Snow/ skiing/ boarding films have long been a staple part of mountain life. And while I love snow porn as much as the next person, I never felt very interested in the high profile ‘heroes and helicopters’ style that has long dominated the mainstream films.
While legendary film maker Warren Miller’s brand is into its 63rd season, I never really got into his films. And as a telemark skier, the endless shots of people on Alpine gear got boring very quickly, no matter how steep a line it was or how big the Air. I think my introduction to late night ski films were those weird European ones from the ‘80s that featured people in outlandish one piece suits pretending they were in a chase scene from a James Bond film. They never really grabbed me, nor did the famous Blizzard of Ahhs (‘A rockumentary style look at the known and unknown heroes of skiing’).
It was only a few years ago when I realised there was a sub genre that actually spoke to my reality: backcountry films. The stand out for me has been Powderwhore, a small outfit from Salt Lake City that started out doing telemark films before broadening into alpine touring (AT), boarding, and anything else in the backcountry.
Regular contributors to the backcountry film festivals, their standard format is an annual DVD with a series of ‘chapters’ on different people, in amazing locations, and some quirky humour (such as the MTV inspired ‘cribs’ segments, featuring the homes and tipi’s of the downwardly mobile, and a current favourite, the grumpy Bob Athey, Utah Avalanche Observer, aka the wizard of Wasatch).
The 2013 offering from Powderwhore is called Elevation, ‘part ski porn, part documentary, and a blatant propaganda piece promoting the joys and wonder of exploring the mountains in winter’.
As more and more people start to leave the resorts, at least for an occasional outing, the movie houses have followed, and it seems to me that there is slightly more soul on offer lately than in a lot of the films I’ve seen over the years. Even Warren’s film house (currently owned by Bonnier Corporation) has gone a bit esoteric with the latest offering, Flow State, but it still seems helicopter and resort heavy. Often the mainstream films just feel like an ad for high consumption lifestyles and brands, and what I love about the backcountry productions is their tendency to come from a slightly different place.
The snowboarding scene has also discovered the backcountry, with Dopamine, the latest from Absinthe Films as an example.
But of course, the Jeremy Jones’ ‘Deeper’, ‘Further’, and ‘Higher’ trilogy is the holy grail of backcountry boarding films.
Jeremy Jones revolutionised backcountry snowboarding with ‘Deeper’, his 2010 ode to splitboarding and human-powered adventure. His 2012 sequel ‘Further’ took him to the planet’s most remote mountain ranges and earned him a nod as a 2013 National Geographic ‘Adventurer of the Year’.
The final film in the series, ‘Higher’ is due out in a couple of months. What shines through for me in his films is both his deep sense of humility and his love for the mountains and for riding.
My favourite has long been Sweetgrass productions. From their soulful Signatures, which follows an entire winter in the hardwood forests of Hokkaido, in the north of Japan, to the rather grand Solitaire, a ‘backcountry skiing film forged in the tradition of Western cinema. Born in the spires of Argentina’s legendary Las Lenas, a lonely two-year journey begins through an abandoned world, wandering the length of a continent from Peru’s Cordillera Blanca to Chilean Patagonia’. Narrated in Spanish, and using commentary from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, it gets away with this rather high brow approach through a lack of self consciousness and a sense of gravity, as well as an incredible eye for framing a great shot.
I especially loved their short piece Skiing the Void, which reflects on the ramifications of dealing with the loss of two friends who had died in the mountains, and contemplates the price of pushing it too far. It was released as the ninth installment of their “On The Road” series.
“A year earlier we had lost Arne Backstrom in the mountains not far from here.
And I was struck by its finality, its absolute end
9 hundred and 46 million seconds ended in one
He had a mum, just like me
And brothers, a sister, a dad
And in that moment
All that love
And all those years of learning and getting tucked in
Ideas that just float in the air, without a body.”
I felt like we had wandered into some different terrain to just endless eye candy.
Then there is their latest, and much hyped film: Valhalla. As I described it in my review, its like a psychedelic version of Into the Wild, with a lot of skiing, a fair bit of nudity, and a happy ending. Unlike most ski/ boarding films, there is an actual story, of travelling in order to re find the joys and passion of youth, delivering this in spades, with a redemptive story that sings the praise of the dirtbag lifestyle.
I love the take home quote from this film:
‘you can always find brilliance, awe and magic running through life if you wish to see it’.
ski films in a time of climate change
As climate change bears down on us and the mountains we love, we can either continue with business as usual or respond in our lives and actions. This needs to include how we approach our mountain experience, and this is also starting to creep through in some of the films.
Steps is probably one of the more overt of these: the producers describe it as
“the first climate friendly snowboard and ski movie of its kind. It dives into the world of people whose deep connection to the mountains ties them together. Worried about impending climate change, they are looking for an alternative way to pursue their passion in harmony with nature and experience the mountains in an ecologically sustainable way. Instead of flying around the world in pursuit of snow, they explore the Alps at their doorstep. They travel using public transportation and climb the highest, most impressive peaks on their own before beginning their spectacular descents and jumps”.
This film is billed as the best selling ski film of all time. One that ‘compares the challenges of big mountain skiing to the challenges of climate change’. I liked its trailer, which did seem to be saying something about over consumption and energy. As a backcountry skier and climate campaigner, I was stoked when I finally got to watch it, a few years after it came out.
Yes, its beautiful, compelling and also great fun, covering some of the finest skiing terrain on the planet. There are great people skiing incredible lines, and having a lot of fun doing it. There is an urban skiing scene that is one of the best clips I have ever seen in a ski film.
But in its claim that it is tackling the climate change issue, it is also a dangerous piece of propaganda for ‘business as usual’ capitalism. I am amazed that the film wasn’t paid for by coal companies. How can a group of switched on people get it so wrong?
My review is available here.
Our local version of a high quality backcountry film is Winter Dreaming, by Stephen Curtain. It is both a telemark ski film and a celebration of the fleeting miracle of cold and snow on our old, flat continent. As was noted by Barry Park, in the Age newspaper, it is “part documentary and part eye-candy”.
It features most of the very best tele skiers in Australia (plus a wonderful cameo from a Frenchman – Jean-Loic Mafayon – who is happily adrift in the ‘cool’, ‘slow’ mountain country of Australia). It also follows a range of ‘average’ folks and their experience of, and love for, the Australian Alps. This is one of it’s strengths: it starts to delve into what draws people to the mountains, rather than just being images of people shredding gnar.
The latest I have spotted has one of the trippier trailers yet. Into the Mind is from Sherpas Cinema, and described by them as being ‘a story of rising to the ultimate challenge. Having the courage to risk fatal exposure and the perseverance demanded on the quest for achievement. These are not solely physical feats, they are mental conquests’. Yes, all a bit pretentious perhaps, but when you see the terrain they are skiing, I’m quite happy to let that one pass. Its an interesting premise: it ‘blurs the lines between dream state and reality, and immerses you into the mind of a common skier as he attempts to climb and ski the ultimate mountain’, perhaps finally breaking from the mould of the heroic individual, and delving a bit deeper into the shared love of mountains and snow that is found right across the skiing and boarding world.
There are any number of short but beautifully made ski and boarding films available. A growing number of the brands that sponsor professional skiers and boarders are showing interest in the backcountry.
This is a lovely example: it features Arc’teryx athlete Christina Lusti as she shares her thoughts on “collaboration, inspiration, and motivation” on a backcountry skiing trip to the Great Cairn Hut in Canada’s Northern Selkirks.
It’s a short (4.18 mins) and simple film that focuses on the simple joys of hut camping and climbing and skiing some lines with your friends.