During the past three Thanksgiving weekends, the planet’s best women skiers, and huge crowds of their fans, gathered at the “Beast of the East” for the Audi FIS World Cup.
I was feeling a little sad about missing the World Cup ski races at Killington Resort in central Vermont last month . . . but not too sad.
FIS stands for International Ski Federation which means this is a big deal. Media from around the world invade Killington to cover the racing and associated hoopla. In 2016 and 2017 I was part of that media scrum with a coveted on-course photo credential.
As a newspaper photographer for 35 years, I had covered a whole lot of professional football, baseball and basketball, but ski racing was new to me and I got a kick out of exploring that crazy world. It’s a lot of work and now as a freelancer in a profession that pays very little, it was hard to justify the time and expense to relive the experience for a third time.
Staying Still (and Upright) on An Icy Slope
Racers need a course that is hard and fast so the snow is watered down and, if the weather cooperates, that snow freezes solid.
Course photographers are required to be in position an hour before the race starts so that officials can approve their shooting locations, taking into consideration the chances the photographer might get hit by an out of control racer who misses a turn. Or, to ensure that the photographer isn’t blocking a sponsor’s banner.
While photographers have the option of being transported by snowmobile, it’s like waiting for a bus, so I prefer hiking or riding the lift up and skiing down to a shooting spot.
At least that’s what I thought until I tried he chairlift up and skiing down option. A large heavy lens is necessary for good action photography. But carrying that thing over my shoulder while trying to navigate down a steep, icy trail was a mega test of my ski edges and leg muscles.
During my first year, I exchanged skis for micro spikes which I attached to my boots once I was in position. I had to place the skis and camera bag behind the orange safety netting. Then it was an hour-long balancing act while waiting on a pitched sheet of ice. That act continued throughout the competition. Photographers aren’t allowed to leave the course after they photograph the top contenders and must stay in place for all racers.
The micro spikes weren’t the best choice for the slippery task and I constantly feared that the big lens and I would go careening down the course, taking out a racer and causing an international incident. I watched the course workers walk with ease in crampons and decided that if I continued shooting ski racing it would be on those spiked contraptions. The following year photographers were required to wear crampons when on the course.
While waiting for the race to start I talked to one of the gate judges who positioned himself next to me. His role was to record when a racer missed any of his assigned gates. His notes would be collected and reviewed at the end of the race. He admitted that judging gates in person was mostly an honorary thing because instant video replay made the job obsolete.
I was glad he was there because aside from helping to kill time and keep my mind off the ice beneath me, this guy had an enormous knowledge of ski racing and he filled me in on what to expect and who besides Mikaela Shiffrin to focus on. I later learned that my on-course companion was Bob Cochran, a member of the U.S. Ski Team from 1968 to 1974 and father of Olympian Jimmy Cochran. Bob’s three siblings were also on the U.S. Ski Team and his sister Barbara won the Olympic gold medal in slalom in 1972.
The following year I killed pre-race time with a photographer who turned out to be Mikaela Shiffrin’s father Jeff Shiffrin.
Challenge #1: Staying Warm
The giant slalom and slalom races are held on separate days and each has a morning and an afternoon run. The fastest combined score of the two runs determines the winners.
The biggest challenge for me, aside from not sliding through the course on my keister, was the cold. Camera batteries don’t last long in low temperatures, so I kept an extra set tucked away near my skin. Cold hands were another issue. Some photographers use thin gloves or gloves with the finger tips cut off to keep the hands somewhat warm while still having control over the camera.
I prefer an oversized set of mittens with long wrist straps that I can take off and put back on quickly between racers. On really cold days hand warmers inside the mittens are a welcome addition.
Challenge #2: Shooting the Race
Another challenge is knowing when those racers are coming. When stationed at mid-course, the curves and slopes that make the trail interesting can block the view. Racers just pop into eyesight for a few seconds and then they’re gone. At mid-course the announcers can’t be heard and the video boards with scores can’t be seen. So despite being one of the people closest to the action, I knew less about the status of the racers than the thousands watching from the finish area.
After the entire field finishes the morning run, it was my own personal race to pack up, put my skis on and navigate the icy slopes down to the media center to transfer, select, tone, caption and upload photos before the afternoon race.
Each racer wears a numbered bib and photographers receive a list of names and numbers to help with caption writing. With all sports I shoot, I try to have the list of participants beforehand so that I can copy and paste names, rather than typing them out. It saves time and means less chance of typos.
The top seeded racers go first in the morning run. In the afternoon the skiers with the fastest morning times go last. The system creates suspense as winners are determined at the end of the second run.
Some news outlets send a team of photographers so that some can be on the course while others are stationed at the finish line. Because I worked alone, I shot the afternoon runs from the finish line. Shooting from the course would not have allowed enough time to get to the bottom at the end of the race when the emotions of winning and losing were more important to capture than the action shots. Shooting from the course would have also meant missing the awards ceremony held immediately after the race.
Then it’s back to the media center for more transferring, selecting, toning, captioning and uploading photos, all while the winners are in the same room engaged in a press conference with the writers.
The World Cup returns to Killington next November for a fourth go-round. Reliving the excitement of the best skiers in the world zipping by just feet from me has me thinking I’ll be back too.
Martin Griff is an East Coast ski bum. A journalist by education and profession, he shares his thoughts, impressions, experiences and those things that puzzle him with Braveskimom.com throughout the ski season.
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