Making tracks with Stump & Company
It’s either my greatest dream or worst nightmare—
Avalanche danger has closed the mountain’s extreme terrain, so this morning Stump’s bad boys are low-level bombing on intermediate runs. Down they come, vaulting off bumps, goofing with duck turns and royals, playing chicken with tree trunks.
Their styles are as distinctive as their outfits. Plake, in a lightning-yellow suit, skis like a warrior, his turns saber slashes at the snow. Schmidt, the ice man, is aloof from the other skiers and even from the snow itself, a part of him held back even here in his ultimate element. Handsome Mike Hattrup, in a fluorescent chartreuse suit, skis powerfully, solid as a locomotive. He’s unflappably cheerful, seeming somehow the team leader: a bit older, more comfortable with life and liftlines.
Tagging along, I’m struck by their speed and, equally, by their ability to swoop unperturbed through Blackcomb’s notorious fog. Frequently it’s so thick that I literally cannot see the skis at the end of my legs, but Stump’s bunch sail through the airborne muck, magically guided by some internal radar, protected by snake-strike reflexes. They are as much at home here as hawks in air currents—
Producer/director Greg Stump isn’t decompressing with them. For him, being storm-bound has more serious implications than condo fever—
And yet this morning, while others pace the condo like caged cougars, Stump is cool as a Cheshire cat, tossing off one-liners, fielding phone calls from London and New York, frying up Cajun bacon to the slam-dance rhythms of Nasty Rox, Inc. A small, muscular man, he’s a glider, one of those select few who seem to not quite touch the ground, nor to feel the weight of problems—
Stump’s directorial skills are a natural outgrowth of his background. Son of a drama history professor, he was U.S. National Junior Freestyle Champion at 17, and co-star of Dick Barrymore’s Vagabond Skiers when he was 18. Over the last decade he has made a series of self-described “low-budget dirt bag” ski films which attracted cult followings but not much money. His work finally came up from underground with last year’s Blizzard of Aahhh’s, the eye- and ear-popping mélange of bad-ass music and rad skiing that had much of the ski world talking.
Skiers Schmidt, Plake and Hattrup contributed the extreme work to the high-octane sound of bands like Nasty Rox, Inc. and Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Perhaps most important, though, was Stump’s unfettered creativity, which would have earned laurels in any filmmaking genre: mounting helmet cameras for point-of-view shots, interviewing his stars off-snow in train compartments and hotel rooms, tossing in delightful outtakes, shooting candid chats with colorful locals like Telluride’s Rasta Stevie and Snowbird’s Dick Bass. In his ability to make creative risks work, Stump is much like Woody Allen, who happens to be one of his heroes.
Blizzard brought almost overnight fame to Stump & Co. Schmidt and Plake, in fact, were treated to that ultimate certification of American celebrity, a spot on the Today show, during which blasé Bryant Gumbel completely failed to hide his astonishment at Glen Plake’s hair and Scot Schmidt’s skiing.
Speaking of Plake… This morning, he is almost a week overdue from Chamonix, where he’d spent the winter. No one has heard from him, and his absence is beginning to be almost as unnerving as the whiteout. But right after breakfast, the front desk calls Stump’s suite.
“Ah, there’s a man down here asking for you,” the manager says.
“Yes?” Stump says.
“A very unusual man…” the manager whispers.
“Plake’s here!” Stump announces gleefully.
I’m not sure why, but I’ve been expecting a real mean punker, the type who might knife you in an alley and laugh while you bleed to death. But Plake, while no shrinking violet, is more Dennis the Menace than Sid Vicious. Though he makes an outrageous entrance in combat boots, a red/
The self-styled bad boy next reminisces reverently about his ski hero Patrick Vallengant, recently killed in a climbing accident. “I’m gonna dedicate every turn for the rest of my life to that guy,” Plake vows, genuinely moved by the great skier’s death.
The morning wears on. People drift in and out of the suite. The fog gets thicker. We watch raw footage of bungee-jumping on the VCR. Plake kills a Molson six-pack and smokes Gitanes. And always there is music, a steady stream of Nasty Rox, Led Zeppelin, ACT, Marilyn Monroe (a Plake favorite), AC/DC, Doors. I mention the omnipresent music to Stump, which starts him talking about his filmmaking.
“For me, the music is critical,” Stump says. “I look at film like a visual VU meter, matching the intensity of the action to the intensity of the music. The sound is just as important as the action. Blizzard of Aahhh’s is a visual record album.” To illustrate, Stump provides a frame-by-frame tour of one of his most remarkable sequences, the “Squaw shootout” between Schmidt, Plake and a couple of Warren Miller regulars.
While most filmmakers put music to action, Stump works the other way. Continue »
Stump’s favorite films? “All of Woody Allen, Brazil and, especially, My Life As A Dog.” The latter, in fact, is Stump’s grand champion. “If I could make a movie like that, I’d be happy forever,” he says.
Would he, then, like to make other kinds of films? “Sure, I want to make real movies,” he admits. “But I have to ride this out first.”
Blackcomb’s fog discourages even the superskiers by mid-afternoon, when they retreat to the mid-mountain Rendezvous restaurant for late lunch. Scot Schmidt sits off by himself, digging into a huge salad. This fondness for greenery only reinforces his quintessential California (by way of Montana) image. He’s naturally blond and blue-eyed, blessed with perfect white teeth and a muscular, no-fat body. But today Schmidt looks tired and pale, with dark circles under his eyes. I ask if such are the perils of stardom.
“That and driving up here from Bozeman, Montana, in a cranky van with a sick wife,” he says. Before I can ask another question, Schmidt says, “All the articles about me have said exactly the same things. Could you maybe say something different?”
Such as? Schmidt has his agenda ready. He’s not shy, as some writers have assumed. He does speak softly, but he’ll look you straight in the eye, radiating forceful energy. Most annoying, though, is “the stuff about me being crazy, suicidal—
Schmidt is neither suicidal nor crazy. He’s reflective rather than impulsive, naturally cautious, a professional. Earlier this season, Stump filmed Schmidt and other regulars bungee-jumping off a 100-foot bridge in southern California. (Look for it in Stump’s upcoming License to Thrill.) The jumping is interesting, but no more so than footage that caught Schmidt making safety checks on the belays, the bungee cords, the harnesses—
“That done, I ask how he compares himself to World Cup racers—
“I don’t compare us. They do what they do; I do what I do. Two different things.”
Does he ever run gates these days? “Hardly ever.”
But did he learn anything from racing, or racers? “Oh, yeah. [Ingemar] Stenmark was my hero. I followed everything he did. What I learned from watching him helps me with what I do now. There was also a book by Rudi Baer—
And what about his own racing?
“In 1978, when I was 17, I beat everybody in the Bridger Bowl downhilll. After that, I raced in the Northern Division. I moved to Squaw in 1978, after high school, to get better competition and coaching.”
But a lack of money forced Schmidt to work five days a week in a ski shop, and he could only train on weekends. His racing performance suffered. The break point, he recalls, came “when Squaw coach Warren Gibson gave scholarship money to a racer named David Kong, rather than me.” After that, Schmidt started skiing the cliffs in Siberia Bowl, and the rest is history.
But could he, with support and training, have made it as a world-class downhiller? He grins at the question. “It’s funny. I’ve been thinking of trying to make a comeback. Before, I never had time to train. Now I have time to get in shape and really train.”Continue »
I think he’s definitely serious and ski movies have made such options possible. “In the movies, I get more visibility and exposure than any racer.” But the rewards have been slow in arriving. “It’s been a long, hard road. I’ve been in seven films, but nobody knew who I was until Blizzard of Aahhh’s last year.” Last year was also his first in the black; he thanks Greg Stump for that welcome change. “Before last year, I’d have to borrow ten bucks from Terri [his wife] to put gas in the car to go windsurfing.” Here he pauses, as if considering his next words carefully. “Look, Warren Miller deserves a lot of credit for getting the ski movie thing going, but it’s sometimes frustrating working with his film company. A lot of stuff I think is great ends up on the cutting room floor. And I never got much help with endorsements. But working with Stump tied the knot for me with the ski companies. Last year my contract with North Face, for example, went from $2,000 to $20,000.” Thanks to Stump’s help and aggressive representation by former world speed record holder Franz Weber, Schmidt now has similar contracts with Salomon, K2, Swatch, Vuarnet and Leki, the Swiss pole company. “l used to get paid in product,” Schmidt says. “Now I get paid.”
And how does he like his newfound fame? “It’s nice,” says Schmidt, “but there’s been a price. In the old days, at Squaw, I was at my peak. We never worried about anything. I was doing the raddest stuff, pushing it to the max. Now everybody thinks I have this great life. Ski, windsurf all year, get paid for it. Schmidt shakes his head and the smile disappears. “Now it’s a job.”
What’s in the future for Scot Schmidt? “I can’t spend my life doing ski movies. I’d like to get into acting, but I have nightmares about doing something like Hot Dog. If I act, it would have to be something right for me.”
Finished eating, Schmidt gets fidgety. He’s one of those people who are most comfortable in motion, so we go out together for a run down a trail called Honeycomb. We’re not together long. After 200 yards, Schmidt accelerates like an F-16 on afterburner and I lose him. He never looks back.
That night, the Stump bunch convenes for a party at one of the condos. For a while it’s like your average neighborhood get-together, with pasta and Chablis and Dan Quayle jokes. Schmidt hangs off in a corner with his tall, beautiful wife Terri. In another corner is Mike Hattrup, who also works as a product information manager for K2 skis, feeding his computer data from a ski test. At the main table, Stump is regaling a dozen people with offbeat routines. And for a while even Plake behaves, slipping out onto the balcony to sneak Gitanes. Pretty soon, though, a Blackcomb local called Bungee Lee arrives with bottles of genuine Mexican mescal, and things loosen up. Plake starts opening magnums of Mumm’s champagne with his skis. AC/DC drowns out the TV. When I glance over at the normally mild Hattrup, he grins and sticks out his tongue, upon which is perched an iridescent green mescal worm. This he swallows like a goldfish, chasing it with the bottle’s last swig. Stump and Plake have a conversational slam dance about skiing, toward the end of which Stump declares, “There’s a fine line between great skiing and insanity!”
To which Plake retorts gleefully, “Yeah, and I erased it!”
About midnight, the party moves to Cheetah’s, a local disco where Stump heads to preview the talents of a young woman named Ace who has expressed interest in skiing for his camera. The pneumatic Ms. Ace, who stays sharp by dancing go-go, turns out to have more curves than Stowe’s Nose Dive. “She can ski for me anytime,” says Stump, coming away mightily impressed.
Plake, his consciousness substantially altered, roars out at closing time so loudly that even the normally imperturbable Stump asks him to quiet down. Continue »
“Hey Glen, how’d you like those new skis?” Hattrup asks, winking at the rest of is.
“Unnnggghhh,” Plake says. It’s the kind of Big Spit groan that only a shattering hangover can produce.
“Don’t lie down, Glen,” Schmidt advises. “It only gets worse. You should go skiing.
At that, Plake turns guacamole green.
Speaking of skiing… there isn’t any this day, either. But the next morning dawns bright and clear, and by 8 a.m. Stump’s condo is controlled chaos. It’s a shooting day, and you can feel the electricity in the air.
Everyone’s on snow by 9, when suddenly the light goes bad and stays bad until mid-afternoon. By 3 p.m., though, the skiers are in position, cameras are ready and the light is good. Stump himself has set up with an Arriflex camera at the bottom of the high cliffs that rim Blackcomb Bowl. Co-cinematographer Bruce Benedict, with another camera, is up high, tied into a cliff face. This is perfect extreme skiing terrain. There’s a whole vast amphitheater of walls from 20 to 100 feet high with steep chutes between the rock bands.
I wait with Stump beside his camera while the skiers choose their lines on top. The radios crackle with constant chatter, but everything stops when Scot Schmidt steps out onto the lip of an ice cornice to survey a line.
Benedict radios down in a whisper, “Scot is standing in a very gnarly place, Greg. One slip and it’s all over.”
“I’m getting it,” Stump whispers back, never taking his eye from the viewfinder.
After many minutes, Schmidt steps carefully back up onto the bowl’s top. Something about the line worried him and, true to his word about caution, he chooses another.
It takes an hour for all the skiers to pick their routes and take final positions. By then, crowds have collected at the bowl’s top. Stump calls these onlookers “the Indians,” for the way in which they mass along the horizon, watching and whooping, finally charging down the flank after Stump’s last skier has descended.
Finally, at 4:03 p.m., Tom Jungst goes. A newcomer this year and anxious to prove himself, he skis an unbelievable line down a rock spine between the 40-degree Saudan Couloir and a neighboring gully. The route is more rock than snow. Jungst vaults like a mountain goat from snow patch to snow patch. He misses one landing and his skis, on rock, make a sound like gravel being crushed. His aerobatics make my teeth grate, but he finishes the run intact. Straightening up from his camera, Stump is dismayed by the extremity—
Darrin Johnson is next. He cuts across a near-vertical face, crouched like a surfer, then launches a 30-foot jump. The crowd goes ahhhhh. Johnson lands nicely, cuts his speed with wide GS turns and finishes up grinning.
Kevin Andrews is next, skiing an elegant line, blowing up some steep powder pockets, spinning a heli off a cornice, then drawing applause from the crowd. Nice.
Then comes Schmidt. He radios down his line. Stump can’t believe it. “Scot, repeat that, will you?” Schmidt does. Overhearing, I try to figure out where Schmidt will ski. His route is a line beyond radical, beyond extreme. It’s really… no line at all, just 300 vertical feet of rock flecked with doormat-sized patches of wind crust. I think: He can’t do that.
But he does, flicking down the vertical face like a stone skipping over smooth water, more like skydiving than skiing. He’s so deft, his touch so perfect, that his skis never once grate on rock. After he’s down, I think: How did he do that?
There’s no time to ask. It’s Plake’s turn. He has skied to the bowl’s far right side and climbs higher than anyone else, even Schmidt. Continue »
Then he goes. Straight down the 60 degree ramp, over the corniced lip, lifting up into his tuck like a diver off a board.
“Jesus,” Stump says. Somebody in the crowd gasps. Plake’s “line” is like Plake himself: blatant, scary, purely direct. Seventy feet of clean air, the jump executed perfectly—
The filming goes on long after patrollers clear the mountain. It’s almost 7 when, at the bottom, the company surrounds Stump in a multicolored mob: skiers and girlfriends and roadies and groupies milling and yelling and slapping backs, juiced on adrenaline, high and wild and riotous. Just watching them makes as a pagan me grin, but my mind I’m still seeing what they did up on those cliffs and Plake’s long, straight, unbelievable track down that bowl. Come summer and sun, their tracks in the snow will fade, but their mark on the sport will not soon disappear.