Athletes who go under the radar are always admired in backcountry culture. Sure, we love our media heroes, but awestruck kudos such as “he’s not sponsored,” are still badges of honor pinned on those we bow to in the land of wild snow.
Thus, when the new Jackson Hole epic tale “Swift Silent Deep” opened in our WildSnow HQ home theater, the contrast between its stealthy ethos to the Glen Plakes and other names in “Edge of Never” was immediately obvious.
So blatant, in fact, that you can easily make the mistake of pigeon holing these flicks in two genres, that of the pure documentary, and that of the modern ski flick with footie specifically made for the production. But it’s not that simple.
“Edge of Never” while sincere at the heart and inclusive of much documentary content, nonetheless does involve a somewhat contrived apex, when Trevor Peterson’s son Kye is guided and belayed down an extreme descent in the alps, after movie logistics result in his group being there too late in the day — much later than most alpinists would agree was appropriate. In other words, “Edge of Never” goes beyond ski porn as a documentary of Trevor Petersen’s tragically brief career as an extreme skier, and his son’s subsequent initiation into the sport, but falls down a bit for the astute viewer when you realize at least part of the skiing was forced so a movie could be made. More on that later.
“Swift Silent Deep,” on the other hand, is a classic documentary that leads directly from Trevor Peterson to some of those he no doubt eventually influenced and likewise was influenced by. In this case, it is the “Jackson Hole Air Force,” a small group of incredibly talented and ballsy skiers who re-wrote the rules of Jackson Hole resort, while striving to do much of their skiing in secret because it was illegally out of bounds. (More contrast: While the progression in “Edge of Never” involves ski mountaineering, that of “Swift Silent Deep” involves powder snow, and to a lesser degree the pursuit of cliff jumping.)
“Swift’s” take, in a nutshell: Jackson Hole ski resort is built and encompasses a stunning amount of terrain in comparison to any other North American resort of the time. Colby Wilson moves to Jackson in the 1960s, where he owns and runs the Hostel lodge, and raises a family of uber-skiers that includes his son Benny Wilson. The Hostel attracted ski bums, and young thrill seeker Benny can not help but be succumb to ski bum ideals such as powder passion.
And the Austrian influence. In 1966 Jackson hired gold medal ski racer Pepi Stiegler as the head of their ski school. The guy was a beautiful and exciting skier who loved catching air (and also realized the media appeal of doing so, as he states in the film). Locals took note, and airtime became part of Jackson’s PR and culture. Thus, as Benny Wilson grew up, he and his core skier friends evolved into a rat pack that tore up the mountain with aggression and style seldom seen elsewhere in North America at the time, to eventually become the Jackson Hole Air Force.
Then, as Hunter Thompson would have probably termed it, the going got weird — and eventually some of the weird turned pro.
For a while the Air Force boys were content to savage in-bounds terrain. Then they noticed what was beyond the ropes. Problem? Yep. Skiing beyond was illegal. Small challenge in some ways as ducking ski resort ropes has always been a time honored tradition. Nonetheless, a weird scene ensued when the Air Forcers made OB skiing their mission, and resort management tried to stop them. Unfortunately the ski patrol was caught in the middle, and Jackson Hole ski resort eventually made the ski industry PR gaffe of the century when they busted Air Forcer Doug Coombs and banned him from the resort.
This was not without its upside, as being a posse of outlaws condensed the Air Forcers and probably even improved their skiing (nothing like being chased by a Jackson Hole patroller to hone your speed skills and cliff jumping prowess). More, the attention Jackson Hole Resort received when they DID open their boundaries was second to none, and they’ve subsequently managed to maintain their aura as THE core resort of North America, despite many worthy contenders.
We’ll, in the end this all conspired to be one of the most influential sagas in modern North American ski history, and the movie does it justice.
Only downside? Yeah, it’s a flick made by Jackson folks, glorifying Jackson folks, so you get a bit of hubris and localism in the mix. And don’t forget, this is more a movie about powder skiing and cliff jumping than about ski mountaineering or human powered backcountry skiing. But I can live with all that, as “Swift Silent Deep” is indeed entertaining and informative contribution to the historical record, and helps clarify much of “free skiing’s” evolution; growth that’s sometimes difficult to track in comparison to earlier history (which is sometimes more linear). WildSnow six thumbs up. Oh, and and who turned pro? Coombs, for starters, but guys such as Rick Armstrong and Micah Black are in there too.
Back to “Edge of Never.” This movie closely follows Bill Kerig’s book (reviewed here), and is indeed worth a watch. Luckily, while being a bit star focused and “made for film,” the flick maintains an edge of honesty that Kerig and others should receive props for. Best example? We of course wondered while reading the book just how 15-year-old Kye Petersen’s parents would react to the plan of him being taken down the extreme ski run where his father died. Yeah, Kerig addresses this in his writing, but seeing on-screen commentary by these folks is powerful.
Downsides? I could have done without the cameo by pro skier Kasha Rigby and a friend. I never really got the point of that, and it just appeared to be a gratuitous attempt to get more famous faces stuffed in there, or perhaps a female or two to balance the testosterone maxed roster? Also, the constant glorification of Chamonix as all things to all of skiing is getting a bit tedious. Sure, it’s an amazing place that’s at the root of much ski mountaineering and alpinism, and most certainly is the creche of extreme skiing. Yet a ton of spirit exists elsewhere. But I guess we need our cathedrals: Chamonix, Jackson, Notre Dame, you get the idea…
Other highlights: Kerig’s self narration comes over as sincere. The flick pulls no punches; reality, footage from Trevor’s memorial service makes you pause… Overall, a ski film that tells a true story, what a concept! Extreme ski pioneer Anselm Baud makes more than a cameo appearance, skiing with the crew and sharing about his own family skiing tragedy (his son died in 2004 in the Gervasutti Couloir). Plake in his usual form smiles and laughs through the whole thing, he’s a star for a reason.
I liked “Swift Silent Deep” a bit more, but our review crew still goes with 5 1/2 thumbs for “Edge of Never.” Both flicks, great start to the ski film season — and most certainly now part of the WildSnow historical archive!
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.