler in those days that I chose to ignore the signs."

But the signs were conflicting too. His staff-assessment scores were so high in "99 that he was accused of "running a love-in at the ski school." Didn"t matter that, as he says: "my results were among the very best in the entire Intrawest chain — both in terms of financial contribution and number of staff." For whatever reason — too much ambition, too little humility, too big a threat, Perry was never told why — his time at Whistler was quickly coming to an end.

And when it did, it hit him like a two-by-four to the head. "So I walk in for my 2000 year-end review," he recounts. "I"m expecting the usual, you know..." He stops. The moment is etched in his memory. Like acid. "Instead I get a white envelope." Say what? In one horrific moment — in one sharp breath of air — Perry"s worst fears were realized. He remembers walking zombie-like across Fitzsimons" Creek after the meeting. Stopping and puking over the bridge. What was he going to do with his life now?

This is what was written in the note in the white envelope: "Due to a difference in leadership styles this letter is to inform you that your employment at Whistler Blackcomb has ended effective May 1, 2000."

And that"s all the explanation he ever received. Schmunk tried everything to salvage his job. Pleaded his case, talked to anyone in the corporation who would listen (few would return his calls). Desperate for any straw, he approached a lawyer about a wrongful dismissal suit. All the company owes you, said his lawyer, is severance. And that"s all he got.

Yeah, so? Sad story and all.

But what"s the big deal? New management. New style. The guy just didn"t fit in and he was let go. Happens all the time. End of chapter. Move on.

But wait. That"s exactly my point. Sure, that may be the way things are done in big, impersonal corporations where employees are chewed up and spit out at will. But this is Whistler. We"re supposed to be a mountain community. Not just a corporation. We"re supposed to be all about people here. We"re supposed to be more sensible than that.

But I digress. Perry refused to become a victim. Though it felt like hell while he was living it, his sudden dismissal forced him to leave the mountains he loved and really dig deep inside himself to find a solution. Fortunately for Tofino (and not, alas, for Whistler), he developed a new line of work emulating his long-ago mentors at the Post Hotel. All he learned from the Schwartz brothers high up in the Rockies — all that authentic, styly, hands-on stuff they so valued — he"s now applying to hosting people on one of the most beguiling stretches of coastline on this immense blue planet. As I said, lucky Tofino. But we"ll hear about all that next week. Stay tuned...


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