Celebrating 25 years of Christian Begin’s long-lost powder epic.
words :: Feet Banks.
Everyone loves super deep powder, and it’s always exciting to unearth a rare treasure from your favourite artist’s past. So it wasn’t hard to get stoked when filmmaker Christian Begin (Kranked, No Man’s Land) dug up his long-lost classic ski film Locomotion to celebrate its 25th anniversary.
Locomotion ’95: Lost on VHS
“It premiered at the Banff Mountain Film Festival in 1995 and went on the Best of Banff tour,” Begin recalls, “but we only made 500 copies of it, all on VHS, so no one can even play it anymore anyhow. After these all these years the film has become almost like a mystery, or a ghost movie.”
Shot on 16mm film, Locomotion is on one level a ski film about shredding powder in Rogers Pass, a high mountain pass in B.C.’s Selkirk range that’s achieved near-mythical status among ski touring circles for its deep, dry and easily accessible powder.
Memorializing Rogers Pass
But the pass also has an important history. It provided a much-needed rail link to connect B.C. to the rest of Canada. In 1881 Major A.B. Rogers first viewed the pass, and just five years later the first locomotive pushed through. But progress came with a hefty cost: in the first 30 years after start of construction in 1881, avalanches killed over 200 people on the Rogers Pass rail line. In 1910 a team of 62 railway workers were clearing the line of deep avalanche debris when another slide hit, burying and killing all but one. Begin wanted his film to honour that history as well.
“It was an unusual movie for the time,” he says. “A bit more of a documentary. A bit out there, with faces in the snow and the ghost, and filming down on East Hastings Street in Vancouver. Ski films back then were mostly just music and action. We shot our skiing in the storms, just using my friends as athletes. It had a raw feel, not so crazy extreme, just deep pow that made it a bit more relatable.”
Begin began his ski filmmaking career in Quebec in the late 1980s before moving west to Rossland, B.C. to ski and film in the big mountains. In Rossland he met legendary ski film maverick Greg Stump and began shooting segments for him. Begin shot the Rossland segment of Rogers Pass powder in Stump’s 1993 film P-Tex, Lies & Duct Tape. After reading the history of Rogers Pass, Begin and friend Luc Breton discussed the idea of merging the past and the present into a ski film. The young director recruited his friends and started hiking.
“The whole film was made by ski touring,” Begin adds. “And to walk up with a camera bag and a tripod from the bottom of Rogers Pass is a lot of work. Shooting in a snowstorm is difficult too, looking through a viewfinder in low light, it’s hard to see if you are in focus, there is not camera assistant, no one pulling focus. And then we had to wait months to see the footage because there was no money to pay for the film transfer. I’d shot most of the movie without knowing if anything was good.”
The Archival Angle
Similar to how Rogers Pass opened British Columbia to the rest of Canada, Begin’s film also began to take form once he arrived on the west coast to shoot some final scenes in Whistler and delve deeper into the history of the pass.
“I went to the archives in Victoria and spent two days digging through tapes until I found a historical film the CPR [Canadian Pacific Railway] made about the pass. Once I saw that I knew I had a movie, but amazingly, the woman working there also found me some audio tapes, and one was an interview with the only survivor of the avalanche that killed 62 people. He was the conductor and his name was Billy Lachance, which means ‘luck’ in French. So to find that, the actual voice of the only survivor… when I heard that it was just ‘wow’… I wanted to capture the idea that the souls of all these people are still out there in the mountains.”
Editing in Whistler on the first digital editing suite in the Sea to Sky (courtesy of AdventureScope films) Begin began piecing together what would become one of the most respected ski films of the era. Writer (and Mountain Life Annual editor) Les Anthony even published a 10-page story on Begin and Locomotion in Powder magazine.
Locomotion and the Evolution of Ski Films
“I am stoked to get this film out again,” Begin says. “I’m very stoked for my friends and everyone that worked on it with me, and I am stoked to tell the story of Rogers Pass again. I want people to learn that history and see how B.C. was the last piece of the puzzle for Canada. Without that pass, B.C. might have joined Washington State.”
Ski films have come a long way since the music-and-action ski porn of the 1990s, and the huge communities that would gather each fall for the premieres. Contemporary audiences get dozens of films with strong storylines and messages beamed right into their homes all year long, but it’s worth noting that Begin’s “out there” little ski movie was forging new ground and inspiring some of the top filmmakers of today.
“I want people to learn that history and see how B.C. was the last piece of the puzzle for Canada.”
“The story of that railway is amazing,” Begin says. “And the skiing in Rogers Pass is also amazing. And that was a special experience, to make that film. I remember coming back from the deepest day ever, we were covered in snow, everything covered. I opened the camera and there is water inside! I thought that day, the best day, was a waste. And we had to wait two months to see the footage—after processing and transfer—and it was all so good. This movie launched my career and it’s always been special to me. I’m excited to share it after all this time and I want to thank everyone who helped me on this movie and with everything I’ve done since. I could have done the 20th anniversary but I forgot.”
Locomotion premiered 25 years ago this week. Enjoy it.