In 2011, Ben Clark, a guide and ski mountaineer turned filmmaker, was approached to do a documentary series on Alaska Heli Skiing and the guide school they've run for 16 seasons. While envisioning a chronicle of people chasing deep powder, Clark also planned to highlight the dirty work, upkeep, and thought process, as well as the rewards that constitute the reality of running a heli operation.
"Usually, viewers are experiencing a type of one-way, music video about skiing in Alaska in the ski movies," said Clark, the founder of Telluride, Colo.-based GoDu Productions. "The original goal of the series was to demystify the skiing and the way of life."
But on March 13, 2012, during filming, the documentary took a different turn. Alaska Heli Skiing guide Rob Liberman was killed in an avalanche, along with client Nick Dodov. The first fatal accident in the 21 years of operation for Alaska Heli, the tragedy is poised to become more high profile, with Dodov's family now suing to revoke Alaska Heli Skiing's permit.
With footage of before, during, and after the accident, Clark found himself in a unique spot. "We could have turned our footage into some kind of 'Extreme Alaska! People Die!' kind of show after that," he said. "Economically, sure, sensationalizing it would be better."
Instead, he decided to produce an educational documentary, titled "The Alaskan Way," which will debut this year.
"I make films trying to get people off the couch, so I felt a responsibility to help start a dialogue on how people make decisions—and the layers of decision making required to be safe in avalanche terrain," he said. "But I felt we could show that even if people take all the right steps, accidents can still happen—and they can be so consequential you can't recover."
The film contains footage of pro skiers like Seth Morrison and Erik Roner, as well as what the average heli ski client can expect when they go to Alaska. The film focuses on all the work you don't see in ski movies, the work that goes into making the decisions, based on the snow and other factors, of what terrain is safe to ski.
Clark plans to submit the work to film festivals, as well take the one-hour film on a free-of-charge tour of 25 cities, and each event will have a question-and-answer session with avalanche survivors. Clark also plans to continue to make the original documentary series.