Backcountry Photography Rule #1

Oh this was a tough day, and I came within a whisker of just burying the footage and trying to forget about it entirely. Here is how bad this day was: when, a few days later, I had a tire blow out (the real deal) at 70mph in the middle of nowhere on I-40 past Barstow, I was bizarrely serene the whole time.

Compared to San Jacinto this is nothing, I kept telling myself. And it was.

We, or I should say I, completely underestimated how crazy the holiday crowds at the tram were going to be. We arrived well before 8 a.m., then immediately waited about 30 minutes in traffic just to get to the parking lot. We skipped the bus line and hoofed it up to the tram station to discover a full hour-and-a-half line to buy tickets.

And then—and then!—when we finally got to the counter, and the ticket man told us the next available tram car was another two and half hours away. Well, I just wish we had a photo of my face at that moment. It really would have been priceless.

We waited. I went steadily more and more batty and antisocial. My partner Preston impressed the heck out me with his ability to maintain his cool as hour after precious hour ticked by in the jammed-to-the-rafters tram station, which helped me get myself under control as well.

Finally we got to the snow and of course two days of Southern California sun and wind had utterly wrecked the snow (this was just after the Christmas storm cycle). I filmed a little bit of the skiing, accompanied by a bitterly sarcastic running commentary.

And when I got home and watched the video, I immediately said: I can't use this.

Because what felt, in the moment, like the worst snow ever on the worst day ever, looked more or less fine on the video, which made my commentary sound spoiled and bratty. A lot of you, I know, don't get to ski the backcountry. You don't need me getting out there and then telling you life sucks.

Which brings me to backcountry photography rule #1, which I just can't stop myself from constantly breaking.

No, it's not censor yourself when you're narrating. The problem—the key problem—with my video is that I never bothered to pull out the camera to show the most important part of the day: the insane lines and crowds at the tram station.

And the endless waiting, waiting, waiting.

With that context in place, everything else would have made a lot more sense. And that's the rule: whenever things are going wrong, whenever you're miserable or freezing or scared or convinced the world is ending, THAT'S when you've got to break out the camera and film.

That's when you get your best shots. I swear I'm tempted to tattoo that rule on my forehead. So many times when I get home I realize I've left out all the moments that mattered the most, because when I get pissed, I stop acting like a photographer.

To try to rehabilitate the video, I had some fun with my Helix Stomp and my trusty old Fender. Picture me loosing my marbles waiting four hours in the tram station, then watch the video and enjoy.

— January 17, 2020

Andy Lewicky is the author and creator of SierraDescents

Brad Brown January 19, 2020 at 10:16 am

Andy, Andy, Andy....wasn’t it you who once wrote the Ode to Mt Williamson or something like that. You’ve trudged some seriously difficult ascents both local and in the Range, most harder than this, many with worse results, nearly all without lift assist. In the book of Andy this was an inconvenience, a trivial annoyance, a splinter in the victim of a collapsed building.... followed by a little thicker than movie star quality snow (which you make look easy btw). Irritated by the wait? Try getting to the top of the tram from the Palm Springs Museum, takes about twice as long and a little more effort.

I hit both the 24th and 26th storms last month and timing was perfect (1-17-20 not some much). As Jeremy Jones once commented having beat a massive avie (down to dirt) by like an hour “In the mountains, Timing is everything”. I’ve missed my share and had many educational days like the one you report on.

Actually, what I so enjoy about your TR’s is the humanity. I’m right there with you grousing about long lines, the flatlanders reading chain installation instructions whilst stalled out on a switchback they failed to anticipate attired in flip flops wondering how it got so cold, the failed weather predictions, the vehicle mechanicals, the “I forgots”, the impromptu field testing and failing of gear, rain wetted glop, lift failures, inclined hockey rink days, human endurance testing, and all the other trivia and calamity that the addicted endure. Survive enough “bad” and eventually you get rewarded with days like 12-24 with my fam as the crew ripping our little Snow Summit with an handful of other afflicted knowing that days like that stand on skiers‘ equity earned from days like your San J installment. They say wisdom comes from experience. I’ll add that experience comes from bad experience. Your field research makes us all wiser and safer, and it’s never a bad thing to laugh at one’s self is the process of getter wiser, I've had more than my share. But skiing and BC adventuring is all about risk/reward, part and parcel of applied outdoor education. and damn, that’s some nice licks you played! Thanks for the lessons Professor, looking forward to the next post.

Andy January 19, 2020 at 4:31 pm

building "skiers' equity" -- I love that phrase! Thanks Brad. You should have been there. :)

Mark J David March 2, 2020 at 7:50 am

I couldn’t agree more...this is THE rule. All of my best photos were taken when I least wanted to stop and concentrate on photography. I’ve learned to recognize when I need to stop because it’s almost always when things are going wrong.