Scott Serfas

Perfect Shot

Words: Andreas Tzortzis
Photo Left: Clark Fyans

Behind the scenes of the thrilling (and dangerous) sport of speedriding and how photographer Scott Serfas captures it all.

Standing on precarious cliffs, dangling from helicopters with a heavy lens, Scott Serfas has captured some of the most dramatic pictures you’ve seen of snowboarders and skiiers in motion. But none of that was particularly helpful on a recent assignment on speedriding.

“With skiing or snowboarding you know where they’re going to,” says Serfas. “Here it’s a lot faster … and they’re coming across the camera and when they hit it, it’s a split second and then they’re off. To frame and focus it was overwhelming.”

Part paragliding, part skiing, the roughly decade-old sport’s spiritual home is in Chamonix, where pioneers like Antoine Montant roamed with parachutes before a designer named Francois Bon came up with a wing that balanced size and maneuverability.  It’s the unconquered regions of the Alaska Range that will appear on the big screen in the just-released documentary, The Unrideables. Serfas accompanied the filmmaking team and Americans John DeVore, Andy Farrington and Italian Filippo Fabbi on their mission to ride the unknown. Here’s how he got his shots. 

Scott Serfas

Serfas on scene in Alaska shooting The Unrideables.

© Clark Fyans

How difficult is it to follow these guys with a lens?

I have no idea where they are going to land. I just follow them, and pick off those moments that tell the story. The hard part about it is shooting digitally, because they’re only so many frames.  This ride was a minute long, so you have to be pretty smart with how many frames you take and where you take them. If you shoot too much too early, you run out of memory.

Where did you set up?

I used the helicopter because riding or skiing into position was way too dangerous. We would land, I’d jump out and set up a little area with a little platform so that I wouldn’t keep sinking into the snow. I had my Canon 1DX with me. My lenses were 300mill [millimeter], 600mill, 70-200 mill, 24-70, I had a wider fish-eye lens too but that stayed in the bag the whole trip. I used my tripod for shots with the 600 mill. Shots with the 300 and shorter lenses were done by hand. I would prefer to shoot everything hand-held because its quicker and easier to frame up but the 600mm is just too heavy. After holding it for about 30 seconds my arm would start to shake.

How did you guys plan the time up there – did you start small?

We did some smaller stuff, and by smaller stuff, I mean nobody else would’ve gotten on there. It’s pretty insane what [DeVore, Farrington, Fabbi] consider smaller. DeVore was pointing out faces that aren’t skiable. And [safety guide] Clark Fyans was like – “Really? That’s your warmup run?” It’s definitely scary when you see them doing the first runs. I wasn’t really thinking about the fear. I’m comfortable landing on little perches. I’ve worked with Clark before, and I trusted him. I guess the only scary thing for me is that I’m not nervous stepping out on a little mushroom top where there’s a 300 metre drop on either side.

Click through to see Serfas’ shots from The Unrideables project >>

“I’m not nervous stepping out on a little mushroom top where there’s 1,000 feet dropping on either side.”

The riders definitely seem to be taking some big risks.

Not knowing much about this, I thought ‘Oh who cares if there’s a big avalanche, you can just jump away.’ But the wind has to be in the right direction and there’s thermals, and you need enough speed. If he’s coming up on a cliff and he doesn’t have enough speed … well, he’s not going to fly. He’s going to fall.

The crown jewel of the trip and the film is the 9,000-foot (2,700 metre) peak, The Rowel, the top section of which had never been ridden before. How did you capture those amazing shots of the three going down it?

They’d go down and film this entire run and I’d stand back to get the whole thing. And then I’d find a few pieces that are pretty cool and work on that one shot. From the helicopter, I saw the aerial view of them going through this big section with ice walls on either side. And I thought I’ll go inside and look at this wide-angle shot, to get a bit of a different look, something more personal. They were going so fast, and ripping through there and I thought ‘You got to be kidding me, how are you going to line up perfectly and make it through this? Because if you hit one of these walls, it’s a done deal.’

You couldn’t get that from the helicopter?

I have more control from a ridge. A great pilot can almost keep the position, but not always, and all of a sudden your background changes. If you were to go down a bit, you wouldn’t see the subtleties that make a difference.

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