Whew, what a whirlwind winter of ski touring it’s been. Nice to sit back and just do some web surfing to see what’s up.
Around here, sad news is of course the well publicized death of snowboarder Wallace Westfeldt. The young man perished after jumping a backcountry cliff and and experiencing a bad landing, during a ski/snowboard film shoot he was appearing in for the Aspen Skiing Company. Our deepest sympathy to the Westfeldt family and friends of Wallace.
In reading the news reports, one can’t help but notice that Wallace was associated with a commercial ski film shoot, and is not the first to die during such work. Considering the amount of freeski footage that’s made every year, vs accidents, one must conclude that the film folks are doing a pretty good job with safety.
But, reasonable safety record of the ski film industry aside, any death of a person that’s even remotely associated with work or job is something we as a society should always examine with care. Thus, while I’ve got no wish to single out any one film company, you’ve got to wonder where ski and snowboard movies are going in terms of exposure to danger.
While the film being made with Wallace was of a somewhat documentarian nature (promo for Aspen), the type of work they were doing out there behind Aspen Highlands resort was obviously similar to that of most other ski films — that of making exciting images by filming “big mountain skiing.” Modern ski film makers define success with adrenal pumping footage and sequences that don’t have much (if any) narrative or story, so all they’re left with is to one-up or at least equal the stunts in the film before them. This is really no different than the progression you see in the Hollywood junk action movie genre; films with minimal plot and story, that have to sell on their stunts and effects. Difference is those films have stuntmen, CGI, and strict unions that don’t take kindly to putting talent at risk. OSHA has been known to pay attention as well.
Thus, in ski films the cliffs get bigger, the stunts get more complex — and almost all ski movies are now shot in the backcountry with natural and often avalanche prone snow.
As we munch popcorn (or quaff PBR) at the latest TGR film, cheering the stunts and hospital air like we’re NASCAR fans at the track, are we actually in the Colosseum watching gladiators who could die a very real and tragic death? Is that nice?
(Note, to be fair I should mention that Wallace may not have been working as regular movie talent but was rather being filmed on a more casual basis by the commercial film crew — even so this sad event is illustrative of trends in modern ski films that I’m writing about here. More, since Wallace was a sponsored rider (High Society Freeride) he was indeed “working” to one degree or another. For the sake of discussion, if you want a more definitive tragedy this season’s death of skier Billy Poole is also illustrative.)