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Notes from the Field
Setting it all up
All of the stories in this show have two things in common: adventure and grit. I came up with the name for the show after shooting a Skijoring competition in the Wood River Valley, where teams made up of a horse, a rider, and a skier race down a snow packed track over jumps and around gates, sometimes reaching speeds up to 40 miles an hour. It takes grit to do that. When I first started planning the program, I knew that I wanted to find winter activities that not only involved adventure, but daring and determination by the people who undertake them. Skijoring, heli-skiing, back country skiing, and ice climbing all fit the bill.
The first story we shot was heli-skiing. Outdoor Idaho did a piece on heli-skiing about 20 years ago, so I figured it was time to update it. With a blessing from Bruce Reichert, Outdoor Idaho executive producer, I set about to find a heli-skiing operation that would play with us. By play with us, I mean a company that would let us ride along on one of their outfitted trips for next to nothing, or at least give us a deep discount. We're not Warren Miller Productions here at IdahoPTV, so we look to the kindness of strangers to tell many of Idaho's stories.
Currently, there are only a few heli-skiing operations in Idaho, so the choices were limited. Since the story 20 years ago was done out of the Sun Valley area, I chose to go with an operation out of the Teton Valley on the Idaho side of the Tetons. High Mountain Heli-Ski partners with Teton Valley Lodge and Spa in Victor Idaho, which is a pretty upscale year-around resort. I couldn't get through to the Heli-ski company at first, so I gave the Lodge a call. They were very excited to help us out, and even offered complementary rooms for the crew. It would be good promotion for them, after all. The Lodge was a little more swank than Outdoor Idaho crews are used to, so we wiped off our boots and accepted the offer graciously.
Luckily, High Mountain Heli-Ski was willing to play with us. What we wanted to capture was the excitement of a skier and/or snowboarder being dropped on a remote mountain top for the first time. Jon Shick, the owner decided he could fit two photographers into the helicopter with two guests and a guide. The Lodge found the guests; now I had to find two photographers. They would have to be good powder skiers and be able to handle the shooting conditions on the mountain. It wasn't hard to convince Jay Krajic and Jeff Tucker, who also poses as our production manager, to get on board. A free heli-ski trip! You bet. Little did they know the challenges that awaited them. I was a little disappointed there wasn't enough room in the chopper for me. Oh well.
The winter of 2010-2011 was one for the records. Massive amounts of snow were dumping all over the country, and Idaho was no exception. Trying to find a clear weather window for flying proved tricky. The shoot was postponed twice, and then finally a small window opened. Keep in mind that we don't all just sit around and wait to jump in the car and go. Every postponement meant rearranging everyone's schedules, again. Our crew needed to drive from Boise to Victor, about 6 hours, so our plan was to arrive the day before the shoot so we would have time to meet all the players and plot out the next day. When we finally arrived late afternoon it looked like a new front might be moving in. (Expletive, expletive) Winter shoots can be especially difficult because of weather.
We all gathered early the next morning to assess the weather. Our trip was one of several scheduled that day, so about twenty guests had also crowded into the waiting lounge. Lots of logistics going on with paying customers, and a camera shoot to-boot. A weather postponement would make a lot of people unhappy. When I watched the sun creep over the ridge, I breathed a sigh of relief, but I soon found out that the weather gods were going to mess with us all day. All I could keep thinking about was how I could make a story out of this if nobody could ski. We couldn't camp out here for days waiting for the weather to clear.
As the guides closely tracked the weather on their computers, for what seemed like an eternity, the clouds magically parted. Here we go!
New ski areas intimidate me sometimes, so when I was asked to shoot the heli-ski story, I was elated but also full of apprehension. I've been a powder skier for 30 years, so I know you always have to prepare to make sure you stay warm and dry. But when you throw in a helicopter ride, you lose the lift, the lodge, and the car and the security of having those if you need them. Plus, we were there to work, so there's the camera and the mics, and getting video of people getting ready while you're trying to get ready. And there was the helicopter safety talk that we had to listen to, but we also had to videotape other people listening to it. So, for me there was a lot of mental stuff going on. Fortunately, my production manager and videographer extraordinaire, Jeff Tucker, was along to help with the logistics and shooting.
The view from the helicopter was amazing and watching us land on top of a powder-covered mountain in the middle of nowhere was almost overwhelming. With heads low, we jumped out, grabbed our skis and poles and huddled down to protect us from the blast of an ascending and disappearing helicopter.
It was immediately silent and wonderful as we got up to look around at the winter landscape that spread out below us. Putting on my skis, I tapped my pole against my boot to knock the snow off, like I've done a million times, and it snapped off just above the basket. Some quick thinking by one of our guides - he inverted the broken piece and shoved it up into the rest of the pole - and it held.
The helicopter would be returning to that point soon with more skiers, so we had to quickly move out to a farther point on the ridge. Once there, the open, untracked bowl was ours, and any fear or apprehension that I had earlier was long gone. Jeff and I strategized our shooting locations. He generally got them starting off and I picked them up halfway down the slope. We were fortunate that the slope was a long one and they stopped 3 or 4 times so we could re-group. But this turned out to be our only flight up, so we had to get as much skiing video as possible. I'm glad two of us were shooting!
If you're ever out shooting video of people skiing through 18" of powder be sure to bring a rain coat for your camera. I forgot mine. So, when I got to ski, I hung the camera around my shoulders and sat it against my back, to protect it, while floating down the hill.
But when you ski through really nice, deep powder, it splashes up all around you, including your back. When a camera gets wet it does weird things. First, all my audio died, unless I tilted the camera just so. Then the zoom on the lens started zooming without my assistance when I didn't want it to. Although the day wasn't sub-zero it was still cold and damp. The glass on our lenses froze up numerous times, and it got to be nearly impossible to wipe the icy patterns off the glass at the end of the day.
But, do I need to mention 18" of powder again? It was all ours, without the lodge or lifts or cars. It was just two camera guys, some very excited guests, a couple of very accommodating, experienced guides, and all that snow. A little intimidation and a few technical problems were never going to get in the way of that incredible experience. I love my job!
Back Country Skiing
I'm so glad Jay loves his job! Sometimes producers put photographers in positions that challenge their constitutions. I personally like to accompany photographers whenever I can. It's best to have a team working the story, but sometimes, as with Heli-skiing and Back country skiing, I was not able to go. That's when working with a highly experienced director videographer like Jay, or any of our staff videographers here at Idaho Public Television is a real treat. I know that they will come back with not only amazing images, but also good sound bites. When I sit down to write the story, I am confident that I will have what is needed to make it all come together.
Like the heli-skiing shoot, the back country skiing story is another example of waiting for the weather gods to smile upon us. As opposed to the winter of 2010/2011 when heli-skiing was shot, the winter of 2011/2012 turned out to be very dry and warm. So, again, we wait. The shoot with the back country ski guides of Sawtooth Mountain Guides had been in the planning for months. Our photographers would accompany them on a trek to a remote area in the Sawtooths where they would do avalanche assessment and ski some avalanche chutes for the cameras.
We waited as long as we could for the weather to cooperate. It didn't. What to do? The show was scheduled and I couldn't wait much longer to get the shoot done. After discussing the situation with Kirk Bachman, owner of Sawtooth Mountain Guides, we decided to make a go of it. Even if we didn't have ideal conditions, it could still be a good story. There was enough snow to do some trekking and skiing, so at least Jay could get the shots on the mountain and some comments from skiers.
I could make a gritty story out of that. And then the weather changed….
Back Country Skiing
The warm weather that kept melting the ice-climbing ice for the other story in Winter Grit abruptly disappeared the Sunday night before we were to head into the backcountry. Monday morning was nose-hair, freezing cold. Stanley gets this way a lot. I like frolicking in the winter, but when you have to operate minute switches and buttons on metal cameras when it's sub-zero, it presents all kinds of challenges. Mittens keep you warm, but are too cumbersome to shoot with. Gloves make shooting easier, but they don't keep your hands as warm. I had both. And then, what clothes do you wear to hike up 1500' in cold weather? I carried a full backpack for my camera, coats, water bottle and food. Batteries, tapes and other essentials were not-so-strategically placed in my many pockets so they wouldn't freeze. My backcountry-seasoned, co-videographer, John Plummer, seemed to have this all figured out. This was a new adventure for me, and there was definitely a learning curve. But, like so many shoots, onward you go…and adjust along the way.
The hike in was a grunt, but it provided an eerie, sweaty warmth. We shed coats as needed. At times it felt like 30 degrees out because of the steep exercise. But stop for any amount of time and your bare skin would freeze. That includes toes in boots, too. I'm an avid downhill skier, but having skins on this hill was a new treat. You kind of defy gravity by not sliding backwards when you're going up. And the little riser things on the bindings were very cool. We reached the top of the ridge around noon and the temp was recorded at 6 degrees F. I shot the avalanche pit, and John got some interviews. My toes and fingers numbed. Kelley provided some warm tea. The view was amazing.
We shot the skiers' and boarder's first descent from the top of the ridge. They graciously climbed back up so we could shoot them from the bottom of the bowl. They also had helmet and chest cameras mounted on them, which increased our skiing viewpoints. With the skins off, we skied back down the ridge and to the car. I love tree skiing but skiing through a pine forest with a full backpack on was a whole other adventure!
When I interviewed Kirk Bachman, he said patience was one of the best qualities a guide could have. Kirk, Kelley, Tim, Joe and Spencer were all very patient with two videographers starting and stopping their journey so we could document and keep up. Safety was also a big concern, but so was fun. And, despite numb toes and cold temperatures, a fun adventure was had by all.