With the ink barely dry on a journalism degree from the University of Oregon, Chris Figenshau rolled into Jackson Hole in 1994, just another wide-eyed Midwestern kid looking to take a year off after college amidst the splendor of the Teton Mountains. He never left. While working nights in the darkroom for the on-mountain photo service (back when darkrooms were still a thing), he started shooting his friends skiing around Jackson Hole. In the 20-some-odd years since, he has evolved into one of the most esteemed and sought-after high-angle, high-altitude ski photographers in the world.
What makes Figenshau unique, however, is a willingness to do whatever it takes to maintain the mountain lifestyle he loves, and an ability to be successful at whatever that may be. The East Lansing, Michigan, native financed his early photography career by working on a forest firefighting crew. When his photography career started to blossom, he parlayed his Hot Shot experience into a gig documenting wild fires for the U.S. Forest Service. He has worked safety for a reality TV series. With the changing media landscape, he branched out into video a few years; his cinematography credits include the Seth Morrison biopic The Ordinary Skier, Jeremy Jones’ trilogy of films, Deeper, Further, and Higher, and Jimmy Chin’s climbing film Meru.
“Chris, he brings a really unique skill set, being a world class ski mountaineer and a world class photographer,” says Jones. “When he started getting into video, I knew that he would bring a ton to the table, in the terms of getting a camera where no one else could.”
Come summer, Figenshau puts on yet another hat—as a mountain guide for Exum Guides. It’s not a job he necessarily needs to pay the bills, but rather something he uses to stay grounded and engaged. “You’re part of that community with a lot of really good people,” he says. “There’s a bit of camaraderie there, you know? You meet a lot of interesting people, and you get to know them in a way you don’t get to know strangers. You’re showing people something cool that’s also dangerous.”
If someone sitting next to on a plane asks what you do for work what do you tell them?
It depends on where I’m heading, I guess. If I’m on a production job, I’ll say production. If I’m going somewhere to guide, I’ll say I’m a guide. Or if I’m doing still photography, I’ll say I’m a photographer. I like to say I’m a photographer the most. Sometimes I should probably just tell them I’m a plumber and quit there. I guess it ends up coming to: I cover winter action sports, and expeditions specifically.
What is a typical day like for you, starting when you get to work and ending when you get home for the day?
It depends on the job, but if I’m working with a camera, it entails always being ready to work, no matter what time of day it is. You could be working a night time-lapse, or you could be watching the clouds to see if it’s going to be a nice sunrise. Generally, if it’s a film job, it’s 24 hours of being poised for good light. You’re always looking for something to capture. You don’t want to miss anything.
If I’m guiding, it’s usually getting up early, putting on a headlamp, and starting with a few layers on and peeling them off a couple of miles into the trail. But they all start off with lots of coffee, I guess is the common denominator—the safety hazard of no coffee.
How does your job affect someone’s day?
How does my job affect somebody’s day… Well, hopefully in a positive manner, whether it’s capturing something beautiful or remarkable or if I’m showing them something that’s new to them.
How does someone get your job(s)?
Photography, it’s just sort of following your passion, finding something you like to do and working at it. Photography was just naturally something that I like doing that I genuinely wanted to be better at and do more of. Making it pay money is a good way to do more of it and be challenged by it.
I think guiding is a little more of an altruistic venture because you’re showing somebody [something new]—and very much taking care of them in an environment where they wouldn’t feel safe by themselves. So you’re more a chaperone to an experience, I guess, than photography where you’re just showing something visually that will take someone somewhere, or engage them.
I guess [for both] it’s just taking an intimate interest in the mountains on a variety of levels, from rock climbing to skiing to winter climbing and avalanche knowledge, and having a certain amount of days out there. Immersing yourself in it as best you can. My biggest asset is having been a lot of places and having spent a lot of time in the mountains. The more you do something, the more comfortable you become, but it’s one of those jobs where every client is different, and every day is a different day in the mountains. There is an element of focus that you need.
What are the pros of your job?
It’s really just being out in the outdoors. Being able to spend the better part of your time in beautiful places and being in the mountains, which is where I prefer to be.
What are the cons?
It can be challenging financially. It has its share of risk. You never know when you might be in some really God-awful storm. The cons are piecing it together financially, getting steady work, and working with the weather elements. Whether it’s photography or guiding, mother nature can shut you down pretty quick, so you have to be pretty flexible. There are no givens.
Photos courtesy of Chris Figenshau