4 min read

To The Hills and Back

To The Hills and Back

In December 2020 my friend Malcom Sangster, one of the producers at Sherpas Cinema, reached out to me telling me that they wanted to make an updated avalanche awareness film. They had been contacted by the Utah Avalanche Centre and other sponsors, to update their groundbreaking 2009 avalanche education film called "The Fine Line". He asked if I would be interested in being part of it. I was not entirely sure what that would entail, but I knew how groundbraking The Fine Line was in touching the more youth oriented side of the sport.

I have really admired their cinematic approach to showing skiing and I was curious how they would incoporate a more narrative driven piece, so I said yes. I knew that they would handle the subject with care and I was also aware of their personal journey with suffering loss in the mountains. I reserved editorial control, knowing that if it became too heavy for me, or if I did not feel comfortable with what was happening, that I could always withdraw from the project or request some changes.

Mike "Quigs" Quigley, another friend from Canmore, took over the reins as director and we began shooting. Our first day out was especially heavy. They accompanied me, John Price and Marcus Baranow, up to the spot of Laura's avalanche on the one year anniversary of her death. While there, I spread some of her ashes and hung a small prayer flag that we had bought in Nepal together. Barry Blanshard had given me some sweet grass to burn as a form of healing and purification of the site. It was a cold day and one that was incredibly hard for me, but it also felt like a necessary pilgrimage. We opted not to ski the line that the avalanche occured on due to the risk of windslab and deep early season instability.

Hanging a prayer flag at the spot of Laura's death with John and Marcus

Our next meeting was in Squamish in the winter of 2022. This was more of an interview style session and I opened up as much as I could for it. I am of the belief that if I agree to do these, that I owe it to Laura's memory to be as vulnerable and raw as possible. It is draining and I have a tear in my eye thinking about it, but that is important to me. Quigs handled this session with a great deal of care and empathy and I am grateful for that. We all shared a big cry and hug when it was done.

Our final bit of filming was last spring around Golden Alpine Holiday's Vista Lodge. We had wanted to get higher in the alpine, but the weather was too unsettled for a tight shoot schedule. The terrain proved to be a great pivot for the purposes of the film and to work smaller features in swirling weather. Kevin Hjertaas, who was with me when Laura died, came along for the trip. It was our second time skiing together since the avalanche, our previous time being a very deep powder day where we were incredibly conservative. It felt right to have Kevin there and while I can't speak for him, it was very healing and comforting for me to be alongside him. The skiing wasn't great, but we got what we needed from the trip and, more importantly, we got to share some laughs and more deep emotions in a beautiful setting along with Danny, Malcolm and Quigs. A thank you to Gabby for organizing the logistics and to GAH for allowing us to use their facilities, especially the sauna! I hope to go back for a personal trip and play/explore more deeply in that terrain!

Somewhere off Vista Peak 

On an emotional level, I would always feel a deep, visceral, reaction when the filming days were coming up. I would close off and really resist going. There were many times when I considered pulling out of the project. The emotional toll of reliving the avalanche and thinking about Laura was incredibly draining and it would leave me quite empty and raw. Luckily they were all vey supportive and I was able to lean heavily on people around me in those periods.

After an intense editing period, the film, "To The Hills & Back - Know Before You Go" will be premiering this Saturday, November 5th, at 2pm at the Banff Mountain Film Festival. It can also be streamed online during the festival.

I just watched the final edit and I am feeling a mix of emotions. It’s beautiful & powerful, but also hard for me to watch on a personal level, but the story is told with care, skill & purpose. I hope it touches those who watch it. It made me cry.
The point of the film is that mountain travel and recreation is fun, but it can also be dangerous - it’s up to us to treat it with respect and make good choices so we can keep having fun!

To everyone who worked on this (Pat, Seth, Evan and countless others) - thank you for your skill, talent, love and care. A special thought to Katie Combalizier for sharing her story in such a vulnerable and powerful way and to the White family for providing mentorship and wisdom to the project.

To those who have supported me on this journey, to those who have laughed, cried, hugged, talked, listened, sweated or just sat still with me, thank you. What have you have done for me means more than you can ever imagine. It's a large reason I am still here, trying to make the most of the life I am lucky enough to live.

To LK, I love and miss you, I know you would like this movie. I look forward to feeling you alongside me when it shows ❤️

I hope to see some of your there on Saturday, or on the skintrack this winter. Have fun and play safe!