Living Valhalla: Exploring What it Means to be Free
About a year ago, I made the wild and—now that I look back at it—very wise decision to pack up my belongings and point my Subaru north. A few weeks earlier, my friends at Sweetgrass Productions had invited me to spend the winter in a place called “Valhalla,” otherwise known to mere mortals as Nelson, British Columbia.
The snow started to fall as I crossed the Canadian border last October, the flakes dancing in the beams of my headlights as I drove the last hour to my new home—or at least my launching pad for the next few months.
Not a week after arriving in Nelson, I was standing atop the Hume Hotel. It was raining, it was cold, and I was naked. “How did I get here?” I asked myself as I shivered and took a pull from a bottle of my friend’s homemade wine. It was a question that would pop into my head on more than one occasion over the winter. But that night, I didn’t have much time to ponder the journey before I was called to join the other people who had been crazy enough to agree to help out with the shoot that evening. For the next hour, we danced, ran, and leapt across the roof with the red light of the hotel sign glowing down and fireworks blasting and buzzing at our feet. The sparks shot up to dance with the raindrops.
“I’d heard of a place, bigger and grander than all imagination, drifting in the rhythms of the mountains and the wild surges of a tribe too weird for the world outside. It was a place that asked you for nothing, but to find out who you were—and to set that person free.” —from the film Valhalla
Over the course of the next five months, I learned to ski powder and strap skins to my skis for the first time in my life. I learned to appreciate the perfect combination of hot poutine and cold beer. I skied naked. I made countless curries for hungry mouths and worked, read, wrote, snuggled, and traded massages and stories by a blazing fire. I fell in love a little with dozens of wild and wonderful people as they crossed our doorway and threw their boots on the floor. And I fell in love a lot with one wickedly talented and quiet bear of a man. And you know what? I found out what those crazy boys had been talking about. I found wildness, despair, stoke, happiness, and weirdness, and yes, freedom, in those northern mountains.
It’s nearly impossible to find the words to convey just how I felt watching Sweetgrass—these boys who had become my family—stand on a stage last Friday night and premiere Valhalla, a film that they had poured their hearts, souls, guts, and creativity into for more than two years. I may be relatively new to the ski scene, but I can say with confidence that the 1,100+ people who all sat in the Paramount Theatre in Denver witnessed something bigger than themselves, and a film that just took ski and snowboard films—and adventure films in general—to a whole new level.
“Valhalla started as a simple core idea—an exploration of freedom, through the context of winter. For many people like us, being outdoors epitomizes what it means to feel free—we’ve all had our most memorable moments of peace and clarity there. And so skiing, and connecting with the outside world on such an intimate and physical level, was for us a perfect expression of freedom,” said Sweetgrass co-director Ben Sturgulewski. “We took that idea and ran with it, and things just got weird from there, pulling in different concepts of freedom, ranging all the way from the dirty wild vibe of the psychedelic sixties to the undiluted, pure freedom of childhood. We wanted to paint a multi-faceted portrait of what it could mean to be free, that could relate to anyone, grounded by the common joy of being alive in the mountains.”
Valhalla, Sweetgrass’ fourth feature film, is the tale of one man’s search to rediscover the freedom of his youth. Feeling the distant heat of it’s fire still burning in the mountains of the frozen north, he goes in search of those tending the flame—the untamed, the wild, and the outcast dwelling on the fringe.
Bursting with the breathtaking, risky, and award-winning cinematography and style that they are known for, Sweetgrass turned “ski porn” on its head once again and gave us a film that will satisfy not only the ski bums and rippers among us, but everyone who has ever searched the horizon for something more. Or who has felt that familiar burn of wanderlust and adventure deep in your core. Or who has just simply stood in the wilderness and felt the perspective and grandeur of something so much bigger than our human form. Between the adrenaline-pumping ski and snowboard segments boasting some of the best skiers and riders in the industry, and the naked skiing segment with skiers wearing only boots and birthday suits, Sweetgrass manages to weave together a story and characters that suck you in from the first scene. It’s a nod to the creativity, passion, and soul that beats through every member of the Sweetgrass family.
I know I wasn’t the only one who left the theater itching to break out my skis and strap on my boots, yearning for my first turn in fresh, fluffy powder—maybe ripping my clothes off along the way. But more than that, I stepped outside into a crowd swarming at the entrance of the theater and felt our hearts collectively beating a little faster and fuller, our eyes flashing with a little more life, and our souls yearning to soar just a little higher.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
To call Valhalla a ski film feels almost wrong because for those who find themselves pulled into the wild creation, it is a love story to the mountains, to our community, and to the human spirit. Valhalla is a meditation on life, a small shove of encouragement, and a nod of gratitude to loving a little deeper and living a little more free.
“Over the years, we’ve heard from an awesome number of people who’ve reached out and told us that our work has changed their lives—that they saw our film and dropped their life or their job and moved into the mountains to pursue their true passions. That’s the most satisfying praise I think that we could possibly receive, and in the end, more than anything, with Valhalla we wanted to create an experience that was a true call to action,” Sturgulewski said. “We wanted to present an incredible world to audiences that was alive, fun, mysterious, and beautiful, and show that finding that same freedom for yourself is totally possible if you put on your boots, walk outside, and give it your all.”
“We live in a society where most people are too afraid to take that leap into the unknown, and for us Valhalla represents all the infinite possibility that is born by stepping outside of the normal. That doesn’t mean people have to drop everything and go live in a tent in the winter woods,” Sturgulewski added. “But if we can get them thinking about their own freedom and whether they’re truly happy in the life they’ve made, and if we can crack open the door to an alternative possibility, another choice—then we’ve done our job. And if we can stoke them up with some incredible riding and breathtaking visuals, even better. The end result warped into a movie that’s weird and out-there and a total off-the-wall gamble in a sea of ski porn, but I hope Valhalla delivers on all levels.”