Glen Plake: The biggest moments in my life so far

Fall-Line’s 25th anniversary would never be complete without some words from Glen Plake, godfather of radical freeskiing. Here the man with the mohawk talks to Abigail Butcher about the ten most pivotal moments in his life so far, from bagging his first pair of free skis to when The Blizzard of Aahhh’s made it big

My first pair of free skis, 1984

In fact I got two pairs, Yamaha SLXs in 198cm and 204cm. I was this young 15-year-old kid who had won most of the regional mogul competitions in the Lake Tahoe area, and walking around a local ski show trying to blag skis. A guy called Peter Ryan asked me if I’d like to try his skis the following weekend at a demo day at Boreal Mountain Resort. I showed up, helped him set up and when he started explaining the skis to a bunch of people he asked if they knew who I was. Of course they didn’t. He said: “Glen is the best mogul skier in our region, and he’s skiing on these skis – here Glen why don’t you go ski with these people?”

Yes, even Glen Plake was once young and innocent

So I spent the day skiing with groups and at the end Peter said: “Why don’t you take those two pairs and in two weeks we’ll do this again, in Mount Rose?” The relationship with Yamaha only lasted a year, but that relationship I began with Peter laid out the framework of everything my career became and is to this day; I learnt my work ethic, how to work with sponsors and the consumer.

Turned down the US Ski Team, 1986

I’d qualified for the moguls team, but they didn’t like me and I didn’t like them – they made everyone like this weird Ken doll, looking and skiing the same, and I didn’t like that. So I made the decision that I would do something else with my skiing. Though I wasn’t sure what and had no plan.

Glen rocking a helmet-cam prototype during the filming of Blizzard

How did I end up in Chamonix shooting The Blizzard of Aahhh’s with Greg Stump? I had skied for Greg in my first ski film Maltese Flamingo, released in ‘86 (Greg and I were buddies through mogul skiing), and had skied for an earlier segment of Blizzard of Aahhh’s at Snowbird and Squaw Valley, after which photographer Bruce Benedict asked me if I had a passport. I didn’t, so drove all night to LA to get one. A week later I was called to come over to Cham to ski for the film.

Stayed in Chamonix after the filming of The Blizzard of Aahhh’s, 1987

At the end of what was supposed to be a three-week trip I said I wasn’t going back home. I couldn’t believe where I was and realised there was a world ahead of me that I needed to be part of, physically and emotionally. I was just a young, dumb mogul skier from California living day to day, and it made no sense to go back to the US. I’d sold my car to get to the airport and had no house. There was another reason too. The day I left the US I was due in court on drugs charges (sales and possession, transportation, the list went on) and was looking at about a six-year prison term. I had no way of justifying why I should have any leniency. I wasn’t going to see daylight for a long time and I didn’t want to face the music.

Glen, far right, after a long day of filming Blizzard in Chamonix

The others (there were eight of us) had responsibilities in the States but I was like “no, I’m out of there”. So I just stayed in Chamonix, skied, spent time on the glaciers, worked odd jobs. Meanwhile, the The Blizzard of Aahhh’s, unbeknown to me, had become quite popular, and everyone was asking where I was…

The Blizzard of Aahhh’s made it big, 1989

A year and a half after the film came out, Greg Stump called to say The Blizzard of Aahhh’s was taking off and they’d had requests for me to do some TV appearances. “When are you coming back?” he asked. I said I wasn’t. “Exactly how much trouble are you in?”. I didn’t know, other than ‘a substantial amount’. But I knew if I was represented properly things might be OK. Besides, I had to face the music at some point. Arrangements were made for a legal representative and next thing I knew I was on a plane to New York, passing through Immigration Control without being arrested and appearing on The Today Show.

Glen and his Blizzard co-stars in Chamonix

The next day I flew to Las Vegas for the US national ski show. I was 21, on the national stage and the film was getting a great reception – but I wasn’t a US Ski Team member and contrary to what the US Ski Association wanted, I was the talk of the town. The things I wanted subconsciously when I decided not to be part of the team were coming to fruition – to be a sponsored skier with an incredibly unorthodox background. And with that came the sponsors.

As for the drug charges, I was in and out of court for a year and a half, ended up on a nine-year probation period, served about six months in jail and did about 1,000 hours of community service. It had been a bad night, but the court gave me a chance and I took it.

I got married, 1991

Kimberly and I came up with the idea that we would go skiing on our honeymoon. I’d been getting all this fan mail and wanted to thank people for their support. I took the winter off and for 68 days my wife and I travelled in a motorhome to 50 different ski areas in 33 states, covering over 13,000 miles. We showed up without any announcement (we didn’t want any favouritism) and just skied.

Glen and Kimberly get hitched, 1991

People knew who I was though, and the next thing we knew we had newspaper reporters flocking around us, TV stations, you name it. We called it the Down Home Tour and skied with the people who made my life possible: ski teams, instructors, lift operators. Since then we’ve done seven more tours. We don’t tell anyone we’re coming and try to keep it genuine and off-the-cuff (though we have our motor home logoed up!).

Quit drinking, smoking and getting into trouble, 1992

I was good at waking up in jail cells and, though never evangelistic about this, it was time to stop. I don’t think anyone cares in this day and age whether you drink or not – there’s a lot less peer pressure than people say; it’s a thing of the past. The clarity that comes without having that distraction, physically and mentally. And you’re not cruising all round town trying to score a bag of weed – all of a sudden I had the freedom of time and energy. And I was finally, undeniably, ‘constant’.

I was inducted into the Ski Hall of Fame, 2010

This was pretty rad. I didn’t even know I’d been added. While I respected the Hall I felt it had become a ‘US Ski Team’ thing, and thought there were a lot of people who had made a huge contribution to skiing who weren’t in there. The Not Unlike Any Others. Nevertheless, I used to donate $50 each year in response to the letters they wrote that I thought asked for money. Finally I got this phone call from them: “How come you don’t answer our letter of recognition?” I didn’t realise I had been receiving notification (for two years!) that I’d been inducted.

Spaffy! The raddest man on the mountain

I felt out of place and undeserving when some of the early freestylers hadn’t been admitted, but the curators said they wanted the Hall to be current, and not a ‘mausoleum of skiing’. People on the board felt I was representative of freestylers – and I’m proud to say Bob Salerno and Genia Fuller were inducted in 2015, and I believe Bobbie Burns is going to be admitted next year.

Became a Level 3 ski instructor, 2012

I joined the establishment! It took me three years because I didn’t want to disrespect the system and get an ‘honorary’ certificate, and because I was very cautious – to do it right you need the absorption period between the tests.

I’d been a spokesman for the Learn A Snow Sport Month (and still am), and part of their message is to take a lesson from a trained professional. Ironically I ended up on The Today Show again, teaching the host – a first-time skier – how to ski. I realised I didn’t have a clue how to approach it as an instructor, and to anyone who did know it was obvious I had no clue what I was doing. So I attended a Level 1 training session in Breckenridge with 220 new season hires! I’m halfway through my guide certification and my examiners certification now.

Manaslu avalanche in Nepal, 2012

I was with my good friends and teammates Rémy Lécluse and Greg Costa. There you are, going along, doing your thing, opportunities come that you execute and nine times out of ten you have success. Then, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, something catastrophic comes along. This wasn’t just about what I ultimately survived personally, but the passing of two dear friends and seeing what their families have gone through and the aftermath even four years later. One minute we’re laughing at who’s making the best coffee and then – poof – it’s all gone.

Glen with friends Rémy and Greg before the tragic Manaslu avalanche

Rémy was a year older than me. He became a mountain guide at 22; I talked my way out of prison at 22. I can do backflips and he didn’t like jumping all that much. We had two parallel careers that always gave us a giggle. We always knew of each other, then ended up skiing together and looked at each other and kind of went “wow”. We started skiing a lot together in our later years. We’d make middle-of-the-night phone calls to each other in Chamonix and leave for the hills at midnight. When you lose two or three mountain guides and a ski instructor in one accident that’s a big deal. The fact that I’m still here is crazy.

RG2 Foundation, present day

We three loved to travel the world – so in Rémy and Greg’s memory I’ve started a non-profit that will concentrate on ski education for aspirant mountain guides in developing countries. Last year I was in Nepal with six students (check out the short film on; I’ll go again this month to teach 10 students, working with Nepalese Mountain Guide Association teaching them ski skills, to give them the opportunity to discover what skiing can do for their work.

My goal is to put a Level 1 pin on a Nepalese national so he can start training his own friends – I’m not trying to build a ski area in Nepal or form a new industry I just want to expose these guys to skiing.   

Photos Bruce Benedict

Taken from issue 147 of Fall-Line, out now.