Review: Sweetgrass’ ‘Solitaire’

‘I think it was more wild than we could ever have imagined.’ – NW

Sweetgrass Productions' Nick Waggoner speaks at a Denver showing of 'Solitaire.' Photo: Sweetgrass Productions

Sweetgrass Productions' Nick Waggoner speaks at a Denver showing of 'Solitaire.' Photo: Sweetgrass Productions

By John Clary Davies

There's a scene in Solitaire that shows a skier warming his hands and his Scarpas next to a fire. It's pouring outside, droplets pounding the river. He sits within a makeshift shelter, against which his skis are propped. After the fire turns to ash, he walks through a rainforest with his skis on his pack, his jacket and the camera soaked. As the skier climbs, the downpour turns into a blizzard, and he goes skiing.

It's ski movie season. In a fall when the Art of Flight broke every record for American action sports film excess, Sweetgrass Productions' third release, Solitaire, stands alone. The two-year project is an existential backcountry ski journey that starts at the foothills of the Andes and ends in the belly of the unknown. There are no helicopters filming helicopters or stoked bros, just skins, Dynafits, and that innate obsession for exploration and meaning. Oh, and there's plenty of powder, hucks, spins and ethereal Andean landscape, too.

The film starts with a fire. The Spanish narration, excerpts from an adaptation from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, breathes an adventuresome romanticism into the story. "At that time there were many blank spaces on earth," the narrator begins. "And when he saw one on a map that looked particularly inviting, he'd put his finger on it and say—when I grow up, I will go there.' But one was special—the biggest, the most blank. And so, in time, he went."

Nick Waggoner, Sweetgrass’ director, said Conrad's classic set the perfect tone for the film.

"As we were reading it, it was obvious that was an amazing way to articulate what we experienced," he says.

At 20,000 feet, the Sweetgrass crew dealt with 100 mph winds. They camped at altitude for three weeks at a time and stuffed cotton in their ears so moths couldn't lay larvae there. The crew avoided bites from three-inch long ants. They crossed bottomless crevasses. Waggoner says they chose the Andes for their breadth and mystery.


"(These are) incredible places and we didn't feel like anybody had ever put the time in to make a film there," says Waggoner. "We wanted to challenge ourselves and go to places that are really remote and really wild and see what we came back with, and I think it was more wild than we could ever have imagined."

Solitaire is like The Motorcycle Diaries meets Into the Wild, if Chris McCandless (or Che Guevara for that matter) were a skier. The film evokes your inner restlessness, and taps into our spirit for adventure, for plunging into the darkness of solitude in remote places. It reminds us of the nirvana of having less and going further. The film will make you want to sell all your possessions, except your skis and skins, and book the next flight to Punta Arenas, in order to find meaning in the mountains and in yourself. It will make you want to go deeper, beyond anybody or anything, into a sacred void where all that exists is you and the earth.

And mules. You'll want a mule to get to the snow. Then you can start walking. Go far. "He lived as he dreamed—alone," says the narrator. "And so he went a little further, then a little further still, until he had gone so far he didn't know how he would ever get back."

Solitaire showcases the incredible aesthetic of the crew's deep Andean experience. They climb at dawn, the sun just beginning to crack above jagged peaks, while they ski and jump and spin through a surreal landscape at dusk. We see lightening and downpours, blizzards and bluebird, as the viewer follows the athletes through rain forest, past waterfalls and across vast salt flats. The Sweetgrass cinematographers exhibit a knack for capturing minutiae and making it beautiful and magnificent. In Solitaire, skiers aren't just putting their skins on their skis. They are sages doing something divine. "Perhaps all the wisdom and all truth and all sincerity," says the narrator, "are just compressed into that inappreciable moment of time in which we step over the threshold of the invisible."

Upcoming showings of Solitaire:
• Missoula 10/8 — 8 p.m. @ Roxy Theater
• Bozeman 10/11 — 8 p.m. @ Emerson Center
• Boise 10/14 — 8 p.m. @ Egyptian Theater
• Nelson 10/19 — 7 p.m. @ Capitol Theater
• Whistler 10/21 — 7:30 p.m. @ Millenium Place
• Vancouver 10/22 — 7:30 p.m. @ Rio Theater
• Seattle 10/28 — 7:30 p.m. @ Varsity Theater