Two and a half years ago, Aaron Rice decided he was going to try and ski 2.5 million human-powered vertical feet in one calendar year. Despite many hard times and the insanity of the challenge in general (he needed to ski, on average, 6,850 vertical feet a day and he had only skied 800,000 feet in a year previously), Aaron succeeded and now holds the record. “2.5” is a short film created by Tyler Wilkinson-Ray that follows Aaron from Utah, to Colorado, to South America and beyond as he tries to ski as much as humanly possible.
Tyler filmed with Aaron for over a year. He barely paid himself and had no idea how the project was going to pan out. He did it because he has always gravitated toward films of this nature—stories about underdogs. He grew up in Richmond, Vermont, skiing at Cochran Ski Area. In 2012 Tyler made his first film called “United We Ski” about small, community-run ski resorts in Vermont (just like Cochran). In 2013 and 2014, he released “Out on a Limb,” a film about one-legged backcountry crusher, Vasu Sojitra. “That was a shifting moment for me. I quit my job at a law firm less than a year later and went into full-time filmmaking.” Now, Tyler does about 80 percent commercial work and spends the rest of his time on passion projects just like “2.5.”
I caught up with Tyler right after the film’s showing at Banff Mountain Film Festival to hear more about what it was like to make the movie.
What drew you to invest so much time and energy into this Aaron’s story?
I think there are only so many authentic and compelling stories that happen in skiing every year and I knew this was going to be one of them. My goal going into the filmmaking world has always been to find untold stories of the underdogs. Skiing has this really authentic and deep culture behind it, enough that people identify themselves as ski bums and move places just to be skiers. That’s what I think is most interesting about skiing.
How many days did you film with Aaron last year?
One of the questions people ask me the most is how I kept up with Aaron all year. I am always like, ‘yeah that didn’t happen.’
Basically, once he started going for it I couldn’t film that much because I couldn’t have him stop or repeat things like you normally would while filming something. I went down to Argentina for two-and-a-half weeks and I just tried to capture how his year was progressing as best as I could. I went and filmed with him when he broke his hand and I flew down to Chile to film him breaking Greg Hill’s record. Then I filmed with him on his last days. We went skiing before and after the project to get some more footage of him skiing and hiking.
When I did film with him we’d wake up early and I’d go set up across the valley or we’d film until noon or so, then he could go crank out laps after. Because even though I wasn’t having him stop a bunch I still slowed him down.
Most memorable day out with Aaron?
I think our time at the Refugio Frey in Argentina. I always know if I’m having fun skiing with 45 pounds on my back then it’s really good skiing. And there are just so many incredible ski lines out there, one after another; it’s amazing. That whole time was just really fun to be a part of. I’m not sure I would have gone down there on my own.
That trip recharged Aaron, too. He was overtraining the entire year but the one thing we didn’t talk about in the film was the month of June. June was his absolute bottom and he was in Colorado and everyone had moved on from skiing and didn’t want to ski with him and he had to hike so far to get to the snow. He was struggling and I was abroad that entire month on another project. We were a little worried after that but then we went down to Argentina and it ended up being really great for him. Everyone down there was so excited and having 20 people in one building super passionate about skiing really energized him. He got through the broken hand and June and then toward the end of Frey he was like, “Ok I can do it.”
Were you ever scared for him or nervous he was going to fail?
I was mostly nervous that he was going to get hurt. One thing with him was that he wasn’t doing it for anybody but himself so I knew there was a chance he would get to point where he would just decide he had done enough and quit. But that never happened. I think he outwardly projected more confidence than he actually had. After it was all over he told me that he actually only gave himself a 60 percent chance of hitting two million and 40 percent of 2.5 million.
Describe Aaron’s personality.
Aaron is one of the most passionate people I’ve ever met about skiing. He loves it to point that even I don’t even understand. He is very smart which comes off right when you meet him. He’s very thoughtful and has well-formed opinions. He looks at things through a new lens; he is questioning person in general. He is an introvert. But I think this project made him realize how much people mean to him. He is still an introvert but he gained a whole new appreciation for people.
Aaron did this for himself and for his own goals and he didn’t do it for the fame. He was offered some contracts and became a little more of an athlete during the process but even before he broke the record he was like “I’m not sure I’ll resign with sponsors when this is over. I don’t want to take their athlete budget if I’m not going to do something that’s worthwhile for them, if I’m not going to do something the money should go to some young kid.”
He never wanted to capitalize on this experience. Who knows, maybe after a couple years of working in Vermont he will think of a new objective. I was just with him up in Banff and he was getting the itch again.
What were your biggest takeaways?
The power of goals is something that is such an applicable lesson for people. That power of setting lofty goals and sticking to them because once you get that ball rolling it’s hard to quit and that is such a powerful tool.
I also learned a lot about how to make really good kick turns.
Why is this film important?
Aaron was not a professional skier when he started this—he was not even an ambassador for a brand. He was a ski bum working at a hotel at a ski area. So when he set out for this goal there was a lot of doubt. One of the biggest takeaways from this film is that you don’t have to be a pro to do some amazing stuff. We all have the ability in us and there is so much power in setting goals.
Then there is this whole side of trying to push backcountry skiing. I think it will be interesting to see if this record takes off. Greg Hill set it and Aaron broke it and I’m excited to see where this record is going to be in 10 years.
How did Aaron financially make it work?
Aaron worked doing computer programming the summer leading up to it and saved money. He had enough money to do it without sponsors. And he worked one or two nights a week at The Rustler just so he could eat there. I grew up in Vermont with frugal Vermont-y parents and Aaron is the cheapest person I’ve ever met. He thinks about every expense he takes the bus everywhere he doesn’t eat out ever. It’s amazing how cheap he did it.
What inspires you most about Aaron?
His motivation. It was not easy. The overtraining thing was hard on him—physically just really brutal. His grit was astounding. I also think that his reasons for doing it were inspiring. He did it for personal reasons. He wanted to see how much he could ski in a year and that’s it. He didn’t do it for attention or anything and I really believe that was all genuine having spent so much time with him. And afterwards, for the most part, he just thanked his sponsors and moved on.