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Photographer: Mike Helfrich

How Whistler’s natural inclination for spectacle and celebration built a legend

Let’s face it, this place is known for producing some of snow sport’s flashiest events and the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games pretty much sealed the deal. But while Whistler has a reputation for celebrating on a grand scale, it has also managed to keep a tight hold on its event roots with a little local circus sideshow that has lit up Whistler Village every Sunday night since 1998. Enter Whistler Blackcomb’s famous Fire and Ice show.

Mauro Nunez, one of the original skiers and current manager of the show, remembers the now spectacular event as being a modest affair. “At the time, there was a ‘welcome night’ [for resort guests] in one of the conference centres” recalls Nunez. “Jason Roe [Fire and Ice founder] decided it was better to be welcomed out in the snowy village of Whistler, instead of the stuffy inside of a building, so he grabbed some of the better skiers in ski school, they built a really bad jump and it all started from there.”

In its infancy, the show featured a small handful of skiers and riders leaping through flaming hoops while fire spinners worked the top of the jump. Sound scary? It was, recalls Nunez:

It was a sketchy jump. There were literally no lights but we had road flares on the landing. I think there was even a fashion show happening at the bottom of the landing. It was hilarious.

- Mauro Nunez

Over the years, Nunez and other passionate locals refined the show and future star skiers like Mark Abma, David Crichton, Chris Turpin, Rex Thomas and Frank Raymond would get their start on the Fire and Ice jumps. “As freestyle skiing progressed so did the show,” says Nunez. “By 2003, we were allowed to do flips, so guys started spinning and flipping more every week.” And the rootsy show began to take root. As the seasons added up, so did the calibre of riders, and even the calibre of the fire. “In the beginning it was just cotton batting soaked in kerosene. When the kerosene burnt out, the show ended,” laughs Nunez.

Flips and spins are a now common occurance at the Fire & Ice shows.

Photo: Tourism Whistler / Steve Rogers.

While the tricks and the show continue to get better, the highlight of Fire and Ice’s 15-year career has to be the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games. For 14 days straight in February, 2010, a robust version of the show titled the Fire and Ice Remix entertained tens of thousands of people from around the world every night. Instead of one crew of eight jumpers, the show featured four groups cycling constantly while a world-class roster of DJs kept the musical fuel lit. The entire spectacle fired up a spirit in photographer Mike Helfrich that prompted this photo and a lifelong memory. “It was like a dream come true for me, literally,” says Helfrich, “It was exactly as I had imagined the Olympics would be like in Whistler, full of welcoming energy and people celebrating the good life.”

And while the Olympics may have got its hands on Fire and Ice temporarily, these days, every Sunday evening, the little-home-town-event-that-could still rounds up Whistler Blackcomb’s hottest up-and-coming Snow School pros and puts them on display. “Today there are a lot of backflips, cork 7s, rodeos…even 900s are a staple,” says Nunez. “In 2011, David Crichton even did a 1080.” The firespinners have cooler costumes, the 12-foot flaming hoops are gas-fed and secured firmly, the 15-metre jump is carefully designed, but just like in every other season, the skiers and riders head out to go bigger and better than their predecessors to help welcome Whistler’s guests to their town.

Olympics Fire And Ice Remix With High Five

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Mike Helfrich grew up shooting photographs of his friends skateboarding. Once introduced to snowboarding at the age of 16, Helfrich took advantage of his dual citizenship and started frequently heading north in search of winter. His search ended in Whistler, which he has called home for the past four years. His work has been featured in Snowboard Canada, SBC Skier, and Color Magazine. He recently participated in the Deep Winter Photo Challenge and won Best in Show Image honours. Visit Mike Helfrich's site.

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