Hand Cut – The Movie — Are We Predestined to Ski?

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | September 8, 2008      
Colorado backcountry skiing.
Images from Hand Cut, the movie.

Are we the sum of our past?

True to at least some extent, most agree. Yet pick apart the concept and you run up against a conundrum. If our past dictates our actions, then how much free will do we really have?

Examining that question too carefully can drive you crazy as rebuilding an engine and discovering you’ve got one small part left over. But “Hand Cut,” the new ski flick from Sweetgrass Productions, at least got me thinking about it. And throwing a few brain cells that direction was perhaps worth a blog, or two?

The only narrative in Hand Cut is from a couple of old miners and coal locomotive operators talking about ancient days. The rest of the flick is high quality ski porn that’s definitely top tier, turns set to music, no captions, no narration.

First impression: What an odd combo. I mean, are not all these guys (film makers and young skiers) environmental wackos to whom mining (not to mention coal) is the devil, and such a past to be denied or at least vilified? Yet the idea filmmaker Nick Waggoner is presenting — that our mountain culture has a past which at the least enriches what we do, and perhaps is why we do it — is a worthy thought experiment.

Think about it. In the physical sense, mountain towns such as Telluride or Truckee birthed from mining. Such town’s parentage informs their spirit, if not makes it. Self sufficiency, hard work and hard play. All leading to our North American style of backcountry skiing, which differs from that of Europe in its emphasis on self sufficiency and the elevation of human muscle power to an almost religious virtue.

Indeed, the PR for Hand Cut makes sure you know that all the skiing was done with human powered vertical. No helicopters, no ski lifts. Hearkening back to 1800s miners mucking out the gold with calloused hands as hard as their shovel handles.

What’s more, now that industrial tourism and the construction and amenity economy is showing its true colors in places such as Aspen, does anyone with at least half a mind wonder if having a few mines and fewer second homes might be a better mix? Most certainly not the land rape of the late 1800s mineral era, but some modern holes to balance things out? After all, as the saying goes, if you can’t grow it you’ve got to mine it — and our mountain towns now do precious little of either.

Here is the thing. Many of us seek context for the recreation lifestyle we live in our mountain towns. Some begin to doubt or at least sense it as worthless hedonism, and even turn to drugs or alcohol (or ever more risk) to give recreation the edge they seek. Indeed, it’s easy to criticize our lifestyle as little more than a house teetering on a shaky foundation.

Answer: For better or worse in the modern world we’ve created a high pressure society that needs pursuits of freedom to escape the press of day-to-day job and family. Those of us in mountain towns are one group that leads the way in that recreation. Brought up as mountain boys and girls, we go on to become guides, writers and the like, or we simply participate in social networks who shovel the recreational gold. Only we dig it with tools such as skis, bicycles and climbing shoes. Personally, I’ve come to see value in that, and to avoid an almost inevitable descent into anomie I’d suggest any alpinist should do the same.

As for the power of the past, perhaps we muck the white gold out of choice rather than predestiny. But when you drive the same roads those miner’s built, hike the same trails and live on the same land, you have to admit those guys have an influence.

For example, we live in a 100+ year old farmer and coal miner’s house. Not a week goes by that I don’t think of who might have been here before us and what hard work they might have done that created what we have. Indeed, it’s said the silver mined up in Aspen and smelted with Carbondale coal a century ago is still in use around the world for industrial chemistry and coins of the realm. Feeling the foundations of that under my feet makes my day better, causes me to get off my rear and go do stuff, and causes me to think about how I might share what we do with others.

Handcut is beautifully crafted and has a rich tapestry created by its historical component. Interestingly, the film’s athletes receive subdued billing as to their names — perhaps to emphasize the past behind them? In all, a compelling mix of powder and coal. Recommended. HandCut website

World Premier is this coming Friday evening, September 12, Wheeler Opera House, old mining town of Aspen. CU there?

Oh, one other thing, if you like Delta blues the soundtrack for this thing is phenomenal. We’ve been listening to the John-Alex Mason songs for weeks (2015, John Mason is deceased, defunct link removed).

Comments? Are we predestined to ski or just shovel coal?



11 Responses to “Hand Cut – The Movie — Are We Predestined to Ski?”

  1. Dongshow September 8th, 2008 11:00 am

    I’m with you on the second homes suppressing history, but don’t really get the appeal of mines. Yes, the minors provided some great roads, and in many places actually created great ski terrain (the sparsely treed terrain around Alta for example) but Mining requires that whatever is found beneath the surface (zinc, copper, gold, silver whatever…) is of more value then what the surface provides, namely recreation.

    Mining, like most extraction industries is a one time thing. For a ski town, that can manage to generate money by the changing of seasons, any mineral they happen to be sitting on should be looked at as money in the bank, a nice retirement fund. It’s not going anywhere, and can just as easily be mined and sold in the future if the ski industry ever crashes and the town finds itself on hard times.

  2. Lou September 8th, 2008 12:13 pm

    Earth first, we’ll mine the other planets later. (Just kidding).

  3. Dongshow September 8th, 2008 12:36 pm

    If anyone out there is hoping to get in on a mining community that may one day transform its self into a ski town, I recommend checking out Kyrgyzstan. The Switzerland of central Asia has massive mineral deposits, and is in prime location to supply a growing China, which in turn, may one day provide the Kyrgyz people with skiing tourists.

  4. Jay J September 8th, 2008 1:23 pm

    You had BETTER be kidding Lou; or I’ll come down there and give you an old fashion Paul Petzoldt butt kicking!!
    Berg Heil!!

  5. Lou September 8th, 2008 1:33 pm


  6. Njord September 8th, 2008 1:53 pm

    @Dongshow: Having spent some time in Kyrgystan this past winter, I can atest to the mountains being spectacular… but the amounts of new snowfall were less than impressive!

  7. camp September 11th, 2008 3:41 pm

    What’s your take on the article about Randy Udall’s ideas in the current Outside, that talks not of mining, but of a large energy footprint in the Rockies.

    Sounds like that could replace second homes too….

  8. Lou September 11th, 2008 3:59 pm

    The problem with large second homes is they need the energy, so I doubt homes could replace energy development or vice versa!

    I’ll check out the Udall article, Randy is friend so I can always give him a call if I need more exposition. Might make a good blog. So thanks for the heads up Camp.

  9. Jefferson Gray September 13th, 2008 10:55 pm


    First, congratulations on getting a kid out the door to college.

    You and the new film poke us: did Colorado’s old economy founded on mineral wealth inevitably lead us to the “pinecone economy” of today?

    Well, yes and no. Mining collapsed more dramatically in some places than others, it continues alongside tourism in some places (like Gunnison County) whereas in others (like Pitkin) it is effectively dead. Where it collapsed completely, the unionized work, communities of solidarity and eventually the people left as well.

    It took most of the 20th century for that to happen in your neighborhood where the explosive growth has been fueled by cheap gasoline and airline deregulation. Lots of people from somewhere else can afford to put up a third or fourth home in Aspen and a whole foodchain of work supporting the recreation lifestyle follows in their wake. It does indeed work for people who are not looking far beyond tomorrow’s mogul run for meaning, but it is not family friendly.

    And it is indeed built on shaky foundations. The rising costs of fuel undermine an economy based upon easy access and using personal transportation.
    A real estate market geared towards pleasing the cream of planet makes it difficult for born and raised locals to buy a house over their heads without selling the land they inherited from under their feet. And nobody can make up their mind whether there are too many migrant laborers or not enough. Mexicans drinking on their stoops – people used to complain about the Italians and Slovenians doing the same thing a century back – make some folks uncomfortable, but who’s going to build the houses, do the landscaping and run the restaurant kitchens?

    So if the rising global demand for oil undoes this economy the way falling demand for silver killed the old one, what’s left? The new internet infrastructure holds out hope that mountain kids might do something other than share their favorite trails with the überrich, but what? There are knowledge economy workers in the area – I used to be one of them – but they only fill artisanal niches, not agglomerating into economies of scale like the think tanks found in the Front Range or the Wasatch.

    So enjoy the film and think about the resonance of the mountain past you find in the present. But be prepared to find more than nostalgia in the mining legacy. The ghosts of the old houses are telling us something: if you stay here you need to do something else.



  10. Lou September 15th, 2008 8:10 am

    Nice essay Jefferson, thanks. This stuff needs scrutiny, that’s for sure. And indeed, those ghosts to speak. But some mining works. In Marble, the quarry is doing quite well for example.

    As for who we share our recreation wealth with, it might be mostly the uberrich if one is working a local such as Aspen. But overall there are thousands of middle class folks who use guidebooks and how-to books, read magazines (and blogs), watch movies, use the huts we found and volunteer for, and even hire guides. So I think my point is valid about what us mountain folk can do that’s more than self gratification.

  11. Jefferson Gray September 15th, 2008 1:15 pm

    Hi again Lou,

    Thank your for your kind remarks about my short essay. Unfortunately, it’s damn pithy for the plate you put out for us. The political-economy that underlies the neighborhood is troubling and I couldn’t do justice to like problems of land use and access – one of y(our) favorites, water rights, acid snow, public infrastructure and such. So let me hold what I have to say here close.

    About the Marble quarry: yes, it’s at work, but it’s not a model for mining in the region.

    I don’t think marble quarrying is a good comparison with other mining operations in the area, which concentrate on energy (coal, shale oil) or precious metals (molybdenum). Marble is rare, not only in the region, but globally: only Vermont and Italy have white(ish) Marble approaching Yule quality. If you want the pure white stuff with no off-color veins, there’s only one hole in the ground that has it.

    But that operation currently only employs around 100 people, not like the thousands of the past, and there’s only so much of it. It will be gone someday, Rex won’t even discuss how much is left.

    Other operations in the region could employ larger numbers but for the vicious side effects from destroyed wilderness, poison tailings and acid snow. AMAX could employ thousands for a molybdenum project in Gunnison County but you won’t find any of real estate agents or ranchers – or you! – asking for it.

    Two more things: much of the current boom at the quarry is Yule for export thanks to a weak U.S. dollar. We can’t count on the Treasury supporting a weak dollar policy by choice, that leaves the region as vulnerable as it was to dependence on silver. Also, much of the stone cutting is for volume extraction, not for finished products. So in this sense it’s like logging hardwoods without furniture makers. The Italians protect the value of their marble by developing a cadre of professional stone cutters to increase the value-added and boost local employment. We don’t do that here, we leave it to the haphazard quality of local artisans who can’t really work on projects larger than kitchen counters.

    As for the outdoor lifestyle economy in the area, it’s the critical mass and trickle-down from the foibles and fun of the uberrich that allow a “middle-class” to buy and speculate over average-priced valley homes exceeding six figures in the valley.

    As a parent of college age kids I have to ask you: what level and kind of education will your children need to achieve before they can work and buy a house in the Valley? After how many years working somewhere else? And how many kids in Carbondale can say they were lucky to have a family like yours, what work are they going to do?

    Personally, I couldn’t do it. I chose to overspecialize in my work to the point that I had to leave to be paid well for it. My cousin and his wife and new baby boy stayed and are making a go of it, but they live in a semi-feudal situation working a ranch. Despite ten years with his employer one bad day on the job could leave them commuting from a trailer park with meth lab neighbors to service jobs with no benefits. I worry for them, both selfishly and because I know too many young families in the area in similar straits.

    The West Slope needs to do better.



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