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Memories of Malay

Scott Willoughby

Beyond reputation and mutual friends, I didn’t really know Josh Malay. But for 15 minutes or so last week, I imagine I did.Like so many others, during that brief time I wished that he were there with us, at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen, so that we might have a chance to say hello, that I could experience firsthand the infectious zest for life he is renowned for, and finally, along with those others, to say goodbye.”This whole night is for Josh,” his friend and co-worker, Ryan Conway announced as he took the stage last Thursday. “Usually after somebody dies, you show your respect through a moment of silence. But Josh wouldn’t want that. Instead we’re going to have a moment of craziness. Let’s try to wake him up.”With that, Conway invited everyone in the packed house who knew his friend to join him on stage in a frenzied eruption of hoots and hollers bolstered by a punk rock soundtrack, screaming as they flung copies of Conway’s recently recorded DVD, “Bronanza,” which features Malay, into the young, unruly audience. In some bizarre way it seemed almost fitting that one stray disc would hit the mayor of Aspen squarely in the forehead, a laughable gaff at the expense of the room’s least rowdy.Few noticed the mishap as the eruption continued for several minutes. Less than two weeks earlier, they had mourned their friend’s death. Now they celebrated his life, the best way they knew.Malay, the snowboarding ambassador for Beaver Creek, died in what is universally described as a “fluke accident” while shooting a photo spread for TransWorld Snowboarding magazine in the Pyranees Mountains of Spain. The 23-year-old Minnesota native had called the Vail Valley home for about 6 years before hitting it big with a photo showcasing his abilities on a dicey blind-sided rail slide down a fire escape in the abandoned mining town of Gilman that landed on the cover of Snowboarder magazine last fall. The feat was one of several impressive achievements that earned him a sponsorship with Santa Cruz snowboards this winter and put him on the short list of hot young riders featured in annual film segments that drive the action sports industry.It was also among the credentials used to select Malay and Conway (who filmed the Gilman stunt for “Bronanza”) as invitees for the first annual NEPSA Awards at Aspen’s Spring Jam. The contest invited athletes and videographers to submit a mixed-media segment that they felt best captured the core sports lifestyle, and in addition to Malay, featured athletes such as big mountain freeskier Chris Anthony, Olympic snowboarder Chris Klug, Breckenridge Team Rider Chad Otterstrom, and new school freeskiing phenoms Peter Olenik, Kiffer Berg and Ted Davenport, among others.Submissions ranged from Anthony’s Warren Miller-esque music video that featured a song he co-wrote with Liza Oxnard, the former front woman from the band Zuba now experimenting in electronica with her new band, Liza and the Soul Stars, to Otterstrom’s day-in-the-life snowboarding spin on a Blair Witch Project complete with beer bongs and blow-up dolls. But the night didn’t really come to life until Conway and crew took the stage.Malay himself was a work of mixed-media art, evidenced by the graphic design he created for the popular K2 Seth Pistol skis, his passion for punk rock, avant garde attire and the final days of his snowboarding career captured by Conway’s camera. It was obvious that Malay lived to jib, strapping into a snowboard just about anywhere, including his living room coffee table, in the bathroom, the bedroom, before, during and after boarding the Eagle Bahn Gondola, on Bridge Street and even the Edwards Market, where he ollied in the aisles and stomped 360s in the dairy section.When he wasn’t joshing for the camera off snow, the film captured Malay’s brilliant athleticism on Beaver Creek Mountain, in the backcountry and in random locales like Gilman. Conway recorded the beatings Malay took trying to get the Gilman cover shot too, his fans in the audience shouting out “destroy” in a punker rally cry before the segment settled into its obvious message to the tune of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold.””You don’t usually get the opportunity to do something like that for one of your best friends,” Conway said. “He basically gave me the opportunity to create a memorial to him.”Others took the opportunity to memorialize Malay in their segments as well, including Aspen local Mitch Stout, who wrote the word “Malay” in fat black letters on top of his snowboard and essentially conceded any attempt at competition with a dedication that included footage of Josh riding at Aspen earlier that winter, rather than focusing solely on himself. The segment proved symbolic of the contagious celebration of life endemic of evening, and of the action sports world in general.All the elements of the world Malay thrived in were represented in Aspen last Thursday, from the hard core parties to the intense pressures of elite competition, bundled not so neatly into a collage of music, comedy and occasionally abstract art. Each of the seven segments entered at NEPSA put an individual stamp on a lifestyle unique to the mountain environment the competitors, and so many of us, have chosen as the ideal venue to allow the human spirit to rise.”But,” said NEPSA Awards judge and Aspen CEO David Perry, “in the end, the decision was easy. Difficult, but easy. It came down to which segment generated the most emotion out of all of you. And that was Josh Malay.”Conway’s $3,000 first prize probably didn’t last through the bar tab that night, as Aspen put its hippest foot forward at an after-event party at the Sky Hotel, complete with DJs, fire dancers and a snake that would scare the bejesus out of Brittany Spears, courtesy of Red Bull, Bud Light and Freeskier Magazine. The mayor was long gone by the time folks started dancing on the furniture, but as the celebration continued, I got the feeling Josh Malay was not.Scott Willoughby can be reached for comment at scott_willoughby @ eathlink.net.


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