The last thing Steve Winter remembers before the helicopter crashed was looking into photographer T.R. Youngstrom's eyes. It was August 9, 1997. Winter, Youngstrom, skier Seth Morrison, and their guide were scouting locations in the high Andes, preparing to shoot the final segment for Winter's sixth ski film, Pura Vida. "I remember giving the thumbs-up to T.R., saying, 'Yeah, this is exactly where we want to shoot,'" recalls Winter, who is now 32. "It was the perfect terrain. We both had big smiles. We were looking at each other right when it crashed. That was pretty intense."
Intense is pure understatement. The helicopter pilot lost control of the craft while approaching the wilderness landing. The bird fell 200 feet out of the sky, smashing into a steep mountainside and killing the pilot upon impact. Within a few hours, Youngstrom, too, would be dead. Winter, Morrison, and their guide survived -- but Winter's back was broken, and the nerve damage would prove to be extensive. Even the specialists thought it unlikely he would walk again.
Beating the Odds
But in October of that year, Winter wiggled the big toe on his right foot. Today he is out of a wheelchair and walking, albeit with a cane, an ankle brace, and a limp. He's not yet skiing but vows he will. And his annual surf-epic-style ski flicks -- which he produces with Murray Wais, 31, his best friend and business partner at Matchstick Productions (MSP) in Crested Butte -- are drawing crowds, dropping jaws, and doubling in distribution every year. "I think the one good thing that's come out of the crash is that I've been able to focus more on distribution, editing, and the business aspects," Winter says."I am so focused on MSP, it's kept my mind off my injuries."
In fact, business is booming. Global Storming, MSP's newest flick, is touring 106 North American cities, playing on VCRs in more than 50,000 homes, and has been snapped up for Digital Video Disc (DVD) distribution at Tower Video, Best Buy, and other monster chain stores nationwide.
Winter and Wais have also produced television segments for ESPN, MTV, and Fox Sports and are selling stock footage to high-profile clients like Subaru and Coors. Not bad for a couple of guys who got associate degrees in ski instruction from Wenatchee Valley College, Washington -- and whose first film production was a 15-minute homage to low-budget road-trips called Nachos and Fear.
Seattle's King Cat Theater is deserted when Winter, clad in the ever-present ball cap, cranks up the volume for a prescreening sound check, singing along to the soundtrack and tapping his cane on the floor. A native of nearby Redmond, he started skiing at age three with his father, Dale, a weekend instructor at Ski Acres and Alpental. While in college, Winter was inspired by Greg Stump's Maltese Flamingo. In 1991, after instructing at Breckenridge for a year, he bought a used 16-mm camera and soon after discovered an 18-year-old skier named Seth who had purple hair and flawless form. "It's the skiers who make our movies what they are," Winter says.
As the crowd packs the King Cat lobby, Winter picks his way slowly down the amphitheater's long stairway and heads out front, greeting sponsors, old friends, and even strangers with his big, easy smile. "You can't think of a more positive person to have something negative happen to," says one high school friend.
Winter simply shrugs and says he's glad to be alive. "One thing I have learned is not to stress on things that are out of your control," he says. "Ride the wave of life, baby."
Born: January 3, 1968
First Hill: Stevens Pass, Washington
Hobbies: golf, drums, Nintendo's 007
Secret Healing Tool: daily meditation