Street skiing emerged in the backyards of East Coast kids who couldn't afford lift tickets or didn't have a way to travel to a ski area. Some scrap metal, some snow, and a few shovels were all they needed to create their own homespun ramps and jumps. From there, these early urban skiers graduated to churches, schools, parking garages and government buildings, looking for more ways to test their skills.
In 2001, brothers Alex and Nick Martini founded Stept Productions, dedicated to making high-risk, cinematic ski films, the likes of which hadn't been seen since Shane McConkey and J.T. Holmes started flying off of cliffs. Instead of mountains, however, Stept focused on urban environments, where professional skiers like Cam Riley, Sean Jordan, and Clayton Vila slid down handrails, hucked off parking garages, and matched high-level transitions on walls. With each annual video, the production and risk grew, and so did Stept and the skiers' reputations for the biggest moves in the street arena.
In For Lack of Better, a new film distributed by Teton Gravity Research and released next week on iTunes, Riley, Jordan, and Vila take an introspective look at why and how they sacrifice their bodies in the name of their sport. Stept stopped making ski films two years ago, to focus on commercial work for outdoor brands like The North Face and Under Armour. For Lack of Better is Vila, Riley and Jordan's independent effort to make a film.
They've certainly stepped up their skiing game with longer rail slides and bigger walls, but they've also produced a grittier, more guerilla film. They went to exhaustive, often illegal, lengths to get their shots, like late-night trespassing and cutting chain-link fences. For Lack of Better is part documentary and part avant-garde—a reflection of the current media trend where the athletes are also the producers and directors.
"A lot of it is personal," Vila said. "Video parts are just highlight reels. In terms of what we do, skiing is about one percent of it. We wanted to tell that story."
For Lack of Better is a painfully honest look at street skiing and the broader culture of street sports like skateboarding and snowboarding. It also looks at the costs, physical and monetary, of making annual ski films. Athletes rely on these videos to make their names. The fame begets larger budgets for better video segments, which in turn brings more fame in a cycle that often ends in serious injuries. In For Lack of Better, Vila takes a nasty fall and dislocates knuckles on his right hand. The film follows emergency room doctors working through the night to reset the bones in his hand, even as the injury threatens the very future of the production. With only one usable hand, Vila can't ski, film, or shovel snow to build ramps to the degree that the team and the film require.
"That's not exactly something people have seen before," Vila said. "When someone asks, 'How was your winter?' you don't want to whine about it. At the same time, the filmmaking aspect of it is interesting."
Dimly lit interviews with the athletes complement the skiing reels, which were filmed in Boston, Providence, Rhode Island, and Quebec. Outside of their urban arena, the skiers speak openly about the gritty, unglamorous lifestyle they lead throughout the winter.
"We're not looking for the most luxurious food or accommodations—we're out there to just ski and get the clips," Sean Jordan says in the film. "I'd like to think I'd be a lot more healthy if I wasn't an urban skier."
Jordan probably speaks for a lot of his fellow skiers in the opening of the film, though: "I don't know what else I'd do," he says. "I've been doing this for years and years and years, and it's my job and my passion."