By John Clary Davies
Kris Ostness was one of the only skiers building backcountry jumps in the mid ’90s. He was also the first to throw a McTwist, and his pro model, the Line Ostness Dragon, was one of the original full-sized twin tip skis. Still, you might say Kris Ostness had bad timing.
The ski industry wasn’t ready for him. When he couldn’t get anybody to film him, Ostness went behind the lens himself. He started Wind-Up Films, which released Clay Pigeons, Tee Time and The Flying Circus. Ostness then went on to direct a minor-classic, Teddybear Crisis, with Henrik Rostrup. Recently, Powder.com caught up with Ostness, 40, for a beer in White Salmon, Wash., before his wind surfing session in the Gorge. Now a freelance videographer and freestyle coach for his friend’s kids, Ostness reflected on the challenges of being ahead of the game.
I started working with a photographer, Bill Stevenson, who was at the ski school at the same time I was. Bill was just getting going as a photographer. At first I started working with him as a powder ski model, like a lot of people do in Utah. Eventually I was like, “Hey, let’s shoot some jumping.” My skiing had really been influenced by my snowboarding and that’s what set me apart as a skier at the time.
I wanted to hit snowboard features and Bill and I would go out in the backcountry—this is in the mid ’90s and the only people in the backcountry were granola backcountry skiers and snowboarders—and snowboarders were the only ones building kickers.
It was so hard because it was totally out of the box. Ski companies weren’t used to seeing this. There was racing and there was freesking, which was big mountain. Even early Freeze was a big mountain magazine. They would not publish freestyle shots. They did the mute grabs, but I was specifically told they would not shoot freestyle sequences because that’s what snowboard magazines did, and they did not want to be identified with that at all. So even in the progressive aspects of the industry, we were really up against the odds. Of course Freeze flip-flopped and changed their tune. It was challenging because I was doing Mctwists way back when. Bill had a sequence from the Snowbird halfpipe way back in the day, and they weren’t interested in publishing it.
I met Jason Levinthal the year before I was getting skis from K2 and saw ski-boarding for the first time, before it was really uncool. Freeze never accepted it—they always dissed on it—but it was like, whoa, this is sick, actually, because this is a great training tool. I trained doing 5s and 7s and McTwists. I never thought I’d ski on them, because I’m a big mountain, backcountry freestyle skier. I went to Jason and I was like, “Hey, we should do a full length, full-sized twin tip ski.”
Jay has always been way ahead of the curve, like way ahead of the curve. I gave him the specs I wanted—a 193 twin tip, but a twin tip in my mind was always going to be set back. The first prototype he made me was a full on center-mounted 193 and I couldn’t ski it. There’s like, no way. It isn’t ever going to happen. But he made it, and years later that’s what the kids are doing.
K2 had done the Poacher, which was a really short twin tip, and flexible, and hard to ski, and then the [Salomon] 1080 came out, and then Line came out with the full-length Ostness Dragon. That would be a career high there.
We built a lot of quarter pipes in the backcountry and that was my first cover on Powder. There were two. They were both from Mount Hood. The first cover was more of a daylight shot and the other one looked like the surface of the moon.
No one was filming skiing—that kind of skiing—in the day. I talked to a couple of different film companies but it was really hard to break in back then unless you had sponsors and they are telling the film crews to shoot you. I was pretty much just a photo athlete. I primarily shot with Bill Stevenson and mainly went for getting the sick shots in the backcountry doing freestyle.
Because it was hard to break into the film companies I just decided to buy my own 16mm camera and make my own films.
Chad Zurinskas, Brent Benson and myself built Chad’s the first time. It was something Chad had wanted to do for a year. There were two tailing piles—120 feet apart—and Chad just had the vision of, “I think we can jump between this like a moto-style gap.”
Between the three of us we built it in over a week, and the first time we hit it, Candide [Thovex] was in town. Chad speed-tested twice and came up short both times. If he hadn’t been knocked around so much he would have hiked up and cleared it, but he was just over it on that day and Candide politely asked, “Hey uh, do you mind if I try the gap?” Candide hiked up there and landed right on the knuckle the first time and cleared it the second time.
A week later, after the next storm, Chad came up and cleared it the first time.
To be honest I never thought guys would be hitting that thing switch. I never thought they’d be doing anything more than a 360 or back flip over it—yet the next year Candide showed up again and was doing D-spins over it. I was really blown away at how fast that whole gap thing progressed.
I guinea-pigged Pyramid and instead of going right for the knuckle, I was like, well I better hedge a little bit, and went off the knuckle side where it kind of rolled and just didn’t have enough speed, and it was like thick spring snow after a huge storm. I hit so hard I felt shock waves going through my legs. I thought I broke my legs, and my skis were just sunk so deep into the snow I had to punch my fist through the snow to find them. That’s actually the only time I ever broke a ski. I didn’t have a ski, so I couldn’t hit it again.
So Jaime Pierre was like, “Hey, can I hit it?” He went up and cleared it. Later I came back and I did a 360 over it.
I lost money on every film I made.
In Utah I’d stop in at one of biggest stores right at the base of the canyon where we film. I go in there and they don’t even have Teddybear Crisis and most of the film was shot in their backyard and they don’t even carry it, they don’t even care, and that’s just the attitude of the ski industry.
That’s not to say that is the only reason for the end of Wind-Up Films and Teddybear Crisis. Decesare, Berman and others have all made successful busineses while I didn’t. I’m not an accountant or a businessman and when the movies were done, the last thing I wanted to do was to have to promote and sell the film.
Partnering with Rostrup for Teddybear was a great thing but in the end both of us where creative heads and not bean counters. When the budget was blown out for Teddybear we still opted to shoot the intro in Norway with a full film crew and in 35mm. That all came out of our pockets, we could have walked and done something inexpensive and maybe made money on the movie but… I don’t know, the intro that broke the Teddybears‘ back? Maybe, but I sure love that intro.
It’s changing, but it didn’t change fast enough for me.
I wish I had started younger. By the time I was getting into being a pro skier, I was at that age where it was staring to hurt, and you start getting the Fear and you can’t ski when you have the Fear. It would have been nice to have exited the pro skiing career with money. I definitely missed the window of money. The Canadians just got in on it, and then the next wave really cashed in. But that’s how it is when you are early in the game.