Monday, November 28, 2022

How Chris Benchetler Turns Skiing into Art

An artistic shot created by Chris Benchetler in his 2019 film, Fire on the Mountain. | Screengrab from Fire on the Mountain.

The dozens of canvases cluttered in Chris Benchetler's art studio at his Mammoth Lakes home give an impression as if you had just walked inside a small temple where the walls were melting, oozing every possible mixture of color imaginable. The canvases are all sorts of different shapes and sizes; some are hanging up on the wall, tilted or upside down, while others are stashed away in the corner between boxes of paint and art supplies. A cool September breeze gently sways the pine trees visible from the studio's window. Between balancing time raising two young boys, working on several original art commissions, serving as Creative Director for Atomic Skis, supporting a wife battling cancer, and still finding time to go outside to ski, bike, or climb daily, going to the studio to make art is no small task for Benchetler. Yet, he still manages to find the time and show up every day.

"I view art—and skiing and rock climbing and all the things that I try to do on a daily basis—as a form of meditation. You're looking inward when your painting and you're really expressing yourself in that moment in that space and time."

Chris Benchetler’s Mammoth Lakes art studio. | Photo courtesy of Chris Benchetler Twitter

The inspiration behind Benchetler's art comes as the culmination of the 36 years he's spent on this planet, with a strong influence from nature, he told me. When I spoke with Benchetler on the phone one fresh autumn morning he was sitting in his backyard under a pine tree, taking a break from painting. The Mammoth Lakes, California, local is best known for his career as a professional skier and his line of Atomic Bent Chetler skis, which he helped create and continues to produce the renowned psychedelic artwork for. He's a master of his craft, having practiced it since the early days of his childhood.

Benchetler has been both a skier and an artist since before he could remember. He has a humble beginning on an alpine racing team as a young child and was always doodling and drawing on his school homework, he says. He entered local art competitions in elementary school, even recalling that once he won a stuffed animal as a prize at one of those contests. At 15, he was a professional skier who would soon appear at the X Games. By 22, he helped launch the first line of Atomic Bent Chetler skis, which have since become one of the most popular ski models on Earth. Now at 36, he's the director and star of several ski films and creator of a myriad of commissioned original works, from public murals to digital art. He's descended extremely technical big mountain lines in places like Alaska with an ease and style that's uniquely his own, often resembling something more of a big wave surfer than a freeride skier. He's also got a van that he once lived in, using it to travel around North America chasing powder. The side of it is painted with his own artwork.

Working with Atomic Skis, Benchetler helped create and launch the Bent Chetler ski in 2008 as his first professional art commission. Every year since, he and Atomic have showcased a fresh layer of signature-style graphics on the latest model of Bent Chetlers, summoning the imagination drawn from a life spent playing in the mountains. Just like with his skiing, his artistic style is uniquely his and is easily recognizable at first glance by almost anyone who skis or snowboards. The flow of creativity never seems to cease, and year after year he keeps bringing to the table new, mind-captivating designs for the Bent Chetler ski and his own artwork.

Chris Benchetler lays out a spin in the backcountry. | Photo courtesy of

When flowing down a mountain in fresh powder, pillars of white pouring over him as he maintains his speed, Benchetler says he feels a sense of connectedness. This is often where he gets the inspiration for his art, which gives viewers a perception of something flowing: something that is moving and breathing—that is alive. "From the soil to the trees to the plants—everything on this planet is connected," Benchetler told me. "Spending as much time as I do in the mountains has really helped me experience that firsthand."

Benchetler doesn't go out to ski a line because he thinks someone will like it. This same philosophy applies to his artwork. He does these things only to express himself as freely as possible—to push himself further, physically and mentally, without delegating any energy towards impressing an audience. This rids him of any self-imposed handicap, allowing him to express his vision purely.

Chris Benchetler creates his signature ‘Old Man Winter’. | Photo courtesy of Rolling Stone

Skiing and art provide the same emotions, Benchetler says. When he flows on the mountain, he takes that feeling of flow—that feeling of creative freedom—and applies it to the way he mixes his colors, strokes his paintbrush, and crafts one of his works. That feeling inspired by nature is used to express what is inside of himself in a blend of dripping color. You can physically see this palpable state of flow by looking at any one of his pieces, like the ones incorporating Old Man Winter that show an aged mountain spirit fused together with mountain scenery or ocean waves, with no clear distinction between where one subject ends and the other begins. At the time of our talk, Benchetler was working on several different paint pieces in his studio. Having dabbled with a little bit of everything he says, acrylic is his go-to and he's a big fan of watercolors. "Oils are great, too, but time-consuming."

As an artist, skier, human being—Benchetler believes it's important to never stop learning; to flow with the river of change rather than try and fight it. This mantra is exactly what led him to create his first ever Non-Fungible Token (NFT), or digital artwork, which Benchetler says is just another extension of the art world we live in. "To think back to when the internet was first being developed and all the photographers I worked with that were completely against going to digital cameras and all the cinematographers that didn't want to stop shooting with 16 millimeter, and then technology just happens. There's so much of Web3 that I do not understand, but it would be naive for me to think that it would not be part of our future."

Like the strong theme of community that surrounds the music of the Grateful Dead, which Benchetler has proclaimed his love for via his art and even a Grateful Dead-inspired ski film, Fire on the Mountain, his works are there to inspire whoever looks at them. By illustrating his own mind's eye depiction of the beauty surrounding the natural world, Benchetler believes he can incite in someone else that same sense of wonder. His art is there to encourage and captivate but also motivate.

On his website, there is a line of text that stands out. "When you tap into your mind, the right line always reveals itself…on the mountain and on the canvas." In a world that more and more seems to promote disconnectedness from mind and spirit, there are still those like Benchetler that give a visual snapshot of what tapping into your mind looks like—on the mountain and on the canvas. But there's a secret to this powerful statement. Tapping into your mind and finding your flow, feeling true creativity—it's not only possible by seasoned professionals or the spiritually inclined like Benchetler. Anybody can do it. You just have to be open enough to access it.

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Opinion: The Proposed Little Cottonwood Canyon, UT, Gondola System is a $500 Million Bandaid


Illustration of the proposed gondola. Credit:

A week ago, the Utah Department of Transportation declared the proposed Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola system as its favorite solution for the tedious traffic that gridlocks canyon travelers every winter. Most of these powder-hungry skiers and snowboarders are traveling to Snowbird and Alta, where the gondola will drop off passengers who board at the to-be-constructed La Caille Base Station at the mouth of the canyon. The project is a massive undertaking; once said and done, the half-a-billion-dollar investment will result in one of the world's longest, most advanced gondola systems, spanning over eight miles from the entrance of the canyon to world-class ski areas Snowbird and Alta. Once the current 45-day public review period ends, construction of the project can begin and will likely take several years. Click here for the Final EIS Summary Fact Sheet.

"[The gondola] is the most reliable mode of public transit in variable weather conditions and best meets the reliability goal of the project's purpose, while taking into consideration environmental impacts, public input, and overall life-cycle cost in comparison to the other four alternatives." - UDOT

To get the gondola rolling, they'll need to build A.) a giant parking garage and tram loading facility at the base of the canyon, B.) a gondola system with giant lift towers running the length of the canyon, and C.) receiving ports at Alta and Snowbird. Once that happens people won't have to drive up the canyon to get to Alta and Snowbird. But what about those who still want to go up the canyon but not all the way to the resorts?

The local backcountry skier is not served by the gondola unless they want to start touring out of the town of Alta. Even so, they'll still likely have to pay to use the gondola to get there. But isn't the point of going backcountry, at least for some, to avoid all the resort happenings and get out into the mountains on your own accord—on your own dime? The White Pine Trailhead or any of LCC's classic backcountry trails that access its legendary, ski-to-the-highway terrain which consists of several thousand-foot runs of steep backcountry skiing all land before the gondola's two drop-off points. How is a gondola going to serve any backcountry user wanting to go to any one of those popular zones other than by giving them an eyesore when they're skiing down and see a giant metal lift tower poking out of the surrounding scenery? And how about the quiet of the canyon that actually makes it a 'canyon', and not another parcel of man's development?

Little Cottonwood Canyon is gorgeous in the summertime; it's a great spot to hike or sit around and reflect—a refuge from the hustle and bustle of a valley of over 1 million just a couple miles away from it. I frequent the canyon and its accompanying creek. I spend time there in the summer to get out of the city and be in nature, even though civilization still encompasses me on all sides. It's a nice spot that keeps a certain spirit of nature alive, even if I'm pretending Salt Lake City isn't only a few minutes' drive down the highway. But with gondola towers poking out of the earth and stabbing several hundred feet into the sky, there will be no more pretending.

And what of the climbing, hiking, and even backcountry skiing areas that will be permanently altered by man's intrusion to obtrusively float himself through the sky and mountains to the ski area, where he'll likely still be waiting in line on a powder day? Local climbing advocacy group Salt Lake Climbers says that the gondola will "involve the destruction and/or removal of irreplaceable and historic world-class climbing resources," and that the machinery only serves some user groups and only in the wintertime. These climbers argue that the gondola would degrade the canyon's top-shelf climbing areas. I am a climber who often climbs in LCC and I can resonate with this sentiment. Also, some backcountry ski runs—no, every backcountry ski run that ends with a shot of the highway—will be changed forever. Where once a cool vibe and sound of a breeze could be heard there will be a noisy, tumultuous gondola system.

This map shows the bouldering impacts of the Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola alternative. | Photo courtesy of

So, if the gondola decreases the time it takes to get to the mountain, then that means more skiing for everyone and less time waiting around, right? I'm not convinced. According to Gondola Works, a group started by Snowbird that is in strong support of the gondola, it would take an estimated 30 minutes to get passengers from the proposed La Caille Base Station to Snowbird, and then a few minutes more to Alta. But did they mention the lines that will accumulate at the base station, and how much of a mess traffic will be down there, in the part of town where people actually live? Say it takes 30 minutes to wait in line to board the gondola, another 30 minutes to ride it, and then now with the extreme efficiency of people being able to get to the ski areas there are—oh!—more, even longer lines at the ski area's ticket offices and lifts. These are concerns I've yet to see UDOT publicly address. Also, I'm curious to see what portion of the project's funding the primary benefactors Alta and Snowbird will contribute, along with the taxpayer, because a 2021 estimate for the gondola forecasted the project would cost roughly $592 million, if not more. Where (who) will that cash be coming from?

UDOT estimates the total capital and maintenance cost estimates for each project through 2053 to be $724 million for the eight-mile-long gondola. However, many critics are skeptical of this estimation and insist that it could actually end up costing much more. This is because the estimate was made prior to the current rate of inflation and didn’t factor in the rising cost of construction materials like steel and concrete. As history has shown, large, unique, and complex construction projects, like one in a tight canyon and pristine nature area such as Little Cottonwood, can easily run significantly over budget. When things like cost overruns, delays, inflation, or earthquake mitigation are factored in, the cost of either proposed option could run upwards of $1 billion or more—expenses that traditionally affect the state’s taxpayers directly. And, with an expensive project like this and resorts spending big money to create gondola car receiving ports, it wouldn't come as a shocker if daily lift tickets and season pass prices went up at Snowbird and Alta. I think I can speak on behalf of the local community as well as skiers and snowboarders everywhere that no one wants pass prices to increase.

The proposed eight-mile route for the LCC gondola. | Photo courtesy of

Yet, all of that doesn't even mention the most important question of all, one that's even more important than the impact such a project would have on its environment and revenue gain—the one that asks how long would this project would last before the gondola itself becomes inefficient due to the rapidly growing population of the Salt Lake Valley. Just how long would it take for UDOT to get thrown back to the drawing board and have to spend another few hundred million? One can't help but wonder how long exactly this gondola would keep traffic at bay. 20 years? 15? 10? Is it worth spending a potential billion dollars to haphazardly patch up an issue that will eventually reopen as another problematic and costly wound in ‘x’ amount of years? Why isn’t UDOT thinking way ahead—I’m talking 50, 75, or 100 years down the line? Wouldn’t it be better to scrap the gondola that really only blesses two businesses—Snowbird and Alta—and look at the bigger picture instead?

What if, say, all of the ski areas in the Wasatch were connected into one big resort as they do over in the Alps with their several mountain, 200+ lift ski areas, where you can park at one resort or town on one side of a mountain range, like Park City, and then take chairlifts or ski runs to another resort altogether, like Alta and Snowbird? Tres Vallées in France is a prime example. Even though lifts in the place of a gondola wouldn't look much better in terms of disrupting the mountain's natural landscape, at least you could actually ski everything it intrudes upon and have it be controlled for avalanches. Plus, how many new jobs would be created for ski patrol, lifties, lodge personnel, and so forth when creating a 'mega ski area'? This idea seems like it'd do better for the population as a whole because there is another canyon right across the ridge with the same sort of traffic issues as Little Cottonwood, after all. Big Cottonwood Canyon is no better on a powder day—what's being done for it?

Tres Vallees trail map. | Photo courtesy of

I'm no economist nor engineer—I write and I ski—and I love these canyons and these ski areas just as much as any of you do. These mountains are my home—my livelihood. They will probably be the home and livelihoods of my children and grandchildren. I want to see my lineage live and ski in a positive environment that actually supports them to do so—that is actually sustainable for them to do so, in the long term. So I ask you; Snowbird, Alta, UDOT, the average citizen who visits and skis in this canyon: are you really willing to fork up an unholy amount of capital and change the entire geo-scape of this canyon for a short-term benefit rather than refocus on a long term solution that would keep the canyon more suitable for longer?

Opinion: the gondola is a band-aid and will look bad—physically, and on our part for not crafting something better that takes more into consideration the people that would ultimately be left to deal with this big, clunky thing. 

A common winter scene of cars and busses in gridlock in Little Cottonwood Canyon during the winter. | Photo courtesy of

Tuesday, July 19, 2022


Slowly yet oddly suddenly, the train rolled to a stop. As it sped down, bright dancing flashes of orange and yellow filled the windows. Tension rose in the cabin and murmurs grew into fast-paced talking from all directions. An intercom crackled. The talking among the passengers was now a loud, tumultuous moaning. They were told they were going to have to sit this one out. They couldn’t go anywhere but they were stirring in their seats. They were just sitting. Watching. The wildfire outside burned on both sides. It burned painfully fast and slow—it burned long.  You could hear it. Cackling. Burning. Wailing. The temperature outside was well over 100ºF as Spain and much of Europe endured the throws of the worst heatwave in God knows how long. It was getting hotter inside the train. My God, is the fire burning the train? Or are we all just sweating from fear? I can’t tell. The air was too stale. Too plastic. I was thirsty. The fire kept burning. We kept waiting. The children wouldn’t stop crying. Their mothers tried not to look out the window. Finally, the train started moving again and everybody cheered exhaustedly. We sailed through the smoke, the rusty glow of the blaze slowly fading through the thick gray smoke as we rolled further into darkness. 

Monday, May 16, 2022

A wise, crazy owl flies off into the moon


Image courtesy of

For Chris. 

There once lived an owl, too wise yet too crazy for his own good. Night by night, he soared the dark, wet air of the midnight forest, always keeping to himself. 

The darkness was his ally—his friend. He flew alone. 

On the night of the full moon, lightning flashed in the distance and a low-lying storm slithered in. 

It slowly draped the moon in its evil warmth. 

Every night, the owl scanned the ghostly forest from his secret perch. He watched and observed all. 

On this night, as the full moon's light was slowly swallowed by the advancing storm, the owl made not a sound, barely moving as he waited on his perch in a mangled tree. 

He was silent and sullen, even when he proceeded to drop from his branch and glide through the lull of the trees. 

As he flew, his feathers radiated rays of silver and white from the dying moonlight. He sailed directly towards the moon, his big luminous eyes fixed on it as he drew nearer.

He flew closer and closer to the moon until he got so far away that you could only see a dark speck steadily creeping towards the hidden horizon in the flash of a lightning strike. 

It wasn't before long until he flew right into the moon and could no longer be seen. He had made it, just as the storm clouds devoured the moon and they both departed into the night.