In Tahoe filmmaker’s “My Own Two Feet,” snowboarders turn backs on mechanized backcountry travel

By Seth Lightcap • Photos by Chris Wellhausen

With snow conditions for steep lines gone sour with the warm temps,

Josh Dirksen finds adventure on our terrain park built close to basecamp.

Helicopter drops onto surreal Alaskan peaks, snow cat tours to misty Canadian mountains, snowmobile rides to wherever, whenever … Welcome to the fossil-fueled lifestyle of the ski and snowboard film industry for the last 20 years.

Though it has only become apparent in recent winters, there is no denying that such petrol-fed cold-smoke fantasies are a serious conflict of interest for an industry that will live or die on the frontlines of the battle against global warming. But despite this contradiction, the cameras in the copters roll on. Why? Because the fans fiend for the footage, and no one has been willing to sacrifice what it takes to venture out to film without the comforts of combustion.

Until last winter.

Debuting this fall, “My Own Two Feet” by South Lake Tahoe-based production company Leeward Cinema is the first ever full-length freestyle snowboarding movie filmed solely with human power. The brainchild of Leeward owner and veteran snowboard cinematographer Chris Edmands, “My Own Two Feet” was shot in the wilderness of the Sierra Nevada and chronicles the adventure and reward of searching for freestyle fun using only snowshoes and splitboards for ascents.

Edmands, along with fellow Leeward cinematographers Kyle Schwartz and Jason Hogan, spent 30 nights under the cold starry sky and hiked nearly 200 miles over the course of the winter filming for the production. Looking to bring amazing riders to never-been-shot locations, and capture not just the tricks, but the camaraderie of a crew with widely varying backcountry experience, Leeward succeeded in producing an adventure snowboard movie that could serve as a wake-up call for the rest of the ski/board film industry.

Connecting the Dots

When Edmands founded Leeward Cinema in the summer of 2007 he had nothing but his years of filming experience on his back and a motivation to break the shred-flick mold by taking a stand for something he believed in. He had no riders clamoring to film with him and definitely no sponsors lining his pocket. So concept in hand and with a few key recommendations from past associates, Edmands started shopping around his idea looking for both support and talent.

One of the first riders he cold called was big mountain ruler Jeremy Jones. But when Jones got Edmands’ message, he planned on denying him.

“I already had three film projects slated for the winter so I only called Edmands back out of courtesy,” said Jones. “But when he got me on the phone, he said the only two words in the world that would have convinced me to film with him – hiking and Sierras.”

As it turns out, Edmands project was in perfect alignment with Jones own environmental initiative, Protect Our Winters, “POW,” a non-profit org he founded in 2007 dedicated to creating awareness of the global warming crisis among the winter sports community. “POW” became one of Leeward’s key partners on the project.

As Edmands continued to spread the word, he found that much like Jones, most riders and many sponsors were intrigued by the environmentally conscious message he had to offer.

“Everyone was open to it because they were ready for a change,” said Edmands. “Even the young guys. People were amped on trying out the human pace rather than the machine pace.”

Though Leeward’s roster of riders ebbed and flowed through the season, the diversity of rippers that rode in front of his cameras by season’s end was impressive. From legendary big mountain veterans like Jones, Tom Burt, and Jim Zellers, to seasoned freestylers like Chad Otterstrom, Josh Dirksen, and Finnish Olympic halfpipe medalist Markku Koski – Edmands convinced both backcountry experts and backcountry virgins to bring freestyle snowboarding to the wilderness one step at a time.

Tackling the Learning Curve

The common denominator among all the riders involved was that everyone obviously knew how to shred. But beyond riding ability, the backcountry and winter camping skills of the group varied from multi-continent mountaineering veterans to riders who had literally only hiked a halfpipe before. This diversity of experience proved to be both the subject matter and the solution as the Leeward cameras caught genuine first-time perspectives on the winter wilderness while the gurus of the group handed down tricks and techniques to help teach the cold ropes to the newbies.

As one might expect, Leeward’s first few outings of the season proved to be the most humbling and educational. In late November, they spent three nights in the howling wind up on Mt. Shasta. They learned that their camping gear was horribly inadequate. Returning to Tahoe with a bone chill, Edmands got to work securing sponsors such as The North Face to help provide gear better suited for the extensive winter exploration they were to embark on.

Perhaps the least expensive and technical of all the gear proved to be his favorite score – down booties.

“You put on those down booties and you may as well have been sitting round a fire,” said Edmands. “You’re that comfortable.”

With booties stuffed into their packs, the Leeward crew set out for Mt. Ritter, a massive peak 12 miles behind Mammoth Mountain, for their first trip into the Sierra high country. But after their first night on a windswept ridge, dissention mounted. Their position seemed miles away from anything worthy to ride and their intended route looked like it cliffed out.

Just as it appeared mutiny was about to unfold, a snowboard angel shuffled up on a splitboard – Tahoe native and legendary rider Tom Burt.

Chasing down the crew in a mere two hours, Burt flipped the sinking morale on its head by announcing that he was there to ride pow and anyone who cared to join him should follow along. In but a few hours, Burt delivered the crew to an ideal camp awash in riding possibilities. Pushing past this crux proved pivotal for the rest of the season.

“Burt finding a way down for us that day set the tone for the entire winter,” said Edmands. “Now everyone knew that anything was possible and that sometimes you gotta step into the unknown to get the goods.”

Burt’s memory of that moment was that he merely reminded them why they were out there in the first place.

“When you’re inexperienced and you’re out there working hard it can be tough to remember that you’re supposed to be having fun,” said Burt. “When I caught up to the group that day I tried to bring back that spirit of fun.”

Getting in the Groove

Having come away from the shakedown trips strong and hungry, the Leeward crew pushed on to grander adventures throughout the rest of the winter. Featured trips in the film include multi-day missions to the Desolation Wilderness, Treasure Lakes, and Mt. Whitney, as well as day trips to Donner Summit, Mt. Rose, and Ebbets Pass. Often times pushing trips back to back, Edmands and his film crew got ample opportunity to not only catch the cadre of riders ripping wild freestyle features, but continuing to learn what it takes to explore the winter wilderness day after day.

As reward for the countless miles hiked, Leeward collected some insane footage. A Jeremy Jones descent of a wicked steep face near Donner Summit called TB Super Spines was one such jaw dropping shot they captured.

Jones had backed off the line, one first ridden by Tom Burt, several times in previous seasons. But to Edmands’ delight, he sacked up and just barely rode it clean while the Leeward cameras were rolling. Even Jones was impressed by his effort that day.

“The TB Super Spines line was one of those lines that if I tried it ten times I would only get it once,” said Jones. “After I stuck it I screamed and laughed uncontrollably for the next few minutes while my body came back to earth.”

A late-April trip to Mt. Whitney was another of the season’s highlights. Although the snow was meager and wind hammered, the crew found several creative jib lines below Iceberg Lake, and unbelievably, got the entire posse of riders on top of Whitney’s 14,494-foot summit. The snow in the Mountaineer’s Route was bulletproof so little footage resulted from the summit day, but the climb was a testament to how strong this group of riders, many with no prior winter mountaineering experience, had become.

Looking Back

After six months of hiking and shooting in the Sierra, Leeward wrapped up filming in mid-May. Director Edmands spent the summer crafting the hours of digital footage into what became a chronological story of the season’s adventures. Mixing cutting-edge freestyle shots with campsite and travel footage, the storyline of “My Own Two Feet” plays out just as it unfolded, from early-season suffering to spring glory.

While the environmental message is inherent to the film’s concept, Edmands doesn’t dwell on it in the finished production.

“The act of how we did everything was the environmental message so we didn’t have to play on that much more,” said Edmands. “We’re not telling anyone how to live their life. We’re just trying to show people a way to put adventure and fun back into snowboarding while respecting the environment.”

They certainly achieved that in Jeremy Jones estimation. “The highlight of my film season was my time spent with Leeward,” he said.

The elimination of snowmobiles from the filming equation made a mark on many of the riders.

“I had veteran pros like Otterstrom and Dirksen tell me that once you get your legs and lungs in shape, hiking was less work than trying to operate a snowmobile in deep snow,” Edmands said.

Young gun pro rider Ben Lynch felt that, as opposed to racing from parking lot to destination on a snowmobile, hiking gave him a much greater respect for the mountains. You get to “experience every step,” he said.

Looking Ahead

With DVD’s on shop shelves and premieres popping up throughout the West, Edmands is thrilled to get the first Leeward Cinema production in the hands of other riders. But as far as what’s up next, negotiations are still in the works. The only thing Edmands is sure about is never losing sight of a challenge.

“Anything I get involved with in the future has got to have an element of testing your will, seeing how far your mind will let you go,” said Edmands. “Without that I’m not interested.”

See it for Yourself

Check out “My Own Two Feet” teasers at www.leewardcinema.com and don’t miss the film on the big screen at these regional premieres: Berkeley, CA @ Clif Bar HQ – Nov. 13th, Truckee, CA @ Fifty Fifty Brewing Company – Nov. 15th, Incline Village, NV @ Sierra College – Nov. 20th, Reno, NV @ Reno Bike Project – Nov. 22nd. For further information on premieres check out www.protectourwinters.org