Near the end of his new movie, The Fourth Phase, Travis Rice gets swallowed up in a raging slope of snow that has no interest in keeping him alive. He survives (SPOILERS!), but no one witnessing the event firsthand, his friends and production team members, could have known that at the time.
The shot, uncut from beginning to end, is a spine tingler: Travis drops in and starts cruising, life is good, mellow backside three, and what’s this? The pitch cracks and starts to slide. Travis reacts quickly and there’s a moment where it seems like, just maybe, he might be able to traverse out of this. But no. Overtaken, engulfed, he disappears from sight as the camera pans downward, desperately following his inevitable trajectory, on and on, and then over 40 feet of exposed rock. The slide begins to settle having reached the bottom, and we wait now for an eternity as the cloud slowly dissipates, to see if there will be any sign of Travis or his possible whereabouts under this relocated mountainside. Is that him? Very gradually he becomes visible. Unburied.
What probably happened at this point, is that Travis was converged on immediately by his qualified, experienced team, to see how he was and to help. He may have suffered injuries that could be threatening his life with each passing minute—a circumstance demanding all hands on deck. Yet this urgency is not what we’re shown in the film. Instead, we are given a scene which soaks in the drama of his uncertain condition from a distance. We’re then whisked further away on a metaphysical tour of Travis’s mind. When we return, he fights to get his breath back and, still solitary, he stands. Victorious it seems, like a boxer returning to his feet before the end of a slow count.
"HEY, WHEN YOU PLAY WITH FIRE, SOMETIMES YOU FALL BACKWARDS INTO A PIT OF MOLTEN LAVA."
It’s badass, I agree, but here’s the thing: A boxer getting knocked down is an acceptable part of boxing, more like a rider slamming hard in a landing or taco-ing on a rail. But an avalanche? An avalanche is not Rocky down for the count. An avalanche, that size especially, is the ceiling of the arena collapsing and landing on him in the middle of the ring.
So the choice to obscure specific details, clues of imminent rescue, the springing into action of those nearby, is an interesting one. Here was the single most impacting sequence of the entire movie, and it was given less physical context and screen time than the story of how the crew failed to fill out some paperwork in Russia.
Of course, The Fourth Phase, while unique its delivery, is not the only shred flick painting an abstract picture of avalanche danger. There’s a quick clip that executes this vagueness in the opposite but more common way, in The Manboys Movie. Canadian backcountry scholar, Rusty Ockenden, gets carried away in a formidable slide with grave potential. It’s thrown casually into the bail section (which is amazing by the way), equating it in seriousness with any of the other failed trick-attempts and tomahawks.
Jody Wachniak, the Canadian street jibber convert who is still considered relatively new to this scene (although he’s been crushing the backcountry off and on for over five years), was watching from the bottom when it happened. He tells me, “Holy shit, that was so scary. I started my sled immediately and nuked towards him. I was like, ‘This is it.’ That was definitely the heart-pounder of the year.” Case in point, this perspective of Jody’s is not shared in the movie. The resulting clip, after all, is only three seconds long.
These movies, and others like them, are not mishandling their own events. They entertain us wildly, and they are succeeding at their respective goals. What they’re also doing though, is missing an opportunity.
Newcomers to the backcountry world, or to snowboarding in general, don’t inherently understand the measures taken to prevent and/or deal with an avalanche situation. So when the cinematic retelling of one is glorified without context, what is ultimately presented is that stoic fighter scenario described earlier. There’s an impression given that withstanding a bunch of sliding snow is something that puts hair on your chest, and maybe you should aspire to be so tough. This is a bit like shrugging and saying, “Hey, when you play with fire, sometimes you fall backwards into a pit of molten lava.”
As illustrated in the Whistler Blackcomb documentary series The Big Picture, well over two million people adventured outwards last winter, leaving behind the cell service, the hot lattes, and the safety blankets of resort riding. More and more people are down to explore, they’re down to earn their turns, and they want their snowboarding horizons to expand beyond front-blunt pretzels. But hand in hand with increased user numbers, are increased liabilities. If even just one of these new backcountry soul-surfers lacks a profound respect for what they’re getting into, the consequences are felt by everyone out there.
Chris Rasman, who’s been shredding the wilds of the Whistler frontier his entire adult life, sees it this way, “There’s a lot of new dudes back there, year after year, and it’s awesome. But it’s a huge bummer when I see reckless shit: snowboarders taking their transceivers off while hitting a jump, high-marking (on sleds) over stuck friends, or hiking up critical spots during bad avy ratings. It’s not everyone obviously, but some people have a really loose view of what it’s like out there. I get it, I used to too. But it’s important to remember that things can get bad very quickly.”
So what do we do? Yes, new signage is clear and concise at backcountry entry points, and various media outlets continue to post relevant content such as the previously mentioned documentary The Big Picture. Part 3 of that series, in particular, addresses this whole topic quite adeptly. Of course, this all helps spread awareness, but perhaps the people who read these articles and click on those videos are the ones that already have avalanche training or the motivation to acquire it.
That leaves all the others. They resist being told what is what, and that’s fine (snowboarding was born from this exact attitude), but they have to be reached in a different way. Freestyle movies and edits, as snow-porn driven as they are, manage to communicate succinct information to this audience all the time: Halldór is insane, bibbed pants are sweet, Russia is a nation that is strict about your paperwork, and so on.
A little goes a long way, and if these videos can reveal just a bit more of that larger avalanche scope, they will begin to influence those who don’t even realize what it is they’re not caring about. Then, the topic of backcountry preparedness can seem less like a lecture and more like a conversation.
That’s the opportunity. Shift the focus from the grizzled hero who triumphs over nature, to include, even slightly, the prepped team of calculated amigos who rally together in the face of unexpected catastrophe. We can reframe that narrative, spark a subconscious interest, and pass along some much needed reverence. Rocky can get back to his training montage and, more importantly, he’ll know better than to fight in a crumbling building.