It´s a cold winter day in 1988 and our gym teacher has decided that instead of playing outdoor ice hockey we would watch a movie instead. The class is packed with runny-nosed 15-year-old kids watching skeptically as the moustache wearing middle-aged ski coach sets up the VHS system. It takes only a couple of minutes into the film to turn us into believers. After introducing us to “extreme skier” Scott Schmidt, “bad boy” Glen Plake and “mogul specialist” Mike Hattrup – the heroes of the story, the film then continues by showing the trio ripping up the terrain set against the backdrop of Chamonix´s majestic mountains with Act´s Absolutely Immune providing a soundtrack that seems to work seamlessly with the action.
Just like the director Greg Stump depicted in the opening scene of the film, Blizzard Of Aaahhh´s took us on a magic carpet ride that enabled us to travel to faraway exotic locations like Chamonix or Telluride with our newly found ski heroes. Since that first time I have seen the film countless times and can probably recite all the lines in the movie by heart. I am not alone though, it seems that the Blizzard Of Aaahh´s was the defining experience for a whole generation of skiers and had a pivotal effect on the development of the sport: Mike Douglas, the co-developer of the first commercial twin tip ski, Shane McConkey the developer of rocker ski technology and Seth Morrison, the pioneer of big mountain freestyle, have all acknowledged the movie´s influence on them.
To understand why Blizzard had such a big impact on a whole generation of skiers you have to look at what the world was like when it came out in 1988. After the liberal 1960´s and 70´s with their hippies, punks and Vietnam war protests, the 1980´s marked the return of conservatism on both sides of the big pond. It was a decade that was personified by money-loving yuppies with their pin-striped suits and Rolex watches. Fearing the economic effects of declining skier numbers, ski areas started shifting their marketing away from pure athleticism in favor of resort amenities for non-skiers. Jet-set ski resorts and celebrities wearing tight shoulder-padded one-piece ski suits was the image many people associated skiing with.
If the mainstream seemed a little bleak and boring, Blizzard was anything but. It was colorful and vibrant and showed us wild characters living in an underground ski bum culture, a resistance fighting against the evil empire of lameness that mainstream skiing in the 80´s had become. The Clambin Kids operated from their safe haven in Verbier, Rasta Stevie fought to keep Telluride a cool and funky place where dirtbag skiers could afford to live, Scott Schmidt wanted to “shoot people” that sued ski resorts for their accidents and hence prevented real skiers from accessing extreme terrain, and Glen Plake – well, he simply seemed to embody the rebellion.
When Blizzard came out the reigning king of ski movies was still Warren Miller. Miller, 64 at the time, had made his first ski movie already in 1950. Stump, a former national champion freestyle skier, was half his age and represented a different generation. Stump had also skied in front of the camera for Dick Barrymore – and Miller and was determined to revolutionize Miller´s archaic ski movie formula: “I did not like Warren´s movies, they felt old-fashioned, his skiers were not as good as all my friends and his music sucked”. Stump knew his music, he had worked as a radio dj at a progressive rock station in Maine, called WBLM, and was able to convince British producer Trevor Horn´s ZTT records to grant him the use their music in the movie.
The way the soundtrack was used in the Blizzard Of Aaahh´s was somewhat revolutionary when it came out: Stump was one of the first to cut his film into music and as a result the skiing was tightly edited to work together with the music to create a powerful combination that spoke to a generation that had grown up watching music videos. “Trevor´s Euro-pop sound fit the mood of the film perfectly”, Stump now says.
Stump was also a pioneer on another front, namely the use of point of view footage. He had already duct-taped a vintage film camera onto a windsurfing vest to get POV footage for his 1985 film Time Waits for Snowman.
By the time he was shooting Blizzard the eight-kilo-weighing camera was already attached to a helmet, producing footage by Plake that added greatly to the viewer´s sensation of getting closer to the action. Compared to today, the editing process was far from easy as the 16 mm film had to first be transferred via tele-cine to tape. Stump regards editing as one of his fortes behind the success: “I love to edit, I feel it is the one aspect of my work that I am maybe best at.”
But first and foremost it was the skiing that had the biggest impact on audiences around the world: Scott Schmidt dropping huge cliffs at Squaw Valley and attacking near vertical lines in Chamonix with his signature angular style, Glen Plake throwing new-school airs that were years ahead of their time and Mike Hattrup skiing everything in his effortlessly smooth style. Whether it was skiing the Couloir Poubelle off the Aiguille du Midi or jumping off the bridge at the top of the Grand Montéts tram, the movie managed to merge European style extreme skiing of steep couloir descents into the American version of dropping big cliffs into a package so powerful that it´s skiing would become a reference point for a generation of future freeskiers.
The skiing has evolved of course tremendously since 1988, but what sets Blizzard apart from most of today´s ski flicks is that it shows real characters and tells you their story, and because of that you want to watch it more than once.
“If you could be any animal in the world what would you be”, asks Stump´s narration in the beginning of Glen Plake´s Chamonix segment. “I dunno. Hmm… me!”, Plake replies before a signature head-shaking gaggle. He has a mohawk, day-glo shorts and jacket and what seems like a collar made of Swatch watches. It was clear that he WAS a character – and a different kind of ski hero: flamboyant, opinionated and loud.
For fifteen-year-old kids around the world he represented a more believable ski hero than your Tomba´s or Zurbriggen´s available in the main stream media. Scott Schmidt´s personality came across as the opposite to Plake´s: quiet, calculated and letting his skiing do the talking. If Plake was too much to handle you could always identify yourself with Scmidt – which thousands of skiers did. Together, they were the perfect match, which was balanced by Mike Hattrup´s jovial character.
Along with his own theatre studies Stump cites his father Walter, who was a professor of theatre sciences, as a major influence on story telling: “He let you believe that magic was possible.” Like any good magician Stump knows how to create an illusion. He now admits that the scene titled The Squaw Valley shootout, showing Glen Plake battling it out with Tom Day and Mike Slattery in a head-to-head cliff-jumping contest for the third spot in the film and a plane ticket to Chamonix was fictional: “I was not even there that day, Bruce Benededict shot the whole sequence, I made up the whole story line.”
The powerful scene was also used to create rivalry between the veteran ex-racer Schmidt and the newcomer freestyler Plake. Fictional or not, the added movie-magic creates a strong dramatical structure. When the following scene shows the trio arriving at the Chamonix train station, the viewer is already hooked, anxious to see how their journey and the film continues.
The rest, like they say, is history. Blizzard Of Aaahh´s was a massive hit and broke into the mainstream: Scott Schmidt and Glen Plake were invited to the Today Show, which according to Stump had a huge effect on their careers: “We were the first skiers ever on the Today Show, it aired the opening morning of the ski industry trade show in Vegas, which did not hurt either.” Along with being credited to popularizing the word extreme in the main stream, Blizzard also paved way for professional freeskiers.
With the help of the film´s success Glen Plake was able to negotiate a sponsorship deal with K2 skis, which was soon followed by other endorsements. Scott Schmidt had already been the world´s first sponsored freeskier with a The North Face deal since the mid-80´s, but was struggling to make a living with his career. That all changed thanks to the success of the film and Schmidt and Plake would become the role models for a generation of young aspiring freeskiers, showing that it was possible to make a living as a professional freeskier.
This story was first published by Downdays Magazine.
Thanks to: Greg Stump and Glen Plake for the interviews and Rod Walker for the great photos.
To order the movie go to Blizzard Store
To check out more of Rod Walkers photos go to his website
Since you’re here, you might be interested in reading a detailed account on the rise and fall of Club A – the clothing brand used by Plake and Hattrup in the BOA. To read the article From Lapland To The Today Show – The Club A Story click here