Risky Business, Rewarding LifeBy
By Bacchus, Lee
His face is angular, with crevices cutting vertical paths toward a precipitous, stubble-encrusted chin. Peter Chrzanowski bears the weathered visage of a man who has lived on the edge - and occasionally over it. If anyone registering in one of his week-long "Extreme Film and Expedition" courses scheduled between February and May in Whistler and Golden questions his qualifications in the art of risky business, they should first consider this excerpt from Chrzanowski's "resume": In 1978, at age 20, he skied down Huascaran, Peru's highest peak with Jean Marc Boivin, Patrick Vallecant and Dominick Andre - a trio of French "ski mountaineers" credited by many for founding the "extreme ski" movement, and by extension, the whole extreme sport phenomenon. It also earned him his nickname, Peter Peru. The next year, Chrzanowski fell while attempting to ski Ranrapallca, another lofty Peruvian peak. "I had only made four turns and I lost it," recalls Chrzanowski. "I cartwheeled for 2000 feet, losing my boots in the process and I ended up barefoot in a crevasse." Initially unconcscious, Chrzanowski was found two hours later by his partner, Americo Tordoya, who helped him down to their base camp. Tordoya, a renowned Peruvian mountaineer who would die in an avalanche in 1983, spent the next three days hiking out and retrieving a rescue team. "I didn't have any major injuries," Chrzanowski says. "I can't believe it now. But I did develop really bad frostbite on my feet, though, and I spent three weeks in hospital in Lima. But I kept my toes. That was another miracle." In 1983 he made front-page headlines after he was the first to ski solo down from the summit of the loftiest point in the Rockies - the 4,000-metre high Mt. Robson. In 1999 he broke both ankles in a paragliding accident in Pemberton. A charter member of a posse of Whistler dudes and dudettes who pioneered the backcountry ski hippie lifestyle in the mid-70s, Chrzanowski has, as he terms it, "put on a lot of mileage" over the course of his 45 years. And if there's anyone to address the unnerving trend in "extreme video" and its sometimes lethal consequences - a young B.C. filmmaker was killed by an avalanche in Rossland while shooting a video earlier this month - it is this soft-spoken and single adrenaline seeker. "I've been lucky," he says of his own addiction for risk. "I lived through all dumb mistakes." Chrzanowski calls the new phenomenon of capturing extreme stunts on video "Kodak courage," a false sense of security instilled by the lure of fame and the misleading "realism" in Hollywood special-effects laden action/adventure movies, TV series like Maximum Exposure and Real TV, as well as such gonzo documentaries as The Jackass Movie. Last August, a 23-year-old man in Squamish died after attempting to drive his snowmobile through a ball of flaming gasoline. That stunt was videotaped, as was the bungled bungee jump from the Lions Gate Bridge, in which the jumper suffered minor injuries last October trying to land on the deck of a passing cruise ship. "Have you seen XXX [the recent action thrill ride with Vin Diesel]?" queries Chrzanowski. "You've got the hero on a snowboard outrunning an avalanche. Avalanches travel at 150 miles per hour! Everybody has a digital camera and a computer these days and you're going to have kids die out there. It's one of the reasons I'm doing this school. Safety is a big part of the course ". Chrzanowski was born in Poland but grew up in New Brunswick, the only child of university professors. He says his love of adventure and outdoors began at 14, when his parents took a sabbatical, bought a Volkswagen camper and travelled with him overland from Fredericton to Tierra Del Fuego at the tip of South American and back. But he admits his inclination toward the rewards of risk began even earlier. "I was always climbing really high trees and scaring my parents," he says. When he returned from his year-long trek to South America, where he climbed volcanoes and learned Spanish, Chrzanowski says he something within him had changed. "I couldn't relate to my friends anymore," he says. "Everyone just wanted to drink beer and look at girls. I wanted to do that, too, but I also wanted more." He learned to ski and later became a member of the New Brunswick ski team and subsequently competed on the World Cup freestyle circuit and indulged briefly the burgeoning sport of speedskiing, in which competitors virtually freefall down near-vertical slopes. Eventually, Chrzanowski's love of the backcountry drew him to Whistler and to the laid-back thinking, high-risk taking clutch of ski bums like the late Whistler freeski legend Trevor Petersen and Ptor Spricenieks) who lived the "work the least, ski the most" ethic and comprised the antithesis of the inside-the-ropes Gore-Tex martini set that eventually determined the fate of Whistler/Blackcomb as an Aspen north. When knee surgery sidelined him in the late '70s, Chrzanowski returned to school, enrolling in a filmmaking workshop at Simon Fraser University. While most of the communications students were fashioning conceptual Warhol-inspired art films, Chrzanowski and a few friends "threw our student loans in a pot" and produced a film about "the search for the ultimate ski run." That entailed a six-week road trip to Mexico, where Chrzanowski et al would make the first descent down the 6000-metre Popocatepeti volcano. That student film, titled The Search for the Ultimate Run, and shot on Super 8, was later aired on The Discovery Channel. Chrzanowski has since produced 14 adventure films that cover the extreme margins of skiing, and mountaineering, as well as some basic instructional videos on telemarking and snowboarding. Currently, he's working on a documentary on Golden's bumpy transformation from a resource town to ski resort. Chrzanowski says raising money for his films is never easy and is largely a labor of love. "This is why I'm 45 years old and don't have a family," he says. "My films are my babies." Chrzanowski's workshop covers the filmmaking gambit from storylines to post-production. And you can be sure his week of classes (which costs between $2150 and $2600 and whose curriculum can be perused on Chrzanowski's website - www.explorex.net) will not be a ho-hum affair. Chrzanowski definitely does not fit the George Bernard Shaw maxim of "he who can does; he who can't teaches." "I've known Peter since I was eight," says John Hayto, a friend and distant relation. "How would I describe him? Well, I've never seen a guy get so excited about life and the things he's involved in. He's the most charged person I know. His love for his work, his films and his skiing just boils over in conversation." Hayto, a family man and sales manager with a B.C. telecommunications company, says he often turns to Chrzanowski for a vicarious boost. "I plug in to him as much as I can," Hayto says. "A lot of us have families and full-time jobs. But there's this other part of us that yearns for adventure. Peter is living that adventure." Our conversation has circled back to the theme of "risk." Chrzanowski says he always has been fascinated by the topic and once considered writing a book about famous risk-takers in both business and recreation. He has no idea whether his own thirst for risk is a "nature or nurture thing" but he has some theories. "Perhaps it has something to do with me being an only child," he says. "You know, the isolated and alienating child seeking attention and all that. But there are so many variables." Chrzanowski says the current media obsession with risk-taking may be compensation for an overly safety conscious society. "We have to be the most over-insured country in the world," says Chrzanowski, who points out the large numbers of people who die in auto accidents as compared with those in heli-skiing incidents. "What I'm saying and what I'll be teaching in my school is take the risk but make it a calculated risk," he says.With an edge firmly planted in middle age, you might expect Chrzanowski to have mellowed. Not at all. He says there will be more mountains to climb and to ski down. A ski mountaineering expedition to the Orizaba volcano in Mexico is planned for next Christmas, as well as climbing trips to Afghanistan and Iran. As Chrzanowski says, "Why not dream high?"