While most rookie filmmakers settle for a mediocre YouTube video, brothers Tyler and Elliot Wilkinson-Ray veered off the beaten path. Last winter, the pair released United We Ski, a 35-minute film that depicts an endangered part of Vermont history: ski areas that only have T-bars and rope tows. While focusing on town hills specific to the Green Mountain State, the film, and its message revering the hills skiers grow up on, gained support from crowds across the United States.
Raised on Ben & Jerry's and maple syrup, the Wilkinson-Ray brothers grew up in Richmond, Vermont. Just a short car ride from Cochran’s Ski Area, the pair was introduced to skiing at a young age.
"I think it’s safe to say that we wouldn’t be skiing today, never mind working in the ski industry, if Cochran’s had not been in our hometown," says Tyler. "It was a second home growing up. Our skis never left—we would leave them behind the lodge to wait for us when get got off the school bus the next day."
When they went to nearby University of Vermont, the pair remained involved at Cochran’s as coaches for the race program. The pair—as skiers who experienced the positive effect an affordable and accessible ski area had on the community—decided Cochran’s and other comparable hills had a story that needed telling. After seven years of coaching, and a lifetime at Cochran's, the brothers began filming.
"These little places are really cool breeding grounds for creating a passion for skiing," says co-filmmaker Elliot. "Cochran's is what got me into skiing, and where I made friends that I'll still visit today…it changed my life."
In 1966, 81 ski areas sprawled across the Green Mountain State, most of which were modestly sized, lacking any sort of mechanized chairlift. During this time, town hills were far from uncommon. Since then, plagued with difficult upkeep and economic viability, these locales have become endangered. Now, of the 30 recognized ski areas in Vermont, less than 10 are either privately owned or considered "small," home only to T-bars or rope-tows.
Though the brothers knew their way around a GoPro, neither had a professional background in filming. Regardless, the Wilkinson-Rays succeeded in depicting the stories of Vermont ski areas including Cochran's, Northeast Slopes, and Hard'ack—a ski area free of charge to visitors that graciously accepts donations. Through ticket sales, raffles, and other means, United We Ski raised over $20,000 for small ski areas, both featured and not featured, in their film.
With the success of United We Ski premieres ranging from New Hampshire to Utah, the duo has no plans to stop filming. The Wilkinson-Rays created T-Bar Films, a company that documents untold stories behind outdoor sports and communities.
POWDER: Where did the idea for United We Ski come from?
Elliot: We grew up in a town that had a ski area right there. It created this environment that was a little alternative to most. You had kids from all over, kids from the trailer parks even, learning to ski. We didn't realize how this was different until we got older, skied a lot of the world, and started to understand how small, affordable, easy-to-access ski areas were super important. We later realized from working directly with Cochran's that budgets are tight every year, how they were at risk of going under. Being a small hill in this industry is tough. We wanted to promote these places and this experience of skiing.
How difficult was it for you guys to fund the project?
Tyler: At first it was really hard to get people on board, and with good reason. Nobody knew us and we had nothing to show. I give a lot of credit to the companies that sponsored us because we were totally out of left field, there was no guarantee that this movie was even going to end up being made, we were just some kids.
Elliot: We did a Kickstarter. I'd never heard of it before this, but I made a pitch video that looks pretty cheesy when I watch it now. Everyone got really into it and we ended up raising more money than we even asked for or expected, which was a good litmus test to see if people liked the idea.
When you guys premiered your film out West did you get the same appreciation?
Tyler: I really wasn't sure what the reaction was going to be like when we took the film out West, but it was almost better received out there. We didn't have the press out there, and weren't drawing out as big of crowds. Instead of sold out shows in the East, we were getting 60- to 100-person crowds in libraries and small theatres. Some of the responses afterwards showed how people were so blown away that these kinds of places still existed. There was almost a sense of nostalgia. There's a lot of people in the ski industry out West who are from the East and I think it was nice for them to look back and remember.
Did you find any T-bars out West?
Tyler: There's not as many. They’re not nearly as small—small ski areas out West are like small to midsized East Coast mountains—but there are a few that are just T-bars. They're mostly town runs or nonprofits, but they exist. It's a product from when the ski industry happened out [West], it was much later than when it happened around the East. The resort model had already happened, where as in the East, people were just putting ropes behind tractors. But there are small ski areas out there and people get the whole idea and we did a couple fundraisers out there for them.
You also filmed a couple spots in Vermont that I had never seen before. How'd you find these places?
Tyler: While most ski areas are eager to attract new business and some ski areas tried to pay us to be included in the film, it took me over a month of research to track down this particular backyard tow (to remained unnamed for obvious reasons). When I finally located a phone number—through a vague reference in a dairy farmer's blog—I called the owner Pete, also a dairy farmer and maple sugarer.
I explained the movie we were making and asked if I could come film at the tow. Pete was rather indifferent to the prospect of a film featuring his tow but explained that he runs the tow every Sunday for friends and family and that I could come up the following weekend if I wanted. Pete added that when it snows a lot he fires up another, steeper tow in the back for the more hardcore skiers.
Knowing that one of the last storms of the season was brewing for later that week, I asked if I could get added to the call list for the back tow. Pete responded, "Why don't you come up here on Sunday? And I'll decide if I like you first." A blunt remark that reminded me I wasn't talking to the marketing department at a resort, but a dairy farmer in rural Vermont who happened to also be a die-hard ski bum. I never got the "call" that winter, but Pete did pull me up in his tracked 4-wheeler for one run on the back tow.
What success did the film have in benefiting the ski areas featured in your film?
Tyler: Our last count was just over $20,000 for the ski hills in our film, and some that weren't featured. That's the cash in hand donated, which we thought was pretty successful, but several of these small ski areas have written us saying that there's been a notable difference in the number of volunteers. They're saying that their workdays have gotten much bigger. The film definitely can't take credit for some or all of that, there's just so many factors involved. Connections happen in strange ways though.
Elliot: People are realizing that these places need to be supported. Fight to keep the little places going.