Christmas Beer Photography

Commercial Product photography example
The final photo of Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale

Ask any commercial photographer what they’re doing around the Holidays and the answer is more than likely, “not much”. Of course, you won’t generally have that info offered. In fact, I find it hilarious that one of the unspoken rules of photographer chat is to ALWAYS sound busy and well-to-do.  Further, it’s just not that appealing to hear anyone complain, so it’s not a great way to make friends.  In addition, a good photographer has likely just cleared some really busy months anyway, and though we burn our savings over the turn of the new year, it’s actually really nice to not be juggling  pre-and post-production for multiple jobs for a change.  That sword definitely cuts both ways, but hey, we get to be photographers after all and every job has its downsides.

So now that you know I’m slow right now, I can tell you that the holidays end up being studio portfolio shooting time. That’s what slow commercial photographers do that want to return to a successful year of being busy commercial photographers.

Experimentation and learning  are a huge part of the game and once you start on a test shoot, you are reminded why they are so valuable and so enjoyable.

For this one, I knew I wanted to shoot a beer bottle with a “wet look” (NOTE: the beer in the image is DRY and room temperature – it’s magic!), but wanted to do something different than the standard, backlit bottle on a reflective surface. It’s an essential skill for a beverage photographer, but it’s been done.  So, having no real idea of where to start, I did what any self-respecting creative would do: I sought a little quality time with my subject.

Low and behold, I reached into my fridge and just happen to grab a Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale – one of the seasonal beers I anticipate most (aside from  Maritime Pacific’s Jolly Roger, of course) – and studied. And drank.

BTS product photography
The beginning of an idea

I love the label. It reminds me of my time living in Summit County Colorado, ski-bumming as a resort bus driver. I got the insider info when looking for a resort job and chose the evening shift so I could ski as much as humanly possible.  My best year was 130 days on the slopes and it was magical. I knew A-Basin like the back of my hand.

But I digress. I was talking about beer and photography.

This winter scene on the label made me think of all those cool resort cabins I dropped people off in front of, lit-up with the warmth of tungsten overhead lights, while a silent moonlight turned everything else a pale blue.

So there it was – the seed of an idea was sown. I went into the studio and began playing. For me, the process of starting with one light and then building layers upon layers of color, shadow, shape….it’s just a hoot. Having unlimited studio time and me as a client is pure fun.

I collect backdrop materials fiendishly and I had a friend who had a line on some old Oregon barn wood. This became the background to give the cabin vibe. A double-diffused overhead light became the moon and a snooted spot on the bottle gave it life, as well as a blended backlit exposure of the bottle to give it a subtle separation without making it look hokey. Some fresh holly from right outside my studio, a bag of fake snow, and a yet-to-be-hung string of x-mas lights rounded things out.

I pulled away the background and immediately saw a few more possibilities for this. It’s really a little endless.

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All Photography is Fun

Urban client portraits

I am a commercial and editorial photographer. That means that my clients are people who need images to tell the stories behind their people, products and brands.

That’s why, when I was recently referred to someone that needed Senior Photos, my initial, internal dialogue went something like: “You can’t do that – you’re a commercial photographer!”

After some quick thought though, I went back to the realization that a) They needed the photos FAST (Izzy – the senior – had “forgotten” ☺) and this would be a nice thing to do, b) I shoot people all the time – I CAN do this, c) they liked my work, wanted something unique, and actually chose me because I wasn’t a senior portrait photographer and d) I love taking pictures. No mater what really. There’s just something inexplicably satisfying about looking at a great picture – be it a product, person, place or otherwise – and having a chance to make some more is always a good time. Oh, and e) They said they liked my work and I’m a sucker for simple flattery.

All that to report that I said yes, had a great time, and made some great shots of Izzy that she loves. Yes, it’s true – ALL photography is fun.


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Holy Molé

Editor’s Note: It’s been a while, but after working out some technical glitches, I’m back on the blog, ready to share some experiences as a working commercial, editorial and outdoor adventure photographer (and Dad, husband, writer, adventure-loving family, etc.) in the Seattle area. Enjoy!

Editorial photography for Small Business Administration of the Garcia Family.
Editorial Image for the Small Business Administration of the Garcia family – founders and owners of the Moctezuma’s Restaurant chain in the Seattle/Tacoma Area.

On a good day, the oddsmakers in Vegas put sightings of Sasquatch and finding a decent meal at a shopping mall at roughly the same spread. Up until last week, I wouldn’t have put a dime on either bet, but then I got a call from Barry Garcia to shoot an editorial family photo at Moctezuma’s in the Southcenter Mall.

Barry’s dad started the first Moctezuma’s restaurant forty years ago in Tacoma and, a few decades and three locations later, they’ve been honored with the SBA’s “Small Business of the Year” award, which is the reason I was there – for headshots and an editorial   to photograph the family. This latest addition, at Tukwila’s South Center Mall, is a pretty stunning one. Cool fire pits, lots of tile work, hammered copper tables and an enormous bar, all make it a cool place to hang out. Perched on the exterior of the mall’s south end, it’s a bit of an oasis from the shopping chaos, and a great place to calm you nerves with a margarita after surviving a tour at the mall.

editorial photography seattle
The SBA article that ran, honoring the Garcia’s successful venture.

It’s also a welcome oasis from the food desert that is typical of your average American shopping megaplex. I found that out when, after the shoot, Barry invited me for lunch. As I packed up my gear, he asked what my favorite Mexican dish was. “Molé” is my definitive, go-to answer and, in addition to the chips and salsa, a Mexican joint’s true barometer of quality. There’s a tortilla-making station right in the dining area, so I took mine with chicken and some super-fresh corn tortillas. I didn’t try the chips and salsa, but the molé was superb, with that perfect balance of rich, spicy sweetness that defines a great one.

One of the more rewarding parts of being a commercial and editorial photographer in Seattle is meeting great people and hearing some pretty amazing stories. So, a big thank you to Barry for hiring me to take an editorial portrait of their family on location, and a big congratulations to the Garcia family for pretty much nailing that whole American Dream thing.

The rest of you: even if you dislike the idea of going to a mall as much as I do, this place is a pin you need to drop on your South Seattle food map.

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Want to Stand Out? Be Different!

Seattle Commercial Headshot and Portrait Photography

I really dislike the word “headshot.” I think it undersells what I offer and “a shot of your head” doesn’t exactly reflect the value and opportunity that a great headshot should bring you.

Commercial Portraiture, I feel, better reflects what you get when you work with me. It’s the  same style and mindset that I approach my commercial and editorial work with, when budgets are big and the stakes are high for the client. Why should your headshot be any different?

With that context in mind, I was recently sitting at a meeting with a transportation sector client that I’m doing multiple shoots for as they simultaneously upgrade their website and launch into broader markets. We’re doing on-location shots of their fleet and people, shooting the new office space and they also wanted some great “headshots” to make them stand out from the rest.  In the course of the meeting, someone expressed some love for the idea of having a classic headshot, juxtaposed with something that told a deeper story of the person, that popped-up when you moused-over their headshot; something we dubbed the “personality” shot. The challenge was to convey a sense of a fun and a human approachability, while also maintaining a primary focus on that highly committed and professional person you can trust to move your thousands of employees to the office every day without a hitch.

Jeremy headshot
Jeremy looking relaxed and confident – and sharp!

On the day of the shoot, we got the whole team scheduled into the studio with just 15 minutes per person to nail two shots. I’d just gotten back from a job in Mexico about 15 hours before, but we had both sets built so all we had to do was walk five feet to the left after the headshot, with a second camera waiting. 15 minutes per person.

The headshots were easy, but getting real personality shots (with a focus on fun and relaxed) can be a challenge, esp. from people who are not actors, models or, worse yet, hate the camera! I had a few things up my sleeve, all centered around asking people to do something that was totally out of left field. “Act like a lion.” was one of the more silly ones. Sure, shooting you acting like a lion is kinda funny and you’ll likely end up loving that shot, but the big secret is that I want to capture you cracking up right after you gave me your best lion. In that instant, you forgot the camera was there and I got the most relaxed you that you’ve likely ever seen on camera. THAT, is the true personality shot. People react wildly differently to different prompts though, so it’s a game (science?) to match the right ask to the right person.

After a few attempts with mixed results, I dug into the reserves and said “Jump.”

“What??”, they asked.

“Jump. Can you jump?”

That was all I needed to say.

Seattle Commercial Headshot and Portrait Photography
Jeremy says, “Yeah – I can jump!”

We ended up having an amazing time, and the jumps might still become the centerpiece of the concept.  We got everything from “there’s no way in hell I’m jumping”, which still got us the results we wanted, to a true competition for the best aerials. Jeremy won, with style points for socks.

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Should I Hire an MUHA for My Headshot, and Wait…What the Heck is an MUHA Anyway?

Seattle Headshots
Hiring an MUHA for your headshot session can be a no-brainer.

One of the biggest decisions you need to make when booking your headshot session is whether to use a makeup and hair artist (an MUHA!). Every time someone – man or woman –  asks me whether they need one or not, I respond with the same answer:

“You don’t need one, but you’ll love having one.”

I should preface this by saying that I have no vested interest in your choice, as the added fee goes directly to the artist. However, I’ve never had anyone regret the choice to hire an MUHA for their headshot session. With the exception of male actors and celebrities, women are the ones that often appreciate and benefit from the service, but almost everyone will find it a great add, and here’s why:

First, the MUHA’s that I use for my studio headshots here in Seattle are the absolute best in town. While I’m a huge supporter of natural beauty, for better or worse, I think most of us have things we’d choose and not choose to have emphasized in our headshots. In addition, the quality and sharpness of my digital files catch the tiniest details – good or bad. While a lot can be done in Photoshop to even skin tones, reduce redness and blemishes and more, your photos will always look their best when the heavy lifting is done in-camera, before retouching.

That said, the key to great headshot makeup is subtlety. A great headshot MUHA knows how to apply the perfect foundation for your complexion and tone, and then use simple, natural shading to highlight your best features. In many ways, the best headshot makeup job is the one you can barely see. Whether you’re an actor or an Amazon employee, you want to look like you in your headshot, not an exaggeration of you!

Second, not only have my MUHA’s been through extensive professional training, they also have tried nearly every product under the sun and settled on the best. They’ve worked on a huge range of people in everything from commercial video and still photography productions, to weddings and natural light photo sessions, so even if you’re confident in your skills, the quality of the products and a deep bag of tricks from years of experience are a huge asset for your headshot session.

Another big reason of course, is hair. You don’t need anything fancy for your headshot and I actually recommend against any major cuts or new styles within a few weeks of your

Seattle Headshots
Danielle was one of many that said having an MUHA added to not only her headshot, but her experience as well.

session. However, having your hair freshly done on set, with great volume and shine, is a huge weight off your shoulders–especially if you’re too busy prior to your headshot session to give it proper attention, or get caught in the rain on your way to the studio. But that never happens in Seattle, right…?

Also, as the opening image indicates, my MUHA’s stick around for at least the first 30 minutes (you can also buy extra time), offering styling advice, and an unwavering eye to ensure your hair, makeup and wardrobe are touched up and perfect as we start shooting. As I mentioned, the camera shows things you’ll miss in a mirror and, as a team, we all huddle around the computer as we begin to shoot, making sure you look as great as possible. My go-to MUHA, Katya Gudaeva, is not only a fabulous MUHA and one of the sweetest people in town, but she’s also spent a lot of time on set as a model, and having her around helps everything flow that much easier.

And finally, what I think is the biggest, and most unanticipated benefit to having an MUHA for your headshot session, is the feeling of being pampered and confident. I’ve had some clients say that starting their session with Katya was like starting with a spa treatment and, when you feel your best, you’ll look your best. It’s that simple.

If you still don’t want an MUHA with your headshot session – that’s totally fine.

I would say that my sessions are about 50/50, with and without. However, if it’s within your budget, it’s pretty hard to find a reason not to!

seattle headshot photographer
And a makeup-free headshot can work too!
commercial headshot by Vertizon Photography
DIY makeup for your headshot can be lovely!

Got questions or comments? Let’s hear them!

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The Great Commercial Headshot: 5 Tips to making sure your team looks great.

Commercial Headshots In Seattle and Tacoma
Commercial headshot for Tacoma dentist.

There’s a wide spectrum of headshots out on the market today, and I’m here to talk about the top end of the scale – the Commercial Headshot.

While most headshots are used to sell to some extent, the commercial headshot is targeted to businesses whose people, employees, partners, etc., are an integral, customer-facing asset of their brand. If you have your employee’s headshots on your website, then your firm has made a judgment call that showing the people behind the business is important to your success. It’s a smart move too. As people are increasingly routed to overseas call centers and less than ideal service slowly becomes the norm, putting a face behind the transactions of your business creates an immediate personal connection that can set you above the noise of a crowded marketplace. But beware, if you’re going to go this route, do it well. Just like any other marketing initiative, it will serve you well to invest in great shots that will last and provide the image you want to project. Here are a few tips I share with my clients to ensure their investment is a good one:

  1. Backgrounds

Choose a consistent background for your headshots. As with any branded initiative, consistency is king. It’s a smart move as your company grows and/or changes staff, meaning you can replicate the look time and time again (and even throughout locations for national/international firms), without creative drift. I favor pure white because it’s got a great contemporary flair to it, it blends easily into a white background on the web, and it’s about the only background that can be replicated flawlessly over time. You can even have the background color changed later if you so desire by “clipping” the heads out from the background. They also look much better when shown as a team on a single page.

  1. Lighting

Finding a quality photographer that’s easy to work with for the long haul makes this a no-brainer. You don’t need to buy an off-the-shelf headshot look either. A great headshot photographer will be able to translate your direction/brand guidelines into the headshots you need, and then be able to produce them on-demand, as needed. I recommend a fully-lit shot, without the drama of shadows or other wizardry that might date you in a year. A well and evenly lit headshot always looks good and is flattering with men and women of all shapes, sizes and colors. Finding a headshot photographer that has their own studio, where you can send new hires is smart to, as this alternative will be far less disruptive to your office when you need new headshots.

Commercial headshot for Seattle architectural firm, McClellan Architects.
Commercial headshot for Seattle architectural firm, McClellan Architects.
  1. Wardrobe

Match your headshot’s wardrobe to the same that you would wear while interacting with your clients in person. Think tradeshow attire. In general, Seattle has a very casual work attire policy, and may be a little too relaxed for some firms. While creative firms are encouraged to be your true quirky selves for headshots, some might not want their customer service manager, clad in his vintage 80’s AC/DC concert shirt, living on their website for three years. Create a reasonable standard and stick with it unless, like a creative agency, your brand derives legitimacy from its team’s personality and individual style.

  1. Posing

I’ve been called into firms to re-shoot entire teams because the previous photographer had shot everyone in the most awkward of poses. In one case in particular, the previous photographer used a mix of shockingly inappropriate attempts at humor, combined with poor posing technique to catch everyone at their worst. A good headshot photographer rolls at a relaxed pace, keeps things light and, ideally, catches you at your best without ever knowing you were being posed. Granted, even I go over the basics up-front, but after those are out of the way, if we end the session and you say, “That’s it?” then I’ve likely done a my job of making a great headshot.

A goofing off outtake from a commercial headshot session for a Tacoma client.
Never underestimate the value of goofing off to get relaxed! I find that some of the best shots are the ones that follow these.
  1. Communicate with Your Photographer (and vice versa)

The aforementioned thoughts on posing are a great place to call attention to your need to speak up if something isn’t going to way you’d envisioned. In the situation above, I found out that the whole team knew the sessions weren’t going well. Everyone from the employees to the Creative Director was frozen in disbelief, as their headshot budget was disappearing before their eyes.

First, there is no better way to ensure nothing changes than being silent. A good shooter has more than one trick, so have them take a break, have a polite, yet frank chat with them about what isn’t working and re-boot. While personality conflicts can be a deal-breaker, often it’s more about lighting or poses, and those are easy fixes that are best addressed early in the shoot to get the consistent work that you love.

Second, I, as the photographer owes you some very clear communication, and nowhere is that more important then in the work I’m delivering, as we get it. For that reason, there is NO excuse today for a professional commercial headshot photographer to be on a shoot without being tethered to a computer. None. Shooting tethered is my responsibility to you as a good communicator. It means you see immediate results on a computer screen as you go, and those little “we can take care of that in post” promises can be vetted on the spot, ensuring you’re getting exactly what you want, with no surprises. I also use my laptop screen to intermittently check-in with the people being shot, making sure they are happy, and showing them examples of how the direction I’m giving them works to put them at their best. While some don’t ever want to look, it becomes a fun way to relax most people for a headshot session. The majority usually even comment on how great they look because they’ve never seen themselves lit so professionally.

Feel free to reach out with any questions!

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Remembering Chad

Chad Kellogg in pre-Everest fighting shape, one year ago today. 2/18/2013

The outdoor industry is aspirational. It thrives on selling the idea of “living the dream” though a myriad of athletes and otherwise passionate dreamers that, to the rest of us, seem to be achieving the unachievable.

Some athletes are fluid and natural in this environment. They eagerly pitch their latest adventures to companies with a smooth sophistication that attracts dollars and gear like hippies to mountain towns. Others dread the thought. Whether it’s humility, shyness, or the awkward reality of asking for money to just be yourself, the ask can seem a contrived and arduous experience.

From my perspective on the business side of things, Chad Kellogg fit squarely into the latter category. He made the pilgrimage to the Outdoor Retailer Trade shows in Salt Lake City, UT out of pure necessity; a necessity made tolerable by the knowledge that he would be staying with and enjoying friends along the way, and the hope that his next trip into the mountains would go.

A few years ago, while Chad was plying the aisles of the show, seeking sponsorship for his Everest speed attempts, I was trolling those same aisles as a photographer, and we both were couch surfing at the home of mutual friends. When our host, Andreas, mentioned that Chad needed a ride back to Seattle, I easily offered to have him along, eager to share expenses and conversation on the road. The offer, however, took on a decidedly Chad-like air when, after a long day on the tradeshow floor and a late dinner reservation, Chad told me that he was more than ready to escape Salt Lake and start driving immediately. And in true Chad style, we’d do it in a single push. I actually got a little psyched.

We got on I-15 North at about 11 PM. I was ready for the drive to be a lot more of what I’d known of Chad to-date – quiet. Aside from his comparatively gregarious slide show presentations, my experience with Chad was limited to group settings where he was admittedly introverted. Even at Andreas’ house, away from the show, he was more likely to be found on the porch in meditation, or quietly orbiting a group conversation than participating in one.

In the car however, Chad was on fire. When I mentioned my surprise at this new unexpected disposition, he told me about his tipping point. “Any more than six people and I just shut down, “ he said. Apparently, while one-on-one in a car, he made up for lost time.

Chad Kellogg in pre-Everest fighting shape, one year ago today. 2/18/2013

We made it into eastern Oregon, just before dawn, when we both relented to the weight of our eyelids and the call of a roadside powernap. He hadn’t stopped talking the entire time.

In the preceding hours I’d gotten the unabridged version of his previous decade and more. It was Chad unfiltered. Laura, Elbrus, Alaska, Joe P., his cancer, recovery, freak internet stalker, religion, training regimen, new soul mate and his latest liquid diet that he’d been obsessing over…The topics and their depth went on and on. His delivery was, at times, as fired-up as the death metal soundtrack that he enjoyed, and then as pensive and deep as his Buddhist beliefs when talking about the loss and turmoil of the previous few years. This juxtaposition was yet another layer of mystery added to the enigma that was Chad Kellogg.

We finished the drive after sunrise, some coffee and Chad’s secret weapon for long hauls–Copenhagen snuff. Later I’d help connect him with MSR for gear and sponsorship, and he’d help me out in the photo studio for a day on purely personal work, taking the shots here in this post. That bit was something I’m sure Chad did not for him, but eagerly for a friend.

That’s how I’ll remember Chad. Though we were not super-tight by any stretch, I had gotten a glimpse into the crystalline complexities of Chad’s inner workings on that drive to Seattle. Through his stories, Chad hid nothing. He’d comfortably shared his most private moments with a new acquaintance. His intensity was searing, devotion unwavering,  honesty endearing and his stoke unrelenting. He lived that way, he climbed that way and he’ll live on that way forever in my mind.

My heart goes out to Chad’s family, Jens, Mandy (we never met, but his words said it all) and all of Chad’s closest friends and partners as you deal with this immeasurable loss.

We’ll miss you brother.

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Climbing Rescue Rehash

I’m posting some older pieces for my portfolio here. I wrote the following piece in 2002. It was as an Op-Ed for a local magazine (Sports Etc, now Sports Northwest) in the wake of the now infamous failed helicopter rescue on Mt Hood in that same year. However, the controversies discussed here are no further from our consciousness than the next high-profile climbing accident on public lands.

Search and Rescue: Why Climbers Get the Short End and How to Stop It.

The Northwest features a blissful variety, quality and quantity of climbing, unrivaled by few other places on earth. Attendant with that is predictable number of misadventures and mayhem in the hills. This spring was by no means an exception, but the accidents on Mts. Hood and Rainier seem to have drawn more attention to climbing than any other event since the Everest tragedy in 1996.  From all direction came condemnations, assumptions and recommendations, coupled with threats of increased climbing fees, requirements and regulation. The most interesting and lasting of these controversies always seems to be the issue of cost recovery for rescues involving climbers who are seen to be acting with wild abandon in the hills.

Looking at it from a layperson’s perspective, it is easy to imagine where that image comes from. I can still see a scene from Cliffhanger in which a t-shirt and jean-clad Sylvester Stallone hangs from a sheer rock wall by one arm in the dead of winter. Miraculously he clings to an icy ledge in the middle of a storm. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to explain the absurdity of that scene to people unfamiliar with climbing. I can even recall the Whatcom County Sherriff remarking after a recovery operation on Mount Baker’s North Ridge, “I have no idea what he was doing way over there…there’s way easier ways up that mountain.”

The fact is, done well and armed with modern gear and old-fashioned experience, climbing is a surprisingly safe activity. In 1998, climbers were involved in only 2.9% of all rescues in the National Park System. The remaining 97.1% were hikers, swimmers and boaters, with these categories alone making up 55% of all Search and Rescue (SAR) operations. (www.americanalpineclub.org/policy/RescueCostRecoveryTimetable.htm)

Take a single weekend in June, for instance. Two men were swept into dangerous rapids on the Duckabush River in the Olympics were a large-scale SAR mission ensued, compete with helicopters and ground teams. The apparent victims rode a Wal-Mart-quality raft, wore no life jackets had no knowledge if the river and were not dressed for the 50-degree water into which they were swept. One man for to shore shortly after but the other was washed downstream, out of sight, and presumed dead. He spent the next two says making his way down the river, on foot, to find his friends at their campsite, while SAR teams were out looking for him. That same weekend, a father and son were tragically swept to their deaths over a waterfall near Mount St. Helens on a simple day hike.

In contrast to accidents involving climbers, these sorts of epics and tragedies tare treated with kid gloved and heroic overtures on the evening news. There are no rafting or swimming professionals called to pass judgment on the ill prepared through national media outlets. Absent are the discussions about the need for tighter regulation on the usage of personal flotation devices, raft certification or charging increased fees to people visiting waterfalls. Climbers, however, are renegades with a death wish. If that’s true, what do we call the people that set off down rivers swollen with 40-degree spring runoff in a Wal-Mart raft? Unlucky?

For these reasons, if there is a decision to recover rescue costs, the burden should be spread among all users, and perhaps proportionately by those using said services. As an example, by 1998 estimates, this could add less than two cents per visitor to our national parks. However, behind this seemingly sound conclusion hides the troubling arguments of increased liability and a “duty to rescue” for what would essentially be considered pre-paid rescues. Other concerns spread like cracks in a windshield – each new regulation and fee threatening our right to simply enjoy our public lands.

Instead of legalese, federal regulations or increases in the mismanaged “pay-to-play” theory of our public lands, I’d like to offer up another alternative. It does away with lawyers, courts and congressional oversight, while dramatically decreasing the need for life-threatening SAR missions. This option simply calls for humility, education and individual responsibility. As climbers, we should take the lead in regaining the accountability that has been lost in our finger-pointing world and know and respect the dangers inherent in our activities. We should never, ever go somewhere thinking about outside rescue as an option; a cell phone as our free ticket out of trouble. Every trip should begin with the complete knowledge and confidence that we can get there AND back safely, and under our own power, under all but the gravest situations. Learn from guides or learn from friends. Whatever we do, we should respect the mountains and be honest with ourselves. The great outdoors are full of inherent dangers and, with experience, good judgment and the requisite humility, we can regulate ourselves and keep the challenges as they should be, simply between climbers and mountains.

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A Randonnee Primer for the BC-Curious Skier

Dave Zulinke skiing below the Roman Headwall on Mount Baker. North Cascades, WA.
Dave Zulinke skiing below the Roman Headwall on Mount Baker. North Cascades, WA.
Dave Zulinke skiing below the Roman Headwall on Mount Baker. North Cascades, WA.

(This article was originally published in a local Seattle magazine back in 2006 or so. I’ve updated it a bit as of 2016 to maintain basic relevance. Honestly, not a whole lot has changed!)

 

It wasn’t long ago that randonnée skiing was largely a means to an end for salty alpinists bent on getting deep into the folds of a mountainous winter.

However, a new breed of skier has discovered the benefits of randonnée and it’s redefining the sport. Randonnée (or alpine touring (AT) ) gear is opening up the backcountry to people seeking fresh snow, fewer crowds and the freedom of the hills by allowing your heels to be free for ascending and then locked-down for the return.

“It’s a good marriage of downhill and wilderness,” says Scott Schell of Seattle’s Pro Ski, one of the nation’s busiest and most respected purveyors of AT gear. “There are generally three types of people we see coming in. People are either sick of the crowds, sick of expensive lift tickets, or just love skiing so much that they’re looking to do more with their skis.”

If that sounds like you, a  a bit of gear and some avalanche safety training could send you on your way to your best ski season ever. Here’s what you’ll need:

Bindings

First, decide the type of skier you’re going to be. Are you a “side country” skier, mostly riding lifts and taking the occasional short tour, or are you going to be spending the majority of time in the backcountry? The former needs a binding that can take the harsh abuse of resort skiing, while the latter will benefit from something that pushes low weight to the fore, saving you vast amounts of energy at the end of the day.

With that priority fixed, look for bindings that are durable, easy to operate and have the latest DIN release safety. Stepping into the bindings and locking and unlocking your heels between climbs and descents ought to be as simple and reliable as possible.  Also note that bindings with tiny moving parts can get jammed with snow or ice and be a nightmare. Always look for clean, simple designs.

A good binding will also have a multi-height heel lift for climbing that helps neutralize the steeps, saving your legs on the way up. If you can’t easily operate these from a standing position with a pole tip, keep looking.

Fritschi and Dynafit* bindings continue to dominate the market, though since the Dynafit patent has expired, a number of other players have offerings in the newly minted “Tech” genre of bindings. Recent improvements and their light weight have made Dynafit the choice for pure backcountry skiers, and the ease of use and downhill-like design of the Fristchis have made them a favorite of hard-charging side-country skiers. Recently, even mainstream downhill companies have jumped on the bandwagon, with offerings from Marker, Solomon and others targeted at side country skiers.

*Be sure your boots are tech-compatible if you want these bindings. Only boots with the metal toe dimples (shown above) work with tech bindings.

Skis

Though an essential part of the equation, the only big difference between a great downhill ski and a great AT ski is weight. The rest of the equation is largely the same – choose the ski that best matches your weight and style of skiing, then get the lightest one you can.

Skins

Sticking to the bottom of your skis with an adhesive back, skins are the magic carpets of the AT world. On the snow side, short, backswept hairs glide forward, but grip the snow in reverse, turning your skis into your ticket up.

Skins are bought by width. You buy them to match the widest part of your ski and trim them to match your ski’s silhouette, being sure to leave the ski edges well exposed for gripping on traverses.

Here again, weight vs. durability is a key metric. Most of today’s synthetic skins do a good job of delivering both. Skins from Black Diamond and G3 (Genuine Guide Gear) remain the top choice of most skiers.

Scoping the route on a spring ski of Mount Baker
Scoping the route on a spring ski of Mount Baker

Boots

Randonnée boots are light. Once scorned as “too light” for aggressive skiing, the latest AT boots are available in a spectrum spanning whatever level of performance you need. While some might take issue with that proclamation, you’d be hard-pressed to find an honest skier who’d not blame a bad turn on their fitness or skill, before their choice of boots.

The latest boots feature ultralight, heat-moldable liners for exceptional comfort, dual-density shells for maximum stiffness and comfort, and uphill walk modes that free the cuff for a wide range of motion that makes skinning tolerable.  Like bindings, they are available in a broad spectrum spanning burly and rigid, to ultralight and comfortable to match your style of skiing.

Brains and Other Essentials

Yes, AT skiing opens up a whole new world – one that deserves your respect. Avalanches happen all the time and they will likely kill you if you don’t educate yourself about how to avoid them.  Without question, you must own and know how to use an avalanche beacon, probe and shovel. Carrying a shovel might look cool, but without knowing where to dig, they’re just for building jumps. Take a class and ski with experienced people that can mentor you in safe route finding and snow science. Most mountain regions also have an Avalanche Forecast Center that posts daily avalanche conditions. Nearly all of them operate on a shoestring budget so, should you find yourself addicted and have re-set your browser homepage to their site all winter, make a donation and help keep it safe out there for everyone.

Resources

GEAR

Black Diamond

www.blackdiamondequipment.com

(Boots, skis, clothing, skins, bindings, poles, avy gear, etc.)

 

Dynafit

www.dynafit.com/en

(Boots, skis, clothing, etc.)

 

LaSportiva

www.lasportiva.com

(Boots, skis, clothing, etc.)

 

 

G3

www.genuineguidegear.com/

(Skis, bindings, skins, avy gear, etc. )

K2

www.k2skis.com

(Skis, Boots, Poles, Avy Gear)

 

Backcountry Access (BCA)

www.backcountryacess.com

(Avy Gear)

 

Scarpa

www.scarpa.com

(Boots)

 

LOCAL INFORMATION

Pacific Northwest

Conditions

Northwest Avalanche Center

www.nwac.us

Guidebook

Bergdorfer, Rainer. 100 Classic Backcountry Ski & Snowboard Routes in Washington. Mountaineers Books; 2nd Edition, 1999.

 

Snow Safety/Guiding

The Northwest Mountain School

www.mountainschool.com

 

General Info

Wild Snow – The Backcountry Skiing Blog

www.wildsnow.com

(Blog of renowned skier Lou Dawson.)

 

Turns All Year

www.turns-all-year.com

(Conditions, trip reports, reviews and classified for Northwest (and beyond) backcountry skiers.)

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