Sammy Carlson, Skier of the Year

Autonomous Skier: The Evolution of Sammy Carlson

Autonomous Skier: The Evolution of Sammy Carlson

Silver Screen

Level 1’s Second Generation (2001) started Sammy’s love affair with ski film.

“He was always watching ski movies,” says Rich. “Every night, he would lay there watching the same ones over and over and fall asleep that way. I’d say, ‘Don’t you ever get tired of watching these films?’”

Poor Boyz Productions owner Johnny DeCesare vividly remembers meeting Sammy at the Happy Dayz premiere in Portland in 2002. A 13-year-old Sammy had just had his poster signed by pro skier Shane Szocs, when he went up to DeCesare and asked for his signature. “Just so you know, I’m going to be in your movie some day,” said Sammy.

Sammy Carlson, Skier of the Year

Photo by Adam Clark. Location: Neacola, AK

Rachael remembers Sammy at a younger age telling Warren Miller the same thing when he met the filmmaker at Timberline.

A couple years later, Sammy and Johnny hit it off on the chairlift at a Gravity Games contest. The next Wednesday, he was on a plane to France, where he impressed the crew with off-axis 7s, double grab truck drivers and a work ethic they’d never seen before. “He’d be going 100 percent, as hard as any guy, to the last day,” says DeCesare. “I told him he had enough for two [film parts], and he still wanted to make things better.”

The footage came together for his first legitimate segment, which helped PBP’s WAR win best film at the Powder Video Awards in 2005 with what DeCesare calls a “wow factor.” He landed the opening segment in the 2006 film Ski Porn and went on to star in five more PBP films. “I think he’s probably the best guy to build video segments of all time,” says DeCesare. “Pep [Fujas] is near the top for me, and I’ve seen great segments from Tanner and JP [Auclair], but Sammy is equally as good. He knows how to build a segment that you want to watch over and over again.”

Sammy starred in four Matchstick Productions films between 2006 and 2009 and has been filming with Teton Gravity Research (TGR) since 2009. “There are the guys who go out and do a trick and it’s perfect, it’s textbook, it’s robotic—it lacks a little fl are and edge,” says Todd Jones, co-founder of TGR and veteran cinematographer. “Sammy’s style has something about it. He’s not over-tweaking the grab. He’s grabbing tail about one and a half feet away, where it feels good and looks good. And he has these slow rotations that never feel rushed. He sets it, does the grab and seems like he hangs there and enjoys where he is.”

On run one of his first TGR shoot in the backcountry near Grand Targhee in 2009, Sammy hit a wedge jump with too much speed, over-rotated and crashed at the bottom of the landing, almost biting through his tongue. When he got back on the horse that same day, he stole the show. Later that season, Sammy was hitting the infamous jump at Stevens Pass that took out both Hall and Wiley Miller, when, according to Jones, just as the light was getting low, he hit the zone.

“He was turning the pages of tricks—the 3, the 5, the 9, the switch 9—just riding a curve of energy when he came over the radio and said, ‘This one’s for CR’,” recalls Jones. “He’s not a claimer, so I thought ‘Oh my God, shit is about to go down.’”

That’s when Sammy threw a 100-plus-foot switch 1440 in perfect alpenglow light.

The shot closed his segment in TGR’s Re:Session, which a critic called “some of the most memorable booter footage in the last five years in ski cinematography,” and solidified the 20-year-old slopestyle skier as a serious force in the backcountry and on the big screen.

Sammy Carlson, Skier of the Year

Photo by Ruedi Flück. Location: St. Luc, SUI

It was ultimately that X Games gold medal back in 2011 that pushed Sammy to follow his new passion, the backcountry, and to explore his home mountain like no freeskier had done before. He solicited $5,000 from each of his sponsors, threw in the same amount himself and, with a local crew, spent two months of the summer building and filming a unique jump setup above Mt. Hood’s lift-accessed terrain. With the help of Nimbus Independent and Yaps, Sammy released a 25-minute film titled On Top of the Hood.

As he transitioned to spending all of his time filming in the backcountry, Sammy hit his stride. He loved everything about it—the long days, the snowmobiling, the builds, the high-consequence terrain and the creative freedom. “Every session in the backcountry brought new feelings,” says Sammy. “That’s what skiing is all about.”

He thrived in the new X Games discipline of Real Ski, winning three gold medals in three years, and living out his definitive vision of skiing. The pillow combinations in his 2015 Real Ski video convinced Douglas, a Real Ski Backcountry judge, to vote for Sammy.

“Nobody has ever done what Sammy did there,” says Douglas. “That pillow skiing was truly next level. He’s one of the most talented skiers of this generation, but what makes him so exciting to watch is that he sees opportunity for tricks in places on the mountain that no one else does.”

On His Own

Scotty Titterington, who filmed Sammy for Real Ski and The Sammy C Project, says Sammy’s work ethic is unmatched. “Most people go up, hit a line, land their trick and come back to the camera,” says Titterington. “I’ve seen him land nine switch 9s in a row.”

“He really understands what goes into making a jump shoot work,” says Jasper Newton, Sammy’s other main filmer for The Sammy C Project. “He’ll be thinking about the cuts, the action shot, what still shots he needs. He knows if he requires a photographer or a second angle. Everything is timely and efficient. He’s a producer as much as he is a skier.”

That hands-on style and frequent radio communication [with filmers and photographers] can frustrate some, but Jones says he’s earned a level of respect because of his commitment and passion. “He gets certain byes,” says Jones. “He’s going 120 feet and torqueing crazy tricks, so if he tells me to move 20 feet to the left, I’ll do it.”

That DIY spirit translates to the business side of his career. Sammy personally pursued sponsorship from Oakley, Nike and, most recently, Armada, with old-fashioned phone calls and a friendly persistence that’s hard to ignore. He regularly calls photo editors and marketing executives to pitch progressive ideas. Though Yaps advises Sammy and helps with major negotiations, Sammy is currently without formal representation. “At the end of the day, I want everything to be on me,” says Sammy.

Sammy Carlson, Skier of the Year

Photo by Darcy Bacha. Location: Mt. Hood, OR

And as director of the recently released The Sammy C Project, it is. When Sammy first proposed a two-year project to TGR, Jones knew he was legitimately committed to progressing the sport; he offered Sammy complete creative freedom and the opportunity to hand pick his team.

“The past two winters weren’t the best,” says Sammy. “We had to work for it. We went out when most crews had down days, and we’d come back with a full day’s shot list.”

The 40-minute film includes footage Jones shot with a gyro-stabilized GSS C520, the $750,000 aerial camera system that was used on the set of The Hobbit and The Amazing Spiderman. The Sammy C Project pushes the limits of skiing as much as it does filming. Sammy’s ten years of experience culminate in nonstop A-roll, from a memorable switch 5 down a triple stack of pillows followed by a 3 off the bottom, to a switch drop-in on an old Nordic ski jump in Michigan. And his big-mountain segment rivals the shots put out by Ian McIntosh, who joined him in Alaska to ski spines in the remote Neacola Range. “Who would have thought I’d roshambo for lines with Sammy Carlson?” says McIntosh in the film.

Watch: Official trailer for The Sammy C Project

“In the land of solo projects, I love that the stage is equal for everyone, but I’m the first guy to get bored,” says Jones. “Sammy’s skiing makes everything else look like a high school dance. His skiing is ridiculous and unique and interesting to watch, and he’s truly worthy of doing his own thing.”

Also Read: “Life is More Than Just Skiing: The Philosophy of Angel Collinson”

Sammy spent close to three months in an editing bay this past summer and fall, selecting shots with editors Anthony Birkholz and Ryan Halverson, working for music rights and helping organize the film tour.

For Sammy, the project isn’t about him—it’s about commitment. “The film represents hard work,” says Sammy. “The message is to inspire people to go out there and do their own thing even if it’s completely different. I want it to show people if they put time and energy into something, anything is possible.”

Sammy Carlson, Skier of the Year

Photo by Flip McCririck. Location: Copper Park, MI

If the maximum-capacity crowd at the Roseland Theater in Portland was half as inspired as they sounded on November 20, 2015 at the world premiere of The Sammy C Project, Sammy accomplished his goal. The level of stoke that reverberated through the venue the entire running time of the film reached a decibel I haven’t heard in years from a ski audience at a film premiere. Superlative comments poured faster than the draft IPA. And half the crowd walked five sketchy blocks from the theater to the after party to listen to the music guest Sammy flew in from France. The most memorable quote I heard that night came from an industry veteran who, after seeing Sammy’s display of versatility and progression, called him “the best skier in the world right now.” Zach Carlson, 32, credited his brother’s foresight. “He’s done a really good job of seeing where the sport is going and seeing what people respond to.”

From a determined young kid to a talented park skier to a hard-working businessman and backcountry film star, Sammy has committed himself 100 percent to each goal he’s accomplished. By steering his own career and never following the safe, proven path, Sammy has and always will ski on his own terms.

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