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Zach Ornitz's Tuckerman Tradition
Interview by Alex Kaufman l STE Online Editor
Images from A Tuckerman Tradition
Editor's Note: You may or may not have come across this recent Tuckerman Ravine documentary. Either way, it's worth your time if you have ever considered yourself an eastern skier. To make your viewing experience that much better, we're pairing it with the man who made it happen. Enjoy (the film is near the bottom of the interview).. - AK
Tell us a bit about the man behind the lens on this project – your bio in skiing?
Well... I grew up skiing in Sugarbush, Vt. (originally from the East Coast), and was also fortunate enough to make annual family trips "Out West.". Like so many before me, I was influenced heavily by the cult-classic Aspen Extreme. So after graduating from college in Syracuse, NY, I packed up my car and drove to Aspen, CO, for what I thought would be one season of ski-bumming.
As the familiar story goes, one season magically turned into 8 years. In the first couple seasons, I pursued the traditional ski-bum trades: ski-shop tech/barback/bartender/on-mountain employee in the winter; barback/bartender/raft guide in the summer. A couple years later, I got a lucky break started my career as a photojournalist (what I studied in college). The good thing about a mountain-town news cycle is that when it snows, it's news! As a result, I spent a lot of time on-mountain shooting skiing and meeting local athletes. I worked as a photographer at the local Aspen papers for 7 years.
Over time, my interest shifted heavily to action-sports photography and I found my freelance work landing in the pages/websites of the ski rags and also found industry-related commercial work. I learned that in order to "get the shot," one often has to go in search of the good snow. And although I held annual season passes to the resort, I formed a deep love and respect for the freedom and danger that lie beyond the boundary line. I ski in-bounds on the big days and go beyond the ropes when the snowpack stabilizes. I've skied all over the Rocky Mountain region and have done some resort/backcountry skiing in Chile for my most recent film project.
What "planted the seed" that led to wanting to put it together?
After 8 years living in Colorado, I went back to Syracuse for graduate degree in multimedia production (a fancy way of saying "I make short doc videos for the web"). One of my Aspen ski buddies, Ollie Nieuwland-Zlotnicki, also returned to the east for school. Despite our crazy grad school schedules, we yearned for the snow and made a pact to break away from campus to go experience the East Coast's backcountry mecca.
We both grew up in the East, but had never skied Tuckerman Ravine. So when the Spring of 2011 rolled around, my final semester of grad school, the time was right. I needed a final class project and Ollie convinced me we had to pull the trigger on Tuck's. I needed a strong premise to get my professor to buy into the idea that it was a worthy story to do for class.
Here's my pitch: "What makes Tuckerman Ravine and skiing in the area so special? Why has it remained a rite of passage for so many generations of skiers and backcountry enthusiasts? My premise is that beyond spectacle of the weekend party scene, it is the tradition and link to skiing history that adds to the allure of “Tuckʼs.”
When did you do most of the shooting?
I shot the entire project in the spring of 2011 as my final grad school production class assignment.
How many times have you trekked up to the bowl?
I grew up hiking in the White Mtns. and have hiked up or down Tuckerman many times in the summer months. In terms of filming the project, I've been up the Headwall, Left and Right Gully & Hillman's Highway collectively at least a dozen times.
As a current Colorado resident, compare and contrast eastern vs western skiers..
Simply put, Eastern skiers know how to dress warm and use their edges, whereas Western skiers understand the importance of sunblock and know how to float in the deep stuff. Beyond that, I'll pass on fueling the "East Coast vs. West Coast rapper battle."
What were three stupid things you saw people doing in the Ravine?
Even though the USFS provides a highly-localized avalanche forecast service and the volunteer ski-patrol corps do a great job of keeping everybody safe (disclaimer section), I was dumfounded by the overwhelming lack of awareness in basic avalanche safety that persists among the majority of Tuckerman's visiting public. My perception is that the majority of the people skiing/riding at Tuckerman Ravine have no idea what an avalanche beacon is, much less how to use one. This must change.
Oh... and the naked guy showed up during one of my spring filming sessions. The best part was that after he skied down the headwall (and sent a cliff), the USFS was on-hand to issue him a ticket for indecent exposure. I spared my audience in the film.
Did your perspective on the Ravine change as a result of the production?
No. I think Tuckerman Ravine means a host of different things to different people. But I think that my original premise was spot-on. Even though I have returned to Colorado following grad school, I would certainly make a point in returning to "Tucks" for another series of springtime adventures.
If you could put up an official sign at HOJO's what would it say?
"Got Becon, Probe & Shovel? Know how to use it?" OR "Tuckie's... The tradition lives on!"
And now for the feature presentation..
Plans for the future?
Based on the limited online success that I experienced with A Tuckerman Tradition, I've decided to launch a small production company with my friend Ollie (in addition to keeping up our day jobs), labeled Sent Productions. We have recently completed our first short doc. film, Vaya a la Cumbre, and we're in the process of submitting it to the film festival circuit. Our world premiere will take place in Aspen, CO, on Sept. 29, 2012, at the Wheeler Opera House as part of Aspen/Snowmass's The Meeting, where we will be opening for this year's TGR film. We're excited about the premiere and hopeful that the film will be selected for several film festival runs, so keep your eyes peeled.
Although we haven't made a trailer to plug the film yet, you can find out more about the project and our production company at our kickstarter page.
I did a shoutout section at the end of the film, but I'll repeat it here:
• Jeff Conley, The Jeff Conley Band
• Jeff Leich, Executive Director of the New England Ski Museum
• Helon Hoffer, Caretaker, HoJo's, Appalachian Mtn. Club
• Pete Miller, Caretaker, HoJo's, Appalachian Mtn. Club
• Chris Joosen, Ranger, USFS
• Thomas Prindle, Wildcat Mtn. Marketing
• Ian Turnbull & the Patrol Staff, Wildcat Mtn.
• Emilie Drinkwater, Cloudsplitter Mtn. Guides
• Jesse Williams, Cloudsplitter Mtn. Guides
• Anne Skidmore Russell, Anne Skidmore Photography
• Bayard Russell, Cathedral Mtn. Guides
• Lauren Mersich, Mtn. Sherpa & Loving Supporter
I would like to note that my 8-month-old son, Henry Tuckerman Ornitz, was given his middle name in connection with this project. I look forward to the day that I can bring him there for his first backcountry ski turns.