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Glen Plake: Soul Man

Behind the rebel image: Here was someone who was committed more to skiing than to anything else in his life.

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The annual ski industry trade show is a trade show like most other trade shows, a temporary roundup of greed, lust, and attention deficit disorder held in the Las Vegas Convention Center. It’s fun in its own twisted way, but in the end, everyone’s really just there to sell or buy, to get as many deals done in the shortest period of time possible. So when some yahoo comes banging a drum along the thinly carpeted aisles, banging it louder even than the ambient rumble of commerce at work, and when—

we’re trying to sell some skis here,

well, you can understand why the buyers and sellers might want him to just—

shut the hell up.

But he keeps coming, a big bass drum mounted on his chest—boom, boom, boom—down the aisles, between the booths. And that’s not all. As the buyers and sellers set aside their order forms to see what this irritation is all about, they find he’s not just pounding a drum, because a drum wouldn’t be enough. No, they find themselves face-to-face with a seven-foot-tall, 120-decibel Energizer bunny, with floppy ears askew and a fuzzy tail.

The ski show has seen its share of twisted moments, from acid-dropping in-line skaters dressed in whiteface to hookers being hired to grant favors in exchange for snowboard orders. But there’s almost always some obvious commercial angle. With the rabbit, though, there’s nothing. He just pounds his drum, going and coming, a recurring message you can’t understand. At the back of a long line for free espresso, a buyer from a ski shop on the East Coast puts into words what everyone is thinking: “Who is that? And why won’t he go away?”

Dressed up as the Energizer bunny, interrupting the business of skiing with his own percussive rhythm, Glen Plake makes a clever, symbolic statement. He marches along to his own beat, showing up at the party uninvited; skiing’s punk version of the rabbit who keeps going and going and going.

Almost 15 years have passed since Plake smashed his way into the ski world in 1987 with all the subtlety of a train wreck, stealing scenes in Greg Stump’s Maltese Flamingo, and the industry still doesn’t know what to make of him. Dismissed by many in the sport as washed-up or irrelevant, Plake should have disappeared years ago, a mohawked footnote to the neon, cliff-jumping ’80s, a braying bad boy long on hype and short on substance. Instead, there he was in the late ’90s, starring in a Volkswagen ad. And making a new bump film with the U.S. mogul squad. And running a popular mogul tour. And putting on vintage video shows. And making one public appearance after another. And generating longer lines for autographs than anyone but recent Olympic medal winners.

So, what gives? Why won’t Plake go away? How did a wise-ass derelict from Lake Tahoe end up as one of the most revered and yet most disrespected skiers of the last 10 years?

Glen Plank in a tall hat, overlooking a lake

The Glen Plake story begins in Livermore, California, on September 9, 1964, but we can fast forward to the day his third-grade teacher used a Möbius flip from the seminal ’70s ski flick Outer Limits as a way of demonstrating math. In that little scholastic moment, something clicked. Not a love for school, that’s for sure. But there fell into place a connection between skiing and the wider world, an understanding that there were deeper forces beneath this sliding on snow. In that brief flash of insight, Plake knew that skiing held something greater for him.

The grom years were a blur of hotdog heroes, the Chevy and Midas freestyle tours, watching Killy’s silky style from the side of a World Cup course, and the rigid tutelage of Austrian ski instructors in Heavenly’s Blue Angels kids program. By the time Plake turned to punk music and skating in the early ’80s, he’d seen the biggest studs in skiing before his very eyes, and although friends like Shawn Palmer were turning to snowboarding, he remained true to the one thing that had grounded his life from the beginning.

Which is not to say that Plake has always been grounded. Far from it. Critics like to dismiss Plake’s bad-boy image as just an image, but he really was a bad boy. In 1978, at 14, he stole a case of beer off a truck. He got caught. He was put on probation in the hopes that junior racing would keep him out of trouble. It didn’t; a few years later, he got caught using a stolen credit card. This time he got 30 days. Then, in 1986, supplementing his income with the sale of psychedelic mushrooms, he was arrested again. He was released on his own recognizance and never contacted by the D.A. That winter, he made his ski-film debut in Maltese Flamingo. But during the summer of 1987, recuperating from a fractured leg in San Diego, he was arrested on that drug charge when his ID was checked after a bar fight.

He was an adult and in real prison now; after three weeks he was again released on his own recognizance, pending trial. His skiing in early 1988 for Greg Stump’s Blizzard of Aahhh’s earned him a ride to Europe for more filming, and he fled to France.

“When I went to Chamonix on Stump’s ticket,” Plake says, “I always knew I was running. I said, ‘I can’t come back, I’m not coming back. This is where I’ve chosen to go.'” Plake spent the summer of 1988 cobbling together his new life, becoming part of the tight-knit year-round Chamonix scene.

Then, in February 1989, Stump called from across the Atlantic, imploring Plake to return to the U.S. for film and publicity work. “I can’t,” Plake replied; he worried he could land in jail again. So Stump and Plake’s dad got a lawyer and arranged for his return.

“Within days, I was back in the States, in Vegas at the ski show,” says Plake. “I did my first press interview ever, and away we went.”

That summer, Plake stood trial and did 45 days. He was free again and determined to stay clean. “Sure enough, stupid me, I failed a piss test and went to jail for 40 days,” Plake says. “I got like 700 hours of community service. That was the end of that: I’ve never smoked since.

“I met Kimberly Manuel that fall, so she was with me through all that and helped me realize this has got to end, this is ridiculous. So I quit doing everything and got off probation.

“Two years later, in December 1992, I’m cruising along, freshly married. I’m in Jackson. The Jackson Hole Ski Patrol is notorious for its après-ski parties, and that’s where I was, but somebody at the bar wasn’t having as much fun as we are. I’ve got a big mohawk, and I’m throwing beer bottles. Next thing I know it’s the next morning, I get a knock on the door, I’m arrested for three more felonies. I’m like, ‘Oh, man, here we go.’ I got a battery, assault with a deadly weapon, mayhem. I’m going, ‘Man, this can’t be happening.’

“I’ve never drank since.”

Plake, stuck for years in a spiral around the drain, decided to make a stand. With wife, partner, and quasi business manager Kimberly supporting, pushing, pulling, helping to keep it together, Plake went completely clean for the first time in his life.

“Glen was saved by the grace of God and a good woman,” says K2’s Tim Petrick, a longtime ally. “That was the cathartic moment in his life, when he finally decided to be true to it or not.”

It wasn’t easy to get close to Plake in his alcohol days. Even if he wasn’t actually drinking, there was an aggressiveness that made large doses of Plake difficult to take. His fans loved his willingness to shoot from the hip, to call bullshit on bullshit, and rattle Establishment chains, but hearing him rant against fat skis in a video is a whole different ball of P-tex than hearing it from six inches away.

Kimberly and sobriety softened him. Although still loud and opinionated, he became a lot more pleasant to be around. The eye contact was steadier, the respect he showed for others more obvious, the cheerleading for the sport more measured and less strident. You could hear the message instead of the spew, and people started to see the authentic Plake behind the rebel image: Here was someone who was committed more to skiing than to anything else in his life.

Plake, of course, will tell you that himself: “Skiing is the only thing I really have. I mean, I have my wife, Kimberly; I have a bunch of monetary things; I have my health; I have all these great blessings; but the only thing I really have is skiing. Even if I didn’t have my health, my wife, I’d still have my skiing.”

Click here for part 2 of Glen Plake: Soul Man