Bum's Rush

In the gentrifying mountain village of Telluride, a band of local adventure addicts is preaching the gospel of neo-hippie purity in an upstart 'zine called Mountainfreak. Can these goddess-worshipping ski bums stay true to their vert' and manage to run a business at the same time?

May 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
I am still young enough at heart to have been intrigued rather than alarmed at Ski-Freak Radical's I-flat-out-do-not-care 'tude toward much of the world, even a bit excited by it. Was the Bjorn-and-Andrew take on the world an entirely-new species of anti-establishmentarianism, one whose shout could be heard over the clamor of a greedy and prideless new world that finds no problem buying and selling Rolling Stones songs to market office equipment?

SkiFreak Radical's hypercharged scream seemed so much more fun than my own ponderous brand of youthful revolt—and after all, sixties mellowness got American society nowhere. Maybe anarchy will. But since the magazine was dead, I went to Telluride to investigate how the bastard child of SkiFreak Radical was faring.

To its credit, Mountainfreak acknowledged its inspirational forerunner in its inaugural issue: "Our Brethren from the Great White North inspired us to take the concept of free-form mountain-inspired creation to the next level."

Like its sire, Mountainfreak is printed on a combination of treeless and recycled paper. Like its sire, it enthusiastically promotes the societal benefits of nonsmokable hemp. A large majority of its ads have come from the hemp industry, whose touted products include paper, work gloves, shoes, skirts, shirts, pants, body-care items, incense, backpacks, and a "nutty hempseed" snack.

Like its sire, it makes fun of more traditional magazine mastheads and disclaimers. In place of SkiFreak Radical job titles like Chief Freak, Insanity Control, and Digital File Guru, Mountainfreak listed Hilary as Bread and Butter and others as Alphabet Soup, Salad, and on down to the seemingly dismissive Kitchen Help. (Later issues would show a different masthead lineup: Heart, Soul, Taste, Vision, etc.) A disclaimer in the magazine read, in part: "Readers of Mountainfreak should understand that wearing hemp, sniffing your socks, grooving, hitchhiking, climbing, as well as many other activities covered in this rag, are potentially injurious or deadly, and we at Mountainfreak won't bail you out if you find yourself in over your head. Take responsibility. It's your life."

Mountainfreak's first issue was a mix of travelogue, gossip column, and poetry. The contents included a column called Kind (the good stuff) vs Schwagg (the bad stuff) that broke down into predictable irreverence: They liked bartering, organic farming, ganja farmers, and love. They didn't like profit-mongering, chemical pesticides, the tobacco industry, and hatred. Like a story from SkiFreak Radical's third issue, Mountain-freak's first travelogue was about the Chamonix valley. (SkiFreak Radical had called it "Scamonix.")

But there was a distinct change of tone. Mountainfreak was decidedly softer, more ethereal, more what we might once have described as feminine. Its first issue copied the naked skier cover of SkiFreak Radical, but the model was hardly in the reader's face, and instead stood, his ski gear strategically arranged, gazing toward a glowingly inspirational mountainscape.

Most telling was the new magazine's mission statement, which moved from the Dirtbag X-treme Hotel to Abstract Acres. The new freaks sensed a "collective consciousness...a surge...an energy filling this...magical place which we call home." The editors wanted to "broaden the breadth of this shared Groove.... The sleepy behemoths surrounding the valleys we live in have endowed us all with a certain power, a creative spark.... Now it can ignite in these pages."

The liveliest feature of mountainfreak—and a spiritual cousin to Just Ask Gnarly—was The Continuing Adventures of the Silver Couch Surfer, penned by "Louie Liftline." Surfer was the comically subversive tale of a group of ski bums (the Slackers) visited by a mysterious stranger who skis magically and imparts mystical knowledge. It referred to ski patrollers as "redcoats" and had the Slackers work "shining the shitcans of their oppressors" as the "THC that coursed their veins worked like Barge's cement."

Mountainfreak's first two issues were the product of Hilary White, editor Matthew Lewis, and a supporting cast of several. Lewis, a casual acquaintance of Hilary's from Telluride, isa ruggedly handsome, outspoken, and somewhat volatile sub-30-year-old from the Washington, D.C., area. In Telluride he had written and edited the now-defunct Telluride Times-Journal, from which he was fired in June 1995. ("The owner asked me to train my soon-to-be-boss. Right!") By the third issue, in the summer of 1996, Mark Steele, another Telluride refugee from the greater, straighter outside world (he was working at Telluride's newspaper, the Daily Planet) had signed on as art director.

For the first three issues, the division of labor broke down roughly this way: Hilary ran the business side of things; Matthew assembled the editorial content and wrote a lot of it—including the Silver Couch Surfer column—while Mark handled graphics and art. They begged, borrowed, and rented equipment and office space and laid out the pages over a short series of giddy all-night sessions. When the magazine returned from the printer, Hilary would load up her Toyota 4-Runner and head out to ski shops, bike shops, coffeehouses, and health-food stores in ski towns from Taos to Jackson—any place that might be amenable to Mountainfreak. Additionally, the crew would hand over bundles of each issue to friends to carry to distant parts of the country and world—as far away as Australia and South Asia.

Those early days were exhilarating. "We wanted to help people remember where they are when they play," Hilary says.

"It was heady stuff," Mark remembers. "It was a brand-new message."

Each of the first three issues cost about $5,000 to produce. Ad revenue, according to Hilary, covered about 80 percent of that. The rest came from a local arts council grant and from Hilary. Her family had given her a certain amount of money, and she had recently tried her hand at investing. The earnings—especially a serendipitous investment in a snowboard manufacturer—were enough to allow her to buy a cabin a half-hour drive from Telluride and to invest a small amount in Mountainfreak.

Hilary was naive about the economics of publishing. "I thought magazines just came out and began making money," she says. But by the fall of 1996, their principal was exhausted, and Mountainfreak, after three issues and a final print run of around 7,000, was dead.

"It's a cliché," Mark says, "but everything tasted like ashes."

The staff fell back on their prior jobs; Hilary went back to cleaning houses and began working as a projectionist at the local cinema. "It wasn't like I was giving up," she says. "But I was out of money. I needed a boost from someone, but I didn't know who."