This profile originally published in the January 2016 issue of POWDER (44.5). PHOTO: Andrew Miller
CHRIS FIGENSHAU SPEAKS SLOWLY when he talks about himself. He pauses a lot. Less guarded than understated. Not so much self-deprecating as aggrandizing to those around him.
“He’s stronger than me, and faster than me,” says Figenshau, 44. He is talking about Jimmy Chin and a project they worked on last winter for National Geographic. Figenshau’s role was shooting behind-the-scenes video, one of many recent jobs he’s taken as a cinematographer. He calls the project, for which they climbed and skied five iconic Teton peaks—the South, Middle, and Grand Teton, Teewinot, and Owen—a dream assignment. But again, he’s not talking about himself, but Chin. “You’re shooting skiing for National Geographic. Who gets to do that?” he says. “I guess there’s some merit to being second fiddle.”
The reality is Figenshau sits second chair to no one. In the realm of high-angle, high-altitude photography, he’s a member of the elite—one of a handful of people in the world able to access and descend the steepest and highest lines and have the poise to capture images along the way. His photos provide a first-person perspective of places only a few people will ever see with their own eyes.
He has climbed, skied, and shot from the highest peaks in the Coast Range of BC, and the Brooks and Alaska ranges in AK, photographed multiple expeditions to the Himalayas, and documented historic lines in Greenland, Chamonix, the Tetons, and the Andes. He also boasts a film resume that includes The Ordinary Skier, Further, and Higher.
“Chris brings a really unique skill set, in that he’s a world-class ski mountaineer and a world-class photographer,” says Jeremy Jones, who worked with Figenshau for Further and Higher. “When he started getting into video, I knew that he would bring a ton to the table in terms of getting a camera into places where no one else could get a camera.”
In many ways, Figenshau’s journey is the quintessential tale of the ski bum making it: A dentist’s son from Lansing, Michigan, moves to Jackson and turns a night job in a dark room into a successful photography career. But his path has been complex. His stream doesn’t so much meander as splinter and split and braid its way through the landscape of the last 20 years.
That Figenshau never fought the current is reflective in the scope of his work. While his mountaineering feats have set him apart lately, his enviable portfolio covers a wide variety of sports—climbing, skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking, fishing—for a host of magazines and a client list too long to name. He has documented forest fires and photographs real estate. He fought flames on a hotshot crew, worked safety for a reality TV show, and continues to mountain guide in the summer. In the last three years, he became a husband and father as well.
After graduating from the University of Oregon in 1994, a one-season move to Jackson, Wyoming, turned permanent. He worked nights in the dark room for the on-mountain photography service, and was inspired to start shooting photos of his friends when longtime Jackson photographer Bob Woodall pointed out that someone ought to shoot those guys skiing. Trips with pioneering snowboard mountaineer John Griber introduced him to the Teton backcountry.
These would all be notable rites of passage in most ski-bum-gone-big biographies. For Figenshau’s, they are just bends in the stream, side notes in his life-long drive to explore mountains.
“He’s just really able to adapt,” says Micah Black, who skied and traveled with Figenshau extensively when they were younger. “He can drop what he’s doing fighting fire, go be an Exum guide, then put on a suit and go to a wedding and look like he’s the guy from a Guess Jeans ad.”
“There’s a lot of guys who really shine on a 10-day trip. There are very few that, 20 days in, when you tell them we’re extending another week, don’t lose their marbles. Chris really has that right mentality. That steadiness and positivity is really hard to find. The longer the trip, the more suffering that is going to go down, the more Chris rises to the top.” —Jeremy Jones
“BEING A FIREFIGHTER MAKES EVERYTHING feel like a white-collar job,” says Figenshau. He’s reflecting on the years between 1997 and 2000 when he fought fires on a hotshot crew based in Alaska, a gig that puts the rigors of expedition photography in perspective.
“It was just a hard job,” he says. “It’s hard on your body, physically. You’re dirty—really dirty. When I was in there, at least the crew I was on, it was very paramilitary. You definitely don’t have a life.”
Figenshau’s crew worked 21 days consecutively followed by two days off. That program continued for roughly five months. The upside was he no longer needed a winter job. “You can put a lot of money away,” he says. He fought fire all summer, and in the winter, he would travel, shoot photos, and try to get published. Even with an arrangement that put $40,000 in his bank account every summer, it seemed audacious to think a kid from Michigan was going to move to Jackson Hole and take pictures for a living. “I didn’t have any illusion about how unlikely it would be that I would be a photographer shooting skiing to make money,” he says. “So I gave myself some time. I said, by the time I’m 30, if I haven’t had a major breakthrough, I need to come up with another plan.”
Figenshau was 29 when he was hired on for an expedition to Mount Waddington in BC with The North Face and Warren Miller Entertainment.
“Warren Miller footed the bill. The North Face paid me a fat creative fee. It was, like, real money,” says Figenshau. “It was kind of what I was shooting for, I guess.” That same winter, TGR invited him on a trip to Haines, Alaska. “That was all the excuse I needed,” he adds.
Faced with another summer of cutting fire line to fuel his winter photography, he lobbed another moonshot. His hotshot experience helped him land a contract photographing forest fires for the National Interagency Fire Center. “It was even better than fire [fighting],” he says. “I wasn’t working as many hours and I made the same amount of money, and had all this freedom. I could go to the hottest parts of the fire and observe amazing fire behavior that you might see once or twice a summer when you’re working on a crew.”
“Walking up these lines and being in serious mountains is truly an art form. Meaning, there’s the science side of things, there’s the listen-to-your-gut side of things… It’s a big feel. It’s not like the smartest guy is the safest guy. It’s a cocktail of different skills. Chris brings this really amazing diversity that you only get from a lifetime of doing this. That to me is what is unique about Chris.”—Jeremy Jones
BY 2009, THE FOREST-FIRE PHOTOGRAPHY WORK became more and more erratic. The nation was also in the grips of the Great Recession. Figenshau adapted. He closed his fire chapter and took a summer job leading clients for Exum Mountain Guides. Guiding, at least at first, offered the immediate and consistent paycheck that freelance photography doesn’t always provide. But there was more. “It was getting kind of lonesome, doing the fire stuff,” he says. “And skiing is kind of that way, too, photography-wise. You’re always an observer. I started to feel removed from normal interactions because I was always documenting them.”
Though he doesn’t necessarily need the guiding income anymore, he continues to work for Exum. Guiding provides him with a social network and keeps his alpine skills sharp. “I thought guiding would be a great way to spend my summer in the mountains, where I want to be,” he says. “It ended up being a lot more than that. You meet a lot of interesting people, and you get to know them in a way you don’t get to know strangers. You’re showing people something cool that’s also dangerous.”
He admits, though, that guiding is getting more difficult. Married in 2012, Figenshau became a father in May 2013 when his wife, Emily, gave birth to their first son, Jimi. They are expecting their second in March. Emily also works full time as a real estate broker. “Every day that I guide, I’m pretty much going to cut out 100 bucks for day care,” he says. “That’s the only way it works.”
Fatherhood hasn’t exactly grounded Figenshau, but it has made him more selective of what work he’ll take. Great opportunities 10 years ago are now a no-go. “I’m psyched to take work in the adventure ski-expedition genre, but I can’t gamble as much with trips that are on spec,” he says. “There was a time I would shell out 10 G’s for a heli trip in hopes of making it back, and sometimes I didn’t. That kind of exposure is as bad as walking under a serac in Chamonix or over a crevasse in AK for me now. The risk isn’t worth it. Besides, my wife would kill me either way.”
Figenshau says there are scary aspects to every expedition. But for him, they are the moments when things are out of his control—traveling beneath seracs or not really knowing if you’re camping outside of the alpha angle for avalanche exposure. “I think every trip I’ve been on has had some elements of trepidation,” he says. “Everything will be going smoothly and all of a sudden something happens. It may not be something horrible, just enough to set you back into realizing you are in a wild, uncontrollable environment where you’re not the boss.”
Things that appear dangerous to the layman—climbing up steep walls and over exposure—Figenshau takes in his standard easy-going manner. “You kind of know when you are about to get in over your head a little bit,” he says. “And you can, in most cases, do something about it. And if that’s turn around, maybe that’s one thing you do.” It’s that practical temperament that prompted Jones to ask Figenshau to find an exotic location for Higher.
“The more serious it is, the more necessary it is to have Chris involved,” says Jones. “We had spent so much time together in the mountains and had talked about what a potential Himalayan expedition looked like and what the ideal objective would be, so he was the perfect guy to task for doing research on that.”
Figenshau found a photo in a book of an unnamed peak in Nepal, a 21,000-foot-high vertical fin of spines. He texted an iPhone shot of it to Jones. The response contained “WTF,” “OMG,” and four exclamation points. “What was cool about that is I got to find something that I wanted to do, and then convince them that they wanted to do it, too,” says Figenshau, laughing.
The expedition became the closing segment for Higher. The images are stunning: a knife-edge ridge with long, steep spines cascading down one side, massive rock exposure on the other. It looks terrifying. Yet for Figenshau, this is his element. “The climb up the ridge was enjoyable and spectacular,” he says. “It was an amazing ridge walk with views of Everest, Baruntsé, and a hundred other 6- or 7,000-meter peaks that had no names. The ridge was exposed, but had no cornices. Zero. That is a big reason why I thought it was so special when I found the picture.”
“Chris has this level of love for the mountains that very few people have. I’ve seen it in a couple of people. And deep down that’s what makes Chris so special and his work so special. Very few people are that immersed, obsessed, and locked into the mountains to the level he is.” —Jeremy Jones
THERE ARE THINGS ABOUT FIGENSHAU that won’t be evident on first meeting. He has an ability to blend with the situation. As such, his dry wit and observant sense of humor might not come out. You may not hear the multitude of impersonations he does of his friends—characterizations that don’t really mimic the subject as much as capture their essence. Much like a ski photo. You most certainly won’t get a sense of what a badass he is, unless someone else is there to tell you.
At the same time, he has a simplicity to him as well. There’s no ulterior motive for what he does best. He’s not seeking notoriety or money. He simply loves to ski, loves being in the mountains. That part he wears on his sleeve.
In May, Figenshau and his friend, Jimmy Hartman, completed a three-day mission across Leigh Lake to the top of 12,028-foot Thor Peak in the Tetons. Their objective was the Hidden Couloir. For all his trips last season, all the iconic descents he did for National Geographic, he calls this his most rewarding run of the year.
“When I get to that point of feeling like I can take on extra big days in the mountains, I get motivated for the more elusive lines in the Tetons,” he says. Because of the warm weather, Figenshau had thought the chances to ski the couloir were low. “Just to climb Thor would have been a success,” he says. Instead, they found perfect conditions: boot-top powder on edgeable firm snow to corn snow leading up to two rappels.
“It’s funny how you can be pleasantly surprised by the mountains once you’ve got some conviction about going regardless of the probability of success,” he says. Those words could apply to Figenshau’s entire approach to life.
He remembers someone from the National Geographic trip asking in astonishment if that was something he did just for fun. “Well, yeah,” he relates. “What other reason is there?”