How a Filmmaker Found Love Despite Tragic Loss

One of the world’s best high-alpine cinematographers, Bjarne Salén's most tragic loss led to the love of his life

Illustration: Alelli Tanghal

Cows graze in muddy fields. Windswept juniper bushes call for Hank Williams to ease the solitude. A low-lying winter dew suppresses the smell of cow dung. Clouds cling to the rolling rust-colored hills and shroud 14,180-foot Mount Shasta's ivory massif. A long gravel road leads to a farmhouse, where a porch light in the distance suggests life.

There, Bjarne Salén and his girlfriend, Jadda Miller, greet me on the front stoop of a nondescript single-level home near a sustainable cattle ranch where Miller works. Salén, 27, wears a knitted Kask headband, his shaggy brown hair jutting out like a tumbleweed, surrounding his narrow jawline and transparent blue eyes.

Inside, Salén serves his homemade veggie patties. Next to the dinner table, camera equipment and a large monitor form the office and editing bay of one of the world's most accomplished high-alpine filmers. Over a spread of fresh vegetables and a tube of Kalles Kaviar, a culinary staple from his Swedish homeland, Salén explains how he landed in Northern California after living in the ski mountaineering epicenter of Chamonix for five years.

"Love," he says, smiling. He grabs the hand of a charming Miller.

He goes on to explain how he's kept busy with freelance film work for clients such as Patagonia and Salomon, and an upcoming project focused on how professional skiing sisters Anna and Nat Segal approach fear (the film, Finding The Line, premieres fall 2017).

One of the most skilled—and graceful—high-altitude filmers, Bjarne Salén is at ease in unforgiving terrain. PHOTO: Daniel Rönnbäck

The last time I was with Salén, in March 2014, we stood atop a walled couloir in Chamonix. As I stared down the exposure, my nerves getting the best of me, he assuaged my fears with calming words and a reassuring voice. It was a beautiful Chamonix ski experience—a 7,000-foot descent with technical route-finding and dry powder—all of which made Salén's thoughtful approach that much more elegant. His insouciance belied the dangerous exposure. He stood on a rock precipice above the couloir, holding out an extended tripod with a DSLR camera attached to the end, filming Dave Rosenbarger skiing.

Ten months later, Rosenbarger—Salén's friend, skiing partner, and Chamonix neighbor—died in an avalanche on the Italian side of Chamonix.

Though deeply saddened by the loss, the tragedy did not dissuade Salén from resuming his passion and occupation—much like his steep-skiing brethren who continue to accept the risks associated with their craft.

Seven months later, Salén faced tragedy again. In September 2014, Salén and his best friend, steep-skiing savant Andreas Fransson, along with freeski pioneer and burgeoning ski mountaineer JP Auclair and photographer Daniel Rönnbäck, were on a three-day trek from civilization in the Andes. Salén set up his camera on an opposing mountain to shoot Fransson and Auclair skinning, hiking, and eventually skiing a 2,400-foot-long dogleg couloir on Monte San Lorenzo, which sits on the border of Argentina and Chile. As the two neared the top of the couloir, a piece of snow broke off from the cornice at the top and kicked off an enormous avalanche that enveloped Fransson and Auclair. The mass of snow and subsequent fall killed two of the world's most influential skiers. Salén and Rönnbäck, standing next to each other several thousand feet away, could only watch in shock.

Less than five weeks later, Salén was on stage at the Banff Film Festival, introducing his two latest films: Dreamline, a documentary about ski mountaineer activist Ptor Spricenieks that won Best Documentary at the 15th Annual Powder Awards, and Happy Winter, a seven-minute short about Fransson and the happiness derived from skiing and "sharing nature's magic" with friends.

"He spoke about the Chile tragedy with such grace…he was so calm," remembers his girlfriend Miller, who was in Banff for a filmmaking workshop and had never heard of Salén or the Chilean accident before that night.

"I didn't really have anything planned, so I just spoke from the heart," says Salén. "I said it doesn't matter if you're a filmmaker in the mountains or you work in a grocery store, as long as you do something that makes you happy. And if you are, like Andreas was in the mountains, you can give that back to your kids or your family members and friends, and other people."

While growing up in Sweden, Salén would take the bus two and a half hours to go skiing. PHOTO: Bruno Long

Long before the catastrophe in Chile, Salén earned respect from those around him through his sincerity. Raised in Gothenburg, Sweden, Salén and his older brother, Morgan, grew up in a middle-class family. Their mother introduced them to skiing at a young age.

"In Sweden, especially where we were from on the West Coast, it's a big deal if you get to spend a maximum of seven days on skis each year," says Morgan. "The same for us. I still wonder to this day how our mom had the energy to take us skiing in a small mountain cabin one week every year."

Bjarne (pronounced Bee-ORN-ay) took to skiing immediately, going so far as applying roofing tarpaper on an old door to pile snow and build a jump. In eighth grade, he bused two and a half hours, one day a week, to ski at a freestyle school. Meanwhile, Morgan, who is now 29 and two years older than Bjarne, met Fransson while working in northern Sweden near the country's highest mountain, Kebnekaise. The two became climbing partners, and Fransson persuaded Morgan to move to Chamonix to be his "partner for mountain adventures."

Bjarne, saving money from delivering newspapers as a teenager, began taking trips to the Alps when he was 16. By the time he was 20, forgoing university, the young Salén moved to Chamonix and into a 90-square-foot apartment with his older brother and Fransson. The Saléns shared a bunk bed while Fransson slept on the couch ("He could sleep through a war," says Morgan). Climbing and skiing gear hung from the rungs of the ladder stairs and ski clothes dried out on the door hanger. "My friend once said that he not only couldn't find the door but it felt like being in the wardrobe that would take you to Narnia," says Morgan, who is now a UIAGM mountain guide in Chamonix, New Zealand, and Norway.

The three Swedes lived at the base of Chamonix's Brevent lift, skied during the day, and rushed home to work the evening shift. Bjarne worked as a busboy at a nightclub from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. "They called the place 'Vomit,'" he says. Still, on powder days, he'd be at the lift by 6 a.m.

"It doesn't matter if you're a filmmaker in the mountains or you work in a grocery store, as long as you do something that makes you happy."
—Bjarne Salén

Salén is a self-taught filmmaker. Picking up a Sony camcorder ("the super zoomy one") after an epiphany on a 15-hour bus ride in Nepal made him realize he wanted to tell stories. "My [filmmaking] study has been more talking to other people, learning from others," he says. "I've done many stupid things as a filmmaker, but if you never try, how else are you going to know if it's worth it or not?"

Bjarne started following his brother and Fransson—two experienced, talented mountaineers—around Chamonix, applying his own deftness and determination. He filmed them and edited clips he shot while out on exposed objectives. Morgan remembers Bjarne following them on the Fil à Plomb, a 2,300-vertical-foot ice route on the north face of the Aiguille du Midi, wearing cracked Nordica Enforcer alpine boots he borrowed from Fransson.

"I wouldn't say that Bjarne had a natural feel for [ski mountaineering and filming] straightaway," says Morgan. "But his willingness of trying everything, and endurance that allowed him to push himself when he got tired, made him develop that feel pretty fast."

His first real filming gig came in 2011 with The Ordinary Skier, a biopic of Seth Morrison and his transition of becoming a ski mountaineer in Chamonix alongside friends Auclair and Fransson. Director Constantine "CP" Papanicolaou recognized Salén's newfound passion, giving him advice and insight on how to pursue a career in filmmaking.

"Bjarne's biggest asset is that he doesn't always seem to filter his ideas before he needs to try them," says Morgan. On that shoot, Bjarne hardly knew anything about Morrison, asking the ski movie star if he was a snowboarder. According to Morgan, the interview that Bjarne conducted soon appeared on the front page of Oakley.com for its candidness. And Bjarne's payment? A pair of goggles.

Salén learned to ski and climb from his brother and Fransson, one of the most skilled mountaineers in Chamonix. PHOTO: Daniel Rönnbäck

Before long, the young Swede found himself scaling and descending—all the while filming—a handful of the world's steepest lines. From Chamonix's sick-to-your stomach Pain de Sucre, as seen in Happy Winter with Fransson and Samuel Anthamatten, which was the group's fourth attempt ("I felt completely calm during that run," he said); the Whillans Ramp on Cerro Poincenot in Argentina; Pakistan's previously unskied Gashot Peak, as seen in Dreamline; and countless lines in Norway's Lyngen Alps.

"When we started filming, I realized that there weren't cameramen out there," says Salén. "But for me, it's not just about the ski turn. It's super easy to go out there with an expensive camera and shoot some slow-mo on pillows or steeps if you have the conditions and the camera and the skier. But if you're going to find a story, I want to touch people…to touch their minds and their souls."

The accomplishments and footage landed him work with Switchback Entertainment, Sweetgrass Productions, and many others looking to license Salén's unique perspective.

"Bjarne's projects are raw and in the moment," says filmmaker Anthony Bonello, who hired Salén to be his second shooter for Switchback's Eclipse, a short film with over 1 million views on YouTube. "He takes audiences to places few films can, and he was a natural choice because of his expedition experience. He is very comfortable in those environments."

A self-taught photographer and filmer, Salén was inspired to tell stories after a 15-hour bus ride in Nepal. PHOTO: Daniel Rönnbäck

It's mid-January and we sit on a rock outcropping on Shasta's shoulder after a leisurely skin. The sky is blue, the snow springy soft. We take a break below the summit to talk and refuel.

"I wish Andreas could be here," says Salén. "He'd love this."

As we stare out west toward the rolling mountains of Northern California, Salén remembers his best friend and mentor, who clearly stays with him, especially in the mountains.

The intense sadness of the moment induces tears. And then a smile.

"But I guess if that didn't happen, I wouldn't be here," he says.

In beautiful irony, it was the film Happy Winter that allowed tenderness to replace tragedy. The day after the film's premiere in Banff, Miller came up to Salén at a restaurant to tell him how much she appreciated his heartfelt speech on stage.

The interaction charmed him. For the next two days, he looked for the woman who captured his attention and offered respite from grief. On the final night of the festival, he found her.

From there, they began emailing each other for two months until meeting in Thailand and traveling for four weeks.

The mountains—and his experiences in them—have given Salén friendship and a career. Here, Salén gets cozy with Daniel Rönnbäck, JP Auclair, and Andreas Fransson on their ill-fated trip to South America. PHOTO: Daniel Rönnbäck

This past summer, Miller began a two-year Peace Corps commitment, establishing a sustainable farming practice in Nepal. Meanwhile, Salén lives in Miller's hometown of Red Bluff, an hour and a half south of Shasta, where he is working on a few ski films for his Endlessflow Films production house. He talks about continuing the art but also becoming a search and rescue pilot.

"Bjarne lives with an open heart and is such a positive guy, celebrating all the good in life. It's really infectious and ultimately uplifting," says Bonello, who shared a tent with Salén in Norway, six months after the tragedy in Chile. "I think he knows what the mountains give him and how he wants to experience them. He is genuinely a rare spirit."

As Salén looks out on the expanse before we click in to ski soft, mellow turns back to the parking lot, he ruminates on his last year.

"You ask yourself, do things happen for a reason? There's no reason why this friend died, they don't deserve to die like that. They were the most humble people ever doing amazing things, and then to go to the festival and meet the woman of my life, it's like, 'Well, there might be some reason for this, otherwise I wouldn't be there. Otherwise, I wouldn't have had that talk onstage when she was listening.' This last year, it's been the saddest year of my life, but it's also the most happy I've been. It's a pretty interesting life."

After five years in Chamonix, Salén now lives near Mount Shasta, in California. PHOTO: Bruno Long

This story originally published in the January 2017 issue of POWDER, the Photo Annual (45.5). Subscribe to The Skier’s Magazine for $14.97.