Taking it from the Top

17 mins read

Adventurers go for the thrill, filmmakers live for the footage. And journalists will take any freebie they can get.

When Peter Chrzanowski, who is both an adventurer and a filmmaker, pitched his latest paragliding documentary, Sacred Flight, to the media before it screened at the 2009 Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF), he dealt it with a bonus: A tandem paragliding flight, “so that you can really experience the impetus of the film.”

Incredibly, I was the only one to take him up on it. It would be my first time jumping off a 1,500 ft high cliff with what amounts to a giant serviette tied to my pilot’s back. I brought my video camera.

The B.C.-based Chrzanowski is a pioneer of Canadian mountain adventure. He started as an extreme skier, racking 12 first-skied descents from the world’s tallest mountain peaks. More recently he has taken to hurdling himself off cliffs to paraglide where no one else has before. In the process of all this, he has produced 19 documentary films.

Chrzanowski started out as a writer, publishing stories of his epic expeditions in magazines like Outside, Powder and Ski Canada. His daredevil tales begin before he was 20 with two first ski descents in the French Alps. In 1978, he conquered Peru’s highest peak with two French mountaineers, who would later die pursuing other extreme sports. In 1979, he attempted another top peak in Peru, but lost control, slammed down 900 metres of icy pitch, and was rescued three days later. (His peruvian ski partner who found him would later die in an avalanche).

Chrzanowski tried five times to be the first to ski the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, Mount Robson, before succeeding in 1983. Between those attempts, another ski partner was killed in the process of their first ski descent off a peak near Whistler, B.C.

“Peter has 9,000 lives,” his longtime ski and paragliding buddy Pawel Boryniak says. “Peter does not know fear.”

Chrzanowski is a spare, eloquent writer, who lets his experience speak for itself. But as soon as he captured his first adventure on video, he knew he’d found his true medium. Where writing is slow and subjective, video captures the adrenaline rush of the death-defying sport and the sublime beauty of the landscape.

His website features clips of all his videos, most of them narrated expeditions featuring a handful of extreme skiers wailing down unimaginably steep peaks in Alaska, Europe, Canada and South America. These low budget documentaries are largely responsible for popularizing extreme skiing in North America. Every Canadian interested in the safety-be-damned sport (all 200 of them) would mail away for his latest tape and then gather with friends to watch it again and again. Most of the films made the rounds on the international mountain film festival circuit—Valdez Goes Extreme received an award for creative excellence at the 1993 Chicago International Film Festival—while all of them have aired on network television.

A significant amount of Chrzanowski’s footage was used in Steep, the most successful extreme ski film ever. He also directed an eight-show ski series for the Outdoor Life network and co-produced other shows for ESPN.

Chrzanowski discovered paragliding in 1986 and was immediately hooked—the sensation of flight that deep powder gives is easier to achieve with paragliding, he says. Again, he would invent the young sport here, organizing flying exploits and filming them. In 1999, he had a horrendous flying accident in Pemberton, breaking both ankles and smashing several teeth.

When I arrive in Pemberton, B.C. for my flight, the winds don’t look promising. (Whew!, I’m thinking) so we settle on the deck at Chrzanowski’s nearby house, a contemporary log cabin perched on the side of a mountain with an expansive wide view of the forest below. The first thing I want to know is why he puts his life at risk: what drives him to take on the laws of nature, since humans are not meant to fly? Many of the sport’s practitioners—addicts might be a better word—talk about how extreme skiing puts them totally in the moment and gives them an appreciation of life so acute it makes the sport worth pursuing at all costs. “You can either live like a lamb or live like a lion,” explains one of the extreme skiers in Steep.

Chrzanowski takes a sip of tea. “It just feels natural,” he says. “It’s what I do,” The flying pioneer Amelia Earhart made a remarkably similar comment. “I want to do it because I want to do it,” she said after flying solo across the Atlantic.

The man looking beyond the trees from the home his mother financed (his films don’t make a profit, “but they provide me a lifestyle,” he says) is soft-spoken and thoughtful. He has a small build, compact like a jockey, his dozen major accidents and near-misses seemingly etched in lines across his weathered, 52-year-old face. The week has been hectic, culminating in the premier of Sacred Flight, his most ambitious film yet, before a sold-out crowd at VIFF.

The 26-minute documentary aims to be more than a paragliding travelogue as it exposes the beliefs and culture of an extremely remote indigenous tribe of northeastern Columbia. The Kogi people live in cone-shaped huts near the peaks of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range, where they stand guard and protect the sacred mountain summits.

Chrzanowski has dreamed about exploring these peaks since he read about the region in National Geographic when he was 12. He made his first attempt in 1998 and, while his rag-tag ski team wasn’t allowed to proceed to the sacred snows, Chrzanowski was escorted to areas no foreigner had ever been. (His film Journey to the Heart of the World documents the epic event). In 2008, he returned: this time with a nearly all-women crew, with whom the Kogi immediately connected, and his paraglider. He’d fly off the summit leaving the holy ground beneath him untouched. Kogi leaders meditated for two days. Chrzanowski was granted one flight.

“The fly was the driving force,” says Chrzanowski. “When they saw how simple and silent and beautiful the glider is, they let us up.”

Chrzanowski shot 60 hours of digital video footage, including daily activity of the Kogi, who live as though the past three centuries didn’t occur. Draped in white robes with white cone-shaped hats symbolizing the sacred summits, they work the land, or squat in circles chewing cocoa leaves and carving holy sticks, the mountainous vista providing a spectacular backdrop. When the flight finally occurs, it is quick—the winds didn’t cooperate, and there was concern about over-zealous, sharp-shooting paramilitary troops infecting the entire region—but it was a paramount experience. “Something just made me kneel down and kiss mother earth,” says Chrzanowski. “I was so thankful to the universe for allowing me my flight.”

Then he immediately wondered about the footage and how it looked.

Chrzanowski says he can’t decide what’s more exhilarating: the thrill of adventure or capturing the marvel on film. “I’m torn,” he admits. “It’s both. it’s documenting it and getting to fly. They are the rewards.”

Just then, pawel Boryniak interrupts us. Pemberton’s winds are ready for us. It was now or never.

We zoom way up the mountain to a ledge, where about 20 fliers will eventually converge. The set-up for my flight happens in a rush. I get strapped into a harness attached to Boryniak, since Chrzanowski doesn’t have a tandem kite. “Just run to the cliff until you fly,” he instructs. Surrendering, I hear him say, “Okay? Let’s go!” Lift-off is flawless, the sail graceful, peaceful, even. Boryniak, a veteran paraglider, has flown hundreds of passengers; he’s also an instructor who has never had a flying accident. I’m in good hands as we float in light breezes 1,000 metres above miniature Pemberton.

I couldn’t video my take-off and landing, of course, but what I capture is spectacular. And then, in the air, it occurs: I have no idea how to land. “Do my feet touch first or do yours?” I ask, as the camera jerks and swings, blurring trees and buildings, all concentration on focusing lost. “Will we be going fast?” I quickly tuck the camera away. It’s a slow, easy touch down. Like a bird taking a rest.

I film Chrzanowski’s cotton-ball landing on the grass a minute later, and then a woman’s awkward but harmless bum-first contact. Back up on the cliff, I shoot a few take-offs. The four-minute film I eventually make is fun, but it also lacks one thing: it never shows me. I should have thought about having someone film my own take-off and landing.

Missed shots. They are the torment of every filmmaker, especially those who film split-second, once-in-a-lifetime thrills of extreme sports and adventure.

For his editors, Chrzanowski’s charged and often rushed footage can be a challenge. “Peter straps on a camera and jumps,” says Ivan Hughes, a B.C. filmmaker, who edited Sacred Flight and earned a co-director credit for his narrative ideas. Hughes has joined us in Pemberton and has also taken a flight. “He just goes and has the adventure,” continues Hughes. “It’s raw and there’s no pretense. He just lets it happen. He came to me when he got back from Columbia and said, ‘I’ve got this incredible footage. I’ve had this wild adventure.’”

Chrzanowski gave Hughes the tapes and creative control to tell the story. “But ideally, you have a narrative in mind already,” says Hughes. “Peter does it a little backwards. He goes down there intending to have an adventure and just films whatever happens. So it’s a struggle then, being in the editing suite checking out his footage and going, ‘I really wish you’d gotten this shot,’ or ‘I wish he’d have asked this question at this time.’”

Chrzanowski knew much about the Kogi, but he could have done more research, suggests Hughes, who says the footage left him yearning for more insight into their extraordinary culture. “But if he had a PhD’s perspective, it would have changed the film,” admits Hughes. “What made it a raw adventure is that he just threw himself into it.”

It was also clear after viewing the footage that it lacked the same fundamental component as my flying film: Chrzanowski had barely put himself in it. Hughes wanted more face time with the adventurer. “Peter has 25 years experience in adventure filmmaking and extreme skiing and flying. I knew he’d lived a life of adventure, that he’d almost lost his life. I’d heard the talk about him. He’s infamous.” Let’s get this character in the film, determined Hughes.

So he sat Chrzanowski down for an interview, during which the reticent athlete and filmmaker describes his craving for mountain adventure—the “strong drive” that pulls him up the terrain—and sheds more light on his experience with the Kogi, “who believe they are the guardians of the planet, and that their rituals maintain all life.” Thanks to Hughes, the film became a story not only about the Kogi and their relation to the modern world, but about Chrzanowski’s own journey. And a planned CBC presentation of Sacred Flight, extended by 20 minutes, will include an interview about the Kogi with the noted Canadian anthropologist and author Wade Davis.

What’s an explorer to do when he has fulfilled a life-long dream soaring the most obscure and exotic area in the world? Find romance. The perennially single Chrzanowski has decided to finally settle down. But naturally, his tendency for the extreme marked this goal: he filmed his quest to meet a woman. While traveling last year to Europe and South America as a mountain film festival judge, he captured his approach with several female fliers. Paracinderella, Chrzanowski’s first feature-length documentary, is a quirky romantic comedy, which recalls the 1986 classic Sherman’s March. Emboldened by Sacred Flight’s acceptance at VIFF, he has submitted a rough cut to major festivals.

Alas, he did not find true love and so the adventure continues.

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