The Backcountry Film Festival struggles to balance self-awareness and escapism

The 15th annual film series unevenly grapples with the paradox of the winter rec industry.


In the 2019 ski film Peak Obsession, Cody Townsend, a laid-back, sun-bleached professional skier, gazes out from the top of Alaska’s Pontoon Peak. “This is why I do this,” he says, “This is magical.” The camera cuts to a retreating drone shot, showing snow-capped peaks under bluebird skies stretching to the horizon. All this, combined with dramatic footage of his descent, is what ski filmmaking has traditionally offered: the pleasures of the slopes, the thrill of adventure and supreme physical prowess.

Attendees of a Backcountry Film Festival screening watch Peak Obsession, a film that follows professional skier Cody Townsend.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

But there’s a growing awareness about skiing’s ethical issues — the greenhouse gas emissions from road trips and transcontinental flights to far-off resorts, and the enormous mountainside developments that these resorts spawn. Then there are the class-related issues — the chalets and pricey gear, the cost-prohibitive lift tickets from corporate resort owners. The fact is, snow sports can’t help being part of the world they so often appear to be an escape from. 

And so the winter-sport filmmaking industry, which has long reflected and created winter-sport culture, finds itself in tension: struggling to balance social consciousness with the apolitical pleasures of traditional ski movies. As the uneven showing at the 2020 Backcountry Film Festival, now in its 15th year, demonstrates, getting the message right isn’t everything. You still need to make good movies.

Peak Obsession is one of the least political films here, focused on Townsend’s quest to climb up and ski down every entry in the book The Fifty Classic Ski Descents of North America. The mountains are there, the descents epic, but no other justification for the project is given — or needed, in this case. Joined by renowned big-mountain snowboarder Jeremy Jones, Townsend is an affable companion, and the opening scene, where dangerous conditions force him to turn back near the top of Pontoon Peak, adds some welcome narrative tension. Both Jones and Townsend are spectacular to watch, and artful splicing of wide-angle drone shots and helmet camera footage give a sense of the sublimely technical skiing. The directors take care to introduce characters and provide a story and some humor. It’s a classic ski film: enjoyable to watch but offering little beyond style and fun.

Another festival entry, Endless Winter, tries to combine the pleasures of Peak Obsession with concern about the climate crisis, but comes up short. The film follows Nikolai Schirmer, a Norwegian professional skier torn between his desire for powder and the obligation to reduce his enormous carbon footprint — three times his country’s average. Globetrotting ski trips will do that. Schirmer attempts to cut back on his plane travel, which is admirable, I guess, but his predicament doesn’t exactly induce sympathy. The film contains some lovely skiing, notably a nighttime descent through powdery Norwegian glades by headlamp. In a voiceover, Schirmer gives a rapid-fire list of the ecological crises he hopes the planet can avoid. Meant as amusing, it comes off as dutiful. The climate consideration feels forced, the bare minimum gesture now required in the winter sport world.

The climate change impacts all people, in all places, but its toll on the frozen places in our world is especially devastating for all who love and live in alpine regions. This is most explicit in Climate Change in the Kennels, which considers the working sled dogs of Denali National Park. For decades, these teams have supplied remote access trips and research stations, but climate change is making them obsolete. Mushers describe bare tundra and open gravel much of the year, replacing permafrost. We get a sense of the power and beauty of sled dogs at work, but climate change’s irreversible impact on Denali and its ecosystems is not given the emotional heft it deserves. Still, it’s a sobering entry.

The winter recreation industry cannot fix the climate alone. Issues of inclusion, though, are within its control. Gender imbalance is the subject of A Climb for Equality, which follows mountaineer Caroline Gleich, who explains that women make up a small percentage of those who summit the world’s tallest peaks. You want to root for Gleich; she tears her ACL while training, and her recovery adds pathos to the story. But the fact that she’s summiting Mount Everest detracts from the film’s appeal. Trashed by hordes of international climbers, many of them entirely dependent on exploited Sherpa laborers, the world’s tallest mountain has itself become a symbol of inequality. Yet no awareness of this irony penetrates the film. Another film, KHUTRAO, gives an implicit rebuke to this omission. It follows Isaac Huenchunao, a ski guide in the Chilean Andes, who fears that outside investment and development may change the mountains his Indigenous Mapuche community calls home. This is welcome diversity in a largely white sport, so it’s shame that this film is much too short and clumsily put together, with scant character development.

Broadly speaking, the films fall into one of two unsatisfying categories: socially unconscious tales of extreme ski feats, or politically attuned films where the art has slipped. The fix for the latter — make better art — is easy to prescribe, but harder to execute. As for the former, exemplified by Peak Obsession, it need not disappear entirely, but I can’t help but question its substance. Physical excellence has worth, no doubt, and I prefer Townsend’s jovial hedonism to tacked-on social consciousness. But while enjoyable, it offers little that ski film audiences haven’t seen before. Maybe next time, Townsend should leave the cameras at home, and ski like no one is watching. And invite me along.

Nick Bowlin is an editorial fellow at High Country News. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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