Review: The Ordinary Skier

Seth Morrison stomps the big questions - thoughts on a thought-provoking film

By John Clary Davies

Seth Morrison is not an ordinary skier. There is nothing normal about the skiing he does for a living, even when he gets out of his comfort zone and is shown the ropes in Chamonix by some of its most experienced ski-mountaineers for an expensive, two-year movie production. No, that's quite extraordinary.

It should also be said that the resulting film,The Ordinary Skier, which premiered Friday night in Seattle, isn't an ordinary ski movie. There isn't much skiing footage, and what we we do see is Morrison and others skiing hardpack, the result of a couple of really bad snow years in Europe. One could argue, in fact, that the film isn't really about skiing at all. It's a movie that uses Morrison's courage as a lens to look at life's big questions.


It's bold for Morrison to ski Cham with local zealot Nathan Wallace, but even braver to allow his family to speak honestly about their concerns for him in front of the cameras. The movie cuts between a Morrison biography--interviews with his mom, step-dad and sister--to his exploration of Chamonix with Wallace and at times J.P Auclair, Kye Petersen, Dave Rosenbarger and Glen Plake. The film shows that Morrison, despite twenty years of films and accolades, is not ordinary, but human. Wallace talks about seeing Morrison's hands shake before skiing a particularly risky line--a good sign from Wallace’s perspective. ("If you aren't scared, you're a little dumb," Wallace says.)

The humanization of Morrison comes through the strongest in the interviews with his family. It's incredible and impressive that a professional athlete--especially Morrison, with a legacy already cemented as one of skiing’s great heroes after such a long and successful career--is so candid. His family speaks honestly about his setbacks: the abandonment issues with the biological dad he never heard from; the season-ending ankle injury in the prime of his career; a helicopter crash in the Andes that resulted in two deaths; a DUI/stolen car arrest after his first big pay day; and his inexperience ski mountaineering Chamonix.

While these are all significant coming of age events in Morrison's life, it seems like the director used them as pretentious devices to overdramatize his story. Single-parent homes, injuries, and run-ins with the law are all pretty standard fare for American boys, and yet we hear the perspective of a number of industry professionals in regards to the impact of each event. The director is trying to connect the audience with Morrison through these travails--to make him seem ordinary because he suffers like everybody else--but it comes at a cost when profiling royalty.

The low point in the film is when Morrison, in discussing another difficulty in his life, laments the trials of his job. It's repetitive. He's always performing for somebody else. He feels used. The fun has been taken out of it, he says. But is anybody really going to sympathize with these woes? Surely, being a professional skier (especially of Morrison's caliber) has to be one of the most fun careers on the planet. (Meanwhile, photographer Christian Pondella goes as far as to say that he bets half of professional skiers wish they could go back to just being ski bums. I don't picture Sammy Carlson working a dishwasher in Government Camp for minimum wage anytime soon.)

The strength of the film is when its context grows greater than Morrison. As Morrison gets gritty in Cham, he, Auclair, Wallace, Rosenbarger, Petersen, Tanner Hall, Plake and Blake Jorgenson all offer genuine and articulate takes on some of skiing's, scratch that, life's biggest questions. Are you taking enough chances? Is all this risk worth it? Is it natural? Is it selfish? The answers all come from extraordinary people, but the questions, for skiers and non-skiers alike, are quite ordinary.