Winter may not have the best reputation—bad roads, frostbite, blizzards, yetis—but we think the season is pretty great. Schussing! Gliding over a frozen pond! Fat biking through snowdrifts! Cross-country skiing through a snow-covered field! High-speed sledding! Not only that, but snow and ice have been key players in some of the greatest survival stories in history, from those who intended to experience it (Shackleton's Endurance expedition) to those who did not (the Donner party).
Photographers, writers, filmmakers, and ski bums have all set out to capture the essential nature of winter—this list highlights those who have succeeded. It includes some of the most essential, genre-changing, and undeniably thrilling works of the season. Whether you're in the mood for world-class ski porn ("Wish that were me!") or the darkest tales of misadventure on ice ("Thank god that's not me!"), we guarantee these works will help you feel the chill.
Best Intro to Ski Film
‘The Blizzard of Aahhhs’ (1988)
The Blizzard of Aahhhs was the first ski movie with a timely soundtrack (edgy-at-the-time dance-pop group Frankie Goes to Hollywood features prominently) and the intention of upping the ante with more impressive tricks. It features then-unheard-of skiers like Glen Plake, Mike Hattrup, and Scot Schmidt slicing up steeps in Chamonix and Squaw Valley. It thrust the niche offshoot of extreme skiing the public eye and gave birth to the entire genre of ski porn, inspiring burgeoning filmmakers like the Jones brothers to launch Teton Gravity Research. Which leads us to...
Most Necessary Ski Porn
The best of the genre (and it is a packed genre) are about more than amazing tricks. They showcase the athletes we love, they become a part of skiing culture as we know it, and they do it with style.
Shane McConkey in ‘Seven Sunny Days’ (2007)
Perennial funnyman McConkey leaves his real-life wife in bed to report for duty as James Bond in this segment from Matchstick Productions. Chased by gunfire on skis down a snow-covered slope, he throws backflips amid fiery explosives, shoots bullets from his ski pole, then launches off a massive cliff with a parachute to escape the bad guys. It’s a great homage to our favorite 007 ski chase scenes, and it’s the late McConkey at his finest: silly, talented, and always in character.
JP Auclair in ‘All.I.Can’ (2011)
When Auclair showcased street skiing in his magically fluid way on the streets of Trail, Rossland, and Nelson, British Columbia, while followed by skillful filmmaker Dave Mossop, it introduced a whole new audience to the concept of urban skiing—and it cemented Auclair, who died in an avalanche in 2014, as a legend in the sport.
Closing segment from ‘Nothing Else Matters’ (2011)
As filmmakers pushed each other to go bigger and bigger, the European crew at Legs of Steel trumped all with a closing segment that launched 13 skiers off a multi-level, custom-built jump simultaneously. The shot is part circus act and part futuristic glimpse of what's to come.
‘One of Those Days’ (2013)
French freeskier Candide Thovex strapped on a GoPro and showed us what the view is really like from the skis of a master, blasting around his home mountain of Balme, France, backflipping over police cars, and spinning 900s off every bump. Sure, it was staged, but it’s still wildly entertaining.
“Skinny Love” segment from ‘Signatures’ (2013)
Signatures put artsy, post-collegiate filmmakers Sweetgrass Productions on the map (and featured a stellar soundtrack, including Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love"). It also spawned a mass pilgrimage of American ski bums to Japan, thanks to the film's almost-surreal Japanese powder montages.
Afterglow is essentially the world’s most creative advertisement. (Sweetgrass made it for Philips Ambilight TV.) But the 10-minute flick, shot entirely at night in Alaska and British Columbia, stands on its own as one of the most interesting ski films ever made. The surreal glow-in-the-dark powder, the unforgettable lightsuit segment, the establishment of Swedish folk band First Aid Kit as essential ski-day listening—all of it adds up to a higher bar for sponsored content.
Cody Townsend in ‘Days of My Youth’ (2014)
Just try to not hold your breath as you watch Townsend straightline a seemingly endless couloir called the Crack in Alaska’s Tordillo Mountains. The video racked up over nine million views on YouTube, more than any ski video ever, and landed Townsend a spot on Good Morning America as the world’s craziest skier.
Angel Collinson in ‘Paradise Waits’ (2015)
Collinson became the first woman to earn the coveted closing segment in a Teton Gravity Research film with her rowdy, spine-slashing Alaskan footage in Paradise Waits, which earned her the respect of the entire ski industry and accolades for best female ski segment of all time.
Most Likely to Solve the Snowboarder-Skier Conflict
‘That’s It, That’s All’ (2008)
Snowboarding films have always had a dedicated, though small, following. That’s It, That’s All, produced by Curt Morgan of adventure-media powerhouse Brain Farm, changed all of that with snowboarding’s first major-budget film. It took two years to make the globe-trotting movie, which was shot with a Cineflex camera and 35-mm and super 16 film and debuted to sold-out theaters in both Jackson Hole and New York City. The film created a snowboarding star our of Travis Rice, who did the first-ever double cork 1260 in the film. Rice both impressed the core snowboard industry and brought in a new audience who appreciated the film even if they didn’t give a damn about snowboarding.
Best Intro to the Climber’s Mind
‘Scrambles Among the Alps’ by Edward Whymper (1871)
A pioneer in the sport of mountaineering, Whymper, a twentysomething British wood engraver, set about ticking off peaks in the Alps starting in 1860. He tagged many a first ascent, including Switzerland’s Matterhorn, which he finally summitted in 1865 after seven failed attempts. (He lost four climbing partners in the process.) His book, a true classic in the mountaineering genre, was one of the first pieces of literature to suggest that mountains weren’t just for looking at—they could be climbed, too.
Highest Density of Badass Famous People
‘Climb to Conquer: The Untold Story of WWII’s 10th Mountain Division’ by Peter Shelton (2003)
Part war story, part ski history, and entirely captivating, Climb to Conquer documents the birth of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, started in 1940 to train troops capable of cold weather battle and mountain climbing in case of a German invasion through Canada during World War II. The unit was made up of many future big names in the outdoor industry, including founders of Nike, the Sierra Club, and ski resorts like Aspen and Vail. It’s a must-read for any history buff who skis.
Best Alaska Book for Non-Alaskans
‘Coming into the Country’ by John McPhee (1976)
A finer ode to Alaska has not been written. McPhee travels to the 49th state and introduces the rest of the country to the unique people (from bush pilots to natives to businessmen), culture, and geography that make Alaska so compelling. The result not only lured new visitors to the north, it also captured the heart of Alaskans—a hard thing to do.
Best Resource for the Après Anthropologist
‘Hot Dog... The Movie’ (1984)
Hot Dog... The Movie captures the spirit of the eighties, with partying ski bums and epic twistin’ triples, all set to the backdrop of the freestyle championships at Squaw Valley. The film became a cult classic—you’ll still find Hot Dog viewing parties in ski towns today—and inspired an entire generation of skiers to ditch office jobs for a life of revelry in the mountains.
Best Cold Case
‘Ghosts of Everest: The Search for Mallory and Irving’ by Eric Simonson, Jochen Hemmleb, and Larry Johnson (1999)
Twenty-five years before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay completed the first known ascent in 1953, British climbers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine attempted to become the first climbers up Mount Everest. When they disappeared in June 1924, two significant questions were left unanswered: Did they reach the summit? And how did they perish? In 1999, a group of American climbers set out to recover the bodies of the missing climbers and answer those vital questions. Ghosts of Everest recounts both the deadly 1924 expedition and the 1999 search in enthralling detail. Like any good mystery, this one starts with a near-impossible task: search Everest's vast landscape for two bodies and then piece together the doomed climbers' final days. It's no spoiler to say that what the team uncovers goes beyond expectations.
Best Donner Party Deep Dive
‘Desperate Passage: The Donner Party’s Perilous Journey West’ by Ethan Rarick (2008)
If all you know about the Donner Party is that cannibalism was involved, it’s time you picked up this book. The group of 87 western migrants battled the winter of 1846 and 1847 deep in the Sierra Nevada. Rarick uses new archeological research (they used china to serve food as normally as possible—see, it's not all about cannibalism!) as well as old letters and diaries to piece together one of American history’s greatest survival tales. As Rarick writes: “Then the snow began falling, the ‘dreaded snow,’ as one survivor later wrote ... the pass ahead a frozen barricade.”
Best (Most Unintentional) Book About Winter
‘The Snow Leopard’ by Peter Matthiessen (1978)
Joined by naturalist George Schaller, Matthiessen embarks in November 1973 on a two-month-long trip to the Dolpo region of Nepal, searching for the elusive snow leopard. It's soon clear that their mission is hardly about the snow leopard at all but a quest of self-discovery, and Matthiessen's own way of dealing with losing his wife to cancer. That alone makes The Snow Leopard worth reading, but Nepal's winter is a secret star here. Matthiessen puts clear-eyed poetic descriptions to natural phenomena that would have been clichéd in other hands: “The sun is roaring, it fills to bursting each crystal of snow. These rocks and mountains, all this matter, the snow itself, the air—the earth is ringing. All is moving, full of power, full of light.”
Deepest Thoughts on Winter Fitness
‘Long Distance’ by Bill McKibben (2000)
At the age of 37, McKibben sets out to spend one year training like an Olympic cross-country skier, pushing his body to its physical limits. “There’s nothing harder your body can do, so I figured I’d give it a try,” he writes. During the process, his father is diagnosed with a life-threatening brain tumor. As his father weakens, McKibben becomes as strong as he’s ever been. The book is a soliloquy on winter fitness, but it's also a tribute to our own endurance and mortality. “I came seeking sweat and found only enlightenment,” McKibben writes.
Least Miserable Antarctic Tale
‘Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica’ by Sara Wheeler (1996)
Wheeler offers a 20th-century version of the Polar tale, updated with colorful portraits of the scientists who now call Antarctica home. During her seven-month stay, the journalist looks back at those who made their mark on the icy land’s past, some 80 years after Shackleton’s journey. “Mythical for centuries, so it remained,” she wrote. But it’s her frank exploration of the oddities that came with modern-day Antarctic obsession that make this required reading.
Most Underappreciated Daredevil
‘The Man Who Skied Down Everest’ by Budge Crawley (1975)
This Oscar-winning documentary could be called The Man Who Fell Down Everest, since Japanese skier Yuichiro Miura tumbles over a thousand feet down the Lhotse Face. Still, Miura—a lesser-known godfather of extreme skiing—does make an incredible first descent down Everest’s steep, icy slopes. (And does it decades before anyone attempted the feat again.) What makes the story so fascinating is the narration from Miura’s own journal, which provides astonishing real-time thoughts on events like team members’ deaths and his near-fatal fall. “They say I skied 6600 feet in 2 minutes and 20 seconds. I fell 1320 feet. I stopped 250 feet from the crevasse. Numbers have meaning in the world below. But in this almost airless world, what do they mean?”
Best to Read on a Hot Day
‘Winter: Notes from Montana’ by Rick Bass (1991)
Lots of writers have fancied moving to a remote backcountry lodge in the depths of winter and penning the next great American manuscript. But Bass actually does it, moving to a former hunting lodge in Montana’s Yaak valley, population 30 and one of the last towns in the state with no electricity. Part homage to winter, part self-reflection, the narrative is one of the most gifted meditations on the season of snow. “I watch individual flakes; I peer up through the snow and see the blank infinity from which it comes; I listen to the special silence it creates.”
Bleakest Polar Survival Stories
It seems like every ill-fated expedition to either end of the earth has at least two books written about it. These are the ones that rise above the rest.
‘Endurance’ by Frank A. Worsley (1931)
“You seriously mean to tell me that the ship is doomed?” asks Worsley, commander of the HMS Endurance, the ship led by Ernest Shackleton on his Antarctic expedition in 1914. Worsley gives a first-person account of this hopeless voyage and the successful rescue of all 25 crew members. A true tribute to Shackleton—“he did the most dangerous things but did them in the safest way,” Worsley writes—Endurance is survival literature at its finest.
‘Alone on the Ice: The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration’ by David Roberts (2013)
A lesser-known tale of survival than Shackleton’s or Scott’s, this is the story of Australian Douglas Mawson, leader of a 1913 Antarctic expedition that left him and his team nearly dead. As Roberts begins his first line, “It was a fitful start to the most ambitious venture ever launched in Antarctica.” The (just as superlatively named) book Mawson’s Will: The Greatest Polar Survival Story Ever Written relied on Dawson’s journals, but Roberts’s version is far more detailed and engaging.
‘In the Kingdom of Ice’ by Hampton Sides (2014)
James Bennett, the once eccentric and wealthy owner of The New York Herald, believed in instigating stories that would sell papers. So in 1879, he sent Captain George De Long on a North Pole expedition aboard the USS Jeanette, which hit pack ice in the Arctic and was stuck for two years. This award-winning book, by Outside editor at large Hampton Sides, recounts the epic tale of survival and gives due credit to a team that was prepared and tough under the worst circumstances.
‘The Worst Journey in the World’ by Apsley Cherry-Garrard (1922)
Written from the first-person perspective of one of the few survivors of Robert Falcon Scott’s fatal 1911 South Pole expedition to study penguin eggs, The Worst Journey in the World captures exactly that: a catastrophic voyage that shows us how strong the human spirit can be in the face of 100-mile-per-hour winds and subzero temperatures. “And if the worst, or best, happens, and Death comes for you in the snow, he comes disguised as Sleep, and you greet him rather as a welcome friend than a gruesome foe,” Cherry writes.
‘The Last Place on Earth’ by Roland Huntford (1979)
When paired with The Worst Journey in the World, readers get a complete view of the dramatic first race to the South Pole. Huntford, a master of polar biographies, documents the competing journeys to the South Pole by Robert Scott, who perished with many of his crew, and Norway’s Roald Amundsen, who Huntford calls “the last great viking.”
Most Obvious (But Essential) Everest Book
‘Into Thin Air’ by Jon Krakauer (1997)
What started as a 17,000-word feature in Outside turned into a bestselling and award-winning first-person account of a deadly storm that killed nine climbers on Mount Everest in the spring of 1996. It took until 2015 for Hollywood to take on the events (there was a 1997 TV movie), but Krakauer’s own words remain the place to start. Yes, Into Thin Air exposed the growing dangers of the commercialization of Everest, but it’s on this list because it's the most complete portrayal of the obsession, risk, and allure of the world’s most famous peak.
The Mountaineering Classic
‘Annapurna’ by Maurice Herzog (1951)
The bestselling mountaineering book of all time is not Into The Air. It’s Annapurna, the book by French climber Herzog about his team’s 1950 first ascent of the 26,545-foot Himalayan peak. (At the time, it was the highest mountain ever summitted.) First published in French, it has since sold over 11 million copies around the world, in part thanks to that riveting last line: “There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men.”
Best Way to Break Your Everest Rut
‘K2: The Story of the Savage Mountain’ by Jim Curran (1995)
Much has been written about 28,253-foot K2, the second tallest peak in the world, but this book is the most comprehensive encyclopedia of the mountain’s fabled history. It explores K2’s most famous expeditions (at least up to the time) and biggest disasters from the perspective of the climbers who’ve attempted its harrowing face. “There does seem to be something in the very remoteness and savagery of K2 and its surroundings that undermines the unity of so many expeditions,” Curran writes.
Best New Snow Sport in Town
‘Cold Rolled’ by Clear and Cold Cinema (2013)
As fat biking takes off as winter’s latest trend sport, it was only a matter of time before the first fat bike movie debuted. Filmed on the custom-built singletrack of Marquette, Michigan, the film is an homage to the eccentric characters who call this frosty place—and this fringe sport—their own.
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