I recently spent eight days in Colorado as part of the Outside Adventure Film School, which teaches filmmaking techniques while in an adventure setting. Each participant must plan, shoot, and edit a 3-5 minute film. My role was as an instructor and supporter for the attendees of the school. For me, my motivation outside of helping others was to get an introduction to avalanche safety and experience a new approach to back-country filmmaking. What I hope to do with this post is discuss what I learned as well as a few tips, tricks and things to consider when heading out to the backcountry.
More specifically, I will discuss:
2. The Schedule.
3. The Deliverables.
I have a huge passion for helping others and have made this my central focus with my career since my venture into filmmaking in 2010. Coming into this course, that remained my central focus. What was unique about this course for me is that I traveled down with my good friend, Michael Pavlovsky for the workshop. Generally, I’ve kept my local work separate from my social work just to ensure that both paths remained unique entities. However, having Michael on the trip was an absolute pleasure and it wouldn’t have been the same without him.
Like any new experience, there were many challenges that we had to contend with on this trip. The main obstacles we had to overcome were Weather, Gear Management, Altitude Sickness and Story Development. I’ve spent a lot of time in the back-country but have always made decisions off of what I thought was right rather than learning from a set of professionals. Coming into this trip, my goal was to learn what I had been doing wrong or ‘different’.
To best understand what we were walking into weather-wise, I’ve attached a weather report and a list of warnings that were present for the region.
Sunday night the temperature will be around zero while the avalanche hazard is already really high and increasing. This notice is from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center:
The Colorado avalanche information center has issued an avalanche warning for mountain ranges in the Steamboat, Front Range, Vail-Summit, And Sawatch forecast zones. Heavy snow is likely to continue through Thursday. Avalanche danger is quickly rising to the high level four category. Natural and human-triggered slides are likely. Some of these may be very large and dangerous. Backcountry travellers are advised to stay well clear of avalanche terrain on Thursday.
This statement is of particular interest to persons using the backcountry outside developed ski area boundaries. When necessary ski areas conduct avalanche mitigation to reduce the avalanche danger within their boundaries.
We were set to head up into the Vail-Summit region which was smack dab in the center of the warning zone. We took this into consideration and after hearing that our initial winter camping zone was inaccessible due to snow, we knew that we needed to take caution on this trip. Warnings aside, this trip was setting up to be pretty amazing – warm weather with a hint of danger.
When heading into any environment, it is key that you are aware of your surroundings and take the necessary precautions to stay safe. We had many people on board that were more than capable of keeping the team safe including Nasa Koski (Owner of OAFS), Michael Brown (award winning filmmaker / world-class adventurer), Debbie Kringel (Paragon Guides) & Kurt Kincel (Paragon Guides). They were well aware of our surroundings and ensured the entire team was never in a danger zone without the necessary precautions in place.
Gear is always one of the biggest challenges that anyone needs to overcome. It is the fine balance between being overwhelmed with gear and bringing enough to tell your story. I have always rode this fine line and generally lean towards taking too much gear as I have a huge passion for visual storytelling.
I packed very heavy for this trip and didn’t think too much of it. I always take the amount of gear I took on this trip but what I wasn’t ready for was the pacing set by the team heading up the mountain. Generally, I will hike for twenty minutes, set up a shot and rest for the length of a shot. However, on this trip, we did a one shot up the mountain and I found myself at the back of the pack in an instant. I had overpacked.
When travelling on trips like this, teamwork is imperative and I found myself lightening my load. My burden had become someone else’s burden.
Lessons learned regarding gear management were huge. For this trip, I should have made the team more aware of my pace or lightened my load before heading up the mountain. We didn’t take any gear that wasn’t used but what I should have done is tried to be less of a hero and split up gear or let everyone know that I would be heading up at a slower pace.
For this trip I took the Kessler Stealth Mini, the Kessler Shuttle Pod Mini with 8″ of track, theKessler Pocket Jib Traveler with 500 series motor, Basic Controller and Kessler Ion Battery, the Lowell Blender, Nikon D800, Nikon D4, Nikon 24-70mm, Nikon 70-200mm, Nikon24mm, the Manfrotto 190CXPRO3 Tripod and other accessories. My bag weighed in at about 80lbs.
Our next major challenge was altitude sickness. Both Mike and I were coming from 500 feet above sea level and we were headed to 12,000 feet. We were well aware that this was a huge concern and made sure we had Diamox along with us in case we were unable to deal with the environment. Luckily I was fine during the transition but Michael was hit with altitude sickness and was in rough shape for a few hours each day as he tried to fight it off. What was great through the whole process is that Michael had a smile plastered to his face and stayed positive the entire time.
Regarding timelines, we had three days on the mountain (2 travel days) and a day and a half for our edit so timelines were a major challenge. To combat this, we came into the shoot with a clear idea of what we were hoping to accomplish. The script was written before we headed out to Colorado and we had Tim Tippets record the voice over while we were on the mountain. We had a detailed shot list heading into the shoot as well so we had a clear idea of the shots we had to get.
Our biggest challenge with this project was time. We were set to screen the film two days after filming the last shot on the mountain. My central focus was to help others produce their films while at the top of the mountain and to assist with editing where needed. For projects with tight timelines, it is always a challenge to balance perfection with necessity and I can openly admit that we were forced to make some compromises with the film below.
Overall, I am very impressed with the outcome of this film, even with the compromises. I learned the importance of communication and that it is my responsibility to know my physical capabilities. I made a lot of new friends and cannot wait to head out for another workshop with the crew behind OAFS.
If you would like to find out more, make sure to visit The Outside Adventure Film School website.