The Dream Factory
I guess I’m definitely a Virgo. I read textbooks for fun and I love documentary films that feed me the history of topics that wind me up. So imagine a film that serves as both documentary and ski movie all in one. The Dream Factory fills both needs beautifully. It tells a great story about the history of steep skiing in Alaska and it’s replete with brand new, mind-boggling footage of terrifying descents down 50 degree pitches. Yeah, I’m all over this one.
As you would expect in a film centered on Alaska, The Dream Factory is about 90% big mountain. While the exceptional team from Stept Productions are enlisted to hit some urban in Anchorage, this is a TGR film after all and their discipline is big mountains with big consequences. With regular TGR riders like Sage Cattabriga-Alosa, Todd Ligare, Daron Rahlves and Seth Morrison, the footage never disappoints. Mix this with writer and editor Blake Campbell’s unwinding of the story behind the sport’s pioneers, The Dream Factory makes for a compelling view.
Having been skiing in Alaska since the early 1990s, the boys at TGR are perfectly placed to tell the story of the rise of Alaska as the Super Bowl of ski destinations. While there have been planes and helicopters flying skiers to the top of the peaks since the mid-1950s, the modern story begins in earnest in the late 1980s when a bush pilot named Chuck McMahan started flying his friends to ski the Thompson Pass mountains near Valdez. From there he and Michael Cozad purchase the shabby looking Tsaina Lodge on the Richardson Highway and that becomes command central for every powder hound and steep skiing adrenaline junkie who wants to get their freak on. However, at the time, that meant like five guys so Cozad comes up with the idea of a skiing contest to market their burgeoning business and the surrounding terrain. Thus, the World Extreme Skiing Championship was born. Among the invitees was Wyoming’s (late) Doug Coombs who had honed his skills skiing the steeps of Jackson Hole in the Tetons. Coombs goes on to win the first WESC in 1991 and goes back home to his fellow Jackson Hole Air Force buddies raving about what he’s seen in Alaska. And so the word starts getting out.
A parallel universe situation was happening in Canada where Eric Pehota and Trevor Peterson were scaling mountains in the Coast Range outside Pemberton, building the exact skills they’d need to make their mark in Alaska. Taken altogether, these types of adventurous individuals set the tone for skiing’s foreseeable future.
The fascinating dimension here is not the discovery of the mountains – I mean, everybody knew they were there. It was the discovery of what you could do in those mountains that made the territory fresh again. And given the sheer scope of what’s available, that particular discovery has a significance like finding another planet.
The 90s then become a period of innovation. By 1993 Doug Coombs is operating a guiding service with a large clientele. In 1997, ex-World Cup ski racer Jeremy Nobis retires from that circuit and brings his athleticism to the steeps, again changing how skiers viewed what’s possible in the mountains. But, as the decade wore on, the Alaskan regulars began feeling that they had skied everything they could in Valdez and so, searching for new adventure and unskied terrain they take up about 500 miles away in a small fishing town called Haines and a range called the Chilkats. That area provided the goods for many years and when that wore off, they continued to search for new peaks, places like Petersburg and the latest playground, the Northern Chugach.
The Dream Factory effortlessly weaves new film of famous runs in with the documentary footage. After Doug Coombs talks about building his skills at Jackson Hole’s Corbet’s Couloir in the 1980s before going to Alaska, the movie glides into a 2012 Corbet’s session with John Spriggs and Matt Philippi throwing down hard. Where there’s film of Jon Hunt’s first descent in 1992 of Mount Dimond near Valdez, The Dream Factory follows with 2012 footage of Todd Ligare shredding the same line. Those types of juxtapositions not only bring the history alive but serve to build the legend of Alaska as the zenith of the sport. With the footage of those white faces and blue skies and hearing about the challenges it provides, there’s clearly a brand being developed and I’m not saying that disparagingly: I’m simply pointing out that you are left to believe that there’s nothing else like this on earth and if you’re a skier, you feel compelled to go there.
The Dream Factory’s well-curated soundtrack includes a few majestic, spacey sounding tracks that match the otherworldly environment that is an Alaskan mountain range. That type of touch makes for enjoyable repeated viewings. Check Daron Rahlves’ segment which is underpinned with Chase and Status’ “Fire In Your Eyes” or Dash Longe’s closeout segment scored with C65’s “Let’s Go”.
An interesting adjunct (and not necessarily a counterpoint) to The Dream Factory is (now defunct) Rage Productions’ 2008 movie Down Days which documents a month long ski trip to Alaska and the waiting on the weather that goes with it. Down Days lends a bit of background to a couple of the segments in The Dream Factory where the heli-ski guides are waiting for the weather to clear or Eric Roner’s comments about “More often than not, this is what Alaska looks like”, as he’s watching the snow coming down in a way the prevents flying. And if you want even more background, Mark Obenhaus’ 2008 documentary Steep is also worth viewing for the development of steep skiing.
The Dream Factory has one adrenaline rush after another as the skiers lay down all sorts of park tricks on the steeps. It’s a documentary that has you looking to the future of skiing with huge anticipation. By Mark “The Attorney General” Quail