It’s a rare to see someone caught in a avalanche make a movie about it. Even rarer is when that someone is a professional mountain guide who has dedicated his life to calculating and mitigating risk for himself and others in the mountains.
The new film Solving for Z, featuring Exum mountain guide Zahan Billimoria and released by Patagonia and TGR last week, is not your typical ski film. It is less a celebration of defying gravity in the mountains than a deep introspective look into the cost of living a life in pursuit of risk.
Billimoria is disciple of the mountains. For 20 years, he’s lived and worked as a skiing and climbing in the Tetons. He has advised on safety and route development for TGR films including Jeremy Jones’s Deeper. He has completed numerous notable descents on peaks around the world. But while climbing up to ski the Skillet Glacier on Mt. Moran in 2015, he and three partners pulled to the side of a couloir to let a stream of snow sluff by. When he looked back to his partners, he realized they’d been swept away. Two died.
Then, in spring of 2020 at the start of the global pandemic and the first day of shooting the film Solving for Z, Billimoria took a ride of his own. By chance, the avalanche was caught on GoPro (and is featured in the opening scenes of the movie). The aftermath aftermath of the accident provide a play-by-play illustration of Solving for Z’s main point — accidents in the mountains are determined by margins of inches and life or death is often a matter of luck.
On the latest episode of Totally Deep, Doug and I call up Z to get the lowdown on the film, the events that led up to his avalanche, and the importance of removing stigma and shame from avalanche incidents.
Read an abridged version of the conversation below. Check out the podcast for the full interview, and watch Solving for Z on YouTube.
WS: This movie arrives at a perfect time with everything going on in the backcountry right now. How did the idea for the film come about?
ZB: The credit for the whole movie idea goes the guys at TGR, actually almost 3 years ago. The way I felt about it then was ‘Oh, it’ll be a retrospective on a high risk period in my life that was marked by some of the lessons of living in a high risk community’. It was a lot about community because that period was marked by so much loss. It wasn’t just me managing risk. It was me experiencing the upside of risk for all of these years and slowly progressing my way into the mountains and experiencing the joy of the mountains. We were so studious. We had all of these mentors. We were a bunch of young guys like AJ Linnell, Wray Landon, myself, a bunch of young guys in Teton Valley. None of those guys are still here.
We were approaching with trepidation but were nonetheless continuing to seek bigger mountains and more far flung objectives. Then came this period where all of the sudden I really started seeing the downside of risk. At the heart of the movie, there’s the story of somebody that survives that period but then tries to carry on with that career. Those moments and experiences of loss were really a catalyst for the career that came after, and my passion for education and mentorship which was been a big part of the later part of my career.
So it’s supposed to be this nicely packaged retrospective, but instead I went and got avalanched right in the beginning of making the film.
WS: The avalanche happened while you were making the movie? How many days had you been filming before it happened?
ZB: One day. But we weren’t filming the day of the accident. I happened to be wearing a camera which I never do. Go Pro had sent me one but I wasn’t really using it. Right before I got avalanched, I thought ‘yeah I should use it’ and just ended up capturing this nearly life ending moment.
That was a huge crossroads in the film because I definitely didn’t want to go telling that story. No mountain guide wants to go out there and tell the world how they screwed up, and how the mountains got the better of them and they’re a 20 year veteran and all of those things.
WS: A thread in the film is the question that if you gather enough information you can calculate your way out of risk. So what were the calculations you went through on the day of the avalanche?
ZB: It’s complicated. We decided to climb this mountain that involved a traverse across a moderately steep slope. We had good stability, we had a perfect forecast for a bluebird day. So it seemed reasonable.
Right as we were at the moment where we’d have to make that traverse, the wind picked up so we decided to wait and watch how it played out. As we were waiting, this other team decided to go for it. They just marched across in front of us. They broke trail right across the start zone. It didn’t seem like an unreasonable decision but it made my situation much simpler because they were going to go ahead and take all the risk while I was scratching my head for a moment. Then they got to the ridge and they turned around and came back. So now they broke trail back and forth, and I was like ‘now I feel good’.
They left and we didn’t really communicate. We hopped in their track, gained the ridge. The weather started getting better and better. We climb the ridge and shortly thereafter the weather starts to turn. That wasn’t in the forecast but we’re like ‘ah you know it happens.’ So we keep carrying up the ridge, there’s really no avalanche hazard, but within about half an hour things had changed quite dramatically.
As we approached the upper part of the mountain, we were engulfed in this storm. And the path of the storm was such that the way we’d come up was now closed because it had been loaded. We discussed. If we had visibility, we’d be able to ski the mountain as we had originally intended to, but as we kept climbing higher and higher, the weather was getting worse and worse. By the time we summited it was really poor. It was loading rapidly and the visibility was nonexistent.
Dropping onto the face was unreasonable and retracing our steps was unreasonable.
We ended up having a rather complex navigation where we went back down the ridge and then had to cut along this snowfield that was in the middle of a cliff band and traverse a snowfield into a lower apron that was much more protected. That offered up a safe passage through a complicated situation.
We skied that lower part of the face that had a big wall in it, which provided nice relief and we were able to really enjoy the skiing. It had been several hours of being quite anxious about the conditions that led to the moment where I got avalanched. When I look back on that, I see how much my own relief that things were working out and we were now just in the exit couloir played into me making a choice. When I look back on that footage, I cringe, and I think any experienced skier would cringe because it’s obviously loading.
I glide into what should’ve been a very aggressive ski cut and instead I coasted in there. If you look at that very last moment, there’s a small slab that’s right in my horizontal trajectory. I should’ve stepped up, I should’ve fought elevation with everything I had to be as high as I possible could be in order to cut in a reasonable way. As I came level with that rock I thought on it’s fine I’ll just go below it. And that was a critical mistake.
WS: How did that accident influence the film?
ZB: It changed it a lot. We had seven days to film and we only got one. More importantly, it changed the story. The story was supposed to be about risk and so on, but I didn’t anticipate that I’d be living through an accident live on camera. I thought I’d be the wise old man in the chair being like ‘oh what I learned is…’. But this way everybody gets to live it with me.
WS: In some ways, it’s a disheartening story from the standpoint of backcountry skiers who are always trying to learn more to make better decisions. You always want to insulate yourself with knowledge but at some point, whether it’s human fallibility or what, we can’t educate ourselves out of risk.
ZB: There was a time in my life when I wouldn’t have said it out loud but I did feel like if you’re studious and diligent enough, you’ll stay on the high ground. You’ll see accidents happen around you but you’ll avoid them.
As I look back on my accident and the rest of the experiences that I had in the mountains, I think I spent the first 20 years of my career up until now really studying snow and terrain and learning how those things interplay. Now, having survived this accident, I might need to spend the next 20 years of my life studying the terrain between my ears.
WS: The film does come at perfect timing with the boom in backcountry skiing. Were you thinking about that when putting it together after the accident?
ZB: In my mind, the film isn’t really for the beginners out there anywhere. It’s for people like me. Those of us who’ve been doing it for a long time and think we have it figured out. We all see new people come in and we can identify all the things they’re doing wrong and pat our selves on the back. But the statistics don’t really bear out that it’s the newcomers that are the ones making the unthinkable mistakes, it’s people like me.
It’s not that the more experienced you get the stupider you are. But we do know as little as we like to admit it the backcountry can never truly be made safe. There is a game of exposure. Exposure increases with time. Part of what makes us so susceptible is just sheer exposure time. There’s another part too, the expert halo part or the different ways we might talk about the emotional experience of being a “expert” or professional.
WS: If it’s the more experienced skiers that are getting caught in avalanches, do you think there’s something that needs to change? Is it just a matter of developing more self awareness?
ZB: We all come to the mountains with who we are as human beings. Some of us really do hunger for risk. Risk is so enriching. In a society and a time in history when life is so predictable, we’re still human beings and some of us are still just wired to enjoy life where everything that we have is called upon to make something possible that seems impossible. Those are really the experiences that we’re looking for and those are inherently risky. In my opinion, one, I don’t think it can be trained out, and two, I’m okay with that.
The thing that I’m most passionate about in this conversation isn’t even trying to keep people safe, it’s trying to eliminate shame and guilt from conversations around accidents. In the Tetons, there’s a crew of young guys who are absolutely high level guys. Not many people know them but they’re out there just sending it all the time. They’re brilliant. They’re guys I have enormous respect for but they’re taking huge risk.
For me I’m like ‘wow that’s wild’, because I’m not at that stage. I’ve got two children, I’m married, I’m in my 40s and I’ve had my time. I’m going to continue to enjoy the mountains and I’ll still do risky things but not everyday, not like that. As a culture, as a community, we need to accept that. We need to be ok that people will choose their own level that’s okay for them and where they’re at in their life. Maybe they’re single or maybe its a conversation they’ve had with their loved ones and it’s a life that they want to build around skiing exclusively and be at the front leading edge of what skiing can be. That’s always going to be dangerous.
We have this normative kind of approach to skiing, like ‘if I’ve settled on this being acceptable risk for me than that much also be acceptable risk for you’.
WS: There was a day in our area where a slide occurred in a popular zone and some members of the party involved just took off because they didn’t want to be associated with it. There was also an immediate pile-on about how the skier who got caught was in the wrong. It was one of the darker days in the ski community here.
ZB: I’ve had that experience as the victim of being in an accident and people just being like ‘I’m out of here’ because it could’ve involved them. As humans, there’s something — in some people particularly — that it’s so important to be right. If something happens that reveals that you weren’t right or that you were lucky, that’s something sometimes we can’t tolerate.
Shaming is the way to say, hey, you’re on one side of the line and I’m on a different side of the line. And often that’s done when the person feels like actually we do the same thing. We both screwed up but you got caught so I can draw the line.
I think it’s really unfortunate we have the kind of culture where people yearn to be right so much and the way they can prove their rightness is to make sure everybody knows ‘I saw that coming. I knew that was the wrong call’. What it does is, it’s an attempt to live in a world in which we refuse to believe that luck is a part of how we survive this game. But that’s the truth.
For the whole story, listen to the podcast episode and watch Solving for Z.
Manasseh Franklin is a writer, editor and big fan of walking uphill. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction and environment and natural resources from the University of Wyoming and especially enjoys writing about glaciers. Find her other work in Alpinist, Adventure Journal, Rock and Ice, Aspen Sojourner, AFAR, Trail Runner and Western Confluence.