Soaring above the mountains of Jyrgalan, Kyrgyzstan, Slawa Chaikin behind me steering the paraglider, I was overwhelmed by power of the place. The energy of the community, fighting for a better life, the spirit of my deceased parents, the love of my wife holding me, and the shared desire from of so many people who want to see good in this world. My cheeks were wet from tears.
Since November I’ve shot more than 30,000 frames of skiing and snowboarding. Of the countless days only three were paid and the rest were done on speculation. This season a dozen images made in previous years were published in magazines and online, half a dozen were used in advertising campaigns, and the rest remain on a hard drive or two… After all the early mornings, late evenings, travel, sleeping on floors, ingesting cheap food, and bad coffee you’re probably wondering – Why shoot skiing and snowboarding?
The simple answer is the snow sports industry, brands, and corresponding magazines need new imagery each and every season depicting the latest gear, destinations, and characters. Why do they need new imagery each season depicting the latest? To help drive their sales, push profits up, pay employees, contribute to the economy, etc. The more interesting question is the What For? or what’s the reason I keep doing this?
I’ve focused on shooting snow for the past decade. The first time money was involved came six years ago when I was given the opportunity to work with a brand and their ambassadors (the athletes totally saved me). Since then it’s been a roller coaster ride. Rising high by landing magazine covers, taking on editorial assignments, traveling with a production company, and being hired to create the next season’s print campaign for other brands. Then dropping low by going a full year without a single ski image published, no assignments given, and not one inquiry from a commercial client. In spite of this and operating at a loss each season I can’t seem to help myself from going out there to create more.
Twelve years ago when I chose to cart a camera along my goal was NOT to replicate the polished and predictable images we had been inundated with. I set out to capture a more aspirational side of traveling through snow covered mountains, to come home with something you could see yourself participating in, and ultimately, share an experience that relates and resonates a quiet stillness with us all.
Have I done that?.. Not exactly. That’s why I keep at it year after year.
Today ten things went wrong and everything else went right. It was a fantastic day!
This was the journal entry for my fourth day at the Meadow Lodge – a backcountry hut located in the Esplanade Range of British Columbia. 14 of us were half way through our self-guided week and I was thinking about the nuances of winter backcountry travel. Snow is amazing in the fact that by its natural tendency it wants to stay put. And at the same time, it’s filled with unlimited variables, many which can lead to instabilities and movement.
I believe the same can be said about business. How many things went wrong today at work? What went right? Navigating the business side of things is terrifying to me when I try to keep all the variables in view at once. With so many things that could go wrong it’s hard to venture out. But when you break it down and focus on the fundamentals it becomes a bit more manageable. For me it comes down to risk versus reward. What is the investment? What are the chances of return and at what level? What happens if there is no return? And can I cover the loss?
That day in the Esplanades I created a Wasatch-style skin track (f%&$@#!* steep) for no reason, pushed a line too far for comfort, didn’t bring enough food, forgot to reapply sunscreen, etc. The rights of the day; our group studied maps for safer passages, observed the terrain for recent activity, kept tabs on the weather, dug pits in the snow, communicated non-stop, drank plenty of water, we listened to each other, laughed often, had meaningful conversations, bonded, and skied powder all day long. Like I said, it was a fantastic day.
In my experience learning from what didn’t work or went wrong allows for growth, but staying focused on the positives and what went right is the key to forward momentum.
This winter season has been a productive one filled with personal growth. We had ice climbing, skiing, writing, exploring, and I met a ton of new people filled with incredible energy. If you have ten minutes to burn follow this link to highlights from the last six months. As the season transitions I’m looking forward to creating new climbing, lifestyle, portrait, and running imagery as well as heading to Denali to document a ski expedition. So far it looks to be another busy season, but there’s room for more. Get a hold if me if you have any projects we could team up for.
This profile appeared in the the November 2016 Family issue of Backcountry Magazine
The two days before the April 2015 storm had been perfect—sunny skies, stable snow and endless Tordrillo spines. On the third day, the wind began to blow and the skies grew overcast. Spouses Zach and Cindi Grant, along with longtime friend Kelly Gray, went to work, digging a cave and building walls around camp, later taking turns shoveling and listening to avalanches when the snow began to fall.
On the sixth day, an aircraft was dispatched to retrieve them, but there was a problem—the soft landing and takeoff conditions required a lighter plane, a Super Cub, with room for only one passenger. And in this case, there was only time for one trip during the break in the weather. At first Kelly insisted Cindi go, but when the bush plane lurched upward into the clouds, Kelly was aboard, leaving Cindi committedly standing beside Zach on the Triumvirate Glacier, hoping the weather would hold.
“They’ve been like that ever since the beginning,” says Sheila Roller, Cindi’s mom. In 2001, when Zach and Cindi, met as high-school freshman in the Salt Lake suburbs, Sheila was concerned with how inseparable they were. Over time her concern has faded as she’s realized just how aligned they are. And what started as a friendship became an affair that revolved around snowboarding.
The duo began exploring the Brighton and Snowboard sidecountry in high school, but their interest in riding backcountry lines became ignited while attending Salt Lake Community College.
One of Zach’s first bigger Wasatch descents was the Northwest Super Couloir on Box Elder Peak, a 2,700-foot, 50-degree line that he brought Cindi to the same season for one of her first tours. “I felt like I had been snowboarding with blinders on,” Cindi recalls. “With a splitboard my peripheral vision opened to all the possibilities.”
Over the next few years the couple took avalanche classes, gained experience and ticked off lines in the Wasatch and across the Intermountain West almost always together. Then in 2011, after a 10-year courtship, they tied the knot below the peaks of the northern Wasatch and began dreaming and living bigger, driving from Utah to Alaska the following March to ride around Haines, Valdez and Anchorage. “That trip put the Wasatch in perspective,” Zach shares. “We realized that there’s so much out there and that we needed to travel and explore more.”
Back to the Wasatch the couple settled into careers – Cindi as a programs director of a guide service and Zach signed on to a trails and grooming crew at a local resort – that maximized their time on snow. In summer 2012, they purchased a backcountry cabin that was in bad shape and had no running water but was located in a basin surrounded by backcountry terrain. With the help of friends and family, they rebuilt. “Someone once told me that if your marriage can survive a remodel, then you have a solid relationship,” Cindi says. “It was definitely a test,” admits Zach, “that took us back to the fundamentals where we had to focus on communication and working as a team.” Four years later their simple shed-frame home, nestled off unimproved roads, has running water, is filled with natural light and beckons visitors to rethink their city lives.
At the beginning of May Jacki and I traveled to Bend, Oregon where we rented a small bungalow near downtown. Having been in ski mode since December I’d been struggling with the concept of actually doing other activities. It sounds funny, but by nature I am a one sport focus kind of a guy and only by extreme effort am I able to mix things up. A vacation was the perfect time to help in the transition. Taking the lead, Jacki orchestrated each day in Bend for a different activity. Tuesday we skied, Wednesday we climbed, Thursday we mountain biked, and Friday we ran. Sounds somewhat busy right? Actually it was the exact opposite. The key was that other than those activities we had nothing else planned. This allowed for plenty of reading, writing, walking, talking, visiting friends, exploring and sleep.
Of course when I go on vacation there’s always a little work tied in. Since we were going to be doing all these activities I knew it would be a great chance to create new images of a place I’d never been and add to my stock archive. What do I consider a little work? It began with research and talking about some likely possibilities with Jacki, scheduling the outing for ideal lighting, doing the activity (anywhere from 2-5 hours), shooting a few frames, returning to the bungalow, downloading the files while enjoying dinner, editing, and repeating the process. Not too stressful since there was no client involved. Shot less than 100 images per outing, closer to 50 each, which for me is way low, but makes editing easier. Will any of them be money makers? Who knows? This was a great way to break away from my winter routine, which allowed Jacki and I to slow down and discover new things. – More t
I believe in the power of good stories. In my opinion a good story trumps all else. If you don’t have a story then it’s fluff, empty words on the page, and/or just eye candy. In the world of outdoor pursuits we are inundated with mesmerizing visuals and unlimited narcissistic tendencies that have the tendency to leave us temporarily entertained, but ultimately empty. Most of it lacks depth, heart, and a good story.
I want to share stories that have something more to them. I want to move past my shallow attempts that try to pull meaning from nothing, but end up doing very little in the end.
Last fall I was asked to create a video profile of an Alta Ski Area local. I immediately thought of Lloyd Johnson. I was first introduced to Lloyd over ten years ago and was immediately intrigued. In his seventies he was telemark skiing and actually dropping his knee, something not all who have tele skis do. Lloyd is a Chicago native who began skiing at the age of 40 when he moved to Salt Lake City. When her retired at the age of 65 he picked up telemarking. He has been an annual pass holder at Alta since 1983 and skis about 115 days a year. Not bad for a guy well into his 80’s. I knew he would be perfect for this project.
We filmed two days. Actually two mornings at Alta. The first was a seated interview in front of the camera. The second morning was a stormy day on the slopes. I then whittled the interview audio down to 2 minutes, a process that was extremely time consuming, then found the music, and finally paired them with the motion clips from the second day.
Nothing fancy here. The result is a simple narrative. There is no drone footage, super slow motion, speed ramping, or death defying action, just a good story. You be the judge. Does a good story trump the rest?
One of the things I can’t seem to stop doing is photographing skiing while it storms. Those of you who ski know that some of the best days ever have been storm days. More nuance than exact details the textures of the scene are subtle, but very, very telling. Chris Smith emerges from the white room.
I had an idea about ten years back, “it would be easier to get great ski and snowboard imagery if I just shot the places I was backcountry skiing with friends.” No lift lines, no tracks, no crowds. Simple, just bring the camera along and watch the bank account grow from all the money rolling in from sales of my work…
That’s not exactly what has happened, not even close, but there is something rewarding about getting out into the wild and coming back with something that isn’t recycled.
With each passing winter season in the Wasatch I am always amazed with new discoveries. A different approach, a new zone, a new line I either didn’t know about or hadn’t visited yet. The exploration seems to be never ending…
“Who wants this expansion?” Salt Laker, physician and photographer Howie Garber wondered aloud. He was talking about Ski Utah’s March announcement of their intention to make lift connections that would enable a person to ski all seven Central Wasatch resorts in a single day. They’re calling it One Wasatch, and claim the process will occur through a collaborative effort representing the federal, state, city, county, business and private sectors, all part of Utah’s Mountain Accord process, a regional planning effort. And the map highlighting possible connection zones shows three that stir conflict with backcountry users.
Howie’s been active in local preservation efforts for more than 30 years, so I stopped by his place to get his read on the concept. Sighting the Wasatch Canyons Tomorrow 2010 survey in which locals gave input on future development in the canyons of the central Wasatch, he continued: “Ninety-four percent of citizens support limiting resort expansions…. When do local populations get an opportunity to determine how much takes place in their backyard?” He was right, and I needed to find out more.
Personally I love both resort and backcountry skiing, but more development makes me cringe. Open space simply seems more valuable to me. But it’s not just up to me.
I got Ski Utah’s Nathan Rafferty on the phone to answer Howie’s first question, who wants this? Nathan pointed to Utah’s tourism industry. He said that, by creating this unique skier experience “unlike anything in North America”, he, along with the areas’ GMs, believes it will grow tourist dollars, which would benefit the state’s economy. I asked about backcountry users, and he acknowledged the value of both in- and out-of-bounds skiing experiences. He assured me that this concept would not make that go away: there are no plans for lodges, parking lots or other developments. “Chairlifts and ski runs only,” he said.
In an e-mail from Park City Councilman, Andy Beerman, he declined to take a position on One Wasatch. He did concede that their resorts could be connected with minimal impact since they already share boundaries and suggested that linking the three Park City Resorts—Canyons, Deer Valley and Park City—would likely receive community support. Then, he noted that connecting to the Cottonwood Canyons would be more difficult because, he said, “they involve Federal lands, sensitive watershed areas, and potential recreational conflicts.”
To me, the connection from Alta to Solitude—the Grizzly Gulch to Twin Lakes Pass area—will raise the most objections. It’s popular among backcountry users but also one of my “go-to” places as a photographer. Converting it and other zones to inbounds terrain would not only cut away from the backcountry, it would impact my wallet.
Carl Fisher, director of Save Our Canyons, is also against the One Wasatch Concept. “We’ve received over a thousand comments since One Wasatch was announced,” Carl said. “Even out-of-state visitors say it will ruin why they come; which is easily accessed resorts and easily accessed backcountry.” He believes skier days in Utah are on the rise due to increased backcountry use, and thinks that the plans wont even make it through the Mountain Accord process.
The Mountain Accord is Utah’s effort to develop a planning blue print for the Central Wasatch that includes federal agencies, local governments, businesses and organizations with a huge public component. “When are you going to write an article about the Mountain Accord?” The Accord’s program director Laynee Jones had caught me caught off guard. As I stammered she continued, “We have the decision makers at the table. It’s a real powerhouse and they’re here to find solutions and willing to compromise. The ski areas are just one part of the equation in the future of the Wasatch.” She had a point. Through the Mountain Accord Laynee sees an opportunity to do something remarkable that could preserve the Central Wasatch for generations. They are currently developing blueprints in the four systems groups of transportation, economics, recreation and environment. Each group has been tasked with coming up with an idealized scenario, which then will be brought to the board where a consensus will have to be met before it can be approved. She suggested One Wasatch could be part of a proposed scenario, possibly coming from the economic group.
Next, I spoke with Peter Metcalf, CEO of Salt Lake-based Black Diamond Equipment, and while BD no doubt benefits from both resort and backcountry, Metcalf has always been a vocal proponent of preserving Utah’s open spaces and believes we currently have a good balance between developed and undeveloped terrain. Peter sees the One Wasatch Concept as a marketing move, but doesn’t buy it. “Who’s really going to ski all resorts in one day and is it even possible without sitting on lifts all day long AND doing mediocre traverses?”
Knowing the resorts’ desires to expand will not go away, Peter has given some thought to an arrangement. Speculating that if these connections were worked through the Mountain Accord Peter shared a possible scenario. “Approval of the interconnect as part of a much larger Wasatch agreement would include the following: a route that was the least impactful to the existing Wasatch backcountry ski experience, minimal & defined prepared piste on the sides of the lifts, guaranteed access to backcountry skiers of the linked zones, full support of the expanded Matheson Wasatch Wilderness Bill, a giving up of all future development rights via conservation easements on all private lands surrounding the new lifts, and binding agreements between the ski areas and the forest service to never expand the ski areas beyond their current boundaries.” This wasn’t the resounding objection on all fronts I imagined Peter to give on ski area expansion in the canyons. After letting this seep into my brain I began to understand how this concept and any other development might be handled.
When I shared Peter’s scenario with Nathan, he agreed that if One Wasatch were to become a reality, compromises would have to be made. “[Ski Utah] can’t have this conversation without putting something on the table,” Nathan said. And while he’s excited about One Wasatch he admits that it’s a complicated idea. There are, after all, seven areas with seven separate owners, he reminded me, and each link would have its own issues.
Eventually, I was back where I began, talking with Howie.“The bottom line, Louie, is that it’s about the preservation of powder skiing,” he said, “which I truly believe is a dwindling natural resource!” We both laughed, but Howie was serious. For him it’s preservation, for Ski Utah it’s about growing the economy. Is it possible to do both?
To find out more about One Wasatch and stakeholder counter arguments, visit TK, TK, TK.
On the morning of April 15, 2015 I was up around 430 AM. I couldn’t sleep. Looking out the window I saw that a blanket of fresh snow covered the lawn. I brewed coffee, surfed the daily headlines and tapped my fingers waiting for Snowbird to update it’s overnight storm totals.
24″ and still snowing! I immediatley loaded up the car and met Hannah Follender at Snowbird’s tram. These are a few of the images from throughout the day. When it finally stopped coming down it added up to 40″ in less than 24 hours. Not bad for Tax Day!