High-Altitude Action at the X Games Aspen: Brett Wilhelm and Lowepro

Editor’s note: For the next few days you’ll find Brett Wilhelm at Aspen/Snowmass covering the over-the-top skiing and snowboarding action at the 2013 Winter X Games. A photographer, videographer and technology director for Rich Clarkson and Associates, LLC, Brett is a man who wears many hats (and he’s also a Black Collar Worker – for more on that, please read his entertaining and informative blog). He also serves as Workshop Director for the Summit Series of Workshops, and shoots the occasional side project out of his home-base of Boulder, Colorado.

Brett was kind enough to give us a bit of time as he and colleagues prepped for the current Aspen games. It’s awesome to get a firsthand account of this premier extreme sports event from this seasoned pro shooter. Read on and enjoy!

© Joshua Duplechian. 2013 Winter X Games Aspen

© Joshua Duplechian. Brett Wilhelm on the pipe at the Winter X Games Aspen

Can you give us some background on how you got started photographing the X Games?
The original call came, as many do in this industry, through friends of friends. Back in 2004, my roommate at the time was a filmmaker, and his former college roommate was then senior editor at EXPN.com (the forerunner to ESPN.com/Action and now XGames.com). They were looking for a local photo editor for Aspen, and he’d originally called my roommate, but my roommate ended up just recommending me.  I wasn’t technically a local and there wasn’t a budget for transportation and lodging, so I drove up and couched surfed to make it happen. A lot has changed since then! We’ve taken over more of the photography duties, developed an searchable archive for them and deployed Clarkson technology into their workflow. I always look forward to a great group of people on the XGames.com team, including working with my fellow staff photographers and extremely talented co-conspirators, Mark Kohlman and Joshua Duplechian.

Seeing a lot of “wild stuff” is kind of the norm at the X Games Aspen. What are you most looking forward to at this year’s event?
This event continues to amaze me with the innovation going on from year to year. Compared to the nearest neighbors in sport, perhaps gymnastics or ski aerials, the disciplines of slopestyle and superpipe skiing/snowboarding are still in their relative infancy. Thus, the complexity and creativity are still evolving at an incredibly rapid pace. Each event, tricks are executed that we just didn’t think were possible a year before. The talk of the town this week is the “Triple Cork”, an off-axis 1440. That’s four complete rotations with three flips added in for good measure. The cat-like ability to flip that many times in just a second or two of airtime and still land cleanly on your feet to ride away still boggles my mind. We’re hoping to see it landed for the first time at the X Games in snowboard slopestyle or perhaps ski big air. In ski pipe alone we have a couple veterans (at the ripe old age of their mid-twenties) coming back from injury after a season or two off, and it will be very interesting to see if they can catch up to the progression of the sport, and their 18 year old compatriots, even over just the last season or two that they’ve been out. Same for two-time Olympic Gold medalist Shaun White, returning to Snowboard Slopestyle competition after a few years focusing solely on Pipe, and he’s facing a similar challenge.

The other big news is moving to six events this year, taking us back to Aspen and Los Angeles, as well as Tignes, Barcelona, Munich and Foz do Iguacu! In short, anytime I’m out of the office and working in the mountains or across the globe, it’s something I’m looking forward to!

© Brett Wilhelm. 2013 Winter X Games AspenDo you have any personal tricks for setting up your gear to get the most of the action?
The modern Nikons we use are a marvel; the jump in high ISO performance in recent years has been a true game changer since so many of the prestige events here take place at night under essentially portable event lighting. I can’t think of any specific tips special to this event, other than to truly know and understand your equipment. When I get a new piece of gear, I take the time to sit down and read the manual cover to cover. Understand what the equipment can and can’t do for you and, more importantly, make sure that stuff is second nature to you, so can focus on creative imagery and you aren’t fumbling with controls when the temperature plummets and you’re ham fisted with frozen fingers.

I also keep a regular car cleaning chamois in my kit for taking water/melted snow off the cameras when it’s dumping out; they’re great for absorbing a ton of water for their weight, much better than lens cloths/towels. I also keep a nylon artists brush (maybe 1-1.5 inch width – get the nylon, not the natural hair brush, break off the handle) as it’s excellent for getting snow off the glass and out of the barrel of the lenses WITHOUT melting back to water and causing droplets. Lens cloths start heating up and absorbing water and that gets problematic quickly.  A couple of quick swipes every few minutes and you stay clear.

Finally, a big development in recent years is adapting our Clarkson wireless transmission system, using off the shelf technologies from Nikon and Photoshelter, combined with experience from a few years practice, we’re now transmitting live from the mountain to XGames.com and ESPN.com  editors in near-real time so that photos and web updates can keep pace with the broadcast. That’s been huge for us and I’m not sure where else photographers have been pushing wireless transmission to these kinds of limits in outdoor environments.

How do you deal with extremes in temperature?
Dressing warmly/comfortably is obviously a huge component – your creativity and reaction time drops off dramatically if you’re miserable. The charcoal/chemical pocket warmers are a lifesaver here, toe warmers in your boots, hand warmers in your gloves and sometimes the large “body warmers” stuck to the bottom of your camera battery can do wonders to keep you and your equipment functioning properly. The fingerless gloves with built-in “mitten flap” (available from many outdoors or fly fishing shops) are great because you can stick the heat pack in the mitten flap and only uncover the fingers you need for whatever task you’re doing.

© Brett Wilhelm. 2013 Winter X Games Aspen

At the same time, never bring your gear in to a warm room/event trailer from the freezing cold if you plan on going back out with it; everything will fog up immediately, so we do our best to keep it right outside the door within eyesight when we’re downloading.

What do you use to carry your gear as you cover events?
The workhorse of my kit is my trustworthy old Photo Trekker. I can’t tell you the number of trips it’s made with me all over the place, and I somehow have managed to take it on planes no matter what the size limit. It’s critical my entire kit stays with me as carryon and it’s just the right size to fit. On location, or on shorter gigs from home, I’ve been loving my Photo Sport 200 AW and Inverse 200 AW to maintain a low profile, and the built-in covers work not only to protect my gear when the heavens open, but also as a clean work space for setting gear down in the snow or dirt!

What’s a surprising “X Games survival item” that one might find in your camera bag?
A can of Red Bull!

Katrina Neill

About Katrina Neill

Katrina was the Senior Editor & Communications Manager for Lowepro.

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