Fourteen years ago, in late November, four high school students from Calgary shouldered their skis and boards an hour north of the city and ducked the ropes at Fortress Mountain before the Kananaskis country hill had opened for the season. They hiked up a steep, crusty gully to one of the few patches of snow to be found, not knowing it was a highly faceted windslab that would release a 40-metre wide avalanche.
When their bodies were recovered the next day, 200 metres downslope, they were buried so closely together that they must have been within earshot of each other.
Dave Mossop, now 30, would have been the fifth man. “I was invited to go on that trip, but at the last minute something came up,” Mossop tells me.
We’re sitting in Sherpas Cinema’s sparsely decorated studio in an industrial warehouse in Whistler. Mossop, looking a little rough around the edges for 5 p.m., is just starting his work day.
The Sherpas are two weeks away from the premiere of their newest feature film, All.I.Can, and the pressure is bearing down. Cutting down over 550 hours (a colossal 21 terabytes) of raw footage shot over two years in five countries to approximately 75 minutes is a big enough task, without the added impact of Mossop’s searing perfectionism.
“We’re close,” says Mossop, oscillating, as he has been for much of the summer, between optimism and despair. “But there’s still a lot of work to do.” The worst case scenario at this point? “For the building to burn down,” he laughs. “Two years of blood, sweat and tears up in flames.”
It’s not much of a joke. Every night Mossop’s co-director Eric Crosland disaster-proofs his world, packing his hard drives into pelican cases and taking them home. He shakes his head, a little creased looking. “It comes in moments or waves how vulnerable you are. Filmmaking is a savage business.”
In the next room, a few editors (including pro athlete JP Auclair), work intently on their segments. The third Sherpa, Malcolm Sangster, hobbles around on crutches. A recent rock climbing accident left him with two pins in his left heel, but that doesn’t slow him down from his non-stop choreography of a 64-stop world tour for the film, a sustainability conference for the premiere, and all of the other logistics that fall to him as the trio’s producer.
“Would it be fair to characterize you as best friends?” I ask, and Sangster laughs. “Sure. Once upon a time. We’re still great friends, but now when we sit down to talk, it’s all about the film.” Sangster is about to move to Canmore so his fiancée can take up a job as a lawyer in Calgary. Crosland will return home to Nelson after the premiere, leaving Mossop the only Sherpa in Whistler. “It’s going to be good for us to go to our respective locations and chill for a bit,” Sangster says.
sherpas cinema began as the rocky mountain sherpas, a group of high school friends who played in a band together (Sangster is a drummer, Mossop and Crosland both play guitar), loved skiing, shot photos every weekend with old Pentax cameras, and imagined that one way to make a living in the mountains would be to offer their services as human sherpas to film companies. The group became even closer after their friends were killed in the avalanche.
“That was a major turning point in all of our lives because we hadn’t been fused as people,” says Mossop. “We were unformed. And that really taught us to live every day to the fullest. Life is fragile. It’s important to do what you want to. And we wanted to live every day in the mountains.”
Sangster and Mossop soon headed west to the University of Victoria, where they’d squander exam study breaks skiing in Whistler and still manage to graduate with distinction. Mossop majored in film. Sangster began taking business courses, sensing that working for himself was going to be the best way to maintain a mountain lifestyle. Crosland took film at Capilano College (now Capilano University) in Vancouver, and was soon shooting ski and bike stories for Ride Guide and Freeride Entertainment.
Then, in 2003, another avalanche hit a group of students. This time it was in Rogers Pass, leaving seven teenagers dead. For the Sherpas, it was another bullet dodged. “Dave and I were skiing in the Connaught Drainage that day,” says Sangster of the headline-making incident. “We walked up with that group. I remember talking to the teachers, saying, ‘It’s so cool you’re bringing those kids out here.’”
Mossop recalls it as well: “We toured with them all morning, then we headed right up Grizzly Shoulder and they skied up Ursus. We heard the avalanche go off, and had a crazy moment of discussion about whether we could ski to them in time to help.”
“After that,” says Sangster, “year after year, we had friends caught in avalanches.”
The Sherpas had been making films all along, minidocumentaries of themselves and their friends, but their first success came on the heels of that 29-fatality winter when their artsy short take on avalanche awareness, Deep Seeded Instability, was accepted at the Banff Mountain Film Festival.
Their next film was a creative turn about a cult of snowboarders who rode without bindings (a.k.a. ‘noboarders’). Yes to the No gained them more cred and also put them on the radar of Chris Stethem, President of the Canadian Avalanche Foundation. More importantly, it put them on the screens of Stethem’s teenage sons.
“The Foundation was interested in developing programs for kids’ safety,” says Stethem. “Technical, adult-oriented films weren’t hitting the mark.” Stethem arranged a meeting at the Banff Festival where Yes to the No was screening. Mossop and Sangster impressed him, and the Canadian Avalanche Foundation subsequently offered them funding to develop an avalanche education film. The Sherpas secured additional support from The North Face and Recco. “As first-time producers, it was the perfect project,” says Sangster. “The companies felt it was their corporate responsibility to contribute. And we’ve been working with those same people ever since.”
The Fine Line was a game-changer for avalanche education. For starters, it doesn’t mention the word ‘transceiver’ until almost half an hour in.
“We went to the premiere at this indie theatre in Calgary,” remembers Stethem. “My first thought was, ‘Oh god, we’ve spent all this money on a ski movie.’ After a while, I realized the way they’d put it together and I thought, ‘Holy cow, this is really remarkable.’ As far as the Canadian Avalanche Foundation goes, it was our home run.”
It was a home run for the Sherpas, too. The Fine Line: A 16mm Avalanche Education Film went on to win a slew of awards in 2009 for Best Director (X-Dance Action Sports Film Festival, Salt Lake City, Utah), Best Concept (Powder Video Awards), Best Cinematography and Editing (Cold Smoke Festival, Nelson, B.C.) and Best Film (Fernie Mountain Film Festival).
They were developing such a reputation for their distinctive style—exquisite time-lapse sequences, cerebral humour, radical use of graphics and unprecedented animation of all types—that their collaborators, particularly partners who’d fronted production money, were sometimes cast in the long shadow of the Sherpas’ brand.
As marketing budgets shrank industry-wide, the Sherpas were forced to live off DVD sales for a year and put together as many partner shoots as possible to start filming their biggest project ever: All.I.Can—an exploration of the insights different mountain environments bring out in humans and how these qualities can inform our responses to the larger environmental crisis. In the end, 22 custom web edits were churned out for sponsors, partners and clients in conjunction with the film, delaying the feature’s production, requiring release of some footage in advance, and lobbing the Sherpas deep into an Art vs. Commerce juggling act. The volcano trip came first.
In 2001, Mossop had taken the “trip of his life” to Chile and Argentina. He ran into Sangster’s sister and they hiked up to the summit of Volcán Puyehue in the Patagonian Andes. The crater measures 2.4 kilometres across, and when filled with snow offers 360 degrees of steeps and spines. Mossop dreamed of returning to ski it over the next decade, but it wasn’t until the Sherpas presented it formally to Mike Douglas, producer of Salomon Freeski TV, that this “dream come true” was greenlighted.
Salomon had the budget for Mossop, Sangster, and skiers Mark Abma, Chris Rubens and Eric Hjorleifson to travel to Chile in September 2009. Douglas cut a Freeski TV episode with the footage, and the All.I.Can journey was formally kicked off.
Over the next two years, the Sherpas would travel to outposts like Alaska, Morocco and Greenland while also shooting throughout B.C. and Alberta in an effort to capture every type of skiing imaginable—from the gnar lines of Alaska’s Chilkat and Fairweather Ranges to the Interior’s blower pow to self-propelled backcountry. They kept a careful tally of all of their trips, logging vertical on touring skins, horses, donkeys, dog sled, Moroccan porters, sleds, snowcats, planes and helicopters. By the project’s end, they would purchase 56 tons of carbon dioxide offsets in an effort to mitigate the pollution caused by their travel and office energy use.
Athlete Eric Hjorleifson’s 2009-2010 winter began with the Sherpas in Chile and was bookended in May with a trip to Banff’s Freshfield Icefield. “This project was a perfect opportunity for us to explore the possibilities of filming under our own power,” he says. “I get the most personal challenge and satisfaction out of this pure backcountry style of trip.”
But if it was more demanding on the athletes to ride donkeys and hike for their turns, it was even tougher for the Sherpas. “One morning on the Freshfields after it had snowed 15 cm of blower pow, I found Dave’s skins by chance, buried under the new snow, splayed out with disregard,” says Hjorleifson. “On trips, he just becomes completely focused on filming. It’s the outlet for his creative genius.”
Mossop had returned to camp late the previous day and jumped straight into capturing lifestyle footage. Hjoreleifson spent a solid 15 minutes de-icing the touring skins and getting them back into working order.
Mossop’s colleagues shrug off these behaviours as part and parcel of his artistic personality. Robin Scrimger, an early founder of biglines.com, has known the Sherpas since high school. They co-produced a DVD compilation of ski shorts, Bulletins from a Colder Planet, and Scrimger later appeared in The Fine Line. “Honestly, I think Dave is almost a prodigy,” says Scrimger. “He’s one of the most artistically talented people I’ve ever met.”
It would be a mistake, though, to imagine that the serious themes in their films, intense vibes in the cutting room and overarching artistic ambitions mean that ski trips with the Sherpas are a buzz-kill. “Our trips are more like a sitcom,” says Mossop.
Jordan Manley joined the Sherpas’ Freshfield trip, and recalls them all playing music together at 3,000 metres. “The songs they’d written could have stood in for one of Adam Sandler’s old comedy tunes.”
JP Auclair signed on to shoot an urban segment for the film, setting aside March 2011 to film in Nelson, Trail and Rossland, B.C. “I thought, if it’s Dave, he probably has some insane thing in mind, and I can’t pass on that.”
Mossop picked Auclair up at Vancouver Airport and they drove straight to Nelson.
“OK,” said Mossop. “What have you got?”
“What do you mean, what have I got? What have you got?” asked Auclair.
“Well, you’re the urban guy.”
“You’re the creative guy.”
The Auclair segment that Mossop had admired—in Poor Boyz Productions’ 2010 film Revolver—had been the result of a decade of scoping and planning. Auclair recalls thinking, “Oh man, you’ve got the wrong guy for the job. I can’t just show up and kill it.” But they started jamming about the things Auclair had always wanted to do, childhood daydreams staring out the window, imagining a skier hitting every little snow-covered feature up and down the street. Mossop had all the creative direction he needed.
“It was intense to make the best of our time,” says Auclair. “When the weather wasn’t cooperative, we’d go scout and build features. We ended up lurking in the same park in Trail for so long the neighbours started bringing us plates of hot dogs and chips. Sometimes we’d knock on people’s doors because we were in their backyards, jumping over their cars. We felt like little kids.”
They built a jump that required a vehicle tow-in, so Auclair would stand at the start of the inrun, Mossop would hit record on the camera, race to the car, reverse, ensure Auclair had a good grip on the tow rope, launch his athlete, hit the brakes, then race back to the camera. “We called it the twoman/ one-man show,” says Auclair. “It was really a five-person job. It was awesome. Ridiculous. Super fun.”
Auclair is passionate about the environment. He founded Alpine Initiatives, a project to bring the mountain sports community together to work on global sustainability initiatives, and he personally offsets the carbon footprint from all of his travels and filming.
“It’s pretty easy to make ski-porn,” he says. “I’ve made a career of that. I’m not ragging on that style of movie, but if you go the ski-porn route, you’re just trying to impress people. The goal with this movie is really to have an emotional impact. The ultimate goal is that people will walk out of the theatre thinking that they want to save the world.”
Or something. Mossop is reluctant to articulate his goals so boldly. “Best case scenario, as a result of this film, the entire mountain-culture industry steps up to the plate and solves climate change. But it sounds self-absorbed of me to say that. I can’t tell someone what to do.”
“As soon as you tell someone what to do, they hate you,” Crosland adds.
Mossop finishes his thought: “… so they have to come to the message themselves, through the art. As a documentary filmmaker, the aim is for the idea to reveal itself to them.”
mossop certainly isn’t the only perfectionist on deck. The entire team labours frame-by-frame over the film. Every single shot—over 100,000 frames—has a particular motivation deliberated and discussed before it makes the cut. This shared focus at the Sherpas studio has kept it a tantrum-free zone. Stress manifests, according to Crosland, as “loud typing.” Mossop agrees: “Yeah, anger is mostly directed towards the computers.”
Next to Auclair works Momme Halbe, a snowboarder and digital editor from Germany who travelled to Canada on the strength of a viewing of the All.I.Can trailer and the Skier’s Journey webisode Jordan Manley put together for Arc’teryx. He’s been volunteering his editing skills for two months, just one of a generation of global up-and-coming filmmakers who are being influenced by the Sherpas’ style—stunning cinematography, rich metaphor, meticulous cutting, and the use of high-speed, macro and time-lapse photography to shift our perceptions about nature. The All.I.Can trailer, which has been viewed almost 500,000 times, is even being studied in film schools in Europe and has a cult following amongst fans of German emo-pop band, Tokyo Hotel.
“Every shot leads to, or means, something,” Halbe explains. “Maybe sometimes it’s over-interpreted,” he shrugs, but it’s obvious from the way he chooses his words that this precision on the part of the Sherpas appeals to him. “It’s very ambitious. We want to build an outstanding movie from every perspective—cinematography, editing, and message. It’s a very honourable goal, to try and change people without manipulating them.”
It’s the same kind of respectyour- audience approach that won the Sherpas acclaim with The Fine Line (as well as criticism from the types who think abstinence is the best way to keep teenagers safe from sex, drugs and avalanches).
Even at the most stressful point in the entire journey—T-minus 14 days—the Sherpas keep coming back to the privilege of having an audience. “In an age of threeminute webisodes,” says Mossop, “it’s really cool to be working on a message that can only be delivered in a two-hour film.”
“And the premiere,” Crosland adds. “To have the chance to have people’s attention…”
“… to get their attention is an unbelievable gift,” agrees Mossop.
“They give you that in exchange for the prospect of being entertained,” reminds Crosland.
Mossop nods. “True. We have to hold up our end of the bargain.”
Despite most of their bills being paid by action sports brands, in their hearts, language and self-description, the Sherpas are documentary filmmakers. Crosland’s favourite moment of the project was shooting lava in Oahu, Hawaii. “It was the first time in my whole life that I’d had the chance to go somewhere I wanted and just shoot nature—not skiing or biking or product,” he opines. “To make a film that’s not dictated by product is an incredible opportunity in a filmmaker’s life. Sure, the pressure is there, but you’ve got to enjoy doing it and still be disciplined enough to make a great film.”
ambition makes you vulnerable. As does taking a stand on an issue as controversial as climate change. And already, the critics are circling. There’s whispered flack about the hypocrisy in glorifying heliskiing in a film about the environment.
The Sherpas don’t shrug this off lightly. “One hundred per cent carbon neutral film isn’t zero footprint. Maybe we should have explained that better,” says Sangster. “All of our passions have a footprint. The film is not about giving up your passion, it’s about sharing it and getting engaged through that.”
Whistler Blackcomb’s Arthur De- Jong, one of the experts featured in the film, is equally pragmatic. “I’m not sure I can defend ski tourism on environmental grounds to a room full of sustainability experts,” he admits. But that isn’t carte blanche for the Mountain Planning Manager to make no effort to mitigate the resort’s ecological impacts. “When I was born in 1960, there were three billion people on the planet. By the end of October, we’ll hit seven billion. That’s a profound change to the carrying capacity of the planet. ”
DeJong goes on to point out that the oft-cited cliché of needing to fix the planet for future generations is no longer the case. The potential for catastrophic environmental occurrences are coming at the current generation.
“Climate change is going to play itself out in the next 20-30 years as we scream towards nine billion,” he continues. “I don’t want to sound like a fear-monger, but by mid-century, if we don’t figure out climate change, this younger generation will live with the consequences. And they’re willing to make the changes the older generation hasn’t been [willing to]. I’m not saying they’ll pull it off. But it’s the reality they face. Our job is to not stand in their way.”
The Sherpas are hoping to make a film that ends the paralysis of inaction that such dire predictions can evoke. As JP Auclair had put it during a late night conversation at Mica Heliski, “We feel like we need to be doing less of this, less of that, but I don’t think it’s about doing less, I think it’s about doing more. The better potential for progressive change is not just to do less and feel bad all the time. That is just too counter-creative.”
Throughout the “exploratory essay” of All.I.Can, the Sherpas are progressive, positive, creatively transcendent. “The truth is that behind the scenes, this is a very stressful, competitive and allconsuming job,” says Mossop. “It’s been the most intense year of my life. Yet I just keep working hard, and I can honestly say that I have done my absolute best, tried my absolute hardest. That is all I can do. And strangely enough, that’s a relief.”
It’s a lesson that parallels our response to the environmental challenges ahead. It doesn’t have to be perfect, as long as it’s our best effort.
As DeJong says about All.I.Can, “They don’t have to get this one right. They just have to open a new door in the medium they’re using to bring the truth to light. And they’re going to do that, I’ve no doubt.