Finding the upside after COVID-19 interrupts a film project in China’s fabled Altai region. Words & photography :: Brian Hockenstein.
In the back seat of a Chinese police car with Kazakh tunes blasting over the radio, it was still very much unclear what was happening to us.
Over the past week, this dream expedition—meticulously planned for more than a year—had gone from exciting reality to flaming wreckage. We’d arrived in Kohm, a remote corner of China that borders Mongolia and Kazakhstan, to start shooting a film tracing the roots of the modern ski through Eurasia, shred pow and enjoy time with cultures who’ve been “skiing” for thousands of years.
Instead, a global pandemic (believed to originate just a few thousand kilometres from our first location) started forcing much of the planet into lockdown. Uncertainty, paranoia, and emergency evacuation plans shit-kicked our film dreams, fractured our team, and served up five of the most stress-filled and anxious days of my life. But we were safe, in a cop car, heading home… then an avalanche crushed the only road out of town…
• • •
Off to China’s Altai Mountains to Spark a Global Conversation
Everything looked so good on the pitch decks: Seattle-based filmmaker Chris Winters and I would immerse ourselves in ancient skiing cultures from China to Mongolia to the Nordic/Sámi peoples in hopes of uncovering a story that would mirror our values and benefit mountain cultures back home in “the West.” We envisioned a film highlighting low impact living, simplicity, and a deeper connection to the land that would inspire the shred industry to shift to a more circular and connected way of life. I honestly didn’t have a clue if real change would be possible or if it was just a bunch of trendy words perpetuating the feel-good, save-the-world story I had been telling myself—but it definitely looked like a sweet adventure.
So we fundraised, planned, re-planned, and hopped on a plane in mid-January 2020, ready to tell a story of the history of the ski, starting with a community in the Altai Mountains that still practices an ancient form of skiing. We arrived in China ready to immerse ourselves in a culture we hoped would help shine a light on the disconnect between the ski/snowboard industry’s love of the lands upon which we play and the destruction we so often wreak upon them. I hoped our film would spark a global conversation and unite people in seeing a different path forward.
The Dream Shoot, Cut Short
The world united all right, but it had nothing to do with us. Our first week in China was charged and exciting: travelling from city to mountains, meeting contacts and preparing for a three-week dream shoot. The following four days were spent trying to get out of there as fast as we could (yes, we made it through the avalanche after our government contact pulled every last string to find a snowplow to dig us out to safety). The flight home was surreal—at one point we were the only people on the plane. Which, I suppose, prepared me for the lockdown.
We arrived in China ready to immerse ourselves in a culture we hoped would help shine a light on the disconnect between the ski/snowboard industry’s love of the lands upon which we play and the destruction we so often wreak upon them.
As nations hustled to take action on the spreading COVID-19 pandemic, the days of lockdowns rolled into weeks, and then months. At first, I struggled to see the upside of having the bindings blow on our project, but small rays of light began leaking through darkness. Amazing stories emerged from around the globe; tales of wild animals slowly reclaiming long-abandoned lands and families connecting (albeit digitally) in ways previously unimagined. In the Sea to Sky, we have nature at our doorsteps, but with everyone confined to their homes it suddenly seemed like the world was finally understanding the value of connecting to the outdoors—even something as simple as a walk in a public park.
The Perspective: “We Are Not Separate from the Environment”
Chris and I had travelled to what seemed like the edge of the planet hoping to discover if it was possible to pivot our modern way of life into something more meaningful—and here we were, forced into doing just that. We decided to investigate further and reached out to our networks for perspective on this trippy idea coming slowly into focus.
“We’ve become a society that contains citizens that are distracted,” explains futurist Nikolas Badminton. “By technology, the six-day work week, the cars that we buy, the clothes that we have too many of in our closets. All of this takes us away from the fundamentals of what it means to be human.”
“The biggest lesson for me is this pandemic is a grave reminder that we are not divorced or separate from the environment,” says sustainability expert Matt Strand. “This virus jumped from animal to human… we are connected to and by the environment around us. The second is that everything from pandemic response to resource extraction to the impacts of climate change is going to disproportionately affect those who are least able to respond to it.”
A Forced Slowdown
The more conversations Chris and I had, the more things seemed to circle back to themes of community, connectivity, social justice, and climate change. We couldn’t help but wonder if this forced slowdown presented the perfect opportunity to recalibrate and refocus. Could this “new normal” include opportunities for big changes related to climate and social justice? And might the outdoor community have a role to play in all of it?
“I don’t think there’s anyone on the planet that hasn’t been affected by this,” says ski legend and Protect Our Winters Canada Chair Mike Douglas. “I tend to be an optimist and this idea of a forced slowdown is something that was sort of inconceivable just a couple of months ago. But because it’s happened, there are a lot of opportunities within it. It’s shown us that society was very much ingrained with the idea that the way things are, is the way it is, but if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that change can actually happen very quickly.”
At first, I struggled to see the upside of having the bindings blow on our project, but small rays of light began leaking through darkness.
I am also an optimist, and the environmental advocate in me was pumped to see—as the lockdowns eased—more people hiking and camping, streets blocked off to cars in favour of cyclists, and smog clearing in some of the most polluted regions in the world. I felt a surge of hope that people might realize they have more power to change things than they think. That they might see the importance of going back to a life that’s local and simpler, where taking care of your family and your community is a top priority.
Learning from the Past
I remember flying out of China, utterly drained and more than a bit nervous about the future—but also filled with gratitude and relief; a sense of safety I know not everyone has felt as the craziness of 2020 continues to evolve. I’ve been lucky, so have most of my friends. I wonder, for our outdoor community, could being locked in our homes help us realize we need to learn how to engage with our own backyards in a more meaningful and sustainable way?
Before everything went sideways, we watched our host Malchin use just a few simple tools to transform a log into a pair of skis…
Back in Kohm, before everything went sideways, we watched our host Malchin use just a few simple tools to transform a log into a pair of skis (complete with climbing skins made from horsehair still dripping with blood). It was the highlight of our trip, and also hammered home how resourceful humans can be if we stop relying so much on far-flung “solutions” and take another look at what we already have.
I carry some hope that if we can learn from the past, from cultures like the Tuvan people we were so lucky to spend time with, and from the strange simplicity this pandemic has forced on all of us, we might finally start making progress to a better future where we care for our neighbours, ourselves and our planet. It all starts with conversations, and I think the outdoor community is in a strong position to kick off one of the most important conversations of all—what does this landscape give to me? And how much do I give back?