Photograph by Ben Sturgulewski
Skier Nick Waggoner
A filmmaker and his team conduct a grueling human-powered ski survey of South America. The result: A moving piece of art that defines the simple act of skiing.
“In the moment, it felt like we were failing every day. We weren’t good enough. We weren’t strong enough. It’s part of the artistic process,” says ski filmmaker Nick Waggoner, director of Sweetgrass Productions. Twenty seconds into Solitaire, his South American ski odyssey, it’s clear that the 26-year-old Waggoner has disproved the idea that the only way to make a better adventure film is with a bigger budget.
Shot on foot, horseback, riverboat, skis, and paragliders over the course of two years, Solitaire explores South America from the Amazon jungles to the Cordillera Blanca and from the Altiplano all the way to wind-raked Patagonia. Waggoner and his co-producers Michael Brown, Zac Ramras, and Ben Sturgulewski chose the Andes for its extreme conditions—fickle snow, horrible winds, and powerful landscapes. No helicopters. No chalets or ski lodges. Shooting the film required living and working out of tents in relentless rain and snow sometimes for weeks in a row, traversing broken glaciers just to see the peaks they would then climb and shoot, and flying paragliders from 17,000-foot mountains while filming. Each shot was earned by hiking thousands of feet in predawn darkness.
“This was complete immersion in the environment,” says Waggoner. The enormity and risk of what they were about to attempt hit home on the very first day of filming on location. The New York City native and Ramras arrived in South America to the news that their friend and the film’s intended star, extreme skier Arne Backstrom, had fallen to his death from 18,897-foot Nevado Pisco.
“This was no longer a cute little ski film,” says Waggoner. “This movie became about the dark place between failure and success.”
Fortunately for us, that uncertainty makes a beautiful, intriguing film through the focus of Waggoner’s lens. When it comes to the art of adventure, heart, resolve, and imagination trump a million dollars every time.
Adventure: For Solitaire, your third film, what drew you and your team to South America? What locations did you want to shoot?
Nick Waggoner: We wanted to push our style of filmmaking. We don’t use helicopters. We hike for days just to get to a place where we can ski. South America was the most difficult but beautiful landscape we could think of. We wanted a place that had a lot of different, challenging terrain.
We filmed Peru’s Cordillera Blanca with 17,000-foot peaks. The Amazon—deep in the port town of Iquitos. We rented a barge, but it was tough. In the Altiplano, in Bolivia, there were these sunbaked snow formations, penitents, literally teeth of snow. In Las Lenas, Argentina, we had 100-mile-an-hour winds. In Patagonia, it was the rain when we were horseback riding into the mountains. We had eight hours of sunshine in two weeks. Caviahue had these 2,500-year-old trees and dinosaur fossils. The landscape demanded so much. We were tiny little things.
A: The film is filled with visual poetry, but you also pulled from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, narrated in Spanish, for the film’s dialogue. Why?
NW: I bought the book two days before we left for our second year of filming. I knew it mirrored the journey we were taking. The journey up the river into the unknown articulated all the elements of what we were going through.
A: The first day you arrived in South America, skier Arne Backstrom, who you were headed to meet for the first time, died in a ski fall. That's tough.
NW: I’d never dealt with something like that. I’d never lost a friend. I never understood what that meant or how real the risk was. Arne’s death brought me down to earth. Twenty-four years of love, of energy, put into Arne were just erased in an instant. I remember seeing Kip Garre, Arne’s friend, who was with him that day, seeing the sadness in his face. Then Kip died the following summer. I never even had the proper chance to talk with Kip about Arne. This colored every moment of this project.
A: How do you continue from a situation like that?
NW: Our whole crew left. Zac and I were alone in South America. We didn’t know what to do, just that we had to keep moving forward. We had a friend who paraglides, so we connected with him. I’d never flown. The first day we launched, and he crashed us into a wall. There was a soccer field right next to us, but he hadn’t wanted to disturb the game. I thought, What am I doing? But the Raptor—that was the name of the paraglider—it became our way of getting back to filming, to searching for meaning. On my second flight, we hiked for 24 hours to launch off of a glacier at sunrise. You have to turn downhill, run with crampons, and then jump—and hope you have enough momentum to get you into the air. I will never forget that flight.
A: Are you going to keep making ski films?
NW: We started to loathe it, for a long time actually, but there would be these moments when I realized how much I love this life of skiing and filmmaking. Watching the sunrise after hiking for hours through darkness. That first light on the horizon. Or lightning storms in the clouds, firing this incredible pink. The flight of the Raptor. That stuff makes me feel alive. If I have to suffer for two years to feel alive for five minutes, then I will do that. Creating art is the biggest adventure you can take. It demands everything. It’s the good and the bad.