words :: Feet Banks
On Brett Tippie’s kitchen table there’s an article clipped from the Kamloops Daily News with a headline that sums it up perfectly: “Age no obstacle for Tippie.”
The story explains that despite being the oldest competitor at the Oronge Cup Continental Open snowboard event, Tippie won the second run in GS and took sixth overall. He also placed 25th in boarder cross due to a “wipe out.”
“Grey hairs seem far less scary than some of the stunts Tippie still attempts on snowboards and mountain bikes,” writes staff reporter Chad Douglas.
The article is from 1999.
The Kamloops Daily News has long since shut its doors and snowboard racing is more niche than ever, but Brett Tippie is still a sponsored snowboarder, mountain biker and one of the most in-demand media personalities in extreme sports. Today, he’s planning his 50th birthday party.
“I don’t want to age gracefully,” Tippie says. “I want to rage gracefully. I’m not 50 years old. I am level 50, and I’m proud—I made it. I’ve gone all in representing my country. I’ve been avalanched and walked nine hours with one arm and one leg. I’ve been addicted to drugs and fallen off cliffs. I’ve broken snowboards I built myself and destroyed too many bikes to count. And I am still here. If there is a nuclear holocaust tomorrow, all that’s gonna be left is the Rolling Stones, Cher, Sam Hill’s eyebrows, Richie Schley’s hair products and my mouth, still kicking.”
• • •
That mouth is notable as the exit point for Tippie’s jokes and his signature laugh—a raspy, staccato that explodes from his face like a flock of spooked birds. When he’s on (and he’s almost always on), Tippie laughs with his entire body—his shoulders pull up as if the outpouring of joy were a physical force erupting from the very essence of his guts.
“I’m having stomach issues,” Tippie says as he greets me at his home in Deep Cove on a rainy January afternoon. Did you know that diarrhea is hereditary?”
I did not.
“Ya, it runs in your jeans,” he says. And then that laugh—infectious, consuming, and impossible to forget.
“Watch out for my vibrator,” Tippie warns, gesturing to a pile of luggage and gear stacked at the door in preparation for a family ski trip.
The orange, multipronged device is actually a high-powered electric muscle massager from Europe, an understandable appliance for someone who still boards or bikes over 300 days a
year. Tippie waves it around, drops a couple more one-liners, and ushers me into his living room. Brett Tippie is a man built to perform.
“I moved around a lot as a young kid,” he explains, taking a seat on a large couch, while wrangling his two young daughters. Tippie’s wife, Sarah, is out running last-minute errands for their trip.
“I was in a new town every school year until grade four,” he says. “I was always the new kid, so I made friends by finding the local crazy guy and doing something crazier. If that guy jumped three garbage pails on his bike I’d jump four, then I was in.”
At age nine, Tippie and his parents put down roots in Kamloops BC, a blue-collar city of about 100,000 built into the banks of a dry, desert-like valley where two rivers converge into a lake with a paper
mill on one shore and an abandoned tuberculosis sanatorium on the other. Famed poet Robert Service once described the area as “weirdly desolate and aridly morose.” Kamloops is a tough town—parents are tough on their kids and kids are tough on each other, and perhaps because of that the city is known for producing top-level athletes.
“I saw this huge cranium coming over,” Sarah recalls. “It blocked out the light, like an eclipse. He asked, ‘And who’s this?’ and I said ‘Who are you?’”
Built thick, sturdy and fearless, Tippie fit right in. He was a high school football star, known for his ferocious tackling skills. “Tippie is made of stone,” says Stu MacKay-Smith, a friend since the fourth grade (Stu also created the cover of this issue). “Kids used to call him ‘Indian Muscles’ [Tippie is of First Nations heritage] because he was so strong. Or ‘Headbutt’ because he would head butt people in football and knock them unconscious. He’s impenetrable.”
That genetic sturdiness would later serve Tippie well as one of the founding fathers of freeride mountain biking, but in the early 1980s Tippie was drawn to a different gravity fueled sport—his first passion was snowboarding.
“I started in 1983,” he recalls, “on a board I hand-built out of plywood with layered steps on the nose that I sanded out into a curve. I used strips of BMX tires for bindings with pieces of inner tubes wrapped around my heels to hold me in.”
At the time, almost every ski hill in North America (including Whistler Blackcomb) considered snowboarding a punk fad for degenerate kids. But Harper Mountain, Kamloops’ tiny, family-owned ski hill, held no such prejudices.
“They said if you buy a lift ticket you can run whatever you want. You can slide down in moon boots if you like,” Tippie remembers. “There were no snowboard magazines or movies back then. Except for my one buddy, Craig Olsson, I never met another snowboarder for years, until I started converting people. That’s the story of my life: converting people to a new sport so I’d have someone to ride with.”
In February 1988, Tippie turned 19 years old and was rocking a real, store-bought Burton Backhill 145 Woody snowboard. Itching to shred, he migrated to Sunshine Village, Alberta, the first ‘big’ Canadian hill to allow snowboarding, and fell in with a like-minded tribe of shredders from across the country.
“I worked as a lifty,” he says witha sigh. “Watching people shred and saying, ‘Have a nice run!’ with a big jeaolous smile. I swore I would never work in the winter again.”
Instead, Tippie spent the next summer back in Kamloops putting up fences around swimming pools and along the new Coquihalla highway. “Then I started tree planting in the summer and riding all winter. It was physical, and I did that for nine years. I had muscles in places most people don’t even have places.”
That mass—Tippie stands six feet tall and weighs between 210-220 pounds—and his drive to excel made him fast on a snowboard. Really fast. After a chance meeting with shred legend Craig Kelly at Red Mountain, he began racing professionally in 1991. “Craig told me I should race and sold me the speed suit he won the US open with for 150 bucks. But he didn’t have it on him so he told me meet him at the next race.”
The next race was in Breckenridge, Colorado. It was a big event with a cash purse and all the top dogs of the day competing. Tippie hobo’ed (see sidebar) his way down, met Craig, got the suit, and finished 11th.
“I always seemed to get 11th,” Tippie says of his race career. “I have more 11ths than any other result on the World Cup. It isn’t bad—11th in the world—but the top ten get in the magazines. That was my first pro competition and I beat Craig on the first run; the best snowboarder ever and one of my heroes. I got a few top tens on the pro tour and then in 1994 I got a Burton sponsorship, they were THE team to ride for.”
“You must have got all the ladies,” Sarah Tippie, now home, chimes in with a smirk.
“I did,” Tippie laughs. “I was killing it. I was going back and forth between Whistler and Kamloops, I had a 4×4 truck and I was cracking the top ten against the best guys in the world.”
Even with a sponsor, most of Tippie’s competitive snowboard career was self-funded. He planted trees all summer while rival snowboarders chased winter down to South America or New Zealand to train on snow. Tippie was forced to make do with what he had: a gravel pit in Barnhartvale, just outside of Kamloops.
“I couldn’t afford to travel so I would go to these gravel pits and rip my board down them all summer,” Tippie explains. “I would get girls to drive me up and down. I called them the Vertical Kittens, Vert-Kits.”
It wouldn’t be long before those Kamloops gravel pits would prove instrumental in launching the next phase of Tippie’s life: freeride mountain biking.
“Kamloops is built into a hill,” he says. “It’s all different elevations and crazy clay formations—ribs and spires and ridges. Since we were kids we’d take shortcuts around town, freeriding down chutes and off drops, through the trees. It was how we got around. We called it ‘riding steeps’ and that’s what kick started my mountain biking career.”
The story behind the birth of freeride mountain biking is well-documented (watch Darcy Turenne Hennesey’s film The Moment if you’re not up to speed), but the short version is that filmmakers Christian Begin and Bjorn Enga arrived in Kamloops in 1995 on Tippie’s recommendation to film his buddy (and ex-Canadian BMX champ) Richie Schley doing a 360 on a mountain bike for Pulp Traction, a Greg Stump mountain bike film, Tippie had rushed home from tree planting (leaving two girls in his tent that had been hoping for some romance, so the story goes) and poached the shoot, ushering the crew out to his gravel pits where he proceeded to shred, drop and rip everything in sight. By the time Begin and Enga’s Kranked film was released (2008), Tippie, Schley and another Kamloops shredder named Wade Simmons had become the first professional freeride mountain biking team as the sport exploded around the world. The Kamloops riders were called ‘Schley the Professional’, ‘Wade the Natural’ and ‘Tippie the Rock Star.’
“Being a rock star was awesome,” Tippie says. “We had a bunch of sponsors giving us money and plane tickets and everywhere we went people wanted to take us to their gnarliest trails to see if we could ride them. Which was exactly what we wanted to do.”
The pressure of the spotlight fuelled Tippie’s drive to push his riding to new levels. Ten-foot cliffs became 18-footers, then 25. After years of doing crazy stunts for attention, acceptance, and the sheer fun of it all, Tippie was suddenly being paid to do it with awesome people in places he’d never dreamed of visiting. And while Tippie’s thick strength and durability prevented him from sustaining any serious injuries (even while rag-dolling at 80 km per hour or tumbling off cliffs) that Kamloops toughness also proved highly efficient for the other side of being an action sports hero—the party.
Action, or ‘extreme’, sports have never been known for cultivating job security or career-exit strategies. The very essence of them lies in finding and appreciating the moment—that ‘life is short, ride hard’ mentality. And freeride, at the time, was so new there were no mentors, no veterans, and no one holding anyone accountable. For a smalltown kid in his late 20s used to tree planting for 15 cents a plug or pounding fence posts for 12 bucks an hour—suddenly riding a six-figure salary with fans in every part of the world proved a challenge.
“They say you should never meet your heroes, but I wanted to be the guy my fans were stoked to meet. Fresh people in every town—I could party for a week and no one would notice. I didn’t have anyone telling me to go to work in the morning. Now with social media, you have to put work in every day, but back then it was just bag some shots and footage once in a while and you were good.”
Except then suddenly you weren’t. Freeride mountain biking was evolving faster than ever. Big airs and big tricks began replacing steeps and lines. Darren Berrecloth was going huge and doing BMX tricks on a mountain bike, while Matt Hunter was gapping huge ravines. Tippie’s clean descents and 20-foot cliff drops with straight airs began to look like yesterday’s news.
“People were adding freestyle tricks to big lines and I didn’t have that skillset. I was still pushing myself, but the sport was progressing very quickly and I wasn’t the man anymore. Plus, I was 30 and that is old to a marketing guy. And then one day I wasn’t even pushing myself because I was getting wasted all the time. I turned into a competitive partier. It got dark.”
By 2004, before anyone could even say, “What ever happened to that guy?” Tippie was gone. With no sponsors (biking or snowboarding), a failed relationship, and all his money partied away, Tippie slunk back to Kamloops and fell into a mix of boredom, despair, and hard drugs.
Brett Tippie’s default setting comes across as just a few notches below ‘Speed Freak.’ So to picture him in a hard drug scenario is frightening, but also potentially hilarious.
“If they weren’t too messed up I’d have people gasping for air and crying from laughter,” Tippie recalls. “I’d get free drugs because I was the entertainment, same as how I used to have a promo tab at the bar, just way more ghetto. Parties became more and more nasty, and with a rougher crowd. One time a guy hit me in the back of the head with a baseball bat so I turned around and beat the shit out of him. I’d get messed up and walk on the hand railing of a 20th floor balcony just for thrills, then take my truck and do doughnuts in the police station parking lot and speed away.”
In 2006, I got my truck impounded and was basically a street person for almost a year—homeless in Kamloops, walking around like a zombie, and staying up for a week at a time. It was four tough years that I’m not proud of…very dark.”
In 2007 Tippie’s grandmother passed away. His father came and pulled him out of “a gnarly drug house” to come home and grieve with the family. “I went back and did three months sober,” Tippie says. “Then sent myself to rehab. But first I called up an old sponsor and asked for some clothes. I had nothing.”
That call connected him with Julian Coffey. “We hit it off,” Tippie recalls. “Julian was the new marketing guy and really took care of me. I was hoping for a couple hoodies and he unloaded the warehouse on me. I was the best dressed guy at rehab.”
The road to recovery was rockier and bumpier than any single track he’d ever bombed down, but Tippie had a lot of people in his corner. In the summer of 2007, Derek Westerlund—an old Kamloops friend and founder of Freeride Entertainment—offered to chaperone a trip to Whistler for Crankworx. Tippie, months clean and regaining some of his lost weight and spirit, jumped at the opportunity, not knowing just how drastically it would change his life.
“Derek and I walked onto the Longhorn patio and I saw the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen in my life. I thought, she must be lost—that girl is hanging out with mountain bikers? But then the crowd parted and I saw she had cycling legs. I was floored. I had to meet her.”
The way Tippie tells it, at that exact moment a couple asked him for an autograph—fans still remembered the Kranked star even if the industry had passed him over. “I was confused but they were stoked,” he says. “I told them, ‘I have to meet that girl. I don’t know how but I have to.’ And they said, ‘Go do it! you’re Brett Tippie, you’re not scared of anything.’ And then she was talking to Wade Simmons so it was perfect. I walked over and said, ‘Hey Wade, how’s it going? And who’s this?’”
Of course, Sarah Fenton had no idea who Tippie was. A Deep Cove local and mountain biker since the 80s, she’d been working in the film industry in Europe for a decade and totally missed the freeride revolution.
“I saw this huge cranium coming over,” Sarah recalls. “It blocked out the light, like an eclipse. He asked, ‘And who’s this?’ and I said ‘Who are you?’”
The fuse was lit. The two spent the next few hours joking and flirting. “I was amazed,” Tippie says. “She was whip smart. It was like a tennis game of wordplay, back and forth. We hit it off, there were sparks.”
Then Tippie went back to Kamloops and relapsed for three weeks, until his parents and brother Jake eventually found him. He sobered up and relocated to Squamish to work and live with Greg Salmon, a former teammate from the Canadian National Team who wanted to help his old friend. Another friend, Peter Creighton, hooked Tippie up with a bike from the Sun Peaks rental fleet—a real, contemporary mountain bike.
“That bike saved your life,” Sarah says.
Tippie nods, “And I had something to ride for our first date.”
That first date was a rip through the Whistler Mountain Bike Park. Tippie’s years off had taken a toll. He fell on the first feature, a sort-of-a-tiny-bit-wet wall ride. “I slid out,” Tippie laughs. “And hit the ground and scratched the shit out of my knee. She hit the wall, aired off the end, then hit the next one and was gone. I greased off the next feature and nutted myself. I finally caught up to her at the rest stop, sweating and bloody. She looked at me and said, ‘I thought you said you were a biker.’ I said, ‘I used to be Brett Tippie!’”
“People thought he was a flight risk and a liability. One sponsor even told us he’d be doing a disservice sponsoring us because it would prolong him getting a ‘real’ job. But what no one realized is that Brett is made for the internet and online media.”
“We fell in love,” Sarah says. “Right away. I was warned not to go there. Friends told me he was messed up, but he seemed fine to me. I only saw him once in a while and I’d just come back from a decade in England, where life was debaucherous. I didn’t fully understand the depths of his addiction until he borrowed my car to go a wedding in Kamloops and never came back.”
When she finally got a bus to Kamloops to find him, Tippie showed so much remorse that Sarah gave him another chance. Three months later she was pregnant.
“I told him, ‘This is your last stop. You are not gonna do better than this and I am not having it around our kid so get your shit together,’” Sarah says. “I understood addiction is a disease but when you become a mother, that is the priority.”
Tippie stayed sober for three months, then five, then seven. Sarah would drop him off and pick him up from his construction jobsite, knowing that having his own vehicle would be one more temptation to score. Once the baby was born, a girl, Tippie would carry her picture with him and look at it whenever times got tough. He’s now been sober for just over 10 years.
“My father passed away before our first daughter was born, and that was hard as we were very close,” Tippie says. “It was like one terrible thing and one beautiful thing, but it made me realize I came from a great family and I want to look after my kids. If I have to scrub toilets I will do it, whatever it takes to be a stand-up dad.”
Sarah continued to bike the North Shore and dragged Tippie along. His riding came back and he began shooting again, nabbing the contents page of an Australian bike mag with up-and-coming photographer Margus Riga. With some faith and help from Julian Coffey, the rehab clothing hook-up, Tippie began to claw his way back into the freeride scene.
“He was battling prejudice in the industry that he was washed up,” Sarah recalls. “People thought he was a flight risk and a liability. One sponsor even told us he’d be doing a disservice sponsoring us because it would prolong him getting a ‘real’ job. But what no one realized is that Brett is made for the internet and online media.”
They learned pretty quickly. In 2009 friends at Whistler Creek Productions hired Tippie to host a series of Crankworx daily highlight videos. With his rider familiarity, a camera and narrative sense honed from his days of hosting snowboard world cup shows for CTV Sportsnet—and that inimitable laugh, Tippie blew everyone’s mind. When Julian Coffey took a job at Pinkbike.com, the BBC, TMZ and Bible of mountain biking, Tippie hit critical mass.
“Suddenly I was the official host and online presence of Crankworx and also getting 50 pages of magazine coverage every year,” Tippie says. “It’s like in the NHL, there are only a certain number of guys who can get 50 goals a year. I am one of those guys. And I was doing it again.”
With the birth of their second daughter, Tippie doubled down on his efforts, saying yes to everything that came his way—paid or not. And having a wife with solid business acumen hasn’t hurt (Sarah formerly handled $30 million film deals in Europe for clients like Universal Pictures and PolyGram Films).
“We collaborate on everything,” she says, “but his drive and genuine love of the sport is the secret to his success. He is a kid who made his dream come true, how could I ever let him give that up?”
“The secret to life is living,” Tippie says. “All I want to do is take care of my family and be in the mountains riding singletrack and powder. When I was young I did a lot of crazy shit to meet hot chicks and get high fives from the badass dudes. I didn’t want to be average, I wanted to be badass too, I wanted to show my parents I could be something. And now I have all that and I just want to do as much as I can before I get old. Wasn’t it Shakespeare who said, ‘Youth is wasted on the young?’”
“No,” Sarah interjects. “It was Oscar Wilde.”
Tippie’s only response is to laugh that laugh—the one that no magazine can capture. Even internet videos don’t do it justice, not compared to real life. As he shows me to the door, Tippie notices my waterproof shoes and dives into the closet.
“Hey check these out, I got these shoes from a drug dealer…”
The shoes look brand new, but before the flash of concern can even register on my face he continues, “I don’t know what he laced them with, but I’ve been tripping all day.”
Time is chasing all of us but Brett Tippie seems to have found a loophole. He’s spent 50 years perfecting a quiver of time machines and showing us—his friends, his fans, the world—how to use them. Get a snowboard, get a bike, go as hard as you can, and laugh the whole way down.
Sarah Fenton Tippie —The Time Traveller’s Wife
What is it like to be married to the living embodiment of mountain bike stoke?
“When I tell people my husband is a pro athlete I get a lot of funny looks,” Sarah says. “And I miss a lot of school barbecues because he is away and it’s tough to get out with two kids. But I have an independent life and it works out better for the relationship—if he was around all the time it would drive me crazy. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and the house grow cleaner. When he comes home it is exploding suitcases.”
Sarah says the secret to Tippie’s success is his passion, but it’s impossible to deny the role she plays in keeping the business of Brett Tippie in line. “The riding is the fun part of his job,” she says. “The rest is hard work. It’s boring, and so many athletes can’t do it.”
From video concepts to paying the phone bills to scheduling flights and arranging childcare, Sarah is the muscle and the brains behind the scenes. “I keep my brain in the business and we create this future together. When he’s home he is very sentimental and reflective, we have a lot of fun. I have to work for someone so I’m happy to work for the person I love and stay home with our girls. We share a common vision for how we want to raise our family. The good outweighs the bad—there is very little bad, and I still get to ride my bike all the time.” –ML