The Quieter Side of the Mountain
Canadian skier and photographer Kari Medig travels the globe in search of an alternate and unsung view of the ski world — and the force that binds it all together.
In the winter of 1991 , when he was 17, Kari Medig took a beach holiday with his family to Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Growing up in remote towns surrounded by boundless Canadian nature, he’d travelled a fair amount in and around Canada, but this was the first time he ever left the country.
“I was always like, ‘Man, I wanna see the rest of the world,’” Medig tells me over the phone from his current home in Nelson, British Columbia, a mountainous town near the U.S. border. “And I remember, on that trip, I could see right away, I’m not interested in what the tourists are interested in.”
In Mexico, Medig vividly recalls wandering inland alone, finding himself on a dusty road. “The first thing I saw, you can buy a Coke and pour it into a plastic bag with a straw,” Medig recounted, still enthusiastic as he remembered the moment. He thought: “This is crazy!’ I knew right then I gotta do this more.” And so, he has.
Travelling the world, taking pictures of skiers in off-the-grid destinations, Medig, now 45, makes it his mission to reveal a quieter side of a world he knows intimately, but one that goes unnoticed by most.
He is drawn less to capturing the athleticism unfolding on the mountain, and more to highlighting the individuals who arrive at the bottom — next to the lifts and in the après-ski bars — in their unselfconscious, non-competitive moments. Shooting in places like Israel, Kosovo, and Siberia, outside the glamorous mainstream of ski resort culture, his pictures are alluring, unusual, and entirely his own.
Medig was born in rural Ontario, but his parents moved shortly afterward to a remote part of northern British Columbia and the family settled in a little cabin by a lake; the nearest towns were several hours away. His father was an electrician who worked in copper mines; his mother, eventually, would teach French to middle schoolers. His parents had “hippyish” tendencies — they’d hop in their maroon Bronco with their Irish setter, camp for several days, use their cameras to obsessively document animals, mushrooms, and Kari and his younger sister Kirsti, while they poked around nature picking blueberries. They also loved traditional outdoor culture like hunting, fishing, canoe racing, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing.
One thing missing from their immediate vicinity, however, was a major ski mountain. Then, when Medig was in fifth grade, his parents itched for change and moved the family to another small town called Fernie in southern BC, where downhill culture was predominant. “We even got picked up after school and would go up to the hills to train — it’s just normal,” he tells me. Plus, it was like catnip to him for another reason. “Once you try downhill skiing as a young boy, you’re kind of like —” He interrupts himself. “All of your friends are dirt biking, and I wasn’t allowed to have that stuff. Skiing was the only chance I had to go fast, and suddenly you’re free to go as fast as you want.”
Medig studied biochemistry in university. Since he had a natural knack for science, he was sort of nudged in that direction by default. But he soon realized that just because he was good at it, that didn’t mean he was happy doing it. He continued to stay the course in science, at least on paper, but a pattern began to emerge: he’d eke out a couple years of school, take a year off to travel, return, then think about travelling again. When he travelled, his camera was his companion.
Medig’s parents gave him his first point-and-shoot when he was very young, and he observed them practice their craft, learning as he watched. “They had a darkroom, and that whole process was really cool. They’d set it up in the bathroom every now and again and develop some photos. My dad is still into it and will give me a picture of some animal that he’s photographed.”
Taking pictures had seeped into Medig’s bloodstream — so much so, that by the time he finished his degree in biochemistry, he understood his life was not meant to unfold in a lab.
He found a year-long photography program and eventually landed an internship with a newspaper in 1999, where he met an influential photojournalist, Rick Collins. “He was a Canadian News Photographer of the Year,” Medig recalls, “and when I showed up that was the last year of film. He basically gave me some film and said, ‘Just go shoot pictures.’ He pushed me to go and think about what I was trying to shoot.”
While he started getting work from newspapers, Medig still had to work odd jobs, like tree planting, for money. And he felt he still hadn’t found his voice in photos. Then, on a trip to Kashmir in 2007 with a writer friend, it all came together. Their intention was to photograph some pros on a ski hill that had just received a second-hand lift from France; the only problem was that the lift kept breaking down. So Medig found himself with some time to kill.
“I had seen pictures that people were shooting in magazines, more like portraits, but simple. It was more about the content and what the person was about versus the style of how you shot it,” says Medig. He had these images in mind, when — like in Mexico — he noticed something special. “I was wandering around the base of the mountain and was like, ‘Oh my god, the local skiers here are so cool, and way more interesting than the athletes!” And so began his skiers project to document the unsung, incognito stars of the ski world.
“I’m not happy or interested in going along with the cliché image in the adventure world,” he admits. “It’s a world that I know really well, and I wanted to stay in that world but show it in a different way.” To peruse Medig’s pictures is to see an anthropologist’s guide to ski culture, not a magazine’s, and one made with the skilled eye of an editorial photographer with a background in adventure.
Given the kind of stylistic wonders he captures — two men in fireball-red and zebra-stripe race suits that extend over their entire faces posing on a summit in Golden, BC; a young woman who looks like she’s just walked out of her living room in jeans and a sweater, ready to hop on a lift in Kosovo; a disparate grouping of skiers, some with skis, some without, some sitting on the snow, another with a sled, just hanging out on summit but not in any hurry to go anywhere in Morocco; and, in India, a pair of friends, one of whom appears to have skied so hard that he’s baring his exposed chest — I wondered how he does it. Do these shots take much convincing? Are the skiers shy? Does he interact with them much before shooting their portraits?
Like the skiers themselves, his approach is in fact quite relaxed and unforced. “Sometimes it’s pretty quick; others, they chat a bit more,” says Medig. “I just wander around these smaller hills, looking for people who just look interesting and represent a part of the sport that is a bit quieter.” It’s that quietness, I think — the feeling that his subjects came to the mountain just for themselves — that translates especially well through his images.
I ask Medig if one of the skiers he found has stood out to him more than the others. Yes, it turns out, and the story of their meeting is just as singular. While on a Trans-Siberian railroad trek, Medig and his editor were looking for someone who skied in the original style — that is, how they did it eight thousand years ago in northwest China, which is widely considered to be the birthplace of skiing. Hunters would cut a log in half and nail skins to the bottoms (the original splitboard) and then use a large staff for a rudder as they skied downhill. After bribing a park warden with vodka in a region of eastern Russia near Mongolia, they found such a man. His name was Vitaly.
“We were skiing with our skis and it was just so cool to see him doing his thing because he had never seen modern skis,” Medig tells me with an audible smile on his face. “I almost felt like I was contaminating this pure culture.” But it turned out that he didn’t need to worry. Vitaly couldn’t believe manufacturers made skins that detached from skis. And through a translator, Vitaly told Medig that his skis were, of course, “way better.” “Which,” Medig conceded, “they kind of were.”
In Medig’s portrait of Vitaly, he is standing wearing army fatigues, holding his handmade skis, next to his two dogs. “This guy was special.”
And yet, in Medig’s extensive study of ski culture diversity, he has found one thing that binds all of it and everyone together. “The biggest thing is that it is fun,” Medig says immediately. “Skiing puts a smile on people’s faces.” And this takes on even more meaning, he says, when he travels to regions that have been torn apart by conflict. “I went to a ski hill in Kosovo. A lot of the skiers were Albanians, but Serbs tend to run the ski hills. There is crazy tension there today, but the people said that on the mountains, nothing matters — nothing political matters.” The same goes, he adds, for Mount Hermon in Israel and the mountain in Kashmir.
“The mountains have the ability to make people forget their problems for a little while,” Medig believes. “It’s an escape, and it’s hard to describe because it’s a feeling — but it’s something I hold sacred.”
As I’m about to hang up the phone, Medig tells me that later this afternoon he plans to do what is known among his friends as “a 2:45”: the last-minute scramble to the slopes at precisely that hour during daylight savings. With a 20-minute drive, that leaves him just enough time to squeeze in a few good runs before sunset, and — one imagines — a little après-ski, before returning home.
Natalie Rinn was born in Minnesota. The former editor-in-chief of Brooklyn Magazine, she now works as a freelance journalist and editor. Drawn to the idea of jogging on dry terrain, she recently left New York for Los Angeles.