Skiing’s Cover Boy: Sven Brunso, outworking pro skiers since 1995

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About 20 years ago, a 26-year-old unsponsored skier named Sven Brunso called one of skiing’s eminent photographers of the era, Henry Georgi, praised his work and asked how he could join him on a photo shoot. Georgi told Brunso that if he came to Fernie, BC he’d have his chance. Brunso finished his serving shift at The Red Snapper in Durango, Colorado at 10 p.m., used his tips to fill up his gas tank and drove for a day and a half to Fernie, where Georgi told him to hop in his minivan. They drove three and a half hours to Whitetooth (now Kicking Horse), then skinned above the resort and a photogenic inversion. At this point, Brunso was seeing double—he hadn’t slept in 48 hours—but he knew working with Georgi was the opportunity of a lifetime for an aspiring professional skier. Brunso made his first turn. Ten months later, in December of 1999, that very turn graced the cover of Men’s Journal.

The duo continued shooting together for 15 years, taking trips around Canada and the Alps. Hundreds of the photos they produced were featured in print magazines, many of them on covers. They earned the front page of Powder, Ski Canada, Aka Skidor, the Daily Mail and more.

“Every time we shot together, we’d get stuff published,” says Georgi. “I’d say, ‘I think we got it,’ and Sven would say, ‘I’ll hike one more time.’ His love for skiing is his motivation, 100 percent. Some come and go, but Sven probably has the longest lifespan in skiing I’ve seen.”

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Brunso in Adelboden, Switzerland. Photo: Liam Doran

Brunso grew up on the beaches of California and never had a ski lesson. Now, he lives in the arid Southwest, has a wife, Beth, and two kids, Stowe and Aspen, and works full time. Yet, at 46, he still bags more covers and mag inclusions than most professional skiers. In fact, Brunso has racked up more than 100 covers and 2,000 published photos. Beyond appearing in most every ski rag in the world, Brunso’s image has surfaced in US News & World Report, in-fight magazines, medical journals, Colorado history books, motivational calendars and even on the tail of a 737 flown by Western Pacific Airlines in the late ’90s. Through hard work, loyalty, tenacity and communication, Brunso has created a ski career for himself with seemingly no end in sight.

The first time photographer Liam Doran shot with Brunso, they skied around Coal Bank Pass, 30 miles from Brunso’s home in Durango and one of the areas in the San Juan Mountains Brunso skis the most. (After 23 years of skiing the US Route 550 corridor, Brunso has finally climbed and skied every roadside mountain from Purgatory to Ouray.) “We were scouting around and Sven said something ridiculously helpful like, ‘The sun will hit that face at 7:42 a.m. from the east,’” says Doran. On their second day shooting together, the pair produced two photographs that graced magazine covers.

“When you shoot with Sven, you’re never wandering around without a plan. You’re never on the wrong side of the valley,” says Doran. “He loves the chase, he loves searching for perfect snow and hunting the light. I’ll say, ‘Dude, we got it. It’s 7:30 at night, I’m exhausted, it’s dark. Let’s go home,’ and he’ll already have his skis on his shoulder and be hiking up for one more shot.”

Since the Colorado trip, Doran and Brunso have shot together in places such as Chile, Switzerland and Mammoth. Doran says Brunso continually works on his form and style. “After a few days of shooting, he will go through and look at every photo and determine whether his pole is in the right place, if he’s leaning too far forward, if the color of his gloves is right, and he will make adjustments,” says Doran. “As far as a straight powder shot, there are very few people who are on the same level as him. He never misses his spot. He’s always on it. There are numerous well-known athletes who can’t make the mark. He hits it every single time.”

Originally from Huntington Beach, California, Brunso always aspired to ski instead of surf. His parents weren’t skiers, and they couldn’t afford trips to Mammoth, let alone ski school. But when they visited family in Prescott, Arizona, Brunso’s dad would take him to Williams Ski Area, which had a Poma and a rope tow. He learned how to ski by watching the Olympics on TV and studying images in ski magazines.

While attending the University of Arizona in the late ‘80s, Brunso skied as much as 60 days a year at Mt. Lemmon Ski Valley, Arizona Snowbowl, Sunrise Park Resort and the backcountry off Mount Lemmon Highway. He also worked at a ski shop in Tucson, which sent him to SnowSports Industries America’s annual trade show in Las Vegas during his junior year. There, he waited in a long line to meet skiing icon Glen Plake. When his turn came, Brunso asked him if they could ski together if he came to South Lake Tahoe, and to Brunso’s surprise, Plake gave him his phone number. A few weeks later when Brunso rolled into Tahoe with the University of Arizona ski club, he immediately found a payphone and called Plake, who invited him over to his garage where he was mounting skis. The next day, Brunso followed Plake around Kirkwood.

“On one of the last chairlift rides of the day, I told him I would love to be a sponsored skier someday, chasing storms around the world,” says Brunso. “He told me anything was possible.” Years later, Plake called a contact at Oakley and helped Brunso land a sponsorship deal with the brand that he still has today. Brunso has been with three other sponsors—Fischer, Leki and Osprey—more than 20 years.

“When I was starting out and had nothing published, I said I would stick with any company who supported me,” says Brunso. That loyalty runs in two directions. Companies keep Brunso on the payroll for reasons beyond the exposure. His sponsors agree that his communication sets him apart. In fact, Brunso admits he over-communicates. He’s a fan of postcards and handwritten notes. (As the writer of this story, I received a thank-you card from Sven before I even finished the piece.)

Sven Brunso skiing at Mt. Baker

Brunso snorkeling at Mt. Baker, Washington. Photo: Grant Gunderson

“He’s über organized,” says Matt Berkowitz, Fischer team manager. “He went out a week before our shoot and texted me locations he scouted. Then he went out and put in skin tracks a couple days before the shoot, just so we could be more efficient. He is more proactive and organized than the majority of the athletes I deal with. You can’t not want to work with a guy like that.”

“A lot of athletes, you hear from twice a year,” says Greg Wozers, Leki USA VP. “Once to ask for poles, and a second time to ask for more poles. Sven always let us know what he’s doing—he’s always just there. I’ve always introduced him as the hardest-working man in the industry. I’ve never seen anyone as prolific as Sven in the amount of shooting he does and the amount of content he supplies to us. He gives back way more than what’s expected.” Last winter, after two decades of product testing, negotiating contracts, scouting new athletes and assisting with photo shoots, Brunso took on the team manager role for Leki, helping the company when it was stretched thin.

On top of it all, he also consults for Swedish ski apparel company Elevenate and just acquired his real estate license. That’s on top of his full-time sales and marketing role at PhotoFolio, a photography website company owned by his main backcountry skiing partner. The job, which he took in 2014, allows him flexibility to travel and ski—more than he had as the VP of Sales and Marketing for Purgatory Resort—a position he held for 12 years. Still, no gig has matched the ski freedom Brunso enjoyed while serving and managing at a popular restaurant in Durango from 1993 to 2002—he skied 277 days between September and July his first year.

Last season, starting at Portillo in August and ending in the San Juans in June, Brunso racked up 171 days on skis. When the first ski magazines arrived in his mailbox in August, a giddy Brunso opened one to find a two-page spread Doran had shot of him at Taos Ski Valley over the winter. “I can honestly say I’m just as excited to see something show up in print now as I was in the beginning,” says Brunso. “There is still something about seeing images in print that is unparalleled.”

That enthusiasm for producing inspiring images on snow, combined with his work ethic, determination, allegiance and reliability, all but guarantee Brunso’s successful ski career lasts as long as he hits the mark.

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