Taking on the volcano
Ryan Summerlin June 21, 2013
It had been raining nonstop for 13 days, and our 12-man film crew had been unable to get a single action shot of 1968 Olympic triple gold medal winner Jean-Claude Killy during that September in New Zealand.
The meter was running, and we were already way over budget. The volcano Ruapehu just would not let us go to work. However, the nearby volcano of Narahoe stood bright and shiny only six miles away in the New Zealand winter sun.
We stood in the rain and watched it blow up four days in a row between 3 and 3:30 in the afternoon. My beginning geology course in college told me that it took 24 hours for this semi-active volcano to build up enough pressure to erupt once again.
If I planned it properly, we could hire a helicopter and fly Killy, my cameraman Don Brolin, Leo LaCroix and myself to the summit and get a lot of pictures of skiing on this active volcano and leave by 3:30 in the afternoon with one of the 13 episodes of “Killy Skis the World” finally in the can, then move on to the next of the 13 worldwide ski resorts.
The helicopter pilot showed up dressed as though he was going to an afternoon tea party: tweed suit, white shirt and necktie with brown and white saddle oxfords. This was a pilot who did not plan on having to hike back from a forced landing somewhere. That gave me confidence in his abilities.
Brolin and I loaded up our camera gear and skis, and in 10 minutes we were looking down into a smoking, roaring crater of a volcano building up pressure. We quickly got some good shots of the smoke and surrounding snow as we waited for Killy and his racing teammate Leo LaCroix to come back in the helicopter.
The photography was a piece of cake because of the setting and two if the world’s best skiers. Filming them shoving off from the rim of the crater with the smoke belching out in the background and skiing along the edge of the ashes and rocks from the day before eruption was pretty spectacular. The narration would be simple with my usual tell-it-like-it-is story line. How can anyone miss getting good ski action of a man who had just won 17 World Cup races in one season, including all three gold medals in the Winter Olympics?
Don and I really shot a lot of film that day. Twenty-six one hundred foot rolls, about an hour of screen time. But of course a lot of it was shot in slow motion, hence the exposure of so much action in the few hours we were skiing on the volcano.
Time after time when we got down to the waiting helicopter, the pilot was skeptical of taking us back to the top of the soon-to-erupt volcano. He wanted to get back to the hotel before it blew up. However, when you are a cameraman and have such spectacular stuff happening, it is hard to call it quits with the sun still shining.
Naturally, we were filing on the windward and sunniest side of the volcano, the north side in this case. Remember this is the Southern Hemisphere, so the south slopes are the cold powder snow slopes if you have a choice. Our choice of where to film, of course, was dictated by where there were no ashes from yesterday’s eruption of the volcano.
After five or six trips up and down the volcano, it began to get a little dicey because we were getting close to its estimated eruption time. My estimate.
The fate that Don Brolin, Jean-Claude Killy and Leo LaCroix had gambled their lives on was my one course of beginning geology in my college days. I guess I was the leader, so they dutifully followed my directions and made a lot of turns where I asked them to. If Killy and LaCroix had not been such world-class skiers, racing a volcano would certainly not have been made to look almost easy.
When your adrenaline is pumping as ours was that day, lunch is the furthest thing from your mind.
On one run, the mountain was really jiggling with the impending eruption and it became useless to use our tripods to keep the camera steady, so we had to hand-hold the cameras. It was already 3 p.m., 30 minutes before the anticipated, if on my schedule, eruption.
The helicopter pilot reluctantly took us back to the crater for one more filming run. The crater was a lot louder and some ash was now coming out in a steady volume, but the shots of Killy and LaCroix against the smoke and ashes were really great.
This trip down we had the two skiers make longer turns before we moved our location farther down the hill and got set up for the next shot.
Finally Killy and LaCroix did not stop where we wanted them to but skied right on down to where the helicopter was waiting with its engine running and blades already revolving. By the time Don and I had our cameras put away into our rucksacks, the helicopter had taken off for the 10-minute ride back to the hotel with Killy and LaCroix. That meant that Don and I had to wait 20-some minutes before it would be our turn to load up and escape the eruption.
The noise and the activity of the volcano were getting scarier while we waited for the potential 3:30 eruption to happen. We were counting on it to know the schedule I’d presumed it would follow, as it had done the last three days in a row.
The pilot in his tweed suit, necktie and saddle shoes set the helicopter down within 20 feet of where we were standing and it was the quickest helicopter loading of my entire filming career. Don and I climbed in and as we were fastening our seat belts the engine revved up, the tail lifted up and as we gathered speed and altitude, we slowly turned left, headed for the hotel and looked out the windshield to the left. We watched Narahoe erupt fortunately 10 minutes late, but almost right on schedule, according to my college geology professor.
Later in our studio in Hermosa Beach, I got to preview the show for the sponsors. The word that came down from the suits in the agency made us take out any reference to the volcano because they said no one would believe anyone would be stupid enough to do what we had documented on Kodachrome film that day.
Amazing footage like that languishes, I presume, in the film company’s vault today.
Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to more than 50 publications. For more of Miller’s stories go to warrenmiller.net.