Behind the scenes at the King of the Dolomites

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Lorenzo Rieg’s shot of Knut tackling a line above San Martino

Ever wondered if you can make it in the world of ski photography – behind or in front of the lens? Head to San Martino di Castrozza for its annual freeride photography contest to find out, says Knut Myking

Photography is determining and documenting the direction of skiing in a big way; telling the world what skiing is, what it is about, and how people do it. The King of the Dolomites (KOD), a freeride photography contest organised by Arc’teryx in San Martino di Castrozza each February, is part of this.

I was lucky enough to be invited to the 2014 event. The rules are simple: 15 pro photographers (there are also categories for amateurs and under 18s), each with a team of two riders plus a mountain guide, has two days to shoot the best freeride images of their lives. The strongest three pictures of each rider must be uploaded to the judges by midnight on the final day of the contest. The aim? To walk away with the €1500 cash prize and prestigious KOD title.

My team consisted of Henrik Langeland, a fellow Norwegian pro rider, and Innsbruck-based photographer Lorenzo Rieg. Cue 48 hours of cliff hucking, powder slashing and all-round freeride antics.

THURSDAY NIGHT

It was less than 12 hours until the competition kicked off: time to make a plan. I met up with Henrik and Lorenzo at Rifugio Colverde, just outside San Martino di Castrozza. Our sheets were pretty blank, as not only had we never met before, but none of us had skied San Martino and we knew very little about what to expect from the terrain. The only thing we did know was that the resort was part of the Dolomites, characterised by mighty cliffs that rise to almost 3000m, and stomach-in-your-mouth couloirs.

A few beers later we had a plan: have as much fun as possible, while shooting photos in the process. Easy. Rain in town meant it was snowing higher up, and according to the weather forecast a cold spell was on its way. Bring on tomorrow.

FRIDAY

Blue skies greeted us as we opened our curtains. After a quick breakfast we met our guide, Narcie, a local veteran and legend. He had lots of cool stories about his hippie days in Australia in the 70s, about how he got into climbing and guiding. The lift queue was never boring with this guy!

For our first day we decided to keep it simple and take advantage of lines visible from the ski lifts. What immediately struck us was the diversity of the terrain – there is something for every kind of freeskier, from pillow lines in the woods to rolling hills for kickers. We followed Narcie’s lead from lift to lift, laying down various cliff jumps and big turns in untracked snowfields as we went – Lorenzo’s camera continuously firing away.

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Knut and Henrik in action

To reach the best snow we had to get our hike on; we bootpacked around the top of the Cima Tognola chairlift to an open, fairly steep snowfield, parts of which were tinged yellowy brown from sand blown over from Lebanon. I aired the wind lip, landed on the face and put in a big sweeping turn. I assumed from Lorenzo’s “whoop!” that he was happy with the shot.

After a quick sandwich at Malga Valcigolera we continued with our mission until the lifts closed.

Back at the hotel, we made a plan for the next day: alpine skiing around the highest lift, Rosetta (2473m), if the weather was clear, or hit the trees if the visibility was poor.

The day, however, was far from over. The KOD organisers had arranged a party at Ranch, a bizarre Western-style bar in the centre of town. The vibe was amazing; the place was packed, people stamping their feet to a band led by a hard-core looking girl playing the contrabass. I remember the shot-ski being sent around. I don’t remember what time we went to bed.

SATURDAY

We woke with heavy heads. But there was no time to lose: it had snowed 30-50cm during the night and powder was ours for the taking. After a quick visit to the restrooms on top of Alpe Tognola we started searching for lines between there and Punta Ces.

We crammed a lot of skiing into the following five hours; normally a run would include two or three stops for shooting – such as a big powder turn, or cliff jump, or pillow line – and then a fast freeride down to the valley to take the lift up again for another round. While we didn’t get to ski any couloirs, we got plenty of face shots, which we were stoked about.

That night we went through all the photos. It turned out that the strongest images were mostly from the first day. After a few stressful hours of editing, Lorenzo uploaded our favourite shots to the judges, just before the strike of midnight. Mission complete.

SUNDAY

We didn’t win. Well, not the KOD title anyway. As we gathered at Sass Maor Square for the public ceremony – where there was a big screen showing all the pictures from the competition – it was announced that Aosta-born photographer Pietro Celesia had bagged the crown, along with skiers Daniel Perathoner and Massimo Chicco. But, really, this is a win/win sort of event, as not only do you get two days of awesome freeriding, but as a team you produce great and valuable footage which can be used in many ways.

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Pietro Celesia’s judge-pleasing shot

This year’s event will take place in San Martino di Castrozza from 20th to 22nd of February 2015, in the Eastern Dolomites of Trentino – at the foot of the majestic Pale di San Martino (San Martino Peaks).

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