(Ed’s note: This is part 2 of a series—see part 1 here.)
By Jon Hartley
A day at Retallack can begin in any number of ways, the exact order is determined by personality, sleep habits, or the events of the previous night. What is assured is that the breakfast buffet will be stocked with fruit, eggs, pancakes, and a few surprises, promptly at 7:30 a.m. If you’re an athlete on a company-sponsored trip, it’s likely that there will be a marketing man or team manager present to do your alarm clock’s job, but otherwise it’s a pretty open game plan.
The snowcats are lined up with engines idling at the covered back porch by 8:30, and if you’re Team Orage, it’s likely that around 8:45 there’s a driver, appropriately named Karl the Gnarl, getting increasingly agitated as someone tries to find JP Auclair.
For Charley Ager, the wait doesn’t seem particularly bothersome. He’s been taking practice swings at the nageln stump and smoking cigarettes by the half-barrel fire pit all morning. The thin clouds offer tantalizing potential of brighter light for Blake, our photographer, and Charley is going to take his sled up in case there’s cause for quick laps on a cliff or kicker.
With everyone’s beacons checked and all athletes accounted for, we move towards our first run with a lurch and the slow bumpy progress of a snowcat. The pace of a film shoot in a place as unpredictable as Retallack is not much of a break from the pace of the actual snowcat that gets you to the terrain. The slow, methodical search for terrain, and bumpy, jumpy pace of a shoot that is coordinated around sunshine peeking between clouds. The guides bring to bear years of experience and a pile of information about the snowpack, weather, and each individual zone, but there are no guaranteed shots.
On our third day at Retallack we took advantage of the high clouds and decided to try to get shots on some cliffs in the West Bowl. They’re hidden from above by a stand of evergreens, but they drop into a steep landing that was cleanly covered in 20cm of snow the night before. Landings into steep, powder choked trannies are nice, but this spot was especially chosen for its promise of hot laps. The cat road circles right from the drop off point above the cliffs to their natural run-out, a perfect formula for very fast laps on Charley’s sled.
Formulas are nice, but always leave room for variables. Low, dark clouds drifted overhead when we got to the spot. Our guide, Tim, made the prophetic call that by the time the cameras were set up, the light would be better.
We all went to work; Karl the Gnarl had a respectable fire and the first helping of backcountry popcorn ready before any of the cameras were ready (we’ve submitted a request that this zone be renamed the “Popcorn Cliffs” in his honor). Blake enlisted some help in getting a flash setup on top of the cliffs, and our small army went to work tamping down snow and assembling PVC tracks to setup the dolly for motion shots. When the complications of setting up electronic equipment in snow were overcome, as our guide had foreseen, the sun found a crack in the cloudy dome. A lingering fog broke the light into thick rays that beamed like spotlights through the trees above the cliff. Filmers and photographers have no patience for standing and staring, no matter how transcendent the view may be, and shouts of “Who is ready? This light is perfect!” broke the peace.
JP, Charley, and Banks spread out across the band and picked their spots. The landing was wider and cleaner than anything they had skied yet, but the fog still left some lingering visibility issues. Banks took his drop too big and compressed into the flatter section of the landing. Charley adjusted his spotted landing to skier’s left a bit and landed a wide-leg 360 and 540 on consecutive laps.
If the broken rhythm of a film shoot can be hard to watch, it has to be even harder to stand as a skier. JP coolly criticized himself for rolling the windows slightly on his first drop, but even after a quick sled lap, his rebate wouldn’t come quickly. Sun, clouds, and camera malfunctions are inevitable, and they leave athletes waiting about intimidating cliffs with plenty of time to think. JP did get his rebate, and cleanly aired the cliff slightly deeper than his knees probably wanted.
The frustrations of backcountry filming quickly set in and ominously thick clouds returned after only a couple laps. Popcorn, powder turns, and free runs were the consolation prize. These guys have it rough.