Three raps on the door at 6:30 am wake me from a deep sleep. A cloudless sky appears out the window- the first in several days. As I walk to breakfast, the sun creates pink alpenglow over the jagged peaks of the Swiss Alps. I've been in Verbier, Switzerland for one week now, working for the British winter sports catalog Snow + Rock, the largest of its kind in Europe. Myself and another American were flown over for the photo shoot after modeling for the company in Crested Butte, CO. Primarily a ski racing coach and writer, I only dabble in ski modeling as a way to make extra money and travel to new ski areas. Now I'm staying in the Gondola house halfway up the mountain at Les Ruinettes with twenty other models and photographers from all over the world- all expenses paid. This trip, however, is not a free ski vacation. Believe it or not, ski modeling is hard work.
After a hearty Swiss breakfast, we put on the first outfit of many for the day- often something we wouldn't be caught dead wearing at our home mountain. The latest skis and boots are designated to us with no time to get used to the equipment's performance. Three of us are assigned to shoot with Tom- an American photographer who has worked with the company for years- and Nancy, a ski model from Chamonix. Laura, a Scottish freestyle skier, and I hurry behind him to make the first tram of the morning.
The trick is to find untouched snow with the right lighting and backdrop. Tom likes the first pitch we come to- a 40-degree slope- and checks the light with his meter. He tells us to ski it and then hike back up. Breakfast rises in my stomach. At the top, I wipe off the perspiration trickling down my face from under my wool hat, tidy up my jacket so the label shows, pull the sleeves down over my gloves, fix the pant bottoms that constantly ride up, straighten my goggles, take a deep breath, and smile. We need to look perfect even though we're sweating profusely under the thick, insulated coat and pants.
After the fourth hike, clouds move in swiftly and cover up the sun. The shoot coordinator, Kevin, leans on his poles and begins to tell us jokes, seemingly more funny because of his thick British accent. Ten minutes pass and the other models sit down in the snow. In a tri-cultural female bonding moment, we discuss relationships, movies and food. The clouds break and within one minute we're up, straightening clothing, smiling and skiing.
Ski photographers usually have one specific area where they frame up the shot. Tom points or throws a snowball to the exact location and our challenge is to hit that place in a perfect position that showcases the outfit, our skiing, and the beautiful backdrop. But snow is not a constant factor and each knoll, bump or unseen rock throws us out of position. Tom and Kevin like the dramatic lichen covered rocks behind a cliff. We hike up to the top and study how we should go off of it, but we don't know what's underneath the snow at the bottom. I decide to drop it and land balanced in the deep gully but my ski pops off, rocketing me forward into a face plant. A crowd of onlookers laughs and applauds. I've got snow impacted in my ear canal. Kevin tells me not to worry; after all, four out of five frames in a photo shoot end up on the cutting room floor.
It's past the lunch hour and we're loosing energy. Laura's poles are too long and I've got several hot spots from the new boots I'm wearing. As a veteran ski model who has missed many meals because of zealous photographers, Nancy begins to talk about lunch. Luckily thick clouds come in and we get to go inside. Halfway through our meal, the sky clears and we hurry out. Tom and Kevin discuss an area they spotted, and we take three lifts, traverse a long ridge, and sidestep through rocks to get there. The snow crystals on a pitch of untracked powder sparkle in the sun. The sky behind us is deep azure- perfect for our new, brightly colored outfits. We hhike for ten minutes to ski thirty seconds of glorious powder. You can hear the happiness in Tom's voice. We hike it numerous times, starting further over each time to capture the fresh snow look. It's late afternoon and the lifts have long stopped running. Our stomachs growl again and Nancy starts campaigning to call it a day. Tom wants us to ski it once more but those clouds creep in again. Good timing, the three of us whisper out of earshot, now we can have dinner.