Creating Art in Avalanche Terrain with Pro Skier Adam Ü and his Team of Photographers

In this Mountain Life cover photo, the snow was stable and the cornice – which looks formidable – was actually well supported and locked up by cold temps. Time to send! Photo: Kevin McHugh.

By BCA pro athlete and professional skier Adam Ü

When “the mountains are the canvas,” how do athletes and photographers deal with the risk of avalanches when creating their art in avalanche terrain? It’s not like a “happy little mountain” is going to crash out of Bob Ross’ canvas and bury him in his studio, but for ski photographers and athletes, that risk is real. There is no question that ski and snowboard (I’ll just use “ski” from now on because it’s easier to type) photography is an art form, but it requires a specialized skill set beyond what most backcountry users need to know.

The first ski photo of me was published sometime around the year 2000, and since then I’ve focused most of my winters on the pursuit of ski photography. Since then, I’ve spent thousands of days in front of the lens  Every day in the field provides learning experiences; here are a few instances that stand out as lessons learned the hard way. Nobody got hurt, but they served as a reminder that our job is dangerous and teamwork and communication are critical if we are to be safe. All of the following happened in the backcountry near my home ski area of Mt. Baker, Washington.

The first incident was way back in 2003.

I was part of a team of two. I don’t recall what the avalanche report was for this day but for the shot, I needed to make a couple turns in a small chute that emptied onto a big apron. As I made my first turn, the top 20cms of snow ripped and took me off my feet. Luckily the chute was short, and I made it to the apron without losing any gear or being buried or injured. The photographer was in a safe zone the entire time and would have been able to assist if necessary. This incident reminded me that even small slopes and features could be treacherous and I needed to be more aware of potential deposition zones. It was also important that the photographer was in a safe zone and not on the slope with me, because if he had been, we both would have been in the slide and there would have been nobody to rescue us had we been buried.

The second incident was in 2012.

I was part of a team of four: three athletes and one photographer (a different photographer than incident #1). I don’t recall the specific avalanche danger for the day but it must’ve been either considerable or high because I distinctly recall discussing the situation (we do this every day, but this day in particular ended up standing out). We eventually decided that, even though the avy conditions were sketchy, we could work smaller slopes and still make the most of the otherwise perfect light and snow. We lined up our first zone with each of the athletes planning on making a turn a bit farther out than the next with the photographer on-slope scooting over for a clean shot. I made the first turn with no problem. While the second skier and photographer got situated, I hiked back up and got to a safe spot above some trees. I realized I could get a “2nd angle” photo if I shuffled forward a few feet, so I stepped away from the trees. The skier made his turn and got off the slope.

The “2nd angle” photo I got of skier #2.

While the photographer and I were putting our cameras away (his into his pack; mine into my pocket), the slope ripped out about 25-30cm deep. As soon as I felt the snow moving, I punched one hand into the bed surface and pulled my Float pack trigger with my other hand. The slide started just above me, and I was able to stop myself before getting dragged off my feet, but the photographer was caught in the middle of the slide path and got run over by the avalanche. He was uninjured, unburied, and did not lose any gear but the potential for a worse outcome was definitely there. Needless to say, the third skier didn’t drop in, and we retreated after re-assessing our obviously flawed plan! Looking back, the main errors we had made were being complacent on terrain we were familiar with, underestimating the avy report, and in my particular case, leaving my safe zone above the tree to get a better angle. It turns out being “near” a safe zone is not the same as being “in” a safe zone! It was also a bit of a surprise to us to have the avalanche start after the skier had already skied the slope and we were all standing still. As a side note, this was only a few days after I first got an airbag pack. I was surprised how quickly my hand went for the trigger even though I hadn’t even practiced with one before. I came to a stop on my feet before the bag had fully inflated, so it clearly wasn’t necessary to pull the trigger, but I didn’t know that at the time. Plus, I had to practice sometime!

Photo by Rylan Schoen.

Incident #2: That’s me with the inflated airbag. I had been standing safely above the little trees just above and to the right but moved forward less than a ski length to get a photo. In doing so, I left my safe zone, and when the slide happened, I was mid-slope just below the crown. You can see the track of my hand on the bed surface as I self-arrested. Lesson learned – being close to a safe zone is not the same as being in a safe zone! The skier that had just completed his turn is below the two skinners (who were not part of our party) and was just outside of the slide path. The photographer is standing mid-slope and had nowhere to go when the slide happened.

Skier #2 made his turn and stopped just outside the slide path. The photographer was standing in the middle of the slope with no chance of escape when the slope popped.

While the photographer and I were the ones directly affected by the slide, this incident represents a failure for our entire team.  We ignored the red flags, got greedy, and pushed it.

Here’s an example of better photographer placement. We have three (four if you include me) photographers well off to the side of the athlete.

The third incident, in 2015, was a bit different.

In this case, the photographer was standing on a groomer shooting across at the steep terrain two other skiers and I were waiting to ski. We were “window shopping,” or waiting for a window of good light in otherwise cloudy conditions. We got a window, and the first skier dropped in, triggering a slide. The two of us still up top couldn’t see the first skier once he got into his line but we could hear the photographer yelling “slide!” over the radio. The skier made it out ok, but before I had a chance to get an update, the photographer said over the radio “Ok, drop in! The light’s still good!” I thought to myself “Um, wait a minute… the first guy just had to ski out of a slide, so I want to know what’s going on before I just blindly follow orders to ski a neighboring line.” I discussed the situation with the first skier and decided on an alternate line on a different aspect, but by then the light had shut down. When we all finally re-grouped the photographer yelled at me for ruining the photo opportunity. I had to remind him that those of us actually skiing were the ones that had to deal with the consequences of an avalanche should we trigger one, while his exposure to danger was zero while standing safely on a groomer.

There was a similar incident with the same photographer in 2017 that didn’t involve avalanche danger but had other objective hazards, and I had to make a decision mid-line that slightly altered the planned shot. When it was over, the photographer, once again standing on a groomer, yelled at me for ruining the shot. I had to remind him again that I was the one that had to deal with the consequences of the terrain and I was not about to launch off a ledge and slam into the uphill wall of a ravine so that he could get a photo of a turn before that.

The bottom line is that no photograph is worth getting injured over, and if there’s ever a question or concern, it’s fine for either party (photographer or athlete) to say “nope” and move on to the next thing. If both parties aren’t ok with that simple rule, then something has to give before someone gets hurt. During those two instances, the photographer didn’t respect my safety concerns and cared more about the shot than my safety.  Being able to trust your backcountry partner is critical so I’m not working with that photographer anymore.

So how do we stay safe out there while still getting the shot?

Most of our protocols are the same backcountry basics we would follow if we were just backcountry skiing:

  • Check the avalanche report,
  • Assess conditions on site,
  • Select a safe zone to work in,
  • Select a safe route up,
  • Select safe zones to start/end our lines,
  • Assess changing conditions as necessary, and
  • Communicate often and effectively throughout the day, etc.

But there are some differences depending on what we are shooting. In many cases, such as incident #2, the photographer is a sitting duck on-slope while the skiers ski down or around them. If we come across a situation like this, we do our best to find a position where the photographer is as far from the danger zone as possible, such as behind or in trees, or maybe farther away with a longer lens vs. up close and personal. If we do end up with multiple people on the slope at the same time, we’ll choose small slopes to work with, so if something goes wrong, it goes wrong in a small area (which was our plan on the day of incident #2). We have to tailor our photographic efforts to the avalanche conditions of the day, which will dictate the terrain we can safely work in and the angles we can take. If we can’t find a way to make the situation as safe as possible for all parties, maybe we just bag the entire day and wait.

We don’t get cover shots every day – what you see in the magazines is the result of an entire season’s worth of effort. Be patient; there are plenty of days we go out and come back with nothing because it wasn’t safe enough. Instead of pushing it on those days, it’s much better just to wait until conditions stabilize (incident #2 above happened because we pushed it). I also prefer to go out in a group of three or four because, from a shooting perspective, it’s more efficient to have multiple athletes setting up shots and there’s more support nearby in case of an emergency.

When conditions are right, you can push yourself! In this case, the snow was stable and the cornice – which looks formidable – was actually well supported and locked up by cold temps. The only thing left to do was throw a backflip! The photographer Kevin McHugh was well out of harm’s way and in a perfect position to get to me in case something went wrong but our assessments were correct and the only thing needed were a couple high fives.

Photo: Kevin McHugh.

Skiing in Shiga Kogen in Japan can be a perfect powder paradise! In this case, photographer Grant Gunderson and I were shooting “lanes” in extremely deep snow. We had to find terrain steep enough to get momentum but not too steep where the amount of snow would cause slide problems. The latter part of the equation is critical when you’re skiing down towards the photographer because they are posted up right below you and won’t have the ability to escape quickly if something breaks loose above them. Even sluff can be a factor in these situations so it’s helpful if the photographer is positioned behind a tree or some other barrier.

Photo: Grant Gunderson.

My home ski area of Mt. Baker often gets amazing amounts of snow and we can go weeks without seeing the sun!  This day in early December 2016 was special because the snow and light joined forces to make one of those perfect stable days.  Photographer Grant Gunderson and I were working above treeline so we chose shorter slopes to minimize exposure, and we looked for angles where he was in safe zones as I skied off to the side.  If there were any issues with either of us, the other would not have been affected and would have been able to respond.

Photo: Grant Gunderson.