The making of skiing’s most grandiose night shoot
Published in POWDER Magazine (43.5) | January 2015
On a clear evening last April, Sweetgrass Productions hired a helicopter to shuttle 9,000 pounds of light and power, enough wattage to illuminate a football stadium, to a mountain ridge in the Tordrillo Range, about 70 miles outside of Anchorage, Alaska. As daylight waned, Chris Benchetler, Daron Rahlves, and their guide, Ken Bibby, anchored themselves into the snow so they could slide up to the edge of the ridge and dig a hole through the cornice, which would later give them access to their lines. Meanwhile, the helicopter flew farther up the ridge with a Hollywood-set light hooked to a 100-foot-long synthetic cable under its belly. The pilot swung the light down to a precarious platform cupped into the ridgeline, where mechanic Shane Treat guided the light’s placement.
The pilot, Jason Legge, flew the crew and gear into place before sunset. Some 1,500 feet below the ridgetop, Sweetgrass’ Nick Waggoner, Mike Brown, and Zac Ramras set up their cameras and assumed their places to conduct the symphony of light that would ensue.
Like many Sweetgrass projects, Afterglow, a stunning film released online in October, was a fantastical pipe dream come true that required an uncommon level of stubborn resolve and determination. Waggoner had imagined amplifying night skiing to big mountain terrain since Sweetgrass’ second film, Signatures, which featured another night-skiing segment filmed on a much smaller scale in Japan. The pieces came together last winter when a Swedish advertising agency hired Sweetgrass to direct and produce a commercial film for Philips, the electronics company, and gave them the budget—twice what they spent on their previous film, Valhalla, a two-year project—to do so.
Months of research on obscure lighting setups and two weeks of filming night skiing at Golden Alpine Holidays in British Columbia led to this night in Alaska, where conditions limited skiers to just one run each for two nights. Darkness fell around 10 p.m., but it would still be hours before Rahlves and Benchetler could take their single run. Wearing every layer they packed, the two skiers settled into a snow cave they had dug earlier and waited. Below, the crew built an arctic candy land of colored lights. Above them in the night sky, they could see the aurora borealis, a blood-red moon, and, in the distance, a glow from Anchorage.
At 2 a.m., Rahlves and Benchetler changed into their light suits—outerwear garments onto which Sweetgrass had used fishing wire to sew neat rows of LED lights. Rahlves skied first. He stuck to the dark side of the spine so the lights would project a backlit effect. Beyond the definition from the spine’s shadow, he skied by the light radiating from his suit.
“Everything that you work toward gets you to this moment where Rahlves and I are on the ridge,” says Bibby, the guide. “It’s dark. It’s cold. He’s got his light suit on and he’s ready to go… You hear the generators and the level of intensity goes up. The lights flicker on and the intensity goes up again. Then you hear the octocopter lift off, this high-pitch whine from the drone. Then you make your way to the entrance, we’re just about to flick on his light suit, and I turn to him and say, ‘Daron, this has never been done before.’ The look on his face—he was ready. He was so psyched to be able to do this. And he nailed his line.”
Benchetler would ski next. Just before his run, he noticed smoke coming off his suit and heat on his leg. When he looked down, the entire quadrant between his waist and thigh short-circuited. The smoking stopped when Benchetler switched his suit off and on, and he reached the top of his line. The brightness was so intense that when the snow flew up overhead, Benchetler could see his eyeballs’ reflection in the clear lenses of his goggles.
After the two runs, Bibby skied down a mellower angle to join the rest of the crew at the bottom. Farther up the ridge, Treat was alone with the light and a generator. His location did not allow for a safe descent on skis at night. Treat didn’t realize he was signing up for solo winter camping on top of an Alaskan peak when he boarded the helicopter earlier that day, but there he was. So he made do, digging a hole in the snow and setting up a crude bed out of netting and a large plastic bag.
“We would make jokes about this being the worst and best experience of our lives,” says Mark Stuen, one of the lighting experts. “It was harder work than anything I’ve ever done. It was totally crazy, but at the same time, we would see the shots back at the lodge, and the sun would be rising, and to actually quote it, it would have been, ‘Fuck yeah.’”