On a sunny, windy day in March, 2009, Kevin "Fog" Fogolin headed out to do a job he'd performed many times before: aerial avalanche control above a power project on Toba Inlet. After dropping a few explosives, Fog had just thrown another when he noticed they were awfully close to the 40-degree slope. Suddenly, the main rotor clipped the slope, shearing off a couple of blades. The next hazy moments are forever etched in Fog's mind.
"I remember hearing the heli ripping apart. Then we flop onto the open-door side and start sliding. I'm harnessed in with 75 kilos of explosives thinking: 'I'm gonna die.'"
When the snow filling up the chopper and Fog's mouth stopped, it seemed like a miracle. In reality the aircraft had gone off a cliff. They hit the slope again and kept sliding. Convinced this was it, Fog could barely believe when they stopped for real. In mere seconds the chopper had slid 250 metres onto a small bench, beyond which the mountain fell off 1,800 metres.
"I hear the guys up front scrambling out and shout. One guy passes me a knife, I cut myself out and the three of us run like hell," he recalls, knowing the explosive he'd thrown would go off any second. "All of a sudden, Boom!, pretty much directly above us. The avalanche missed us but we got dusted by the powder—and I'm still yelling 'Run!' because there's a crashed heli full of explosives."
Fortunately, that was it. They made it to a ridge and were eventually rescued; other than a small gash to the pilot's head, the only real damage was psychological.
"That night in camp I thought 'I'm done'," recalls the contemplative, soft-spoken Fog. "It was the only time I thought that this passion for mountains I've had since I was a kid was gone. That it wasn't worth it."
But a beautiful alpenglow that evening helped vanquish the thought, and within 24 hours Fog had flown back to look at the wreckage... and finish the job. Life went on.
If you think this is one wild tale you're not alone. But there was more to the story: dig deeper and you'd find an ongoing struggle to get past the accident, not give up on a hard-won path; deeper still and you'd find a skier's journey—as well as a childhood-buddy tale of diverging ambitions, drifting apart and eventual reuniting. Enough of a story that Mike Douglas's Whistler-based Switchback Entertainment is making a feature film about it: Snowman. And Douglas, an award-winning director, knows an interesting arc when he sees one—he's the buddy.
"We were the most snow-, mountain-, and weather-obsessed kids in our school," Douglas recalls with fondness of their youth in Campbell River. "What tied us together was a love of skiing," says Fog. "But even before I skied I'd listen to ski reports, and when they talked about snowfall I always wanted to see it."
As high school ended, so did their adventures in the local mountain. Douglas went to university, Fog to Whistler. The following year they switched places. Douglas became a competitive mogul skier and coach before reinventing himself as a pro-skier revolutionary and film star. Fog stuck it out in school; he would graduate in forestry, but there was no question he'd find his way back to the snow. Working his way through Canadian Avalanche Association courses, he eventually began the consulting work that landed him in Toba.
"Snowman follows these paths, but the bigger picture is a main character conflicted over what he feels life should be and what he wanted it to be," explains Douglas.
After three years and hundreds of hours filming—including some magnificent Cineflex heli-footage in Toba—the film is ready for post-production sweetening, for which Switchback just launched a Kickstarter campaign. It's a major commitment for a film Douglas didn't see coming, that began life as a Salomon Freeski TV episode. "I originally intended to tell a very simple story about Kevin's job and the accident. But as you crack into things you discover more and more. And people's lives change over that kind of time frame—the ending of the film was not at all predictable."
Also unpredictable is when the film will come out. "Because documentaries are such a cliquey niche, you have to follow certain steps to put it in front of the right people," he says, intimating you have to be patient and not skip any. Which is why he's speaking to me from Telluride's annual Mountain Film Festival.
"You come to these things to create buzz about your film. As an indie filmmaker you have to. It's David-vs.-Goliath out there and you have to drum up support," he says. As for turning to Kickstarter for this final phase. "Doing a feature film is expensive. We've gotten to the point where I'm digging deeper into my own pockets than I'd like, and we want it to be done right. In addition, Kickstarter is a great buzzmaker and marketing tool."
And what of the childhood buddies, both now family men? "For me making this film has been the best education you can have as a filmmaker, and it's also helped Fog. He's not a new person, but there was certainly some transformation in being forced to deal with the accident through the film."
And while the last year has been arduous for both, searching for pieces of the puzzle that weren't there to start with so the storyline all makes sense, Kickstarter willing, the fruits of this labour will soon captivate us on the screen. Says Douglas: "The light at the end of the tunnel is shining hard."