Sam Giffin’s snowboarding and film making career was going from strength to strength –it seemed as though nothing could go wrong: conquering mountains and getting “the” shots over and over again. Until one day, when it literally all came tumbling down.
Sam was caught in an avalanche and the experience changed his whole perception of the skiing industry. We spoke to Sam to hear more about his story “Into the White” and the film born out of his experience,“Kodak Courage”.
How did you get into skiing and snowboarding?
I grew up in Colorado, so we were constantly going out to the mountains as a family when I was young. I started skiing aged 3 and switched to snowboarding aged 13. Changing to boarding was my oldest brother’s idea – he was on Telemarks and our middle brother was on skis, so it fitted quite nicely to move onto boarding.
Were you and your brothers always adventurous on the mountain?
I was always comfortable in the mountains. But I would say I’ve always had a hesitation for mountain adventures. The desire to seek more danger and exposure has never been my cup of tea – I’ve always had my misgivings about it.
I guess that’s where this all started for me – my brothers and I were very competitive so we would always try and one-up each other, throwing ourselves off bigger and bigger cliffs. I think this taught me to believe that if you did something daring you would be rewarded. And that’s where it all started to go wrong for me.
Can you talk us through what happened the day you were caught in the avalanche?
It was a calm overcast day, with 20 inches of fresh snow. The snow was wet and heavy and the avy report was considerable. We had decided to ride the “safer” backcountry zone at Mt. Baker known as Elf Chutes – “safer” than other zones there but still incredibly steep.
Dropping in, I thought about the camera. My brother Zack was filming me from the other side of the mountain and I was imagining how sweet my turns and cliff drops were looking. Normally, I would have pulled out for a rest in the safe zone but I continued on for the camera. I entered the next slope with too much speed and slammed the breaks on. And that’s when it hit me, completely unexpectedly. I was swept off my feet by a wave of ferocious, liquified snow and it took me head over heels down the mountain side and over a cliff (which I had never intended jumping off).
It was completely dark and I couldn’t move. The air was becoming warm and I could literally feel the oxygen to my brain decreasing. My board was barely sticking out of the snow but thankfully it was just enough that my brothers and friends could find me. They got me out within three minutes. I had torn my ACL, but I was okay.
Can you talk us through your mindset directly after the avalanche, and why the experience changed you?
Because I’d torn my ACL, I had to take a break from snowboarding. I was totally shaken from the experience so this time off really gave me time to think. Had I been able to ride the next day, I think it would have been easier to sweep it all under the rug, as I’ve seen others do.
I think the experience really brought all my worries to the forefront. I’d had worries about doing these mad runs before but had always blamed myself for being scared or not tough enough. After the avalanche, it all scared me: driving to the mountain, being at the mountain, even hearing friends talking about the crazy stuff they were doing! I just didn’t want to buy into the lie anymore – the idea that we take these risks and capture them on film to “inspire” others. I didn’t want to tell people to pursue something when ultimately, they could get seriously injured or even killed.
You decided to completely take a step back from the skiing industry. What motivated this decision?
For me, it was contributing to something dangerous. Skiing and snowboarding are already dangerous and when someone pulls out the camera, generally people go bigger, try harder and increase the risk. I wanted to remove myself from this equation. The reason is simple: I feel crazy, weak and unhappy when I’m filming people I love risk their lives. I wasn’t going to be able to convince my brothers and friends to take it easy, so the only power I had was to remove myself and say “I won’t film it”. We always skied with the cameras in mind. Even when we weren’t filming, we’d be looking for the next great shot so this was the only way I could think of to make my point heard.
After a while though, you started to get the itch to get back on the mountain. What made you change your mind about it all?
I wouldn’t exactly say I changed my mind about everything. As I quit filming skiing and snowboarding as a hobby, I started to get offers to do it professionally. It was hard to say no to because, at the same time, my brother was seeing more success as a professional skier so there was lots more opportunity to film him.
I also started to realise that I wasn’t actually achieving anything by just refusing to film – I was making a statement but I wasn’t making an impact. After a couple of years of this internal battle, I was approached by a production company who wanted to produce some creative content about “The Power of Film”. And that’s how Kodak Courage was born.
Can you talk to us about Kodak Courage?
Kodak Courage was born out of the desire to spark conversations. I wanted to talk about the camera’s involvement in risk-taking, particularly in extreme sports. I wanted to start a conversation that made people think twice. Is this actually a good idea? Is this too risky? And I think Kodak Courage has done that to an extent. I think people are beginning to realise the dangers that getting that “perfect shot” for Instagram might present, so for me, that’s a win.
Do you have any advice for budding skiers and snowboarders, heading down the path you went down?
I think just be sensible. It sounds boring and grown up of me – I’m not saying don’t have fun and don’t do cool things – but just bear the consequences in mind. Maybe just think twice about whether it’s a good idea. It might just save you from an experience like mine!
If you want to read more about Sam’s snowboarding and filmmaking, click here.
Photographs by Sam Giffin and Aaron Adams