This is the first piece in a new WildSnow oral history project called Picture Show. Mike Gardner (the skier) and Jason Thompson (the photographer) discuss a classic photo from Hyalite Canyon.
I’ve always been drawn more toward the still image than motion pictures. Perhaps it is my busy mind; photographs induce calm. As much as I’m captivated by the classic black-and-white vistas of the American West, there’s something even more quixotic about photographs capturing the human spirit in far-out places or positions. We all likely have our own idea of what constitutes beauty in adventure photography, particularly ski images. Often the lighting is perfect, the snow perfect, and the skier and turns are perfect. And often, the work going into that image is laborious, from wardrobe selection to sun angles and multiple takes. Many beautiful images are less organic and journalistic, and more a function of a refined eye adding shine to the skier’s artistry and athleticism.
Sometimes those photos make us fall prey to romantic notions of skiing perfection. Rather than being in the moment, we aspire to a skiing fantasy.
In this first oral history, we’ll learn about an authentic photo with nothing posed about it.
Last winter, I found myself in Hyalite Canyon outside Bozeman, being hauled around by my teenager. We were eyeing an ice-climb and ski combo for the family outing.
“Mike Gardner skied that ice climb,” my son said as he pointed at Twin Falls Left. I simply didn’t have the vision for it; I must have said something like, “holy sh!#,” and then tried to warm my frozen digits by staring at my feet.
It had been over 25 years since I had climbed in Hyalite. Half a lifetime ago, Twin Falls was my first ice climb. All I can say is that I was humbled — and I know it is not a difficult climb for most.
On that day, not far away, a literal North American climbing legend was lapping a route that, at the time, looked otherworldly to me. I’ll speak for myself as I had two partners there, too: I’m sure I looked like a bumbler. I was a bumbler. But a stoked bumbler. The world-class climber, out for what was likely a warm-down, shouted encouragement nonetheless.
This fall, I noticed that Bozeman-based photographer Jason Thompson posted an image of Mike Gardner skiing Twin Falls for his 2023 calendar. I wanted to know more. My love for the image stems from Thompson’s snap capturing a moment where one skier’s vision is the focal point. It looks like a cloudy day; there’s no perfect sunlight kiss. No bright colors. Gardner isn’t poised to arc a perfect turn and spray pow. His body position, arms extended out, is very real, as is the position of it all.
Gardner stuck it.
Here’s the image’s backstory, as told by Mike Gardner and Jason Thompson. Thanks to both of them for jumping in head first.
WildSnow: I’m curious from your side, what do you recall at the start of that day? Was there any discussion about how Twin Falls was filled in, and someone might ski it?
Jason Thompson: At the start of that day, there was absolutely no talk of shredding Twin Falls. It definitely was a game-time decision by Mike. That season it had been snowing a lot; the snowpack was deep and in good shape, or about as good as it can get for Southwest Montana.
I met Mike that season, and the day he skied Twin Falls was, I think, the first day we skied together. And that was the first of many more days we skied together that season. He had been living in Bozeman with his friend Michael Hutchins, or as we like to call him, “Giggles.”
He just had a permanent grin on his face and just giggling, and that was something else about that day I recall; his grin and laughter; there was so much powder, and Hutch was just giggling the whole day.
Another friend, Dan Corn, was up visiting Gardner and Hutch in Bozeman, and he was the conduit that brought us all together.
WildSnow:Can you tell me a little about the day in general? What were you guys up to in terms of the ski tour?
Mike Gardner: I think it was maybe only the second time I’d ever skied with Jason. I’d been pretty psyched on skiing up in Hyalite at that time. Now it’s a little bit more common that people are skiing up there. I say now, like, this wasn’t that long ago; maybe that photo was a little over 10 years ago.
There are these really fun basins to skin up, above, essentially, where all the ice lines are.
We did a tour where I think we went up the Maid in the Mist Cirque and then dropped into that basin above Twin Falls and had a killer day of skiing. At that point, I think maybe we skied two or three runs in those upper basins. The plan was to have the full rap kit and just ski out and then rappel the Twin Falls rappel line.
The skiing that day was phenomenal. There was a fair bit of fresh snow. And you know, we had some great runs.
Jason Thompson: This was definitely a game-time decision by Mike. That season it had been snowing a lot. Anyhow, eventually, we dropped back in above Twin Falls. And I think Hutch, Anne Gilbert [Jason’s wife], and maybe even Dan, had already rapped down the ice. Before we knew it, Mike was just like, “Yeah, I think I’m gonna ski this waterfall.” We were all like, “what are you talking about?” He replied something like, “I think it’s skiable. I think there’s enough snow here. And we’re all just like, “Ok.”
Mike Gardner: That day, it was frickin’ classic. I remember skiing up to that thing. And JT and Hutch, and Gilbert were rigging the rappels. I was just looking at the edge of the thing and really didn’t want to put my harness on. Honestly, that was what it came down to.
Then I was like, “I think I can ski this thing.” And that was the setup for that. There was no “I’m gonna go ski Twin Falls.”
Jason Thompson: I do remember Mike standing above the line, kind of feeling the snow inching his way down a little bit. And then just being like, “Alright, I’m gonna hit that pocket of snow, bounce there, bounce here, and then stick it.”
Mike Gardner: The gully below was a bit more filled in, but it was tight. I do remember edging up to where I could sort of see the exit. There was a little patch of snow in the middle of the falls.
And that was the thing, my style of skiing has never been big air. It wasn’t like I was just gonna huck Twin Falls and hope for the best. I just would like to tie this in because this is indicative of my ski mentor and somebody who I skied with a lot when I was in my heyday of getting after it in the big mountains, was this guy Chason Russell. Growing up in the San Juans and a skiing technique he imparted to me was that it’s way cooler to make a turn where nobody else thought you could make a turn rather than go for broke and ride your tails wildly off some big air.
Jason Thompson: So if you’re looking at Twin Falls, there’s Twin Falls, right, then at the top, there’s an island cluster of trees that sort of separates the two ice flows. The climber’s left side is called Twin Falls left. He skied down Twin Falls left.
I just always try to have a camera with me; everybody has a camera now with their iPhones, but back then, I was lucky I had a camera on me and was able to just watch Gardener do one of the more impressive things I have ever seen in the mountains. It wasn’t so impressive because he skied it, but just because he had the vision for it. And then being able to execute something like that. Mike skis with soul.
I continued down the rappels and angled to the side, just getting in position, just in case anything unfortunate happened. I also remember Dan just being Dan and giving Gardner a lot of heckling… but just in a typical Dan way: good-humored and just keeping the mood light.
I was sitting in a perfect location just by chance, at about mid-height of the ice climb itself with the unobstructed view of the ice climb.
Mike Gardner: Jason barely caught the moment. There was zero setup, I kind of edged to the lip, and I was like, “I think I got this. I think I’m gonna just ski this if that’s cool. And Chase said “okay.”
Stepping back a bit, at that point in my ski life, I really shy away from the word career, I was in this transition. I used to do competitive mogul skiing and then the Freeride World Tour for a bit, and I was in this “retirement” phase. So I had a background of jumping off of things and skiing kind of wacky and weird places where you probably shouldn’t make a turn kind of runs.
But, I still had it in me, and occasionally, it would come out.
I think I had just done my last Freeride World Tour event the year before. I was in retirement from that, and I say that tongue in cheek, but I kind of like saying it. I retired from competitive skiing, which I’d been doing since I was 10 years old or something.
I think I was like shoveling roofs in Big Sky, in and out of school: it was my figuring myself out period. But I was pretty psyched on backcountry skiing and learning the ropes of what that means — making decisions about avalanche hazard and risk assessment in a setting way different from what I was accustomed to for most of my ski life.
You don’t huck in the backcountry, that was my mentality because I saw the backcountry and my competitive skiing as two very different worlds. One was in a controlled environment and kind of acrobatic, and another where you carried a shovel, beacon, and probe, and you were in the mountains. In other words, the bottoms of your skis touching the snow kind of thing, like the whole time. That was the age-old wisdom I was brought up with.
There was, for sure, a transition that was happening in the skiing that I knew. People thought they could go for it a little bit, sometimes, if they’re very confident.
I didn’t think of myself as going for it at that moment at all like to be honest. And I’m not trying to sound conceited in this at all, but I was like, “I’ve got this 100%. I just don’t want to put my harness on.”
And there is a bit of me that, you know … Doug Coombs was definitely an idol of mine. I grew up with that poster, or maybe it was two posters of him skiing a waterfall, and it said something like, “Upon this rock, I build my church.” Yeah, I had that on my wall, and it’s frickin’ rad, you know? And for me, it’s funny, but there was no intention at all. In the poster, Coombs is way controlled in his turn, whereas I can imagine people looking at the photo of me and asking, “what’s gonna happen to him?” But both of us don’t have a hat on, our hair is flying free.
Jason Thompson: It wasn’t so much skiing it, and maybe more just like bouncing from one snow patch to the next snow patch, in a controlled way, and then airing off the rest of the icefall. And he landed on both his feet like a cat would and just continued down the gulley below. It was impressive to see. And it happened so fast, maybe something like 10 seconds. There was some anxiety amongst us, for sure. But he’s a very good skier.
Mike Gardner: So what I saw looking at Twin Falls from above was this: I bet I could put a turn in the middle of that thing … a turn is maybe a stretch, but I imagined I could touch down in the middle and then kind of go off the end. It would be like skiing the thing rather than just flying wildly over the falls and undoubtedly tomahawking.
I saw that little pad I could touch down on in the middle of it. I fully remember; I was like, “Okay, off on a left foot, right foot in the middle, straighten out, then scrub a bunch of speed, and I think you’ll be alright.”
That is what I saw, and that’s how it played out.
Jason Thompson: One thing I do love about the photo itself, besides Gardner skiing, is that this was right on the cusp of where everybody just automatically wore helmets. And so you can see in that photo, you know, we’re out skiing that day, but Gardner didn’t have a helmet. Instead, he just had his baseball cap; but he didn’t want to lose it. And so he just clipped it to the back of his backpack before skiing down. In the photo, you can see the hat just fluttering in the background.
Mike Gardner: I used to kind of get after it on my skis. I’d wear a full-face helmet, a mouthguard, and a motocross-type chest plate. I was doing the contest thing, and I played it up. And pretty much as soon as I quit doing that stuff, and I can’t in good conscience say this and feel good about it, but I just stopped wearing a helmet because I was skiing in the backcountry.
Ten years ago, most people didn’t ski in the backcountry with a helmet. So it’s just that it was one of those things — I didn’t plan on skiing Twin Falls, so I didn’t have a helmet on me.
In the moment, I was like, “I got this 100%.”
Jason Thompson: There really wasn’t much buzz. There were social media back then, but I don’t think that photo was ever published in Powder or any other big magazine. Those who knew, kind of knew about it, but that was it.
I do remember publishing it on social media, maybe in like 2016, 17, or 18, several years afterward. And, you know, I think at that point, some people thought it was pretty cool. But I think that photo resonates a little bit more with people who have been there and seen the ice. But I think people around here who know what Twin Falls is and understand it is an ice climb would think it is a big deal. Maybe now there’s a little bit more buzz, maybe it’s grown, and there’s a bit of a legend to it: the photo was used in a recently published ski guidebook.
WildSnow: I like authentic photographs; they have always captured my imagination, in particular, when it comes to either climbing or skiing. And what I love about that photo is that there’s nothing posed about it. I can barely look at many staged ski images because it’s almost too perfect, if that makes sense. It’s like we’re all aspiring to that image of perfection rather than being in the moment and maybe reveling in the more sub-optimal moments.
Mike Gardner: I know exactly what we’re talking about. I do remember Jason talking about the photo. I think it’s pretty funny and kind of a cool photo, but not in the way that makes for most good photos. I’ve done some photo shoots skiing in the past that could be called ski modeling. This photo is the opposite of ski modeling: my hands block my face, I’ve got a big old gaping grin, and the hat blocks some of the shot.
I recall Jason saying he sent the image to a bunch of places, and they never took it because my hat was flopping around, and he’s thinking, “but he stuck it.”
You know, this was all the opposite of a lot of ski modeling where you fly up next to the camera, dig a deep trench, and make the snow fly. There was something 100% organic about this shot.
WildSnow: Jason, what do you think about when you see that photo now?
Jason Thompson: I think it’s several things. One, I think, as a photographer, I really appreciate any athlete who’s just willing to walk away from a situation that he or she doesn’t like.
In other words, not feeling pressure to perform for the camera, or, as they say, have any sort of “Kodak courage.” I’ve seen that dynamic happen from a distance. And it’s really unfortunate that I think people would put themselves in a position to, as you said, possibly injure themselves or possibly worse outcomes just to get these shots, especially in this day and age of social media and all of that going on.
But, I think that’s something about Mike that I really appreciate: that he would never just do something unless he wanted to do it — he simply wouldn’t have done that.
I was just lucky to be there. You spoke to this earlier, that somebody could have the vision to do some of these far-out things, and then to be able to do it, have the courage to do it, and to try to push things.
This was definitely unchoreographed, and which is really the type of photography I appreciate and love the most, that photojournalistic approach. I love just documenting things as they unfold. I try to stay away from the one-turn wonder tight-powder shots. This was about as real and raw as it could get.
Mike Gardner: One important thing that’s pretty cool about that snap is that it was also the beginning of a wonderful friendship I’ve had with Jason since. Not long after the Twin Falls ski, Jason got some cool photos of me boosting through little features in Hyalite and it all encapsulates a time period where we became really good friends.
Jason and I are really good friends to this day. He’s an incredible photographer, but really just an incredible human and an incredible mover in the mountains; he’s great on all mediums. That photo is simply him capturing a moment when he shouldn’t have captured a moment when he was hanging on rappel and fucking somehow got a camera and shot me skiing this thing. We were only going to ski some hippy power and have a good time on that day.
WildSnow: Mike, what do you look for in close friends?
Mike Gardner: I’m glad you asked it that way, as opposed to what I look for in a climbing or skiing partner, because that’s often the way those things are framed up, like, how do you use a partner?
The fact of the matter is I choose friends. Most of the time, you know, for example, Sam Hennesey and I knew each other for probably five years before we ever tied in together. But we really resonate as humans, and we have a really good time together; the climbing is very much secondary. I think that there’s like a resonance of living, living your passions, and also being a good human and being respectful. But, I don’t think I look for particular attributes and people. I just gravitate toward good energy. It’s been that way with Jason, and it was immediate.
You can learn more about Thompson’s photography at his website.
Mike Gardner is a mountain guide and leading alpinist who rips on skis. You can read up on his ski alpinism in this WildSnow piece. And this June, along with his partners Sam Hennessy and Rob Smith, the trio made a jaw dropping fast ascent of Denali’s Slovak Direct. And if you can get get your hands on Alpinist 77, give Gardner’s “Worth the Weight?” a read.
Jason Albert comes to WildSnow from Bend, Oregon. After growing up on the East Coast, he migrated from Montana to Colorado and settled in Oregon. Simple pleasures are quiet and long days touring. His gray hair might stem from his first Grand Traverse in 2000 when rented leather boots and 210cm skis were not the speed weapons he had hoped for. Jason survived the transition from free-heel kool-aid drinker to faster and lighter (think AT), and safer, are better.