Ski mountaineering has become mainstream today, but in 1978, though, it had hardly been documented at all. So cinematographers and climbers Bob Carmichael and Greg Lowe set out to shoot a short film that exemplified a “day in the life” of a ski mountaineer. It would be one of the first movies to showcase ski mountaineering and it went on to be nominated for an Academy Award in the category Short Film (Best Live Action) in 1981. And perhaps most notable to the broader audience, it featured a tumble so long that skier Steve Shea wrote, “How I survived that I’ll never know.”
Shea was a dirtbag splitting his time between Aspen and Chamonix, climbing as much as possible and skiing on his off days. His climbing partner, Larry Bruce, connected him with Carmichael and Lowe, and they began planning a trip in the summer of ’78 up the Grand Teton.
Shea had climbed the Grand many times before but had never made a ski descent (Bill Briggs had completed the very first ski descent of Wyoming’s most iconic peak just seven years prior). Fortunately, the film crew, which consisted of just a couple cameramen and an assistant, were climbers as well. Over the course of six weeks in the summer of 1978 and an additional four weeks in ’79, the crew and climbers camped on the Grand, waiting for blue skies and laboriously collecting the shots they needed for their short film.
“They definitely knew what was up, but believe me it was low budget. We’d stay up at the lower saddle of the Teton for a week or 10 days at a time. Then we’d come down for food, maybe or maybe not take a shower, and go back up for another 10 days,” Shea says. “We had a lot of bad weather, as you can imagine. We’d get late spring storms. But the main thing I didn’t like about it was having to perform under potentially dangerous circumstances and conditions. They understood, fortunately, because they were climbers as well and I made the final calls.”
The ski gear was typical of the time. Shea skied the wide variety of snow conditions and terrain on 207 race stock Rossignol skis. The entire film was shot on 60MM Aeroflexes, and though some shots may look like aerial footage, everything was filmed from the ground–any grand pullback or sweeping perspective was shot from the summit of another peak. In keeping with the no-frills approach to filmmaking, the entire thing was unscripted. The narrative arc, including a couple scary falls and a lost backpack, came organically.
“One day I took that bad fall, and all of a sudden they had their story in the sense that it gave the trip, the day, an exciting finish that didn’t end in tragedy. That’s where I dropped the pack, had the fall, and then found the pack after the fall and skied down to the bottom, hooting and hollering off into the sunset,” Shea says.
Shea had done a handful of major climbs and first descents prior to this trip, but “not for fame or glory or money,” he says. “I didn’t make any news about it. We just went off into the mountains and did various peaks in Colorado, Wyoming.”
In keeping with his attention-averse approach to his climbing career, Shea avoided climbing and skiing for the camera after Fall Line. The pressure was too great, and the process was long and trying for someone who would rather have been deep in the mountains with just a climbing partner and a remote objective. The film, however, thrived in the spotlight.
“Good for those guys. The film went on ad nauseam for them long after I was done with it,” Shea says. “Now you know the backstory–it was just a bunch of climbing bums on a shoestring budget. And they got nominated for an Academy Award.”