Comfort Zones: new film offers a philosophical take on extreme skiing in Scotland

"I guess the greatest days are where you're just getting to the limit of your comfort zone." PIC: Philip Ebert
"I guess the greatest days are where you're just getting to the limit of your comfort zone." PIC: Philip Ebert
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Your typical backcountry ski film usually contains a number of key ingredients. Firstly and most obviously, it must feature high-level, heart-in-mouth skiing: big, gut-wrenching drops must be landed; sketchy entries into steep, narrow couloirs must be stuck; and high-velocity turns must throw buckets of feather-light powder snow into pristine blue skies. Secondly, there should be an element of terrain porn: in addition to close-ups of the talent, there should also be a few pull-back shots showing the riders in question as tiny specks flying down vast, intimidating sections of mountainside. There should be atmospheric musical accompaniment for the action sequences, of course, perhaps a bit of chat from the stars, and last but by no means least, there must always, always be a crash reel at the end. As the old saying goes, if you’re not falling you’re not trying, and nothing puts all those perfect descents into perspective quite like seeing a few proper, full-on wipe-outs – ideally of the kind that North Americans describe as a “yard sale” as skis, poles and sundry other bits of kit are sent flying all over the mountainside.

Filmed in the hills around Glenshee last winter, and screening at the Braemar Mountain Festival on 1 March, Comfort Zones, the new film from Stefan Morrocco’s Blairgowrie-based Morrocco Media company, contains all of the above. However, there’s one thing it has which, as far as I’m aware, no other ski film has ever had before, and that’s input from professional philosophers and – yes, really – proper academic footnotes.

Sometimes steep, off-piste skiing in Scotland can feel like an act of faith. PIC: Philip Ebert

Sometimes steep, off-piste skiing in Scotland can feel like an act of faith. PIC: Philip Ebert

One of the skiers featured in the film, and its main narrator, is Philip Ebert, who in addition to being a dedicated backcountry charger is also senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Stirling.

Early on, he explains that “there are many different comfort zones that skiers can develop,” from resort skiing, to backcountry skiing to extreme skiing in steep, difficult terrain, and the film roughly follows that arc, showing Ebert and his friends Amy Marwick, Dave Anderson, Matt Pavitt and Hamish Frost tackling ever-more difficult descents.

The film also features input from Laurie Ann Paul, professor of philosophy and cognitive science at Yale University, who believes it’s wrong to characterise people who enjoy skiing in “dramatic locales” as merely adrenaline junkies.

“If you haven’t actually gone out there and done that then maybe you just don’t have the ability to appreciate what that’s like enough to understand why someone else values it the way they do,” she says. “Just characterising them as being an adrenaline junkie or being crazy or having some kind of death wish... it’s a misunderstanding of how human psychology works.

"Type II fun is the kind of fun that, actually, while you're doing it, you're way too scared to really enjoy it, but looking back it was a lot of fun." PIC: Philip Ebert

"Type II fun is the kind of fun that, actually, while you're doing it, you're way too scared to really enjoy it, but looking back it was a lot of fun." PIC: Philip Ebert

“We all tend to think that everyone else is kind of like us in some ways,” she continues, “and that we can understand them just by knowing something about them, but I think that’s a mistake – the human brain is very complex and we need to appreciate and respect that there are ways that people see and value things that are just different from the way we see and value them.”

Later in the film, just at the point where things begin to get serious, with the crew moving away from relatively easy-angled, wide open powder descents and starting to take on steeper gullies, Ebert gets more specific about the enjoyment that’s to be had in risky situations, raising the difference between “Type I fun” and “Type II fun.”

“Type I fun is where you’re having actual fun,” he says, “when it’s a lot of fun when you’re actually skiing. Steep skiing is a form of Type II fun. Type II fun is the kind of fun that, actually, while you’re doing it, you’re way too scared to really enjoy it, but looking back it was a lot of fun. There’s some trepidation, there are some concerns at the top, this air of uncertainty... Can you do it? Is this the right thing to do? Are these the right kind of conditions?”

Type II fun, then, is a sort of retrospective fun – a fun that doesn’t kick in until later. Who knows, perhaps this is where we got the expression “are we having fun yet?”

The final scene of the film shows Ebert and Dave Anderson skiing a steep gully late in the season, when the snow is soft and sugary and brown with dirt that’s blown in from the surrounding hillside.

“I guess the greatest days are where you’re just getting to the limit of your comfort zone,” Ebert says, “and you just realise ‘Oh, I can do this, and not be too scared and not be too worried.’”

Never mind Type I fun and Type II fun, then, perhaps the best kind of fun – the sweet spot of fun we’re all really looking for – is Type I-and-a-half fun.

Stefan Morrocco will be giving a talk entitled “Risk, Luck and Adventure Film Making” prior to a screening of Comfort Zones at Braemar Village Hall on 1 March, as part of the Braemar Mountain Festival, www.braemarmountainfestival.com. Philip Ebert is sponsored by Dynafit and Kaestle Skis