The film opens with an avalanche. The viewer sees skis sliding in snow, a rock wall to the right, a white sky above. The crack opens so swiftly it’s like the images in a flip book — smooth snow one second, a black shooting crack the next and the slope is sliding away. The skis slide too, but haphazardly, out of control. The camera fumbles. The screen goes white.
It’s the kind of scene that rests in the shadows of a skier’s nightmare. Avalanches are the hidden beasts of the backcountry, the ultimate negative consequence of our backcountry pursuits. They’re rarely spoken of in films outside of introductory avalanche courses. If an avalanche does appear in a ski flick, it’s often times followed by a shot of the skier skiing out (or in the case of Make Believe, the actual rescue) and then later a minute of triumphant reflection on the close call before the camera turns again to more powder shots.
Solving For Z, the new film from Patagonia and TGR that begins with the scene above, faces the consequences of avalanches — and backcountry skiers’ willful flirtation with them — head on. It offers a different kind of ski film, one that peels back the façade of typical powder porn and offers something almost disarmingly deeper and more meaningful. It also illuminates shifting attitudes in backcountry skiing, especially as portrayed in films.
Solving For Z follows 20-year mountain guide Zahan Billimoria’s shifting relationship with risk (listen to last week’s Totally Deep interview with Z). The film shows him as a young ambitious mountain guide gaining a foothold in the Tetons, studying the snowpack, taking courses, eventually ascending to celebrity status. But tragedy strikes and causes him to reassess. He turns to educating others. He tones down the risk. But then tragedy strikes again and he tells the tale.
The evolution of ski films
One major appeal of ski films is how they capture essential experiences of skiing, from the small moments — cue predawn coffee brewing scene — to the big ones — powder billowing overhead, face caked in snow, a skier approaching a steep line with trepidation and successfully, artfully arcing smooth turns down it. Those are the moments we aspire to and live for. We ski because it’s fun, it’s challenging, it’s rewarding and it fills us with an intangible sensation that nothing else in life can quite replicate.
But we don’t ski because it’s potentially life-ending.
Over the past years, some films have edged into the darker realities of backcountry skiing but rarely do they fully commit to facing head-on the hardships one finds in choosing the mountain life and lifestyle. Avalanches, failures and missed attempts are often only auxiliary story lines or left out of narratives entirely. Let’s face it, they can be a buzzkill.
But they don’t have to be. Sometimes those stories, from start to finish — from glory to pain and back to a more nuanced glory — can be up lifting. Or at the least, instructive.
Pulling back the curtain
Solving for Z is at times disarming in the degree to which it unmasks the cost of risk in the mountains. Sure, the film has its requisite hero shots as Zahan works on trip plans and guides free riding stars like Jeremy Jones, but the celebratory moments in the film are primarily functional — not until you feel the highest highs can you truly appreciate the lowest lows.
Those scenes of Zahan and friends crushing big lines lead into a re-creation of the 2015 incident that pulled the carpet from Zahan’s hard charging feet. But he bounces back. He focuses on guiding and education. He tones it down. He learns important lessons. Until the unexpected happens.
Zahan gets caught in an avalanche at the start of the global pandemic, at a time when skiers are being publicly shamed for pursuing risks that would detract from emergency medical resources. We don’t get to see the rescue or exit (or public scrutiny, which I assume was notable), but watching Zahan rehab his shoulder after the slide is painful, almost cringeworthy. When he faces the camera, tears in his eyes, and admits he doesn’t know what to think, I felt my stomach drop a little. If this guy doesn’t know what to think, after years of learning, calculating and assessing how to move safely in big mountains, what the hell are the rest of us supposed to think?
That’s the cost of doing business in the mountains, though, and Zahan pays a lucky price compared to the friends he’s lost. But it’s sobering to witness a hero assume human form, and it’s equally sobering to see the mountains morph so swiftly from joyful and enticing to menacing. Yes, the audience can conclude, we are all at the mercy of something bigger than ourselves.
The ‘new school’ ski film
This unabashed turn to introspection is reflective of a trend in ski films over the past several years. As ski touring grows, the films take on new dimensions in turn. The standard euphoric slashfest remains a mainstay (Follow the Forecast, Make Believe, Huck Yeah) but skiers seeking more meaning now have increasing options. Filmfest lineups are gradually pivoting toward multidimensional stories beyond man and mountain, to women and mountain (Latitude), skiers and environment (Children of the Columbia), politics (Purple Mountains) and culture (This Mountain Life), to name a few. (Still falling far short, though, are any ski movies with BIPOC stars. Paha Sapa The Skier’s Journey, featuring Lakota skier Conner Ryan stands alone in this category for 2020.)
Yes, it seems ski touring is having a moment of self examination. Death in the mountains is nothing new, but legions of new and different kinds of backcountry skiers is. In order for ski touring to evolve, the time is nigh for films to embrace a diversity of stories in turn. Making the consequences of risk a more transparent part of conversations and film is a solid step. And to do so not in a critical or shameful way, but in an honest one that viewers can glean meaning from.
In the end, Solving for Z is an important addition to the growing canon of what could be called “thoughtful” ski films. It is a humble and honest glimpse into a real experience of a mountain guide who has achieved the dream of a making a prestigious, professional career in big peaks with a family in a beautiful place. Then hard reality strikes not once but twice, despite his efforts to manage it. As an audience member, it’s kind of brutal to experience that. But perhaps as a ski community, it’s liberating, too.
Manasseh Franklin is a writer, editor and big fan of walking uphill. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction and environment and natural resources from the University of Wyoming and especially enjoys writing about glaciers. Find her other work in Alpinist, Adventure Journal, Rock and Ice, Aspen Sojourner, AFAR, Trail Runner and Western Confluence.