Skiing for a film project is an interesting task. This film will not be a documentary. It is a scripted project with a storyline. We cannot simply go out to ski and have the photographers and videographers follow us around so they can later edit the footage to just the highlights. There are certain shots that they directors are looking for. We are actors and the mountains are our stage. While this sounds very fun and dramatic, at times it can be very challenging.
For one, unlike a typical movie set or stage, we cannot set up the mountains. We have no control over the weather or snow conditions. We might have everything we need, the snow is perfect, the athletes are committed, the film crew is in position, and then the clouds roll in. At this point you wait for a while, and eventually you pack it up. You don’t ski the slope because once a track is on it, it no longer works for the film. You then spend the evening hoping the wind doesn’t blow the snow away. Getting the shot only happens when the stars align. When it comes together, and makes it on the screen, an ephemeral moment has been captured.
Sweetgrass Productions does not use mechanical assistance while filming. The entire crew and all the athletes hike up the mountains before we descend them. This makes everything a little more challenging. (Of course, it’s great that there are no helicopters buzzing around, and we don’t have to follow any rules based on the insurance policies of ski resorts.)
When the weather was questionable, we would focus on smaller lines and objective that we like to call “mini-golf” lines. “Mini-golf” is the perfect description, not only because it’s generally shorter runs (like 1000 vertical feet or less), but it’s also just like you remember as a kid: “Okay, come in fast, bounce of that wall, spray some snow, jump over that crevasse, make a turn in the sun, and then disappear behind the wind lip. Got it?” Mini-golf is less committing, and therefore easier to set up. It isn’t big mountain skiing, but it often ends up in films because it’s fun to watch, and the view can get in closer to the person, so emotion is expressed more easily.
For as much fun as mini-golf can be, we came for the big lines that are unique to Alaska. Skiing these lines is a much larger task. They are bigger by a significant magnitude; their pitch is intimidating, the objective hazards like crevasses and avalanches are omnipresent. You don’t just show up and start sending big lines. You ease into it.
Unfortunately, the weather in Alaska makes it hard to build the momentum that is so helpful with projects like this. Skiing on consecutive days builds comfort and confidence. When the weather would allow, we would get out onto the “warm up” runs to get used to the pitch and assess the snow. We’d ski some ramp that was around fifty-degrees and get used to not being able to see a thing, while the avalanches we created are pouring down around us. We’d be scared all day, but come home to the tent feeling a little better. “Okay, I think I’ll be ready to go for the big line tomorrow.” And then we’d spend the night hoping it would stay clear.
It rarely did. With a week left, we got a forecast for solid, high pressure for the week. Our eyes got bigger, our heart rates elevated, and we all felt our dreams getting closer. This was the moment we had been waiting for!