UP until a few days ago, I’d always assumed that making ski films must be a pretty easy gig: find yourself some decent skiers, coax/bribe/threaten them into skiing down something nice and steep, make sure the cameras are rolling (and pointing in the right direction) and you’re more-or-less there.
But no. It turns out it’s more complicated than that. A lot more complicated.
I spent most of last Tuesday and Wednesday yomping around the Ben Lawers massif in Highland Perthshire with a posse of like-minded souls calling themselves the Mountain Goat Collab, who were making a film about backcountry skiing in Scotland. The plan was for top-flight skiers Mike Guest (of DPS Skis), his sister Jo, Lou Sharp, Jonathan Lonie and Mark “Sparky” Stewart to hike up a few hills and slide down them, and for filmmakers Matt Brown (of MB Productions) and Will Beeslar and Janeanne Gilchrist (of Scottish clothing brand Staunch Industries) to capture the action from a variety of different angles. Mike would also film the skiers as they started their descents, and get extra close-up footage of them puffing up the sides of assorted Munros to add a little context. My job was to take still pictures, lug camera gear around and – when on my snowboard – provide Will’s Jack Russell, Jeff, with something interesting to chase.
Day One dawned clear and still and the hills were cloaked in snow down to about 600 metres – a promising start – but before long the wind had picked up and thick, angry-looking clouds were rolling in from the east. The skiers battled their way up to the summit of Beinn Ghlas in good time, but the light had become so flat that when they skied down one of the gullies on its north-east face they didn’t look like much more than little black dots in our viewfinders. Shooting from the coire directly below the summit, Matt and I were tucked in out of the wind, but Will and Janeanne, who had taken up position on a distant ridge in order to get wide shots, were brutally exposed. Jeff the Jack Russell was so cold that the only way Will could stop him shivering was to wrap him in a towel, zip him up inside his down jacket and then climb into a survival shelter.
Conditions improved a little later in the day, and Mike and his team found a dramatic line to ski beside a craggy rock spine, but in spite of all the thousands of feet climbed and the many thousands of calories expended, while we had a few choice moments in the can, we didn’t have those few world-beating shots we’d all been hoping for.
The plan for Day Two was more ambitious, but with better weather and more photogenic terrain on the menu, it also offered greater rewards. The skiers would skin up the western flank of 1069m Meall Corranaich and ride down the steep central gully on its south-eastern face into Coire Odhar. The film crew, meanwhile, would hike to the bottom of the coire, set up their cameras at different points along the length of the gully and then wait for the skiers to arrive before capturing their descent from a series of spectacular angles. Or, at least, that was how it was supposed to happen. The potential pitfalls with this set-up were legion, but the main problem was the convex shape of the slope, and the fact that it had a number of different gullies radiating out from its summit. When Mike and his team arrived at the top of the hill they radioed down to say they couldn’t see anything directly below them – just a series of apparently sheer drops, only one of which would lead them into the right gully. With her camera set up well back from the bottom of the slope, Janeanne was the only person with an overview of the whole situation. For a few slightly fraught moments, it seemed as if Mike might have started down the wrong gully, but to the relief of Matt, Will and I, perched on ledges further up the gully with no idea what was going on directly above us, Janeanne was able to navigate the skiers into the right spot.
And the fun didn’t stop there. For Matt to get a perfect shot of the skiers flying past him near the top of the gully, with the snow-capped summits of Beinn Ghlas and Ben Lawers towering in the background, they would need to arc high and to the left just before they reached him and snap a turn in a tiny, ten metre-wide patch of snow between two rocky outcrops. All this information had to be relayed, Chinese Whispers-style, from Matt, who could see the shot he wanted, to Janeanne who could see the whole hill, to the skiers, who couldn’t really see anything at all.
Did Matt get the shot? That would be telling. Find out later this year, when the Mountain Goats’ film will appear on scotsman.com. Watch this space for details.