The ski film industry, in the last few years, has been reinventing itself. Gone are the days of 60-minute videos filled with nothing more than gnarly descents, boring bro bra interviews and standard, unimaginative camera work. Valhalla, the latest Sweetgrass production by director Nick Waggoner, with its narrative arc, perfectly framed shots and experimental cinematography, certainly does not stand alone in this age of big, better, prettier ski movies. It does, however, expand expectations of what a ski film can be.
Yes, it’s about watching some of winter’s greatest athletes—Cody Barnhill, Sierra Quitiquit, Pep Fujas and Eric Hjorleifson are just a few of those featured—but it’s also a film that tells a story.
In Norse mythology, Valhalla is the giant, golden-roofed hall in the afterlife for fallen warriors. It is a place of honor and glory ruled over by the god Odin. Each day, the warrior spirits rise up to do what they loved in life: battling each other to the death; until the next day when they resurrect and start all over again.
Like the Norse warriors who dreamed of endless battles, the most hard-core of skiers dream of a paradise where powder shots and cliff jumps play on into eternity. The thought of a day without it is like contemplating hell. Or that’s what Valhalla’s narrator, the movie’s fictional hero Conrad, played by Cody Barnhill, seems to be saying when he gazes out over a red desert and contemplates a world without snow.
In contrast to that red hell, we are shown the face of a child, his cheeks brushed with snow. His blue eyes stare up in wonderment and joy. He does not know that this storm will end. He lives in the moment, unafraid of change. Where has that innocent joy gone? croons the gentle voice of our narrator and hero.
Joy, Conrad decides, is a destination. And so he travels north to the land of snow. When his car breaks down on an icy, isolated mountain road, undaunted, he straps on his skis and enters the forest. There, through the trees, he finds Valhalla.
Beautiful young women and handsome bearded men wrapped in wool and puffy coats lounge in hammocks strung between snowy pines. They laze in tents and play guitar, warming their naked feet at the edge of a hot iron stove. Conrad tells us this is a place for outcasts, those so in love with snow they cannot function in normal society. But they are as happy in exile as Vikings are in death, content to forever live out their obsession.
And so the skiing begins, and it is as beautiful as the people in Valhalla. Filmed in the endless powder of British Columbia and Alaska, the backcountry skiers and snowboarders—there are both in this film—cut down chutes, hurdle into airborne summersaults, track down spines and cascade off steps of snow. Intermingled with a psychedelic light show, a playfully naked ski scene and a thin plot line, it has just enough awesome snow-play to keep it in the ski film genre.
But, in the end, spring comes. Our hero hitches north for one last hurrah. Caught in a snow storm, Conrad worries about the end of the season. Melancholia seeps into his voice. Yet, as he launches into one final semi-coherent poetic soliloquy, it seems that Conrad has changed and is embracing the coming melt.
“I saw now that freedom had never left life…Every step from beginning to end was just a new chance to see it again through a changing set of eyes, a beautiful legacy of what it can mean to live free. As the storm broke, I saw that change was the beauty in the heart of all things. But, first, there was three feet of fresh.”
Proving once again that there is no cure for snow fever, the film lingers on some final hucks off wintery cliffs before returning to Valhalla where Conrad finds the camp packed up and the landscape melted into a summery green.
In the grand finale, the skiers throw it down one last time, grinding over moss-grown logs, landing jumps off fern-covered hills and floating angelically between redwoods.
From the slow-motion skiing to the landscape sweeps of jagged stone mountains to the dreamy shots of honey light filtering through the skiers’ camp, each frame is pure pleasure. Released this past fall, Valhalla is already receiving awards: Jury’s Choice and Best Story Telling at the International Freeski Film Festival; “Best of Festival” at Winter Wildlands; and it’s an official selection for the Banff Film Festival.
For those wanting no more than line after line of skiing, the film will disappoint. The jaded may see little more than one guy’s acid trip. But for just about everyone else, the film, with its sick skiing, ’60s soundtrack and artful touch, comes close to a religious experience.
Other films, if you like Valhalla:
Solitaire, Sweetgrass Productions, 2011
Solitaire takes the themes of America’s great Westerns—loneliness, danger, adventure—and transports them to the slopes of Chile, Argentina and Peru where skiers like JP Auclair, Erica Laidlaw and Kyle Miller set out into the backcountry for some legendary riding.
The Art of Flight,
Brain Farm, 2011
Propelled by ever more extreme riding and a pounding soundtrack, The Art of Flight creatively and beautifully documents snowboarder Travis Rice and his friends as they perform daring mountain stunts all over the world.
All.I.Can., Sherpas Cinema, 2011
Called an “exploratory essay,” All.I.Can. is a artful plea to act against climate change. Winner of multiple best film and cinematography awards, All.I.Can. shows some of the world’s best skiers—like Kye Petersen,
JP Auclair and Cody Barnhill—performing on some of the biggest mountains on the planet.
Steep, DocGroup, 2008
This documentary chronicles big mountains skiing starting with its inception in the mountains of Chamonix, France in the ’70s. The movie, filmed in Alaska, Wyoming, Canada, France and Ireland, interviews legends including Bill Briggs, who completed the first descent of Grand Teton.