New Film Weighs Backcountry Risks, Rewards

On March 13, 2012, heli-ski guide Rob Liberman and his client Nick Dodov were skiing in the Alaskan backcountry when they were caught in an avalanche and killed. Their deaths sent a shockwave through the extreme skiing community, which mourned their deaths while at the same time celebrating their zest for life and pursuit of adventure.

At the time of the accident, filmmaker Ben Clark was in Haines, Alaska, where he was making a documentary featuring a group of talented skiers and snowboarders who'd come to that remote town to train with Alaska Heli, a well-known and respected guide service. The original vision of the film was to show the dedication, training and focus that a ski guide must possess in order to be successful in this competitive and challenging career, while giving us a glimpse of the sport that is very different from the glitzy ski and snowboard films we're used to seeing.

Following the accident, Clark could have taken the film in a number of directions, possibly capitalizing on the sensationalistic nature of the story. But the film stayed true to its roots, delivering a no-frills look at the hard work and training necessary to become a heli-ski guide. It just happens to also have a tragic element that casts a long shadow over the entire story.

The film, The Alaskan Way, is now complete and will soon be premiering at film festivals and as part of a 25-city tour. I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview of the movie and came away very impressed with the compelling storytelling that refuses to pander to the audience, or to lead them around on an emotional leash. In fact, the film doesn't focus much on the accident at all, saving those scenes until almost the very end. Despite that, it still managed to leave me asking questions and thinking about what I had seen long after I had finished watching.

In a conversation with the filmmaker, Clark told me that's exactly what he'd had in mind when he started editing the The Alaskan Way. His goal from the beginning was to show how dedicated these ski guides are to their lifestyle—they know there's inherent risk that comes along with the job and accept that whenever they head out into the backcountry. But the film doesn't use that as some kind of justification for the pursuit of dangerous activities. Instead, it leaves it up to the viewer to ponder such things for themselves.

If anyone understands those questions, it's Ben Clark, whose climb of Everest was the subject of the early seasons of The Rest of Everest video podcast, and who later skied the Himalaya. Ben told me he felt it would be hypocritical of him to try putting a spin on the question of whether it's safe to ski in the backcountry or pursue other potentially dangerous activities. Instead, he simply tells the story and lets viewers make their own decisions. He did confess, though, that the deaths of Liberman and Dodov have altered his perception of what constitutes acceptable risk on his own adventures.

Check out the trailer for the film below. It will give you a sense of what you can expect when the The Alaskan Way makes the adventure film fest circuit in the weeks ahead. It is a thought-provoking and intriguing look at the nature of adventure and choices we all must make in pursuit of our passions.

This story first appeared on The Adventure Blog.