Mountain Lifer: Chris Winter Knows How To Use His Free Time Wisely

Skier, (not ski bum), biker, philathropist. LEFT: Blake Jorgensen, TOP: Francois Panchard, BOTTOM Courtesy of Chris Winter

words :: Ben Osborne

“I don’t like the term ‘ski bum’ – it implies you are lazy.”

Chris Winter is an under-the-radar Whistler legend. He’s a forward- thinking philanthropist and a race-trained freeskier with almost a decade of magazine and film coverage to his name. But let’s get one thing straight: Chris Winter is not, and never was, a ski bum.

Certainly he has a ski bum-esque origin story. As an Ontario teen, he arrived in Whistler for ski racing summer camp in 1989. By 1992, he was graduated and back in town searching for freedom, big mountains and deep powder. Over the next few years, he skied, filmed with the big movie companies on even bigger mountains, and made the Whistler Blackcomb Freeride Team – but his true accomplishments lie in the annals of mountain bike history. Chris Winter is a mountain bike revolutionary.

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After a bad fall during a sunset ski shoot with Teton Gravity Research, Chris found himself with idle time in Whistler recovering from a torn ACL. In that year off snow, he began thinking about how to share his love of winter with those less fortunate, but as his knee healed, Chris found most of his attention drawn to the fledgling summertime sport of mountain biking. He’d been riding ‘mountain bikes’ since he was a child, and when his parents (Ottawa schoolteachers who started a global cycle-touring company in 1972) came home in the late ’80s with three new bikes from out west called the Rocky Mountain Discovery, a seed was planted.

Seen here ripping the ski hill, Chris starred in the 1999 Whistler ski film Parental Advisory, where he skied in one of the first segments ever filmed in the now infamous Bella Coola zone. Photo: ERIC BERGER

By the summer of 1997, the sport of mountain biking had quickly crept up the Sea to Sky Corridor and collided with the adventurous culture of Whistler. Excited by the speed and stoke of gravity- fuelled descents, Chris found himself thick in the midst of a rapidly growing scene. By the time the Whistler Mountain Bike Park opened in 1999, Chris was riding more than ever before, and that’s when a chance meeting with an old friend named Paddy Kaye changed everything, for all of us.

Their friendship and shared sense of adventure was about to revolutionize trail building and plant the seeds that rocked an entire industry.

“I was chilling on the porch in [Whistler] Creekside and I saw a guy that looked like Chris biking up the road,” Paddy recalls. “I yelled “Wint-OOORRR” – and sure enough it was him.”

Long-time ski buddies from their Ontario racing days (Chris even pushed Paddy to do his first back flip), the two athletes hadn’t seen each other in years. Shortly after reconnecting they moved in together, rode bikes, shed blood, and traded ideas over post-ride beers. Whether they knew it or not, their friendship and shared sense of adventure was about to revolutionize trail building and plant the seeds that rocked an entire industry.

“Those were wild times,” Chris says, “just exploring the valley’s gnarliest trails on hardtails with cantilever V-brakes and 50 millimetres of front suspension – lots of blood was drawn.”

Mountain bikes of the era had a lot of ground to cover before they’d become the trusty steeds of today, and so did the trails. Paddy had flagged the first trail in the Whistler Mountain Bike Park and his aptitude for dirt geometry was becoming better known each year. Chris’s passion for adventure and a family history of cycling fit right in and the two friends formed Joyride Bike Parks with the idea of creating a modern slopestyle mountain bike event.

“We were able to raise money hosting movie premieres for the Kranked movies and a bunch of ski film companies,” Chris says. “We put everything we made into developing the first Joyride event on Whistler Mountain in 2001.”

Video of the event shows many differences from the multimillion- dollar, globally-broadcast huckfest we recognize as Joyride today, but there is a very familiar sense of stoke. The event was a hit and secured them future work. After three more years of putting on events, Paddy shifted Joyride’s focus solely to trail building, while Chris did what he does best, he pushed further, pairing his family experience with cycling and travel with a passion for introducing people to adventure. Chris started Big Mountain Bike Adventures, a global mountain bike touring company that continues to lead the way in mountain bike exploration by bringing clients to exotic locations in the Himalaya, Iceland, Bali, Switzerland and more.

Summer vacation. Growing up, Chris and his family used to bike Europe every summer. Photo: Courtesy of The Winter Family

Chris’s passion for sharing extends far beyond, and before Big Mountain Bike Adventures however. Remember that year off of skiing with the blown knee? Early in the recovery, long before he reconnected with Paddy and biking, Chris spent most of his downtime envisioning a way to share the mountains and make skiing and snowboarding more accessible to people who may not have had the good fortune he’d enjoyed.

“My original plan was to start a day camp for tourist kids and use the infrastructure in shoulder season for disadvantaged youth,” Chris explains. “I quickly realized that people in Vancouver were craving a way to give back.”

Chris started the Zero Ceiling Foundation with the goal of bringing homeless, under-served, and at-risk youth from Vancouver up to Whistler to experience the limitless ethos that characterizes the valley. Over the last two decades, the program has hosted more than 4,000 youth aged 13 to 24 in Whistler on day trips, introducing them to snowboarding, skiing, mountain biking, hiking, whitewater rafting, high ropes courses, and ziplining. From 2000–2008, Zero Ceiling ran a Snowboard Instructor Training Program, providing life skills and employment experience – and a new home in Whistler. Today, Whistler Blackcomb still employs some of these individuals. This program has now been fully transformed into Work 2 Live, which has offered support to more than 65 marginalized youth from the Sea to Sky Corridor and the Metro Vancouver area.

Still living in Whistler with a family of his own, Chris Winter’s imprint on the community and the sport of mountain biking cannot be missed. The man himself however, is harder to track down. Summer or winter, he’s usually out on the trails, or lending a helping hand where it’s needed. Constantly on the move and always pushing boundaries (but still thoughtful enough to stop and chat about anyone’s next adventure), Chris Winter is a true mountain lifer, just don’t call him a ski bum.

African Bike Safari with Big Mountain Bike Adventures. Photo: CHRIS WINTER