Riding High? Skiing, Snowboarding and drugs
By Sam Baldwin
Published December 2006
Whether it's whiskey from a hip flask, smoking green in the gondola, or snorting lines of white powder, snowboarders and skiers have been known to dabble whilst on the slopes. We take a look at the use of booze and recreational drugs in snow sports and question the wisdom of their use.
As I wait in line for the lift, I overhear a young Canadian who can't be more than 13, proudly telling a friend how his elder brother "hot boxed" a gondola. His friend listens in awe, as the kid explains the finer details of the procedure, boasting that he got high as they ascended Whistler mountain.
It's no great secret that skiers and snowboarders sometimes indulge in a little 'wacky backy' on the slopes, and anyone who's ridden in British Columbia, Canada, is likely to have caught a passing whiff of the renowned 'B.C. bud' at some point, drifting on a breeze from the chair lift ahead. However, what's less clear is how many people are riding high on a regular basis, which drugs are being consumed, and in what quantities, as there are currently no statistics available.
The most famous incident involving a snowboarder and cannabis occurred during the 1998 Nagano winter Olympics when 26 year old Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati hit the headlines after testing positive for cannabis. The judges threatened to strip him of his gold medal but eventually reversed their decision after Rebagliati claimed he inhaled the drug passively and argued that cannabis wasn't a performance enhancing drug anyway.
Rebagliati may have got away with it, but is riding under the influence of any type of drug really a good idea, and should we even be allowed to ski or snowboard after drinking alcohol?
For many, a tipple on the piste is a large part of enjoying the sport. A beer over lunch, or a nip of whiskey from a hip flask on the chair ride up is a common and socially acceptable practice. But is it really sensible?
Although not exactly heavy machinery, snowboards or skis can still inflict severe damage on their owners or a third party in the event of an accident after one tipple too many. Society and law rightly frowns upon drink driving, should we frown upon drink riding too?
Of course, there are those who regularly smoke and ride. Mark Jingles* a former snowboard instructor from Whistler claims that cannabis makes him ride better.
"Smoking a bowl [of marijuana] before riding puts me in the zone and I like the sensation of cruising when I'm stoned. I feel more confident, spin smoother and it feels good."
Mark was part of a minority who claimed that cannabis improved their performance, increased their enjoyment and boosted their confidence, which is arguably a good and bad thing. With skiing or snowboarding, especially freestyle, confidence plays an important role. Many tricks are not so much technically difficult, as they are a battle against the mind's natural safety catch which says "if you drop this 40f cliff, you're gonna get hurt".
In such a situation, anything that boosts confidence could help, but only so much. If you cloud your judgement and ignore your natural instincts, you may push yourself further than you are capable, thereby greatly increasing your chances of injury.
There's also the matter of reaction time. It's well documented that cannabis and alcohol slow down the body's reactions, which is not something you want when travelling at high speeds on the slopes, as you risk injury to others as well as yourself.
Smoke and Ride
However, although snowboarding has often been tainted with the stoner label, out of the 50 snowboarders who were contacted for this article, only a handful said they smoked and snowboarded on a regular basis. Many had tried it, but were confident that it made them feel paranoid, lethargic and perform worse overall. The general opinion was that recreational substances were best left for post riding sessions, if at all.
Philip Telford*, another former Whistler seasonaire is not a fan:
"I've tried snowboarding after smoking weed, but I prefer to ride with a clear head. I like to be totally aware of my surroundings and weed makes me feel blinkered. The last time I smoked a joint on a chair lift, I ended up sitting in the snow outside a lodge and falling asleep. I know a few people that like to smoke and ride, but for most of my friends, it's not a regular thing."
Drugs such as cannabis, magic mushrooms, amphetamines and ecstasy are fairly prevalent at most large ski resorts in North America and Europe. After all, a resort is typically a place where lots of people come to party, spend money and have a good time. Add to that the low average age and the ease of availability of drugs, and consumption rates are likely to be higher than average in ski resorts than elsewhere.
Canada's Cannabis Culture
Chad Michaels* (a.k.a. 'The Buddha') worked a season in Whistler and agrees that getting hold of cannabis was certainly never a problem:
"Supplies were very easy to get. There was a lifty who would deliver weed to your door. You just gave him a call and he'd be round your place a few hours later. I remember he had a really bad slam and broke both his legs, but even with his limbs in plaster, he'd still deliver, crutches and all - you can't beat North America for service".
Indeed, it would seem that cannabis is the drug of choice for many of the younger inhabitants of Whistler. With alcohol so strictly controlled to under 19s, but with relatively relaxed laws on cannabis, minors find that it's easier to get hold of a joint than get a beer in a bar guarded by ID checking doormen.
Cannabis, Cocaine and Alcohol
David Jones*, a snowboard instructor who has taught in both hemispheres, has experimented with a number of illicit substances whist on the slopes. He agrees that drugs plus snowboarding is not the greatest combination.
"I have ridden on weed, cocaine and alcohol - not at the same time though! In my first season when I was 19, I got really drunk on Australia Day at Heavenly (USA) and almost got into a fight on the hill before riding down somehow. It sucked! It was so hard to ride I vowed never to do it again...and I didn't.
I snowboarded under the influence of cocaine a couple of times, but I didn't like riding the park when my brain was fried, so I didn't do it many times and would never do it again.
With regards to smoking weed and riding, in my first few seasons this was way too common. I used to enjoy having a smoke and then donning my headphones and cruising the hill in my own little world.
It wasn't the safest option because I tuned out to almost everything unless it was in front of me, but I enjoyed riding like that because you could just ride however you wanted without caring.
However, as I got older, my riding style changed and I got more focused on freestyle. I stopped smoking cannabis while snowboarding because it was limiting my confidence and I'd ride around park features, instead of over them, because I was scared.
Now I never smoke weed while I ride because I'm a park-rat and you need your wits about you. You have to be switched on 100% when hitting features that could end your season in a split-second (which happened to me this year - doh!).
In my numerous seasons in the States, Australia and Canada, I've found smoking cannabis and riding is a fairly common thing. I don't think it's good or bad - it just depends on the person and as long as they don't affect others I think it's OK. The thing I do hate though is when they throw their joint butts into the snow - that really pisses me off."
Riding High: Old News
But it seems that riding high is nothing new. As I walk a flat cat track section after riding the new inbounds "backcountry experience" in Whistler, a forty something local skier and I get chatting. He tells me of the days when he used to hike the area, sit at the top and hit a bowl of BC's finest, before the ripping the powder to shreds.
So if you like to indulge in a little nip of Jack Daniels or a toot of Mary Jane whilst you're out and about in snow country, just make sure you don't over do it and end up putting an early end to your, or someone else's season from one too many.
And put those joint butts in the bin!
*All names have been changed to protect the tokers
Sam Baldwin is the founder and editor of SnowSphere.com and a columnist for Snowboard UK Magazine. He has also written for numerous other publications including The Snowboard Journal, White Lines, Future Snowboarding, The World Snowboard Guide, Cross Country Skier, Adventure Journey, Tribe and Snow Japan. View Sam Baldwin's port folio.
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