Capturing the West’s Epic El Niño Winter on GoPro
Did El Niño deliver? Or was it just hype? Pro skier Chris Benchetler set out to answer that question for the West with his new GoPro-only video series
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When weather forecasters called for an El Niño this winter, everyone on the West Coast, which typically scores major snowfall during El Niño winters, rejoiced. Especially in California’s Sierra Nevada, where four years of drought had led to record-low snowpack. Pro skier Chris Benchetler, a native of Mammoth Lakes, California, decided to create a unique GoPro-only video series called “Chasing El Niño” to celebrate the windfall 15/16 season. The first of four episodes debuted online last week, with episode two dropping April 27. We called up Benchetler to see if the winter delivered on its promise.
OUTSIDE: How did the idea for this series come about?
Chris Benchetler: The idea definitely transpired by virtue of all the hype over this winter. I hired a filmer, Matt Cook, and we wanted to create a series that was skateboard-inspired with a lot of follow cam and a lot of movement. But we didn’t have a specific storyboard in mind. When they started forecasting El Niño, I was like, ‘I’d be really happy to stay home this winter and film right here in Mammoth.’
What have the last few winters in Mammoth been like?
The last two winters have been awful in terms of backcountry skiing. It’s been very low tide and lines that are normally skiable just never filled in. I ended up having to travel a lot to film, but it’s always hard when you’re going to a place you don’t know. You end up spending the majority of your trip trying to figure out the light, the snowpack, the terrain.
Did you have high hopes for this winter in the Sierra?
I’m always skeptical. I try to just take every day as it comes. I’m also very adaptable. So if I needed to leave to go film somewhere else, I would have done that. But as the winter kept unfolding, it was easy to stick around.
So the winter delivered on the hype?
It did in December and January for sure. I thought we were on track for an amazing winter. In January, we got a re-set of the snow nearly every week. It was great for filming our first episode. But then it shut off in February. We saw that British Columbia was getting a ton of snow and temperatures were staying cold, so we ended up going to B.C. for a month in February and into March, which became episode two of the series. Episode three is back in the Sierra for a backcountry snow-camping trip.
How hard is it put these edits together?
To create a whole edit in a month is tough. It usually takes athletes an entire season to film a three-minute video part in a ski movie. Plus, we had maybe three days of sunshine our entire month in B.C. Then you add mechanical issues, with the snowmobiles, and the variables from Mother Nature—maybe a big storm came through but then the wind hammered it. Countless elements go into filming. It takes all the stars to align.
You haven’t shot your final episode yet. What are you thinking for that one?
Episode four was supposed to be a strike mission to Alaska to cap off the season, but it’s not looking good for that one. Right now, it’s looking more like it’ll be a spring trifecta in the Sierra, where we’ll bag a peak in the morning, mountain bike in the afternoon, then go rock climbing.
You shot the whole series using just GoPro cameras?
Right. We were interested in doing only motion shots, so the filmer’s not just static and standing in place. Matt would ski down alongside me or behind me—he had to go off jumps sometimes and thankfully, he’s a really strong skier. But getting the shot isn’t easy. He’d have to get just the right angle and I’d have to nail the trick. Sometimes, he’d miss the shot or I’d miss the trick and we’d have to do five or 10 takes. There were always malfunctions.
Sounds like a new perspective.
Follow cams are popular in park filming, but I feel like backcountry skiing hasn’t been captured in this way yet. It gives you the experience of really getting to ski down the hill with someone. I’ve been filming ski movies for years now and a lot of it feels like the same formula. But this felt completely new and inspiring.