Steve Winter: The King of Ski Porn

Steve Winter's Matchstick Productions goes in search of the best snow and terrain in the world, including this peak in remote Alaska. Credit: Grant Gunderson

In the ski-movie business, one or two days of perfect conditions combined with the right talent can make an entire year. So in Portillo, Chile, on the morning of August 27, 1997, filmmaker Steve Winter jumped on a helicopter, buzzing with adrenaline.

The snow was deep and the sun blazed as he sat next to photographer T.R. Youngstrom and Seth Morrison, the hottest big-mountain skier in the world. By 9 a.m., the chopper was cutting through the air at 13,500 feet.

As they flew between summits, the pilot banked into a turn and miscalculated his air speed. Badly. The chopper careened downward and slammed into the mountainside. The pilot was killed instantly and Youngstrom died soon after rescuers arrived, three hours later. Winter had broken two vertebrae and was extremely hypothermic. As medics worked on him, his heart stopped.

Now, almost 20 years later, Winter looks back on the episode with remarkable poise. "They revived me," says the 47-year-old matter-of-factly in the offices of his film company, Matchstick Productions, in Crested Butte, Colorado. He's wearing a couple of days of blond stubble, and his blue eyes are shaded under the brim of a baseball hat. "My takeaway from the experience of dying . . ." he says, trailing off, "it wasn't something to worry about — it was a comfortable feeling."

If dying was easy, the hard part was coming back. Winter awoke partially paralyzed in a Chilean hospital with his business partner, Murray Wais, standing over him. "He was super-emotional," remembers Wais. "I was like, what should we do? What the fuck!"

Winter was asking himself the same question. "When you're lying in a hospital bed for months on end," he says, "you think of all your fondest memories. For me, they were all about making movies." He didn't know if he'd walk again, but he did know this: Whatever it took, his fledgling company would survive.

Today Matchstick has won more awards than any other ski movie company, with seven Powder magazine movie-of-the-year awards and four Emmy nominations. Matchstick is the closest thing the X Games generation has to a Warren Miller. But that success has also come with a price: high expectations.

In its 23 years, Matchstick has never failed to release a movie (after the helicopter crash, Wais finished the film Pura Vida), and every year the stakes are raised. These days their films are rolled out in September with a 200-city worldwide tour. The movies then go on iTunes and launch on DVD. The company has sponsorship deals with Sony and Under Armour, among others, and all of them expect their money's worth. But none of these things can happen until the footage is shot, organized, edited, and packaged.

And in March, Winter and his partners, Wais and Scott Gaffney, a Squaw Valley, California, local, are facing an obstacle they've never dealt with: no snow. "With the crappy snow year we're having all over, the movie is completely in flux," says Winter. "The entire West Coast is terrible."

The team has already shot in Japan, Italy, Iceland, and Colorado, but they don't have nearly enough footage. So Winter, who still walks with a limp, hammers away on his keyboard, doing something unthinkable: Googling "East Coast ski resorts," the only ones in North America with consistent powder. "How do you spell Okemo?" he asks.


(Markus Eder shows off his hang time in Iceland for 2015's 'Fade to Winter.' Photograph by Alex Fenlon / Eleven Experience)

Steve Winter and Murray Wais grew up together in Seattle, and both enrolled at Wenatchee Valley College, in Washington. They majored in ski instruction and management, which enabled them to spend a hundred days a year on the slopes in the Cascades. After Wenatchee, Winter bought a Bolex 16mm camera and hit the road, lugging it from mountain to mountain in a friend's VW bus. "The filming was trial and error," he recalls. "The first roll of film I shot, I put it in the camera backward."

The result was a 15-minute romp called Nachos and Fear, ski footage married to MTV-style sound and editing circa 1992. Winter took the film to an industry convention in Las Vegas, and after a few companies gave him some money, he set out to make more films, recruiting his old pal Wais and setting up shop in Crested Butte. The inspiration for their company name, Matchstick, came while the two were lighting a bong. "It was a different world," Wais says of the early days.

For several years Matchstick put out low-budget movies, and sales were equally low. Winter placed ads in ski magazines, listing his home phone number, and people would call to order a VHS tape. Winter would box it up, and off it would go in the mail. Eventually the orders picked up; then the sponsorship dollars started rolling in. Soon car, beer, and tech companies were scrambling to get their brands attached to Matchstick's movies, and its film budget skyrocketed. By the late 1990s, Winter and Wais were traveling the world — Russia, South America, China — with the best camera equipment money could buy. Their movies debuted at sold-out theaters around the globe.

"The scene was ripe, and Matchstick filled the niche," says John Stifter, Powder's editor. "They revolutionized ski cinematography by covering all that was happening at that time — guys hucking off cliffs, landing backward."

One of those guys was Shane McConkey, the sport's top star, who earned a reputation for going bigger than anyone else. He'd also merged skiing and BASE jumping: In Yearbook (2004), McConkey was filmed ripping turns down the face of Switzerland's Eiger mountain, heading full speed off a cliff and launching into two front flips, then hurling a parachute. Audiences had never seen anything like it before.

"There's no 'He made us' or 'We made him,'" says Winter. "It was together. We gave him a place to show off his skills, And what he gave us was those skills, which got people excited."

Then, in 2009, Winter and the Matchstick crew were in the Italian Dolomites filming McConkey and fellow extreme skier J.T. Holmes attempting another ski BASE jump. Winter was in a helicopter filming as McConkey launched into the air, but this time he had trouble releasing one of his skis. By the time McConkey got it off, it was too late. He impacted before the chute deployed. His death devastated everyone who worked with him.

"We couldn't believe it," says Wais. "We spent three years talking about it every single day." Still, the film, In Deep, was completed on time. Part of the motivation was that McCon­key wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

Back in Crested Butte, the team decides on a Hail Mary for the 2015 season: For the first time in its history, the company will send a crew to shoot on the East Coast. Meanwhile Wais will lead a crew of insanely talented skiers — Markus Eder, Tanner Rainville, and James Heim — to Alaska. They're looking at a $170,000 bill, minimum, with no guarantee of good material. But they have no other option. "Time is running out," says Wais. Winter will monitor all of this from the company's HQ.

When Wais and crew land in Juneau, there's no snow at the airport. But up high in the remote Chilkat range, accessible only by helicopter, they find monstrous peaks sparkling with fresh powder.

"We'd been dealing with bad conditions all season long, and we knew we might not get another opportunity like this," says Heim. "You just had to go as hard as you could." Over the next 48 hours, the magic happens, and it all comes together.

Later, when the footage makes it back to Crested Butte, Winter knows that his company has made it through another season. "The match," he says, "is still burning."