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Off and Running | Preparing for the Slides
Swiss Snow Science | Fire in the Hole

Monday Jan. 7, 1997

scenic shot of swiss alpine landscape We leave for Switzerland at the end of a hectic day. Bob Poole, the cinematographer, is having trouble getting out of Idaho. His first plane died on the runway. We re-route him through Boston, and all end up on the same flight except for sound recordist Dave Ruddick. We share a moment of relief that we are safely on our way, but the peaceful feeling turns out to be short-lived.

Tuesday Jan. 8, 1997
No one slept much on the plane. We arrive at 7am Swiss time, and it doesn't take long to figure out that except for associate producer Kate Churchill and myself, no one has any luggage. No film gear, no skis, no nothing. We have a frustrating time trying to deal with the airline folks about what has happened. They think they are business-like. I think they are impossible. We are all tired and I am not only tired but grouchy. Film production is what we are here for, and you can't get much done without gear.

By the time we give up and decide part of the team has to stay in Zurich to wait for the gear, we realize we are now two hours late for our appointed meeting with Dave Ruddick. We find him wandering forlornly, pushing two carts of his gear, his hands bloody from getting them caught between the carts. Assuming that we have completely forgotten him, Dave had asked a taxi driver what it would cost to get to Davos. Unable to come up with the $1,000 fare, Dave has been contemplating a long day pushing the carts around the airport. The situation is so pathetic that there is nothing for us all to do but dissolve into laughter.

When we collect ourselves, we decide that Dave, his gear, Jack McDonald (my co-producer) and I will leave for Davos to meet with the scientists who think we are showing up to film them. The rest of the team will get on the phone and try to locate the lost gear.

Thursday Jan. 9
closeup of helicopter with mountain in background Rental plans are made for camera gear in case ours never turns up. Our talent (another way of referring to the scientists we have come to film) are in relatively good humor about the lost time. A call comes in from Dr. Tom Russi. We are given a bonus day. The sequence we want to film on remote weather sensing and snow stations has been postponed from Friday until Saturday. The scientists will be working in a dramatic location, high up in the mountains with a helicopter, and we are invited along to capture it on film. The only problem is that our entire crew and gear have to make it to the helicopter take-off location by the next morning, which seems unlikely. Then a welcome message comes in from Kate back in Zurich. The gear is going to make it. They will be in Davos tonight in time for a late dinner, equipment and all.

Friday Jan. 10
We start out at the Institute with Dr. Othmar Buser, who has worked at the Institute's location on the top of a mountain—known as the Weissfluhoch—for over 30 years. Over the last year, most of the people from the Institute have moved to the new offices in town. But Othmar won't move. He will be forced to retire next year, so he will keep doing what he has been doing. It feels deserted and empty at the Weissfluhoch, but Dr. Buser wins our hearts.

Buser working in cold room In a cold room, he runs a centrifuge to show us how the strength of the snow can be measured; they take a homogeneous sample of snow and see how much force it takes to break it. This reveals the strength of one single layer of the snow, but it's only one small piece of the puzzle of figuring out the forces that will cause an avalanche to let loose. It is easy to get lost in the work, and we realize we are late for our meeting with Dr. Russi, who will drive with us to the location for Saturday's helicopter shoot. We ski down, which is faster than taking the funicular, and send our gear on the train. Gear. Now that we have it, I continue to be surprised by how much of it there is. There are five of us in two big vehicles, one so huge we have dubbed it the Milk Truck.

We follow Tom through the Alps on a wild ride through mountains and passes and a road that clings to the side of a canyon somewhere on the Italian/Swiss border. The smaller van is overheating. We add oil and water and keep going. It is really beautiful. The sun sets somewhere in Italy in a town with a stunning cathedral. Maybe our luck is changing.

In a pub in Saas Grund Tom shows us how he can use his laptop computer and cell phone to call directly to the snow and wind stations that he'll be working on tomorrow, to download weather data. It is so cool! The technology gets everyone pretty excited about the shoot. He shows us very graphically why we are visiting one particular location. The data from a wind station above Simplon Pass, a key route between Switzerland and Italy, isn't coming through. He needs to find out what is wrong.

Saturday Jan. 11
Weather tower, high in the Alps What an incredible day! We share the price of the helicopter time with the Swiss Institute folks and the local forecasters they are working with, and in return are allowed to follow them all over the Valais region of Switzerland by helicopter. It is a gorgeous day, really sunny, really calm—great flying weather. And these are the big peaks. We fly low over glacial serac on the way to the first location. Huge chunks of ice and deep crevasses are right under us, and the Matterhorn looms in the distance. We are dropped at the first site. Tom and his team take snow distribution measurements to determine if this is a good location for one of their stations. We are high in the Alps, moving around on skis, capturing science as it is happening on film, and it is BEAUTIFUL.

Researcher at tower high in Alps being picked up by helicopter Later in the day, we go to the stations above Simplon. At the snow station Tom checks the accuracy of the data by taking manual measurements. He points out the nearby wind station that he was unable to get data from last night. It is just to the south, about 400 vertical feet above us at the top of a sharp peak. The helicopter pilot can't land up there. The pilot will be able to hover close to the ridge and the scientists will jump out. He doesn't want to take the time or the risks of landing our crew up there, but agrees to take Bob up and circle around as Tom goes up on the tower. It is a dramatic scene from my vantage point; Tom climbing the tower, the helicopter with our camera circling around, the late afternoon sun dropping behind the peaks and backlighting the whole thing. At this point I can only hope the film will capture the excitement of the scene in front of me.

Sunday Jan. 12
Snow barriers protecting buildings Despite a late night celebrating Dave's birthday and the long day of filming yesterday, we are up early to head back to Davos. We stop and film the avalanche protection structures called galleries that cover much of the roads through Simplon Pass on the way.

Monday Jan. 13
Train We head back up to the Institute at the Weissfluhoch to film an interview and demonstrations with the ever-charming Dr. Buser. He is such a pleasure to work with. And he confirms my observation from last year that avalanches don't make much noise, despite how often we hear of them "thundering down the mountains." When I ask the simple question about what an avalanche is, he says, "An avalanche is just snow gliding down the slope. There are different forms how they glide down—they might roll down, they might just glide and slip down. But however it might let go and make a big cloud and then people say it is thundering down. Well, I never heard one. However, people pretend there is a noise."

Tuesday Jan. 14
Buser on slope We accompany Dr. Buser first on the groomed terrain and then "off-piste" as he skis home. We learn a lot about avalanches on the way. We find a path that has recently run. We see snow that has fractured, but not avalanched. Instead it has been slowly creeping downhill, leaving rolls and folds in the surface. We are also reminded that although this is fun, and we are lucky to be out here, it's not easy lugging hundreds of pounds of equipment along as we ski down through some pretty crusty snow cover. One face plant with a big pack on your back reminds you the hard way, literally.

Wednesday Jan. 15
Russi working at computer It's our last day in Switzerland, and we have decided to film a scene of Tom Russi calling down the data from the stations, because we were so thrilled when we saw it in the pub. We film at his house, which has a gorgeous view of the mountains. Of course, as soon as we get it lit and are ready to roll, the sun comes in the window directly behind him, and we have to relight the scene completely. Dave Pickner is a master with lighting though, and we only lose about 45 minutes.

When we finish, we decide to use the remaining daylight to film general Switzerland visuals on the way back to Zurich. We are staying in Zurich tonight so we will be able to make early flights. I'm heading back to the States, and the rest of the crew is heading to Iceland to meet the co-producer Jack McDonald, who'll be directing the rest of the European shooting.

Saturday Jan. 18
Isafjordur , Iceland

It's near 11 a.m. and the sun has risen just enough to give us a glimpse of dawn here in the West Fjords of Iceland, some 30 miles from the Arctic Circle. The crew and I are on the tarmac of the Isafjordur airport, with camera and sound ready, waiting to film the arrival of Magnus Mars Magnusson, Chief of the Avalanche Division of the Icelandic Meteorological Office. If the weather holds, we hope to film his inspection of the avalanche barrier going up above the town of Flateyri nearby. The town was devastated by an avalanche a little over a year ago.

Airplane landing at airport in mountains, at sunrise Bad weather has kept the airport closed for two days. We made it in on the first plane this morning from the capitol of Reykjavik. That was about 30 minutes ago. We've had to set up quickly. The airport staff has been very helpful, and the control tower has just given us the signal that the plane carrying Magnus is about to round the corner of the fjord. We begin to roll film, as the plane emerges in the distance and begins to make a slow turn our way in the pink dawn. Conditions appear perfect. With evening dusk starting around 3 p.m. we're looking at a tight schedule. We can only hope the weather will hold.

Sunday Jan. 19
Magnus observing The weather is proving to be a moment to moment adventure. Yesterday's clear skies have given way to a day of drizzling rain. With this overcast we have even less daylight to work with. But we adjust and keep moving. What we've planned to accomplish in one day will have to spread out over two. What's hampering our filming, explains Magnus Mars Magnusson, are the same factors that make avalanche forecasting particularly difficult here: capricious and often vicious weather that can change dramatically from one minute to the next. We're filming above the town of Flateyri as he says this, and just as he finishes, the winds suddenly grow to gale force, water spouts begin to form in the fjord below, and the temperature drops below zero.

Monday Jan. 20
When you have too many lemons, they say, make lemonade. Thus we're making the best of the weather here. Part of our shooting plan is to recreate the mood of the evening when the avalanche fell. Since yesterday, the rain has turned into snow, which is just fine for our purposes. We roam the town of Flateyri, filming the townspeople as they go to and from work and the children at play in the snow. Tonight we interview survivors of last year's avalanche. Tomorrow we hope the wind will die down enough for a flight out, but our meteorologist-in-residence, Magnus Mars Magnusson, isn't hopeful about our chances.

Tuesday Jan. 21

Poole filming town Before dawn, the crew and I head out on a long, cold drive to the other side of the fjord, across from the town of Flateyri. There, in heavy winds, we hope to film some distant views of the town—crucial shots that have so far eluded us. We've attempted this before, but fog and passing storms have up to now made a clear view impossible. This time, with the wind howling, and the snow hitting us like sand, we clamber up a craggy slope and take position to await the light.

Keeping the camera still becomes an ordeal. When everything seems right, with the sky starting to lighten and the town beginning to come into full view, we spot a darker cloud massing at the end of the fjord, coming out of the Denmark Strait. Ahead of it comes a blast of wind that starts to batter us on the hill. It's hard to stand without leaning into its direction, and we're having serious trouble keeping the camera in place. But for now we have no trouble seeing the town, and we have the light we need, so Bob begins to roll. We get our shot, and several others we hope will be helpful in edit. Now we have to get back to Isafjordur as soon as possible to see if there is a morning flight out of the West Fjords.

Scenic: boat in fjord Back in Isafjordur, we discover our rush is for naught: no flight. For the rest of the day, we bide our time, gathering periodically in the hotel restaurant for news from the airport. Other guests, who've been hoping for days to get back to Reykjavik, become familiar faces. They're more patient then we are. Every hour we're told the winds still are not right. They're too strong and coming from the wrong direction. A plane attempting a take-off in this weather, we're told, would drop like a stone into the water, or slam into the mountains as the aircraft struggled to get beyond the walls of the fjord.

Wednesday Jan. 22
This afternoon, the weather eased for only an hour or so, but it was enough time to allow a couple of flights out of the West Fjords. Despite how remote we felt, we arrived in the capital less than an hour later. From the airport, we rushed into Reykjavik to set up for our final interview. Our subject was a young woman whose house was destroyed by the avalanche. She was very articulate and poignant as she told of the infamous night and early morning of the avalanche. David Pickner's lighting appeared to be perfect, with all else seeming to go well. With that interview completed, our shooting here in Iceland is done. Everyone's tired. We understand we'll have no trouble leaving tomorrow afternoon on our scheduled flight out of Iceland. For a change, the weather is good.

Off and Running | Preparing for the Slides
Swiss Snow Science | Fire in the Hole

Photos: (1-2), (12-13) Kate Churchill/WGBH Educational Foundation; (3-11), WGBH.

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