Sometimes, you get a game changer. Look at the progression of skiing for the last century here in North America. Along with a fairly even development, you see important events such as the first ski lifts, or feats such as the Briggs and Stammberger descents of Grand Teton and North Maroon Peak in 1971. Along with that, media has a role. No matter what your age, as a skier you can probably remember a couple of ski movies that stick in your mind like you were there yesterday. One of those “game changer” flicks, and perhaps the most influential ever, is 1988’s “Blizzard of Aahhh’s.”
“Blizzard” was made by now well-known film artist Greg Stump, who in his retrospective “Legend of Aahhh’s” looks back through the history of ski films and what led to the appearance of Blizzard of Aahhh’s at what appears to be the exact perfect moment in skiing history.
In “Legend,” narrator Greg takes us through a five minute prequel that harkens back to the collusion of Glen Plake, Mike Hattrup and Scot Schmidt. A little goofy thing to get you in a Stump kind of mood. Then the real film begins, in a classic “interview snip” documentary style with voiceover by Stump. This theme of interviews cut with Stump’s “Blizzard of Aahhh’s” narrative continues throughout the rest of the flick.
At about 30 minutes it all begins feeling self indulgent on the part of Stump. But keep watching, and you realize that Stump has put together quite a nice little historical documentary, and, rightly so, centers his story around his “Blizzard of Aahhh’s,” which has been termed by many as “the best ski film ever made.”
The classic interview footage rolls from such greats as Warren Miller (much from Warren, some quite funny) and Klaus Obermeyer (with a smiling but silent blond babe on his arm, but of course). One interesting segement calls attention to Leni Reiefenstahl, who Obermeyer credits with making the “first real ski movie,” (Der Weisse Rausch, ) and who went on to being sucked into the Nazi war machine as a propagandist. Greg himself appears as a teen, as he was a national freestyle champion before his movie career. The footage of Stump is hilarous, including strange looking mime action and a pyrotechnic run, the latter of which caused a rule change for the freestyle governing body. Wish I’d been a fly on the wall: “Rule 569.b, NO BOMBS!
Rule. Change. Split those two words apart and you have the genisis of “Blizzard of Aahhh’s.” For North Americans (especially those of us in the States) skiing in 1988 seemed like it was just rules rules rules and stick-in-the mud behavior by most North American resorts. Don’t go under that rope. Steep terrain? Someone could get hurt. Something interesting? Try the graduated length method!
All the while, our friends were returing from trips to Europe. Boundary ropes? We don’t need NO STINKIN ropes!!! At least when it came to mountain sports such as backcountry skiing, rules in the old country were few (ironically conflicting with our “freedom” here in America.)
For many skiers, the free-wheeling anything goes “Blizzard of Aahhh’s” was an epiphany. A number of those, such as Chris Davenport, are interviewed in “Legend” and describe how “Blizzard” was the jumping off point for a move “out west” and a subsequent life as a devoted free-skier.
Make no bones about it, “Blizzard” was huge and deserves nearly every accolade it gets.
But did the 1988 movie “change the sport,” as Stump rather arrogantly states in “Legend?” Chicken and egg. The freeskiing movement was alive and well in 1988, which is why Stump was able to find skiers and the audience for his films. But yes, I’d say that media has an influence and to at least some degree Stump did “change the sport.”
Again, what’s not debatable is that “Blizzard” did change a lot of skier’s lives.
Also, “Blizzard of Aahhh’s” DID change ski films. Prior to “Blizzard,” we basically had Dick Barrymore (to whom “Legend” is dedicated) and Warren Miller. Barrymore’s films such as the classic “Last of the Ski Bums” did lead directly to “Blizzard.” In fact, it was during skiing for Barrymore that Stump got the idea of making his own films. Yet both Barrymore and Miller were hung up on a sort of resort-centric skiing ethos that by default (not necessarily intent) was rapidly becoming only a part of modern skiing.
For example, as Barrymore states in “Legend” he was uncomfortable filming skiing that was too risky. Along with that, as Miller aged he appeared to become less in touch with what was exciting in skiing. Miller demonstrates a bit of that attitude when asked by Stump what he’d like to see in ski films today. Miller replies: “I’d like to see one that’s different from the other 192…” So true (and thanks Stump for being different and making the first historical documentary about ski films). But couldn’t the same be said about nearly every one of Miller’s films?
Whatever the case, “Blizzard of Aahhh’s” was definitely different. Definitly NOT Warren Miller! Sometimes even embarrassingly so. For example, if you knew anything about true extreme skiing back in 1988, the footage in Chamonix made you cringe with its contrived hype. Indeed, some of us who were actually doing extreme skiing in those days had to wonder at how Stump had adopted the term “extreme” for a sort of yuck-it-up movie hype deal, instead of the pure and sometimes even spiritual experience that European style extreme skiing really was.
To Stump and his cohorts’ credit, as Stump’s body of work progressed you could see more and more truly extreme terrain enjoyed in good style by the likes of Plake and Schmidt. (While Schmidt did have plenty of experience with big mountain skiing, when Plake began working with Stump he was definitely not a ski alpinist and would be the first one to admit it.) More, the term “extreme” eventually faded back to its roots, and “freeride” or “free skiing” are now terms of art that apply equally to modern films from Matchstick or TGR as much as they do to “Blizzard of Aahhh’s.”
Speaking of modern ski films, one thing I really enjoyed about “Legend” was how Stump documents the rise of today’s ski film companies — especially the big players. The last part of the film moves to modern ski footage, with lots of park style tricks and interviews with today’s top film makers such as Murray Wais of Matchstick.
Also worth mention is Stump’s inclusion of nearly the whole 1988 “Today Show” interview of Plake and Schmidt that jumped Stump’s work into the main stream. Plake’s American flag suit is enough (in your face!), but his and Schmidt’s commentary — wild man vs. reasoned mountaineer — is priceless. This little snip is worth the whole price of admission.
In closing “Legend,” Stump sums it up: “So, did these films inspire a generation of athletes and film makers to proceed with questionable judgment? Or did these films inspire a generation… to have the freedom to create stunning images and new boundaries in athletic excellence? I believe they have the freedom — to do both.”
Ultimately, “Blizzard of Aahhh’s’ was indeed about freedom. Freedom to express yourself on snow (or off) just about any way you wanted. Sure, that can be taken too far. But in 1988, we needed someone to say “skiing is the best sport on the planet, and I’ll film anything to prove it.” Greg Stump did that, and we’re still enjoying the results.
“Legend of Aahhh’s” will be on tour this fall, see the website for a screening near you.