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 TGR boys have managed to organize tons of cameras, ski gear, and personnel and get it to Norway for a shoot that they hope will provide the money segment of this year's reel. They drove five hours from Jackson Hole to Salt Lake City, flew to Denver and then on to Copenhagen, Oslo, and Trondheim. There they slept a little and experienced just enough of the country to conclude that every Norwegian word ends in -hammen or -vargen. Then they caught a late flight to Bodø, connected to Narvik, and drove three hours through off-and-on snowstorms to Sortland, a briny, damp harbor town of 5,000 whose architecture seems inspired by Eisenhower-era American elementary schools. Sure, it's now 3:30 a.m. on a cold Tuesday in March, but the jet-lagged guests filling room 208 of the Sortland Nordic Hotel figure it's time to party.

The guests in room 209, meanwhile, must think it's time to sleep. They complain to the front desk attendant, who rings 208. Skier Micah Black fields the call and pleads with the boys to quiet down, his hands pushing the noise to the floor. "Hey, you guys," he says. "We gotta keep it mellow. The neighbors are complaining."

"Yeah?" Steve says, his right eye swimming independently of the left. "You think they're pissed-vargen?"

Both punch- and whiskey-drunk, the crew in 208 chortles. The guests in 209 aren't heard from again. However, two days later in the hotel's buffet line, a coiffed, very Old School Norwegian wearing a tight black turtleneck sneers and utters under his breath: "Snowboarder!"

We've come to Sortland to film a segment for TGR's fourth feature, The Realm. An unpopulated island on the other side of the fjord sports a punk's hairdo of sharp spikes. Towering as high as 4,000 feet, with lines ranging from vast powder aprons to tight, steep couloirs, the peaks appear ideal for making a ski film. That is, when they actually appear. For our first days in Sortland, the weather brings only sucker holes, patches of blue sky that encourage filming or flying but are quickly swallowed by infinities of gray.

Days of gloom stretch into a week. With pewter skies weighing on their skulls, the Jones brothers turn their World War II–vintage Arriflex cameras toward scenics. A fishing village one day, a Viking-boat replica the next. Still the weather remains a bleak hypothermic soup, grounding the helicopter and driving home the ugly truth of ski filmmaking: Killer snow conditions require occasional snowstorms, and that means maddening stretches of downtime.

Finally, at 4:30 a.m. on day eight, the curtains pull open to reveal clear sky. In the predawn darkness the TGR boys jolt to action. Limbs fumble into long underwear. Backpacks swallow film magazines, goggles, two-way radios, avalanche transceivers, rescue shovels, harnesses, climbing ropes, carabiners, and water bottles. We reach the helipad by six. Skullcap pulled low against his whiskered jaw, Steve shoots the first copter-load whup-whup-whupping over fjord waters painted pink by the dawn. He leaves the snow safety-check to Todd, who was once a heli-skiing guide. Todd OKs 12 inches of fresh maritime snow and then squints behind another camera as skier Gordy Peifer hucks his carcass 40 feet off a cliff.

In these remote mountains, where the slopes are untested and the helicopter is the only lift, the boys must move with urgency to get the necessary shots. Chattering over the radios in staccato bursts, they line up jumps and descents. The skiers nail them, the Joneses pack up the cameras again, and everyone skis down to the helicopter to fly to the next untracked powder. There is no lunch break. At midday they drop off Steve, the long-distance cinematographer, on a nearby peak. (They call this position "the barbie" because he spends so much time in the sun, waiting for the action to begin on the other mountain, that he fries like a piece of meat on the grill.) With Steve on barbie and Todd in the helicopter, they set up what they call "the tearjerker," their term for a shot so visually arresting that it verges on the melodramatic. In this tearjerker, Black, Peifer, and Jonas Sonderquist perch on top of—and then carve down—a mammoth cone of granite.

Immediately after filming the scene, Todd secures himself, via harness and carabiners, to the helicopter's frame. The pilot flies to a nearly vertical spire. There's no room to land on top, so he tries to punch the front of his skids into the mountainside. It takes two passes to strike the right balance between holding terra firma and hovering over the abyss.

Then Black disembarks. Pawing at the mountainside for a foothold, he extracts himself, skis, and poles from the helicopter and scrambles to the knife-edge ridge. On the other side yawns a couloir that pinches as tight as 15 feet across. Black clicks into his bindings, trying to ignore the week's worth of rust in his knees, and bounds into the chute. He feathers one turn and part of another before a slough of snow releases and starts running down alongside him. If he makes a sharp, braking turn perpendicular to the fall line—as every self-preserving cell in his body orders him to—the slough will likely flush him violently down the chute. Instead he moves with it, fighting for balance as he hops back and forth from the static snow on his left to the falling river on his right. Even in these dicey conditions, Black's turns are big, smooth, and fast. It's a New School run and, less important, it's a first descent.