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The Fifty Project - Skier Cody Townsend and cinematographer/director Bjarne Salen are trying to climb and ski all 50 classic ski descents of North America, based on the book 50 Classic Ski Descents of North America. These lines are some of the most challenging and spectacular ski descents in the continent.
It’s a 3-year project and one episode for each ski line is released online, for free, on Cody Townsend’s YouTube Channel every other Wednesday all winter.
Words and images by Bjarne Salen
f-stop: Let’s talk gear, what equipment do you normally carry for your shoots?
Bjarne: Overall I use different camera bags depending on the objective of the day, and what gear is necessary. The bigger the mountain, usually the less gear I bring. Shorter days usually allow me to bring more gear.
For The Fifty Project, I tend to keep gear to a minimum. If it’s too heavy, it takes too much time to set up and shoot, which then becomes dangerous in the mountains if you are too slow.
For packs, I use either a Tilopa or Loka UL. Then on my hips, a lens barrel to have one lens on one side and then a Navin on the other side on my hip. They are attached to my hip belt of my backpack.
This allows me to have quick access to the camera; I don’t have to take the pack off my back and I can shoot in the mountain where ever I am. Even if I hang in a harness dangling down a couloir I can quickly access my camera and shoot.
If I pack my gear like this I feel safe, fast and can do my job quickly.
Other gears I use when I film in the mountains are crampons, ice axes, skins, food, water, down jacket, drone, batteries, monopod hanging from my pack, glasses, goggles, helmet, transceiver, shovel, probe, radios, and some Swedish fish as an extra snack on the summit of course. That’s the most essential one.
f-stop: There are probably a lot of things on your mind when you are preparing for this kind of project, what do you think are the biggest challenges?
Bjarne: There are many challenges that start during planning. Cody is researching a lot all over the country every day. We are checking weather and conditions all over the continent. He’s doing a lot of this research and has contacts everywhere, which are key. With all our combined research, we get a general idea if we should go and try the mountain or not. If we feel it's a green light and the snow is stable then we pull the trigger and go there. This can sometimes mean a last-minute, 12-hour road trip, so I always kind of have to be ready to go, wherever we are.
Scouting is another big part. When we arrive at a location we always have a few days where we look at the objective from far, walking in and checking it out a day or two before and seeing what happed with the snow and conditions the last 24 hours.
This can be challenging because you don't really know 100% how the conditions are before you are there in person.
If we decide to try and climb the mountain, then we take 30 minutes here and there along the way, to make crucial decisions and constantly evaluate and re-evaluate our risks. How are the snow conditions? Are we making a good time? Are we too late (which means it could be too warm and dangerous in the mountains), or do we still have a good window to make the summit…?
When it comes to all the filming I need to do along the way, there is a lot to think about in addition to our safety and risks. When packing, I need to have all camera equipment ready, set up, charged, and functioning, together with the all-mountain equipment we need for that climb. When we’re climbing, I think about all these things in a constant stream of thoughts: safety, planning, camera angles, what’s the story?, and always be one step ahead physically and mentally of the athletes, all day, to catch what might be happening for action or story (also make it look good and not put myself in danger if I’m out ahead of the group on my own). There is also a ton of training that goes into this in the offseason so I can be strong enough to make all this happen in the moment.
f-stop: What is next for you?
Bjarne: This project requires a minimum of 3 winter seasons to film, and we might continue longer now with this pandemic, who knows what will happen. We are more than halfway through the fifty mountains in the project, but in terms of the time it takes to climb each mountain, we are still quite far from halfway. Some of the mountains are weeks-long expeditions in remote places, plus all the planning and logistics that go into those expeditions to be able to climb and ski them safely. So for the moment, this project is my main focus for the foreseeable future.
During the off-season, I am working on several documentaries. I just released a new documentary about big-wave surfer Paige Alms, called PAIGE. It’s streaming on all major outlets, you can click this link to take you to the one nearest to you: https://geni.us/PAIGE .
I am also working on one of my biggest films so far - a feature-length documentary called Changing The Flow, which I hope to finish this year. It’s a story that spans over 12 years about the first all-female Nepali adventure guiding company, and the story of how they faced the odds over the years to make their dreams come true. I’m working on it with editor and producer Erin Galey, and we hope to get it out in the world very soon. Then I’ll be thinking about my next documentary project! You can find out more about it and see the trailer at www.changingtheflow.com .