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.
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
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!
My wife asked while skinning up a winter trail in the Wasatch Mountains. As she passed through the arch of an aspen tree that bent over the track I paused. A wave of snow clung to the trunk’s upside only inches wide and at least twelve inches tall and serpentined the entire length of the arch. Its position on the tree defied gravity and the sun.
I wouldn’t describe my youth as happy. In fact, looking back it was a very tumultuous time filled with angst and bad choices. My twenties were mainly a dark depression that to this day still tugs at me from the shadows. When my wife asked me that question I had an answer.
“You know that feeling when you’re climbing and you’re afraid but somehow you keep climbing and push through that fear? You’re still nervous, and still struggling, but for some reason you’re slightly removed from the situation? Like you’re seeing yourself from the outside? Aware of the acute nature of the situation; a small human dangling on a big cliff in the middle of a forest, in the western US, on the planet Earth, within the Milky Way, somewhere in a fold of the Universe?”
My wife shuffled ahead entering a stand of snow flocked spruce trees.
“Okay, it doesn’t have to be climbing. It can be skiing in the backcountry, hiking, running, yoga, sailing… any activity, anywhere outside. I’m talking about those moments where, while still being present, you see a bigger picture of everything and your place within it.”
One kick turn after the other we switched-backed up a ridge passing the gnarled and twisted bodies of dead limber pines.
“It doesn’t even have to be outside, but for me, during my youth and after my parents’ death I found these profound moments occurred out in the wild… It’s not necessarily about how hard, how fast, whether I was first or whatever. All that stuff is great, but it’s much more rewarding to have these moments to connect with each other, other people. What’s the point if it’s not shared?”
At the crest we quickly transitioned; skins ripped from skis, jackets, gloves and goggles on, we were ready to ski.
“Do you remember the bent aspen tree we walked though down below? How the snow was still hanging onto it?” I asked.