People don't ski Whistler in January for bluebird days, they come here expecting to need windshield wipers on their goggles. This close to the Pacific the winter storm cycle is like the eye of a tornado in reverse - a condensed weather pattern that dumps copious amounts of snow on the Coast Mountains.
It is during this time that the curtains close to the rest of the world and the intricacies of mountain culture are highlighted. To capture this dark slice of winter, GORE-TEX, Arc'teryx and Whistler Blackcomb challenge six of British Columbia's reigning ski and snowboard photographers during the annual Deep Winter Photo Challenge, a three-day shooting blitz for coin and status.
In this year's fifth annual event, a gravy crew of lens-obsessed snow junkies has been selected, including Blake Jorgenson, Ilja Herb, Tim Zimmerman, Robin O'Neill, John Scarth and Andrew Strain. For the first time in three years local Jordan Manley, who took first place each time, isn't part of the competition and his absence is expected to mix things up.
"The key thing we're looking for is talent and ability, generally the criteria is that it's entertaining and that they put together some sort of story or it comes together in such a way that it's entertaining to the crowd but we're also looking for technical expertise. They've got to be good photos, it's got to be a calibre that's absolutely world class," said Arc'teryx's brand manager and former Deep Winter Photo Challenge judge, Tom Duguid.
"It's about how the photographer wants to interpret, or wants the audience to interpret, his images. If they're in some sort of story, which is what most photographers tend to do, it's supposed to embody the deep winter mentality and what does deep winter mean to people, whether it's about stupidly deep amounts of snow or the lifestyle around it in Whistler."
Working with a small team of skiers and snowboarders of their choosing, the photographers have three days to get their shots and compile a slideshow set to music. The final product will be judged on the fourth day - Saturday, Jan. 15 - by a professional panel and shown to an audience of 1,100 mostly local supporters. Up for grabs is a first prize purse of $6,000 and the title King of Storms, though this year the inclusion of Whistler's Robin O'Neill - the first woman to compete in the contest - might change that designation to Queen.
"Hopefully I can rock it for the girls. I'm really honoured to do it, it will be really interesting because all those people are pretty prolific ski or snowboard photographers," she said. "I hope it dumps, I'm definitely a big storm person more than a bluebird kind of girl, though that creates more work - hiking through unconsolidated fresh snow is hard to move around in so endurance and my experience with the Olympics has given me the confidence that I can do it."
Clear in this year's competition is that the evolution of ski photography has taken viewers and photographers past the draw of grandstanding. Winning Deep Winter will take more than big air and sunlit powder rooster tails - the judges will weigh in heavily on each photographer's ability to capture an element of storytelling in their work. Whether comedic or dramatic, the overall esthetic must be true to form, capturing both the photographer's vision and the world of Whistler in its stormiest of months.
"I think the lifestyle is becoming really important in these shows... just the whole preparation and the lifestyle behind the big jumps and big airs," said Ryan Proctor, Whistler Blackcomb's public relations coordinator.
"The crowds are looking to be entertained, you need the whole package, great music. If you have one banger shot, that shot isn't going to be enough, you need a theme to make people interested."
Undoubtedly one of Whistler's most prominent photographers, Blake Jorgenson is joining the fray for the first time, though he will be combining a little business with pleasure. The competition falls on the same days he had committed to work on a Rossignol campaign, so instead of pulling out of one for the sake of the other, Jorgenson cleared it with Rossignol and is using the contest as part of the commercial shoot.
"It's just an experiment. We're there to produce and promote this company and these skiers and this town, so maybe my position in participating in this is different than other photographers who are looking for promotion or to break out a little bit," Jorgenson said. "I think it's more about capturing a story and assembling it in a way that the audience can see. The coolest thing about this contest is that you're actually manufacturing something for that specific audience on that one night, however you go about it."
A number of other workshops and events such as ski clinics, ski and snowboard demo days and all-girls Roxy snow camps are running during January.
For tickets to the Deep Winter Photo Challenge, go to Whistler Blackcomb Guest Relations or to www.deepwinterphoto.com for more information.