Super-Fat Days, Coma Nights, and the Quest for Tearjerker Footy

A tight crew of out-of-bounds crazies has been working overtime to turn the snow-flick world upside down with its relentlessly spectacular reels. Is it art or is it ski porn?

Nov 1, 1999
Outside Magazine

The boys of Teton Gravity Research have a dream, and it sucks. The Dream, short for Tangerine Dream, is a disfigured, matte-orange 1980 Dodge Power Ram pickup. It is stalled. Again. This time in a busy intersection between the town of Wilson, Wyoming, and the Jackson Hole ski resort. It's an ugly scene, this warm evening in July: four adult males crammed into the cab of a truck—a Wyoming double date, in local parlance. The driver turns the key and gets nothing but a grinding wheeze from the engine, a sad counterpart to the Bob Marley pumping through the speakers.

Eventually, Tomo Okazaki rolls past, behind the wheel of my car. Tomo is a professional boardsailor from Japan who summers in Jackson Hole for reasons that are never adequately explained. Though she doesn't drink alcohol, she's always game for a night out. Thus, whenever the boys want to get "pindled" (Teton Gravity Research–speak for having a few beers), Tomo is usually there to do the driving. Tonight, however, the boys wanted me to ride with them, to "Live the Dream," as they said.

So I handed my keys to Tomo and piled in.

In the Dream, the boys see themselves—no matter that the rearview mirror is usually on the floor, under someone's foot. A prototypical ski bum truck, the Dream migrated to Jackson Hole after a long stint at the Alaska Department of Transportation (hence the orange paint job). Its bed holds beer bottles and crutches, and the tailgate stays shut with the help of a backcountry ski pole that's wedged into the latch. A huge sticker on the back window venerates Greg Stump, the boys' longtime hero and probably the greatest ski filmmaker ever. Since the boys allow "floor spits" in the Dream, Steve Jones freely coats the floorboards with rancid-smelling Copenhagen juice. To crowd into a 19-year-old beater that may or may not run is to tell the world, or at least a busy intersection, that your priorities lie elsewhere. In their case, with making ski films. Each furious, futile twist of the ignition testifies to the sacrifices made along the way. "The Dream won't go more than 55," explains Jones. "People vibe it all the time, give it dirty looks. It's the longhair of cars."

Three of the founders of Teton Gravity Research—Jones, his brother Todd, and their friend Dirk Collins—all used to live together in Wyoming and ski in front of the camera. But five years ago, when you couldn't belly up to a bar without some punk telling you that skiing was passé and snowboarding ruled supreme, the boys determined that their sport needed more from them. It needed a fresh image and a new vision for the future. "Skiing wasn't being properly represented," says Todd. "As athletes, we saw the way things were and decided to change them. To give people ski heroes again."

Ski heroes? Like the once-in-a-decade Olympian who actually has a personality shrink-wrapped inside that little rubberized skinsuit? No. That, according to Teton Gravity Research ("TGR" to them), is Old School. So is the typical ski film, in which some hatless and all-too-joyful schuss-maestro carves metronome turns down a not-very-challenging powder bowl in perfect, gauzy late-afternoon sunshine. A TGR flick will show a scene like that just as soon as Merchant and Ivory employ a whoopee cushion as a prop. TGR is New School. With a formula that essentially involves shooting their buddies doing what they love to do—rip big-ass mountains—TGR is helping change the very nature of the ski industry.

First, a primer for those who haven't kept up with the sport's ever-changing lexicon. Old School is the way you and I learned to ski: tight pants, lift-served slopes, après-ski cocktails spent listening to Jimmy Buffett wannabes. New School dispenses with most Old School affectations. The gist: Skiing isn't dorky, it's a primal rush. New Schoolers ski every inch of the mountain, lift-served and otherwise—cliffs, couloirs, gargantuan faces, and even terrain parks. They ski at 70 miles per hour. They slingshot off jumps and throw midair spins. They wear helmets. Fashion tends toward the snowboardish (baggy clothes, tattoos, pierced tongues). Indeed, New School skiing doesn't teach prejudice against snowboarding. Every TGR feature, for instance, includes several prominent single-plank sequences.

While the New School phenomenon has existed for several years, few ski filmmakers have allowed its stars to shine. "Talent" did what it was told—not unlike Old Hollywood's studio system. In 1994, Warren Miller Entertainment asked the Jones brothers to ski in its annual film. The boys knew going in that WME—the 50-year-old, Emmy-winning juggernaut of ski filmmaking, with revenues of $13 million a year—clings to its reliable formula: beautifully shot action sequences, bits of slapstick, shameless product plugs, and narration by the avuncular Warren Miller. They accepted the offer anyway, hoping that the film would showcase Jackson Hole's New School enclave—and spotlight the dramatic mountain itself. WME had a different agenda. The Joneses say that the cameraman told them to stifle their opinions and just shred the low-angled slope where the lens was pointed. The discussion quickly degenerated into an argument. The brothers suggested that the WME shooter was too lazy to climb up to their favorite jumps and chutes to get some really energetic shots; the photographer snapped that WME wasn't in the business of making "dude-umentaries." Todd and Steve finished their part, but shortly thereafter, TGR was born.

TGR's first movie, 1996's Continuum, featured the boys' friends and the boys themselves as they explored Jackson Hole's cliff-jumping culture. Their second, 1997's Harvest, made ski-film history. The keynote segment shows former World Cup skier Jeremy Nobis slashing a 2,000-vertical-foot, 50-degree face in Alaska's Chugach Range. Where Old School powder skiers would have made 50 turns, Nobis made six. And where action picture protocol might have argued for a fill-the-frame close-up, the boys, being skiers first and filmmakers second, wanted the sequence to convey enormity, exhilaration. So they filmed the descent from a neighboring peak. Within weeks of Harvest's release, says Todd, "every magazine in the industry was calling us, quoting us, doing pieces on Nobis. It blew people's minds." Nobis, who never won a World Cup race, soon got his own poster. Suddenly the industry began pumping its New School stars. K2 introduced the Seth Morrison model, named for a green-haired Crested Butte skier who's known for his spinning jumps off cliffs. Two ski magazines debuted, giving readers Tiger Beat–like coverage of their freeskiing idols. Ski ads focused not on Austrian technology but on young North American radicals. TGR followed Harvest with Uprising, which features Alison Gannett, the first female skier to receive major billing in a ski flick. "It was no token chick thing," says Todd. "Her segment is in because it held up to all the boys'." Sponsors took note: Gannett enjoyed a marketing bonanza, including an infomercial for Dynastar. "We kind of changed the game," Todd says. "It used to be that photographers got more skis than the skiers. Now there's more athlete awareness from ski companies. Now they'll give a sponsored skier a quiver of skis and a travel budget to go film with us. I'd like to believe that a featured segment in a TGR flick is a big thing."

It is. By appearing in the first three TGR films, even the Dream has developed a cult of personality. "Skiers who see it on the street constantly wave or honk their horns in recognition," says Todd. "Sometimes you get tired from waving back." The boys thrive on this, their ability to show audiences their admittedly dude-umentary view of ski culture. It hardly matters that they've lost money on every film they've made, that they're forced to drive vehicles like the Dream, that they're now marooned in the middle of an intersection. The motorists who are whipping around the Dream may be waving with only one-tenth of their available digits, but at least they're experiencing the New School reality of TGR.