The raw excitement around the dogs was palpable and contagious as they yipped, barked and howled with anticipation in the falling snow. While one group of riders split off and mounted their growling machines, I followed Beth, Justin, Katie and Derek through the thick snow to the sleds. Snow swiftly swirled around us and the restless dogs as the winds picked up and visibility diminished. The wirey dogs were quickly harnessed up and attached to the leads one by one, each of them seemingly bursting with excitement for the first sled run of the day.
Due to injury and lack of mobility, I would not be competing in the long anticipated games. Nearly 40 outdoors enthusiasts and social media influencers from the past four seasons of Columbia’s #Omniten program gathered near Park City, Utah for a collective competition. The competition would be a secret set of challenges, completed in teams, with a serious prize on the line. Once the content of the games was revealed and the teams were chosen, I began my own challenge: To tell the story of the games through photographs.
The final challenge for everyone in the competition would be “Charles Dickens”, a storytelling challenge. I knew the teams would be immersed in their activities, in some cases fighting the clock, and there would be little time or opportunity for them to capture the images that could bring their stories to life. In the highly visual mediums we have to portray our stories, images are invaluable and grab a reader’s attention quickly. So my challenge, my contribution to the games, would be to capture the moments that would help support the narratives of the competitors to the best of my abilities.
I chose to start my shoot with the first dog sled teams, passing up an opportunity to follow the first snowmobiles to the archery site. Everyone was excited about the dog sleds and I knew I needed to capture that excitement early while it was still raw, while the dogs were still fresh, while the apprehension was still visible. I wanted to focus on two things at this station, the excitement on people’s faces as they readied for their first ride and the explosive energy of the dogs. The dogs were much less cooperative than the #omniten but were the real stars, beautiful animals straining against their harnesses with incredible power.
The shooting wasn’t too difficult here, but getting around in a foot and a half or more of snow with a bad knee made for some sketchy moments. A couple of falls and bad twists made things interesting and set a cautious tone in my head about being physically able to follow the games. Still, I would do my best.
Making fire exciting
It was quiet once the dogs had run off with their sleds in tow. I set off across the snow to find the other teams working on their challenges. luckily for me the other events were clustered together, but they were up a hill…normally not an issue but this time it felt like an arduous trek. I struggled up the snowy, uneven path to the Fire Challenge.
Each team had 25 minutes to light a fire and get a small pot of water boiling. Not quite the excitement surrounding the dog sleds. Looking for storylines I focused on the expressions of concentration, I tried to capture the spark flying off the flint starter, and for those who were successful…flame. I started to realize my background in graphic design and sequential illustration played in to how I thought about the photos. During the Fire Challenge I really began to treat the photography like I was setting up a storyboard. I looked for “scene setting” images, “character” images and “action images” while in my head I stitched them together sequentially so I could visualize and capitalize on the gaps. This technique of visualizing a sequential storyline helped get me through the next few events.
I can’t be everywhere
I really wish I could have covered everyone at every event, but it just wasn’t possible. The Dog Sledding was too mobile and the archery event was too remote. Even the clustered events were difficult because I was having a hard time moving quickly enough through the snow to catch each team at each event. Knowing I couldn’t do it all, I began to broaden the scope of the story I could tell. Instead of focusing on individual stories, I realized I needed to tell the broader story of the games in general. I started thinking about the group story and how the individual stories would intertwine.
This released me from the idea that I had to capture everyone at every station. As long as I could cover different crews at each event I would be supporting the overall story. Still, the first day was a serious challenge.
Archery in the snow
I managed to grab a ride along on one of the snowmobiles later in day one. The weather had become more aggressive and our visibility was getting pretty tight when we took off. I remember thinking that this could make for some great dramatic images or it could ruin my equipment. I stored my gear for the ride out to protect it then set up once we reached the archery station.
Archery turned out to be some of the most dramatic imagery I captured on the first day. The wind picked up and the snow whipped through the frame while I narrowed in on the expressions of focus and concentration of our archers. Just the image of a drawn bow exudes tension, power and drama and has been used in imagery of warriors for millennia for just that reason. This was a pretty stationary event, like the fire building, so I worked my angles to capture a higher sense of action to support the narrative.
Day one of the #Omnigames wrapped up in whiteout conditions with the last of the #Omniten warming themselves indoors with bowls of fresh chili and hot chocolate. I found myself continuing to head outside even though the games were over just to enjoy the weather. Standing outside, wrapped in my warm Columbia gear with the wind and snow whipping around me I was able to have a little quiet time to think and appreciate where I was and how I got here.
Columbia Sportswear has developed a culture built around pushing boundaries and exploring our limits. Their products are designed with this in mind and the “Trying Stuff” mantra is a corporate rally cry that echoes throughout everything they do. We were brought together by Columbia because we embody this message, we live the “Trying Stuff” lifestyle with everything we do. To me it is just that, a lifestyle, a philosophy that permeates every part of our lives. It’s a personal commitment to accepting challenges and facing them with persistence and excitement…even joy.
Once you stop facing challenges, once you stop pushing your boundaries, you stop growing…you stop improving and learning. You stop living. I will always be “Trying Stuff” whether that means pushing my limits outdoors, developing my home and gardens to their full potential, learning new skills, or expanding my career. I was limited by injury on this trip but it didn’t stop me from “Trying Stuff”. I was able to explore my limits with photography and push my equipment, knowledge and skills to knew levels. Something that has me excited about doing more photography work in the future. At this point who knows where it will take me, but I’m excited to find out.