Arts & Culture

Mountain Due

Ski porn meets climate change in a new movie by the Rocky Mountain Sherpas

Illustration by Paul Kim

On the morning of February 1, 2003, two groups of backcountry skiers struck up a conversation as they assembled their gear beside the highway at the crest of Rogers Pass, which sits 1,300 metres above sea level in the heart of British Columbia’s Glacier National Park. The first was a party of fourteen high school students and three adult guides on a field trip from Calgary; the second was a group of four ski bums in their early twenties. Two of the latter, Dave Mossop and Malcolm Sangster, were aspiring filmmakers who called themselves the Rocky Mountain Sherpas. Casual introductions led to the usual discussion of planned routes and avalanche conditions. Parks Canada’s daily report described the “avy” risk as “moderate” below the treeline and “considerable” in the high alpine, which translates loosely as “Don’t leave the trees.” With plenty of relatively safe subalpine glades to choose from, the two teams set out together on the same initial track toward their respective destinations.

Rogers Pass has long been popular with backcountry skiers, who drive up the Trans-Canada Highway to gain a kilometre of altitude before “skinning” up the next vertical kilometre and a half, on skis covered with a fabric that slides forward easily but in reverse grabs the snow to prevent backsliding. An hour into their ascent, the trail forked. The Sherpas and their two friends bid the school group adieu and pressed on toward a ridge called Grizzly Shoulder. Another hour later, as they neared the ridge top, they heard a sound like an underground train rumbling from the opposite drainage.

“We saw the dust cloud rising through the trees exactly where the group would have been,” Mossop recalled over coffee last winter. “We knew right away what had happened.” A massive slab in the alpine had ripped free, sending more than 1,000 tonnes of snow hurtling toward the school group, just as they were crossing a wide, treeless gully that left them utterly exposed. The Sherpas were too far away to be of any help; two-thirds of avalanche victims suffocate within the first fifteen minutes. They decided to return to the parking lot to see if there was any way to help from there. There was not. Fifteen of the skiers had been buried. Within eighty minutes, eight had been dug out alive by rescuers closer to the scene. Mossop and Sangster watched the remaining seven come down in body bags.

Twenty-two more skiers would die in avalanches before summer arrived, making the 2003 season the most lethal in Canadian history. That fall, the Sherpas released a six-minute documentary about the deadly snowpack called Deep Seated Instability. A modest effort shot with cheap camera gear and amateur athletes, it won a spot at the prestigious Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival.

It was clear that Mossop and Sangster wanted to push the boundaries of the ski movie genre, which typically ignores or glorifies the potential consequences of extreme skiing, instead choosing to profile the antics of a subculture in constant search of steeper mountains, bigger cliffs, and more complex acrobatics. In 2007, they landed a grant from the Canadian Avalanche Association to market their product, avalanche awareness, in 16mm film. To Western Canada’s tightly knit fraternity of off-piste enthusiasts, The Fine Line came as a revelation, a rare combination of action flick and heartfelt documentary. The standard ski porn footage of goggle-tanned daredevils careening down impossibly narrow chutes was there, but so, too, was testimony from mountain guides and avalanche survivors, describing how it feels to be buried alive, or to pull a dead friend from the snow. Hedonism with a message.

The Fine Line sold some 30,000 copies and earned the Sherpas enough credibility among industry sponsors to kick-start their next project, All I Can. Taking two years to shoot, the feature film stretched a budget of less than $400,000 across eight countries and five continents. To help cover the geography, Sangster and Mossop recruited a third Sherpa, Eric Crossland, another high school friend with several years’ experience filming for the ski industry.

Following its world premiere in Whistler, British Columbia, on September 23, 2011, All I Can will be trotted out at more than sixty festivals around the world. This time, instead of death by avalanche, the Sherpas want ski bums to consider another buzz kill: climate change. The film’s opening sequence sets the tone with a beginning-of-life montage in Hawaii, where the blasted volcanic landscape gradually yields to a scattering of green shoots that grow into a pulsing tropical rainforest. The sequence culminates in a frantic scene of urban traffic—a perfect illustration of the modern world’s bottomless thirst for fossil fuel and the Sherpas’ deft manipulation of space-time. Later on, vertiginous white peaks few people will ever ski are juxtaposed with grey panoramas of Alberta’s tar sands and oil tankers floating off Vancouver.

According to their marketing materials, the Sherpas want “to unite global mountain culture and bind us together as leaders of a revolution.” All I Can captures luscious, Baraka-inspired footage to paint a vivid portrait of the earth as a living organism whose well-being is a prerequisite to our own good times. But climate change proves a more challenging theme to link with ski porn than does an avalanche. Can a community of self-involved pleasure addicts accustomed to diesel-powered chairlifts, two-stroke snowmobiles, and $2,000-an-hour heli-drops be made to care about what’s happening in Fort McMurray? If so, how will the Sherpas avoid the same criticisms they level at an oil-soaked Western world? None of their skiers walked to the scenes in Alaska, Morocco, Chile, Argentina, Tokyo, Hawaii, Sweden, Indonesia, or Greenland. Ski bums may well leave the movie with a mind to shrink their carbon footprint, but chances are they’ll be hoping they, too, can squeeze in a few flights before the party ends.

“Some people are already calling us hypocrites,” Sangster allowed when I joined him last March for a day of skiing in Whistler. He described it as their “Al Gore problem,” noting that An Inconvenient Truth was lambasted for the same reason. “But you can’t make a high-end ski movie without using a helicopter or two.”

A record sixteen metres of snow had landed on the resort, and the drifts surrounding Whistler’s parking lots were the size of bunny hills. Such abundance doesn’t clash with climate change models—global warming is as much about increased humidity and precipitation as about higher temperatures—but from a skier’s perspective it does dampen the sense of urgency. Gone was all memory of the previous winter, when Olympic organizers had to truck in snow from the interior so the Games could proceed in the rain.

“We want to give people ideas of how to make a personal change, because they want to help but don’t know what to do. But shit, we don’t know what to do. We’re learning as we go.” The Sherpas had decided at the outset to balance the movie’s fuel consumption by purchasing carbon credits, a task that fell to Sangster. He had been surprised to discover that there was no independent authority to regulate the process. “We could totally fudge our books, and no one would ever know—which makes you wonder, what’s to stop a big corporation from telling the public it has voluntarily offset all its emissions while it ignores its executives’ business flights? ”

Sangster, an affable thirty-year-old, functions as the triumvirate’s producer. He had promised to stay off the hills during the week, so he was at some pains to conceal his whereabouts from his colleagues. Because he serves as the prime organizer of the trips, sponsors, and athletes needed for a successful ski movie, Sangster had his cellphone welded to his ear throughout the day, even as he guided me around Whistler’s “slack-country,” the out-of-bounds areas just a short hike from the lifts.

Around noon, a call came in from Lynsey Dyer, the Sherpas’ “star girl” and one of the best women skiers in the world. Fresh back from a shoot in the Himalayas, she had agreed to join the Sherpas the following week at a heli-ski operation outside Revelstoke, in the BC interior, and later at a shoot in Haines, Alaska. Next came a call from an outerwear company that wanted the Sherpas to film their women’s team skiing down the flank of a volcano in Oregon. Every fifth call or so seemed to come from either Crossland or Mossop, wondering where they were going next, and when, and with whom.

As the last chair approached, the day’s business reached a sort of equilibrium. Dyer’s Alaska trip was traded for one to Kaslo, British Columbia; Sangster firmed up a cat-skiing shoot at Island Lake Lodge, in southeastern BC, which Crossland would film; and the Oregon volcano segment got shelved, opening up the possibility of a trip to Greenland.

“Mossop’s frothing to do that one,” Sangster said, “because Greenland’s so close to the effects of climate change.”

Mossop was hoping for rain when I visited him on location in Rossland, British Columbia, a small town plastered to a Kootenay mountainside. The film studies grad had spent most of the past two years living out of a truck stuffed full of cameras and tripods, a homemade crane, and several pairs of skis, and his hair was shaggy and unshampooed. While the rest of the town was out on the ski hill, revelling in the fresh snow, Mossop and J. P. Auclair, a darkly handsome ski pro from Quebec, sat forlornly in an empty coffee shop.

A few days earlier, they had begun filming a sequence that would make Auclair appear to be casually skiing through Rossland’s alleys, popping backflips over parked cars while an enormous nickel smelter at the foot of the mountain belched smoke in the background. To Mossop’s delight, it had been raining when they started, turning the snow grey and lending the scene a post-industrial gloom perfect for his purposes; to make it look like one continuous scene, however, the conditions had to hold, and unfortunately the temperature had dropped a critical few degrees.

“It’s puking,” said Auclair with a sigh, gazing out the window at the enormous flakes drifting down.

“Horrible,” Mossop agreed, raising an eyebrow. “We must be the first skiers on earth to be praying for rain.”

Like Sangster, Mossop was reticent about the degree to which a ski movie could overcome the same inconvenient truths attached to virtually every action in today’s industrialized world. “All we’re trying to do is harness the emotion of skiing as a metaphor for tackling climate change,” he said. “One of this movie’s themes is something we’ve called—for no logical reason whatsoever—the White Buffalo. Each of the athletes has a goal in mind at the start of the movie, and we follow them as they try to achieve it.”

One White Buffalo brought them to Puyehue, the Chilean volcano that erupted last spring, disrupting air traffic across much of South America. A year and a half earlier, Mossop and Sangster had taken a small crew of skiers there, riding horses to a cabin at the foot of the volcano. After several days of blizzard, a full moon finally emerged from behind the clouds, and they skinned to the summit in time to film the athletes skiing into the crater at dawn.

“So you take that emotion of approaching something extremely challenging, something you’re not sure you can make happen,” Mossop said, “and then, all of a sudden, you’ve done it. The movie builds the Buffaloes up, one beside the other, and ends with all these simultaneous climaxes. That’s what we want the audience to feel.”

The snowflakes were getting heavier, so Mossop and Auclair left the coffee shop and headed to “Suicide Hill,” a steep blind corner in the middle of Rossland where they had spent the previous night building a jump. A small gang of teenagers came out to watch as Auclair warmed up with a few relaxed “cork sevens,” off-axis double twists. Playing to the crowd, he grabbed one ski in mid-air. Had he misjudged his takeoff speed or the angle as he left the jump’s lip, his twenty-metre arc could have sent him onto the concrete or into the tree trunks instead of onto the narrow, hand-shovelled landing ramp. But he touched down easily and noiselessly, to the nodding approval of his fans.

I joined Mossop, who was searching for the best camera angle at the bottom of the hill. Given all the film’s exotic locations, he said, it seemed funny that I should be documenting a jump on the corner of Leroi and Butte. “But even here, you can see how connected skiers are to nature,” he continued. “They spend all their time focusing on the weather.”

Indeed. Around two o’clock, the mercury breached zero. “Green light,” cried Mossop from a neighbour’s porch. Auclair nodded with satisfaction. Finally, the snowflakes had turned to rain.

This appeared in the October 2011 issue.

Arno Kopecky (arnokopecky.com) was shortlisted for the 2014 Governor General's Literary Award in non-fiction, for The Oil Man and the Sea.

Paul Kim is deputy art director of The Walrus.