Death in the Mountains — At Work

Post by blogger | April 9, 2008      

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?

Comments, anyone?

(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.)


Please Enjoy A Few Suggested WildSnow Posts


38 Responses to “Death in the Mountains — At Work”

  1. Rick April 9th, 2008 12:39 pm

    I wonder what OSHA would have to say about hucking a 100 footer?

  2. Michael Kennedy April 9th, 2008 1:25 pm

    Thoughtful post, Lou.

    My own sense is that film crews, sponsorship, peer pressure, ego, etc. can all have a potentially unhealthy influence on any athlete (at any age, too, although most of us are way more impulsive in our youth). When you are pushing your own limits or engaging in risky pursuits, you need to focus 100% on the task at hand. I often wonder how much of a distraction these outside factors might be for even the most together skier, climber, kayaker, mountain biker.

    Then again, stuff just happens. You have an out-of-balance moment as you are about to clip the rope through the piece you just placed after a 50-foot runout. If you catch yourself, you get that surge of adrenaline and thank whatever higher power you believe in. If you don’t, you’re in for a painful if not fatal ride. Sometimes it’s just a matter of luck.

  3. Jeff April 9th, 2008 1:30 pm

    I have never heard anyone compare a skier to a midevil gladiator but when thinking about my bodily pain as a 28 year old I think that it is a great comparision. Is there a much more dangerous occupation than extreme skier? Probably, but not much.

    In light of that what is fun is generally dangerous. What is dangerous is generally regulated. I would think that if the number of professional skier related deaths/injuries becomes a focus then unions will be formed, people will be sued, and laws will be written which will all result in more regulation and less opportunity for us to ski what we want to ski and accept the risk we are specifically willing to take.

    Condolences to those effected by this event.

  4. Dongshow April 9th, 2008 1:36 pm

    I’d love to give a couple thoughts on this, although I can see this turning into a full piece as this is a bit of a sore spot for me.

    I agree Lou, that ski films, in their current non-narrative – montage format, do aim for success by one upping the competition but I believe a lot more can be done from a production aspect to continue to keep them interesting without the skiers pushing to far. I used to be a ski film addict, the last few years have seen me watch these films less and less as they grow increasingly staid and predictable.

    The way a film maker presents the skiing truly makes all the difference. Currently we seem to have two types of ski film editing; those that highlight and profile individual skiers with individual sections (cue rehashed intro or “lifestyle shot� followed by a solitary skier travelling the globe and stomping numerous tricks and lines all in a single song!) or the more trip based or endless winter format where a group of skiers travel the world, each location being torn to shreds to its own song. Some films (TGR specifically) seem to be a mélange on the two formats. Surely us skiers should be creative enough to come up with something new rather then repeatedly present our sport the same way for decades on end.

    Any doubt over the true power of post production techniques should look no further then the endless appeal of the Greg Stump (they had Maltesse Flamingo on at Alyeska the other day) films containing skiing that wouldn’t really impress if you were to see it today at a place like Alta or Jackson. The editing and camera work in those films however is simply hypnotic. It honestly wouldn’t be a stretch to compare his work to the great masters of montage cinema, Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, in their captivating power and ability to develop characters and emotions so subtlety. The same is true for the films today. The ski flicks I truly excite me (the most recent being The Teddy Bear Crisis oddly) manage to pull off the feat more do to fabulous editing and production that excites and toys with me like the very best advertising aspires to do. Rarely do I walk away talking about a certain skiers particular line but more often I find myself reminiscing over the way a certain section flowed together and managed to capture and recreate the way I dream about skiing.

    Finally, as I sense this is just a long rant, I think another big development in Ski Films has been the backcountry. Outside of park / jumping footage it’s hard to think of anything shot in bounds at ski area’s anymore. It used to be growing up that you’d see the terrain at places like Whistler, Jackson or Alta be simply glorified and couldn’t wait to check them out. Now that they are filmed nearly exclusively in the backcountry the drive to check out a particular resort has been replaced by a desire to wander a particular range and see what one can find. There even seems to be a growing trend of particular backcountry spots (like Wolverine Cirque in Little Cottonwood) becoming destinations in and of themselves after featuring in films annually. I’d be interesting to hear what people think about ski films effect on backcountry skiing. Sorry, rant over.

  5. Lou April 9th, 2008 1:44 pm

    Good thoughts you guys, I’ve always pondered this stuff, as the risk seems somehow more pure when it’s not tainted by the desire for money, or fame, or a free jacket, or whatever… But that’s perhaps just a blatant value judgment on my part… an interesting subject, at least to some of us…

  6. Greydon Clark April 9th, 2008 1:56 pm

    Lou, maybe contact TGR and see if Sarge is interested in doing a guest blog about athlete safety is ski movies.

  7. Lou April 9th, 2008 2:28 pm

    Greydon, that’s a good idea! I was a bit uncertain about what happened up there, but just got clear that Wallace did actually jump the cliff and had a very bad landing that caused the fatal injuries. Thus, perhaps something was overlooked. I of course was not there so no specifics from me that could be wrongly interpreted. But some tips about huck safety in general would be a nice way to honor the young man’s memory.

  8. Dongshow April 9th, 2008 2:38 pm

    on huck safety, a great use of your probe poll is scoping a landing for rocks. shouldn’t mess up the shot or the landing if you approach it properly. hitting burried rocks is a constant menace in that light continental snow pack.

  9. dave downing April 9th, 2008 2:52 pm

    from what i’ve seen from my friends that push their skiing to that “next” level, i think the cameras often are able to capture what the skiers (and boarders) are already doing on their own. I think kodak courage tends to apply more to a intermediate skier jumping into Corbet’s than a pro skiing a hard line in the BC. There was forethought into just getting to the location/building the jump/etc.

    as for huck safety, my current personal rules are these: only land in powder, don’t land in bomb holes, work out in the off season (i’ll add more rules as i see fit (read: get hurt 🙂

  10. Mike Marolt April 9th, 2008 4:11 pm

    I think when you take young people and add sponsorship to the equation, you also create an incentive to avoid the natural progression of learning all you can about what you are doing over time. Call it experience. Throw in what the other “pro’s” are doing, and competition for the bucks and you see people doing stunts that probably reach beyond where they would naturally evolve through paying their dues (as compared to getting paid). The industry calls it pushing the envelope of sport.

    I would never suggest that there be rules placed on what film crews and companies can ask athletes to do, or suggest that athletes are in some way wrong, but i think the econmics of it all will serve to make people think. This community has lost 3 guys to extreme riding in the past 18 months, two in hucking accidents while cameras were rolling. That is an expensive price to pay for pushing the sport. If that doesn’t serve as a wake up call to sponsors, film producers, and athletes to re-think some of this, I am not sure what will.

  11. Frank April 9th, 2008 5:26 pm

    I’ll weigh in here with my $.02 as someone who is often in front of the camera.

    Every photographer or videographer I’ve ever worked with lets me call the shots almost all of the time. The only exception is if a photographer has a specific shot that they really want to get, and those shots are always easy and more about a scenic background or lifestyle shot rather than something dangerous.

    Most of the time, it’s the athlete that says “Whoa, look at that line, I want to ski that! How’s the lighting work for you guys, can we get that shot?” Every time myself or another athlete picks something that seems truly dangerous, the photographer or videographer will ask the question “Are you sure?” Repeatedly. And that’s about all that can be done- the filmers try to get the athlete to really think about what they’re doing while the athlete chooses what they want to ski.

    For the record, I actually think the big mountain ski comps are worse- they are often run in marginal snow conditions, and people who have done some contests know where the high scoring lines are, so that’s where they go, conditions be damned. Jim Jack and the other judges may plead with people to stay within themselves, but that’s not the way it goes all the time.

  12. Lou April 9th, 2008 5:28 pm

    Thanks Frank, good point about the comps.

  13. Haille Skilasse April 9th, 2008 7:48 pm

    First of all, I would like to send my condolences to all the people affected by this tragedy.
    I have to agree with you Lou in saying that the pro extreme athlete phenomena taints the soulful and magic experiences of skiing. I also agree hugely with Mike Marolt and his comment about how many,many years of skiing in the mountains( the real school of hard knocks) is the true path to understanding the mountains.
    I ran into a group of pro freeriders on top of a favorite spot of mine a while back. They were sitting on top of a tender, slab filled chute, waiting for the camera guy to get his gear set up. No one was tuning in to what was going on with the mountain. No one was digging pits.I could not tell if everyone was scared or just arrogant .The energy was horrible. I skied a safe route down and did not look back.
    Another strange pro moment occured at a party where a couple old friends and I were yucking it up about jumping huge cliffs. A young pro that overheard our conversation commented that he would love to see the footage. We explained that there was no footage and that we were just having fun. The pro said that he did not understand why would do that without a camera and walked away.
    A friend showed me some footage from a recent extreme contest on youtube from jackson hole (a place known for some of the best skiers in the U.S.) The skiing was weak to say the least. Seems like none of the amazing skiers from Jackson showed up.2 or 3 years ago, a guy that just moved to crested butte (from Iowa) won their extreme comp. What a joke!
    I had a few special moments with one of Aspens now deceased pros and will never forget the guy. I am not trying to knock any of the people playing the game .I am just knocking the game.

  14. Geof April 9th, 2008 8:20 pm

    Interesting opinions. I’m right with you Lou. The reality is the idea of 15 seconds of fame has over valued personal safety and prudent judgement.

    As our sports become more “extreme” and the “athletes” have the idea they are invincible and the attitude to go with it we will see more deaths. This has been a particulary bad year for big name kids getting killed or signifcantly injured in either shoots or comps. It really is too bad, there is some serious talent getting wasted due to the lack of sound judgement.

    Reality is, it will only get worse before it gets better and our young-un’s realize their bodies DO break and they DO die if damaged enough.

  15. John Gloor April 9th, 2008 8:44 pm

    In my opinion, there is no doubt that the presence of a camera influences peoples’ actions. There is added pressure to go bigger, ski faster and link more aspects of a run into a seemless run. It cracks me up when I hear a photographer say their subjects are pros and are that they would ski/climb/kayak that way if they were not there. On another note, was the Aspen Ski Co sponsoring the film or were they shooting for Ski Co promotions? The Bowl they were in was in wilderness and would be a false representation of any Aspen Ski Co skiing opportunity. I remember Chris Davenport could not use his movie shots commercially since the correct forest service permits were not obtained. Was Futuristic films operating legally by having their permits. Just a few nagging points I have In the aftermath of this tradgedy.

  16. dave downing April 9th, 2008 9:38 pm

    In response to John:
    > It cracks me up when I hear a photographer say their subjects
    > are pros and are that they would ski/climb/kayak that way if
    > they were not there.

    I think 9 times out of 10, or more, the athletes would ski that way without the camera man or photog. More often the envelope is pushed b/c of friends or fellow athletes in the vicinity. Most people don’t ski as hard by themselves. May we should rule out competition between friends as well?

    Regarding Franks thoughts on Comps: Absolutely those push athletes to push the limits in questionable (at best) conditions. Apply the “powder landings” only rule to any huck you want to do, and comps are out of the question 🙂

  17. Steve April 9th, 2008 11:08 pm

    In my experience most people who do huck cliffs are very calculated and safe. Rarely is it a matter of poor judgment that gets someone hurt but rather the nature of the activity. People are drawn to the sport because of the risks that are associated with it. Athletes like Wallace or Billy understand the risks and dangers involved with jumping off cliffs and that is perhaps why they are drawn to the sport. These accidents cannot be blamed on photographers, filmers or sponsors because there are numerous skiers/snowboarders who ski just as risky of lines without sponsors or photographers in the picture. Just like any “extreme” sport it is usually the athletes own desire to push their personal limits not sponsorships or fifteen minutes of fame.

  18. Lou April 10th, 2008 6:06 am

    Dave, good theory but in the movie Steep, Davenport even talks about how skiing for the camera is done. I’m sure some skiers do the same whether there is a camera there or not, but in the pro ski film industry, the skiers are basically stuntmen (and very occasional women) who are planning and executing fairly complex, dangerous and difficult maneuvers. To say they’d most often go to that trouble and ski that same way while not being filmed defies logic. I’m sure they might ski in a similar style when the camera is not pointed their way, but in my opinion and from what I’ve heard, skiing “for the camera” is definitely part of the game. If nothing else, I’d imagine they stop mid-run once in a while when not on camera (grin).

    Steve, it’s axiomatic that in any sport people who do it at a high level have multiple motivations — on camera or off. My point is that when the activity switches over to “work,” and someone dies, it opens up some ethical questions, especially when the work requires high physical risk to create the kind of film people will watch and like. More, enjoyment or passion doesn’t necessarily make an activity healthy, or right.

    Gloor, every time I hear about the SkiCo shooting film in the backcountry I wonder the same thing. I’d imagine they have the necessary permits and such, but it would be nice to know for sure, as not being able to see Dav’s film still stings.

  19. John Eaton April 10th, 2008 7:19 am

    I agree and how many times have I watched one of those clips and wondered,did he live?
    At the service yesterday alot of Wallaces young fiends got up and spoke on what a great kid he was,always smiling, helping others and how he never messed up or made a mistake. It was so sad!
    There was this illusion of invincablitiy that was crushed. Kids were trying to grasp the finality of what many of his young friends considered his 1st mistake.
    I had a chance to talk to a couple of his 14 or 15 year old teamates and gently point out to them that at that level mistakes can kill, that he was human and that we all make mistakes and the results can be brutal.
    We need to point this out to as many kids as posible. This is the type of event where they have to listen, at least the smart ones will.
    One thing was very clear yesterday, the Westfeltds are a great family and very loved in this valley. The service was a great tribute to a great kid . He will be missed and we all mourned together.

  20. Jason Troth April 10th, 2008 7:36 am

    Very good to see the general feeling is the same across the board.
    1. We need to all stick to the roots of backcountry skiing and boarding.
    2. When the camera comes out, it should be done in stride with what is already being skied anyway.
    3. Accidents do happen, so prepare your mind, body and equipment to the best of your ability.
    I spoke with Tom Burt back in Feb. and found out that he has put together, and is teaching, a program on guiding film crews in Alaska. While this will not improve the plot or the one-up style of the films, it
    should help to establish the etiquite needed to expand the scope of awareness regarding the safety of both athletes, film crews and guides.

    Yesterday, Wallace’s dad said “We don’t get to choose how long we play the game, but we get to choose how well we play it.”
    Props to Tom, and all the best to the Westfeld’s.

  21. Lou April 10th, 2008 7:43 am

    Nice words Eaton and Jason, thanks.

  22. Frank April 10th, 2008 8:44 am

    First off, I would like to send my condolences to the friends and family, something I forgot to do in my previous post.

    Regarding some earlier comments, I really do think that most athletes are skiing more or less what they want to. Maybe without a camera they would go a little slower, or jump a little smaller, or catch their breath, but generally speaking the lines I’ve skied I’ve skied because they speak to me.

    Something else I didn’t mention previously is that the hardest line is NOT necessarily the best filming line. The same goes for comps- getting down the most difficult line in a venue is great and all, but if a competitor is going 5mph and walking over rocks to do it, they won’t score well as someone who skied an easier, more fluid line. As another example, if MSP wanted to film Davenport on a 14er and get the permits that Dav didn’t, which would they choose- Capital or the East face of Huron? Capital is many times harder, but it is not a line that can just be “ripped” top to bottom. Instead, there are all kinds of rock bands and even a switch back to crampons in the middle, which is not the kind of footage showcased in MSP/TGR movies. (not to say that many people wouldn’t enjoy a gripping, albeit slow, ski mountaineering segment, but that’s not what makes movies these days). The east face of Huron looks steep, but would be perfect for high speed, aggressive skiing top to bottom, hopefully with all kinds of slough in the right conditions, and would make for some good footage.

  23. Eddy Hamlan April 10th, 2008 10:24 am

    Let’s face it, we have all done things in our lives that have involved risk. The only difference betwen Billy Poole and the rest of us is that we have survived our stupid or ill-informed choices in the backcountry. Being lucky or living in an office 10 hours a day does not give anyone the right to pass judgement on the industry or filming or the athletes.

    Do you think that famed ski-mountaineer Mark Newcomb cared that the cameras were rolling when making the film, The Line? No. It did not impact his judgement whatsoever – as demonstrated in the movie, he would be out there anyway. The same can be said for Doug Coombs (RIP), Shane McConkey, Seth Morrison, Eric Pollard, Jeremy Jones, Travis Rice, Craig Kelly (RIP) and most of these athletes…the only reason they are now being filmed is because of their commitment to the sport prior to ever being caught on tape.

    Thank you to Frank for illuminating the much more dangerous pitfalls of Freeride comps, something many of you would (or will) gladly sign your children up for. Now that’s a worthwhile discussion.

  24. Scott Nelson April 10th, 2008 1:46 pm

    Having been out there the day the accident happened (I wasn’t with Wallace’s group, but on the ridge above where the accident happened), I wondered if maybe they had a false sense of security by being so close to Aspen Highlands, i.e. rescue would be pretty quick if something happened. I don’t know. It took a good while for rescuers to get to Wallace. I just thought that if you go out of bounds (or even in bounds for that matter), you have to realize that you’re really on your own and that anything could happen. I didn’t know Wallace, but I feel saddened that someone at such a young age died.
    I apprecicate John Eaton’s comments that maybe there is a sense of not really realizing your own mortality. I didn’t when I was younger. But, on on the other hand, even recently when I’ve rock climbed solo on some routes that certainly would have probably killed me if I fell, I knew what could have happened but accepted it anyways. I was just driven by the challenge and the pure enjoyment of what I was doing. Not unlike most anyone who takes risks. I’ve always thought that to really live, you must risk. That doesn’t mean you go out and try to kill yourself, but life is meant to be lived (which is risky), not to sit on the couch and live vicariously through the television. My heart goes out to the Westfeldt’s. I wish them hope and healing.

  25. Geof April 10th, 2008 2:11 pm


    You make a good point RE soloing a rock route. My question though is, were on your limit, or under it? My guess it under, probably significantly. I TOTALLY agree that life is to be lived, however, there ARE limits. It’s a simple matter of the laws of nature. We ALL take our chances out there and most likely push the boundries. My guess is, if one frequents this page one is on the fringe of what most would consider “safe” skiing.

    Basically we have to ask ourselves at what point does luck take over VS skill. I suggest that with most of these big hucks luck plays a bigger role that skill overall. Sheer cajones, vs realized experience. I’m cool with that, it’s just tragic that it results in this types of situations. There will be more unfortunately.

    To another post, I disagree somewhat with the assertion that these hucks are all carfully calculated etc. Early this season a young kid (name eacapes me) was killed on a line that the judges had recommended NOT be skied. He looked at it, didn’t walk it and died on it, on a hard flat landing which then became a significant fall. So not all are as carefully planned as we might hope.

    To the family, condolences. Even though he died “doing what he loved” it is still a young life snuffed too early.

  26. Jim Jones April 11th, 2008 9:32 am

    Freeski comps are pretty silly and I don’t like judged sports very much, too much room for interpretation. I went to the CB comp in the 90’s and was in 2nd place after the first day. I didn’t come back the next day because the skiing was a joke. People skiing contrived lines that made no sense to me, and a number of participants were pretty poor skiers anyway.
    And its even worse these days with the equipment doing half the work, making an average skier much better.
    I know a few people in Aspen, my home town, that were good skiers but when they got the shaped skis they started looking like worldcup skiers, when before they only had average technique.
    I’ve had about 20 friends die in the mountains and its always sad, especilly with one so young, my heart felt condolences.

  27. Mike Marolt April 11th, 2008 10:55 am

    To Eddie Hamlan:
    Regarding the impact on judgment, yes, Mark Newcomb would be out there anyway, but Shish was a fully funded & filmed expedition. If only by being there, it impacted him at some level. And if you don’t think even a guy like Mark falls victim to kodak courage, check out Sepi Kangri, another fully funded film / expedition with Mark. Fast forward to the end of the film when his team set off a huge avalance during a Powder Magazine shoot at the end of the expedition; he said he let the shoot for a sponsor impair his judgment and almost paid the ultimate price. Its all there in the film. So if you think shoots and crews don’t impact, you are denying what is actually happening out there. Also, having been in films and also producing 6 of my own, trust me, i don’t care who you are dealing with; you point a camera and people act differently.

    As for working in an office 10 hours a day, it has allowed me to fund most of my 40 some expeditions so i don’t have to deal with the film crew thing; after an oln / nbc film crew filmed our shish expedition in 2000, my buddies and i said NEVER again. We don’t think it is healthy in those dangerous places. I get the shots on my own, for personal reasons, and even that changes the team at times.

    No one, me included, was judging anyone for commitment, ability, or being bad or wrong. Rather, for me, my opinion was about the impact of the films and photo shoots, kodac courage. My suspicions are being confirmed every day.

    [email removed to prevent harvesting by spambots]

  28. Eddy Hamlan April 12th, 2008 6:21 am

    Thanks Mike, your points are well taken. Have not seen Sepi Kangri.

    To my point about Freeride comps, sadly, check out this link:

    RIP Johnny Nicoletta & Wallace Westfeldt

  29. Dave Budge April 14th, 2008 9:20 am

    Reading this after John Nicoletta’s death is bizarre. I just happened to start watching a few minutes before his run. Horrible, brutal. I’ll never forget it. Immediately, I felt he was dead. A terrible thing to see.
    Over the last few days I’ve thought a lot about it. Like you said Lou, the overarching theme in my mind is that these comps have become gladiator-like events. So, it is amazing to read this discussion which has raised all those same points, but was written before Nicoletta’s death. Same old story, different accident, another one down.
    It is our very nature to push ourselves and none are immune from external pressures. Similarly, the “illusion of invincibility” John Eaton mentions will never change, it comes part and parcel with youth. I’m not sure what to do about it. Perhaps moving to more narrative film formats and celebrating personalities more than hucking skills will help. I don’t know.
    I alternate between being hopeful and pessimistic for the younger generations. Many young people show up in my avalanche classes, but seem to use the info to rationalize pushing it harder. However, like Haille Skilasse, I have seen young guns in the backcountry, waiting for the cameras to roll, apparently clueless. Another crew, 2 days after taking their Level II avy class, triggered avalanches that results in minor injuries. They understood the risk and hazard but pushed it anyway. Although more extreme, the recent deaths just further illustrate these problems. Remember when Paul Ruff died? That seemed so big and relatively rare. Now, several hucking deaths in the last few months? Wow.
    RIP all the young ones (Westfeldt, Poole, Nicoletta, and the next..). My condolences to families and friends left behind.

  30. Lou April 14th, 2008 3:01 pm

    I remember Paul Ruff’s cliff jumping death well, and remember writing about it in Wild Snow (the book). Back then I felt it signified something quite possibly dark, a real change in how folks go about extreme skiing, where instead of picking tough terrain and trying to deal with it in the most controlled manner possible, they’d pick any terrain and deal with it in ways that make it more dangerous. Whether you think that’s right or wrong, you have to admit it’s a big change in the sport. Where did it lead? Pretty obvious, sadly enough.

    One thing we’re not speaking of here is the carnage in terms of injuries that’s been going on with all this. That’s another subject, and harder to quantify because you don’t hear about all the injuries, but they’re all too common and frequently life changing.

    Such happens in World Cup ski racing as well, but my gut feeling not near to the same degree.

  31. Hans April 14th, 2008 4:30 pm

    For whatever it’s worth, I wrote about this for Powder this winter:

    It’s a familiar scenario: a contest/media event/film shoot/ski descent with high-consequence terrain or features. An athlete and or/crew lacking the experience to realistically analyze the situation. The mental pressure of ego, sponsorship, media obligations. The results are predictable: spectacular shredding and the occasional crumpled dead body or unscheduled ICU visit.

    Whether it’s skiing the gnarliest line on Everest, clearing a massive gap, or repeating some scratchy horrorfest Chamonix descent, if the goal is really freaking dangerous in the first place, and the skiers and/or event managers lack the relevant experience, you don’t have to be a psychic to predict carnage. But it just keeps happening. These worst-case scenarios for risk management are only possible with the support of media and sponsors- and they should know better.

    The brilliant thing about our chosen medium is that, as Jamie Pierre proved, with enough powder you can freefall 250 feet, land on your head, and emerge unscathed from the resulting crater. Thanks to experience and preparation, Jamie’s record-setting switch headplant was a gentle kiss compared to overshooting a big terrain park tabletop.

    Nordic ski jumpers routinely stick 400 footers. Speed skiers have gone more than 160 mph. Chris Davenport skied a lifetime’s worth of gnarly peak descents just in the last year. Pierre Tardival has been dropping major lines in the Alps for more than twenty years. Heli-skiing in AK has a [nearly] perfect safety record.

    There’s plenty of room in the envelope to progress the sport without resorting to kamikaze tactics. You can do amazing things on a pair of skis, but you have to work your way up to it, so that you have the skills and knowledge to do it right when there’s a window of opportunity. Trying to force that window open is asking for a beatdown.

    Unfortunately, the people who tend to want to go big (young men) are generally piss-poor at risk analysis, and it’s not intuitive: it’s only 50% higher, but you hit the deck five times harder from thirty feet up than twenty. Likewise, if anything goes wrong during an Everest ski descent (current fatality-to-successful-descent ratio for summiteers: 1:3), you will probably die.
    Despite the absurd odds, some skiers will always go for the perceived glory and the cynic in me says maybe that’s ok–its just natural selection in action. Inexperienced skiers may pull the trigger, but I’m not quite cynical enough to think that anyone should load the gun for them.

    Last year, third-tier ski filmmaker Rage Films convinced a small ski resort to host a Superpark-style film shoot. The resort built a 100-plus-foot gap that would require a sketchy high-speed snowmobile tow-in. Derek Spong, a sixteen-year old up-and-comer, volunteered to guinea pig the gap. He shorted, hitting the front of the landing wedge, and almost died from internal injuries. Were his parents feeling litigious, they could have sued the pants off of everyone involved — even the most rabid libertarian has to admit that catapulting a minor off a giant ramp at sixty miles per hour is probably treading rather close to reckless endangerment and criminal negligence (when I contacted him, Spong said that under the right circumstances he might do it again, doesn’t seem anxious to blame anyone, and feels that people going big for the cameras or at competitions is what helps our sport progress.)

    Progression or not, big gaps are dangerous, high-speed towing is sketchy; hitting a 100+ foot tow-in gap for the first time is statistically comparable to Russian Roulette or playing in freeway traffic.

    Before he died shorting a record cliff-drop attempt, Paul Ruff said, “Dying ain’t much of a way to make a living.” For young skiers and inexperienced film crews or event managers, this may not be clear, but there’s no reason for media or sponsors to support suicide scenarios. You can argue that taking risks is necessary for progress, and I agree. That said, they don’t need to be ridiculously stupid risks. And I would suggest that giant terrain park gaps, skiing Mt. Everest, or repeating some gnarly Chamonix descent with hard snow are not only stupid, but also not a “progression” – it’s all been done already.

  32. Lou April 14th, 2008 5:17 pm

    Hans, that’s some interesting stuff. That kid on the gap sounds ridiculous. Boys will be boys. I sure did a lot of dumb stuff back in my youth, but very little if any of it was encouraged by adults.

    Backstory about kids and their worldview: A friend who’s a coach came by here the other day. During our chat told me one day while he was a around a bunch of younger teenagers he overheard this conversation:

    Teen 1: Dude, I got sponsored.
    Teen 2: Dude, what did you get?
    Teen 1: Stickers, man!

  33. Hans April 14th, 2008 11:42 pm

    Thanks Lou, and sorry for the excess spray.

    Agreed, kids will always do dumb stuff (even without stickers), and figuring out limits is part of growing up. But hoping that they figure out the limits with 800cc snowmobiles and giant kickers, or big-mountain scenarios that are levels beyond their experience–while cameras are rolling–seems a little optimistic. You mention World Cup racing, which is a great comparison in terms of risk management.

    And as Mr. Marolt notes above, adults can also put themselves in situations where media and sponsorship may be affecting the decision making process. Hans Saari’s choice to drop in the Gervasutti in poor conditions (instead of testing it on belay) comes to mind.

    Video of the unfortunate (and clearly very durable) Mr. Spong is here:

  34. AJ April 15th, 2008 8:08 am

    progression of the sport?

    a small jump for Derek Spong, a giant leap for mankind….

  35. Weems Westfeldt April 20th, 2008 3:14 pm

    This is a good and worthy discussion. All that I’d like to add to it is that people should be very careful about generalizing when they don’t know the circumstances.

    What killed Wallace was a rock underneath the snow. His aorta was ruptured so rescue would have been impossible.

    He was a fairly conservative rider in these conditions, and I’ve seen him say “no” many times.

    He worked with his brother, Packy–taking pictures of lines, discussing them, discussing snow speeds, length of jump, and much more.

    I wish he hadn’t done this. But there is nothing here that suggests to me that he hadn’t really looked this over, that it wasn’t well within his skill and experience level, and that he did it for money or fame. He was just very proud to express himself this way. This was what he DID out there.

    I can’t speak for ANYONE else who does this. But as a parent, I was satisfied that the odds of something like this happening were significantly diminished by his preparation, wisdom, and attitude. And even more significantly less than, say, getting killed in traffic.

    We are heart broken, and this crappy movie didn’t end this morning, nor will it end tomorrow. But I know that these kind of things must be discussed. And I hope film makers and athletes will be wiser and more aware as they explore the limits.

    I also hope that in your discussions, that you don’t conjecture or second guess Wallace. You really don’t know what happened. You weren’t there–either in the snow or in Wallace’s head. There are a lot of details that we have chased down, and conversations that were had before the accident. I know much of the story, yet I don’t know it all. And I know more than most do.

    Thank you, however, for having the discussion. If it turns people who are NOT prepared away from this stuff, that will be a good thing.

    Weems Westfeldt

  36. Lou April 20th, 2008 3:29 pm

    Thanks Weems,

    First, let me offer heartfelt condolences from our family to yours.

    Here at we believe these types of discussions are important — a way of honoring those whom tragedy touches, as well as perhaps preventing other misfortune.

    Nonetheless, such dialog will always be imperfect, as yes, no one knows every detail. Even so, I believe we know enough about this winter’s accidents for folks to do some intelligent posting on the issues of risk/reward, ski movie making, the current state of skiing style and the like. Generalizations can actually help with this, as getting into details can detract from the greater issues. Even so, Weems, if there is anything here that’s an outright mistruth or just obviously wrong, please feel free to point it out and I’ll edit where possible.

    Lou Dawson

  37. Weems Westfeldt April 20th, 2008 5:31 pm

    Fair enough, Lou. And thank you.

    And I don’t see any problems now and I’m not asking for editing. It’s just that, when people make generalizations about risks that people are taking, and discussing Wallace in the same thread, there is a tendency for readers, and perhaps other writers to make assumptions about Wallace that are just not accurate. He took great pride in his professionalism, and I just don’t want his expression to be misrepresented or misunderstood.

    I just want people to know that he was not heedless. This was not a stupid huck, without planning or intelligence. He was very professional, measured, and thoughtful.

    Y’all be careful out there.


  38. Billy Ryder April 22nd, 2008 8:01 am

    To the Westfeldt family– this has to be a very difficult time – my condolences

    The real blame here is the ski resort marketing, which has been promoting unsafe behavior. Instead of advertising family fun activity, the new marketing kids are each trying to outdo each other with big air and cliff jumping. So few people can do this extreme jumping activity, this type of photo actually is stopping people from trying the sport for fear of failure.

    This type of extreme jumping is not what mothers want to see. And who picks the family vacation site ? Why has skiing and snowboarding become completely flat in sales ? The Cruise ship industry is kicking the ski business into a 3rd tier activity. The Cruise business knows how to advertise.

    The ski industry’s dirty little secret is the huge number of serious injuries caused by big air, huge hits and the like. This type of injury producing jumping activity is protected by state law to save the resorts from being sued for building unsafe jumps and features. The legal check and balance system has been eliminated by the State of Colorado — why? – Money. Remember in Colorado -85% of all the skier traffic is run by just 3 ski corporations.
    Profits over people.

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