Smile, tell the truth and have a good time doing it – The Glen Plake Interview

Some call him the “Pied Piper of skiing,” others “the mohawk’d hot dogger with an unhealthy addiction to moguls.” Whichever moniker you prefer, there’s no denying that Glen Plake is one of the most recognisable skiers in the world. In a career that began more than 25 years ago, Glen has single-handedly invented his own ski discipline and it’s widely agreed that he opened the door to many of the winter action sports that we know and love today. Glen is at home in northern Nevada, patiently waiting for winter to arrive when we catch up for this interview.

Glen, you’ve been referred to as the pioneer of extreme skiing in America and the godfather of freestyle skiing globally, but how would you define yourself?

“I think I’m just a link in the chain, I don’t think I really started anything and I don’t think I ended anything. I’m maybe more of a master link. I grew as a skier during the freestyle movement and the pioneering days of the sport. Then I got to watch it go through growth and changes and maybe a dark period. I also got to be part of the explosion of snowboarding and saw he effect that it had on skiing. The chain is now being added on beyond me, with the invent of free skiing competitions, Olympic freestyle events and the rediscovery of ski touring. These are all different facets that the sport had going on when I was a young skier, now it’s nice to see it coming full form again. I don’t believe i’m a pioneer, I think I’m a reminder – I woke some people up.”

Glen woke people up through the medium of film, appearing in no fewer than 13 acclaimed movies that began in 1986 with Maltese Flamingo, directed by Greg Stump. He’s appeared in a number of Warren Miller titles including 2005’s Higher Ground and his 2010 release, Cheap Ski Movie, captured the outrageous mischief of this legendary character.

“Building these fancy ski resorts, wearing their prim and proper turtle necks, skiing was going down this really weird road. In light of all that,there was the hot dogging movements of the 70s, the crazy downhill racing of the 60s. Our films, the things I did and continue to do, the philosophies, have woken people up to a type and style of skiing. Here’s the rough and tumble of skiing, that’s been identified as something unique. I think I was a voice that made everyone remember that this is still a crazy ass sport in the middle of winter with big things on your legs and no brakes.”

How has skiing changed over the course of your career?

“People’s ability to do what was once extraordinary, that’s been a huge change. Advancements in equipment made accessing these high mountain areas common place for the general public; it wasn’t always like that. Whether that’s for the better or for the worse, that’s another discussion. Things my peers and I had the privilege of doing are now done quite often; the allure of steeper slopes, mixed terrain, these are things people can do easily now. Once upon a time, a powder day wasn’t so interesting to most people because they couldn’t ski power and there was just a select group of us who could go up and really enjoy it. Even just skiing groomed slopes with relatively good technique wasn’t something that people had access too. From a personal perspective, having all these people now going out in all these skiing conditions has certainly changed things. To be honest, I don’t even waste my time on powder days. Moguls, to me, are still the purest form of skiing!”

Which leads us nicely to my next question. What does your perfect ski day look like?

“I love a ski touring day when you nail it and you get to that destination and there’s a powder field as far as the eye can see, that’s a wonderful day. One of those ‘iffy’ days when we say ‘should we really be going up the L’Aiguille du Midi?’ and it ends up being amazing. But the discipline and the physical satisfaction of skiing bumps is something that I personally really enjoy. That’s one thing that equipment has yet to change – it’s the final frontier – I get to ski the way I want, I get to go there and you don’t – that’s the goal of skiing for me. Those secret spots, your lines, you get ownership of these places.”

Early in Glen’s career he turned down a place on the US ski team and got into trouble with the law. Despite this, he came to the attention of major ski brands and TV channels, eventually quitting the United States for Chamonix in 1987.

What might life had been like, had you joined the US ski team? Would you have liked to have ‘Olympian’ on your CV?

“My years of competition were fun, I did it because it was expected of us and there was no other road to go down, basically. You’d go to a competition and get what you get, then you’d go free skiing after and be like – there’s no way the guy who won the competition was skiing as well as me after the event in the mountains. You’re competing within the confinements of the rules and I completely respect any competition. I love watching them and seeing people excel within those parameters, whether they’re free skiing, at a World Cup, a freestyle event, ski jumping or whatever. I knew early on that I wanted to be a skier, but I also knew that I wasn’t necessarily going to be what the world thought of as a ‘skier’. There was this other group of skiers that most people didn’t know about; skiers from ski films and from the hot dogging era, and it was those skiers that I pictured myself being, rather than your traditional ski instructor or a competitive skier, which were basically the only two jobs in the industry at the time. I got into some trouble when I was younger, and that was a question that the judge asked. Are you on the Olympic team? Are you on the US ski team? Because those were things that society had associated with success, and that was a gauge of my journey towards being a ‘skier’. Yeah, it would have been cool to be an Olympian, but whatever. I freak out every time I’m close to a gold medal and they are without doubt inanimate, surreal objects, there’s no doubt about it.”

Chamonix in 1986 was home to a community of extreme mountain-goers and it’s easy to imagine Glen fitting in. He was called to join The Blizzard of Aahhh’s, Greg Stump’s latest movie, driving overnight to LA to collect his first ever passport.

How did you adapt to the cultural differences between South Lake, Tahoe and Chamonix?

“When I first went to Chamonix, I didn’t even know where I was going, to be honest. I knew that I’d probably get to Europe at some point in my career, I wanted to see what was going on over there. It took me several weeks to remember the name of the place. We were there for three or four weeks, everyone went home and I did not. I stayed for an extra two years.

Skiing in Europe is cultural, it’s societal, it’s really not like that in the US. Sure, people go skiing on holidays and sure there’s some communities that skiing is a part of, but in general, society doesn’t really consider skiing as a true sport in the US. America is a big fan of team sports, but in Europe it’s the opposite. Skiing is a huge part of society, when the World Cup is on TV, nations stop to watch the races. So that part was very very different. That said, the professional opportunities in and around skiing in Europe are more prevalent; I’m talking about working in the mountain communities. Being a ski instructor or a mountain guide in Europe is a viable profession, it’s not so much like that in America.

Another big difference I observed was the approach to the mountains; this is a big thing for me in Europe versus America. I like to say that when I live in the US, my life is below 1500m and when I’m in Europe my life is above 1500m, which is why I’m here in Nevada in the summer time a lot. I can jump on my dirt bike and go ride anytime I want from my house, out into the desert and we can put a boat in the water and enjoy that at complete liberty. But I think we protect our mountains too much in the United States; when I get above 1500m it’s all national park, national forest, don’t even look up there, stay out of the mountains. And we’ve got these funny ski resorts that resemble amusement parks. In Europe on the other hand, you can’t put your boat in the water, you can’t ride your dirt bike, but let’s build 300 lifts that get you up to those mountains, let’s build restaurants, let’s build towns, get some refuges up there so when you get your ass kicked high in the alpine, you’ve got at least a place to sleep. So that aspect of it is completely different. In Europe I like the approach of ‘lets get people up into the mountains and build an infrastructure for them’. In the United States we have some great ski areas and Mammouth Mountain is my base, but it’s a bit of an outcast, being over 100 miles from the next resort. In the US we have ski areas, while in Europe you have ski regions.”

You became a qualified ski instructor. How did the rebel in you decide to conform?

“The more I spent time with my peers and working in professional situations, especially in Europe, it all of a sudden came to a head that I had no formal certifications for skiing. Let’s say we’re going ski touring on a ski demo day for Elan skis, we’re going to make laughs, and we break the group up with a plan to re-group at lunch. In Europe, I had to say ‘I can’t!’ Because I don’t have any certifications, I’m not a ski instructor, I’m not a mountain guide and therefore, legally, for all of our sakes, I can’t do that. So I said wait a second, this is bothering me. Man, you’re not anything! At the same time I was asked to be part of the national ‘learn a snow sport’ campaign, encouraging people to enjoy the mountains in the US. Low and behold, I ended up on morning national television teaching a lady to ski, but it really bothered me because at the end of the day, I have no idea how to teach that lady how to ski. So I reached out to the PSIA (the Professional Ski Instructors of America) and explained my situation, it bothers me, what have I gotta do to move forward. They didn’t give me an honorary certification and I’m pleased about that. They called me back, said we’ve discussed your scenario and we think the best situation is for you to take a Level 1 course, so I did. I read the books, I went to Breckenridge, Colorado and I took a lesson with 250 new ski instructors. I got to see the framework of the organisation, the very basic level, the nuts and bolts and I found them very very interesting. Level 2 was very difficult because it was all learned information, unknown information. Level 3 to be honest wasn’t that difficult, so that sent me down my path and I became fully certified, which was nice.”

Fast forward to 2012 and you were involved in an avalanche that took the lives of nine, including two of your closest friends. How did you get back on the snow after that?

“I got really lucky, through a lot of accidental events that were surrounding that avalanche itself. Taking me back to that morning on Manaslu, Nepal is very difficult, all of a sudden the memories flash, especially this year. Usually we say nothing about it, as the anniversary approaches my wife and I will look at the date. This year, with the conditions that were on the mountain, and ultimately another accident and more lives lost, all of a sudden my phone starts blowing up and it all comes back.

We had an amazing climb director on that expedition, his name was Henry Todd. A serac fall created a wind blast that caused an avalanche. I wasn’t hit by snow but nine of our group were. I was trying to find Rémy, I was trying to find Greg, I was trying to find everyone, going through the motions, I was OK. The rescue helicopters arrived, our altitude porters arrived, but Henry – and he’s an old, hard ass, British climber with a tonne of Himalayan experience – insisted that I walked off the mountain; “you need to take care of yourself Glen,” was his explanation and I understood that he was trying to put the grit back into me, to help me come to terms with this thing. As I descended past the wreckage zone I found one of our satellite phones, it had a signal so I used it to call my wife Kimberly. I never call my wife when I’m on an expedition; it takes away from my experience, away from the trip, when I’m trying to explore and check out of the world. So she was surprised to hear from me. “Rémy and Greg are gone,” I told her. “I’m alive and I’m coming home.”

It took me 18 hours to reach base camp. I stayed there for an additional two or three days as I unfortunately had some bad things to do. Dealing with government agencies, going through Rémy and Greg’s tents to organise the things that would go home with us. But it was a fu**ing mess man. I called up Greg’s parents and told them their son had passed away. Two days later the council call them to say they’ve had reports of Greg walking into basecamp too, he’s alive and he’ll call them soon. Glen was alive, but Greg wasn’t. Greg’s father spent five years looking for the remains of his son on Manaslu. Imagine what they’ve been through. But when it was all said and done we left base camp. I left on my own terms. I ran into some of the other victims from the accident a while later and they were still shellshocked; I went to a lot of funerals that year, but I was OK because I’d walked off the mountain.”

In the years that followed, and in memory of Rémy Lêcluse and Greg Costa, Glen established the RG2 Foundation with the objective of training and educating mountain guides in developing countries, giving them ski skills and equipment to advance their work and keep them safe.

What’s happening with the RG2 Foundation right now Glen?

“Rémy was a qualified mountain guide and Greg an experienced ski instructor. The three of us loved travel. From shady neighbourhoods in Kathmandu to visit a hair salon, where Greg had previously left his climbing gear, to crazy restaurants that you’d never usually set foot in unless you were with Rémy, we all travelled well and we enjoyed it. So I thought, maybe because we’re mountain lovers, skiers, climbers, there’s something I can do here in these underdeveloped countries. We always hired local guides, we always went out of our way to include some sort of local knowledge into the puzzle and these guys had never had any formal training. In Peru our guide brought along a pair of World War 2 crampons. What could I do that would represent the three of us? So, in their memory, the RG2 Foundation teaches skiing and other potentially life-saving skills to aspirant mountain guides in developing countries. That’s our definition. I want to teach ski skills – not skiing.

I go there, I spend some days getting acclimatised – we’re usually above 6000m – and I spend a whole day teaching these guides about kit. How it works, how to wear ski touring boots. Of course, they can’t ski so then, after a few days touring up hill, I’ll teach them to snow plough down. My goal is to certify one student with a Level 1 qualification so they can continue to teach others. And we leave them all the kit, plus an extra set so they can ski with their friends. I’m not trying to make them into skiers, but in a rescue situation then these skills could be essential.”

Glen has more stories than I have questions at this point and I truly feel like we could talk on for hours. It’s fascinating to discover that, for all the hell-raising, hair colouring and horsing around, Glen Plake could be skiings finest ever ambassador – he cares deeply for a sport and a lifestyle that we all share.

What’s the best piece of advice anyone has ever given you Glen?

“Smile, tell the truth and have a good time doing it. That’s the easiest thing to do.”

Smile, tell the truth and have a good time doing it – The Glen Plake Interview
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