The Night Shift

Stephen Matthews, Sarah Leishman, Reuben Krabbe and Kenny Smith settling in for the night at the patrolers’ shack on top of Whistler Peak.

The Night Shift - Bear Scent and Hospital Visits at Deep Summer

It’s 4 a.m., and Kenny Smith pops in a lip of chew and shoots a bit of whiskey. Then he and Reuben Krabbe walk off into the first light of the day to win the 2012 Deep Summer Photo Challenge.

The resulting photo—a silhouette of Smith riding the side of a rocky notch with the mountains above Whistler valley in the background—still gives me shivers two years later. It was my first time at Crankworx, and I was lucky enough to be Rueben’s photo assistant during the three days that led to his award-winning slideshow. I was still fresh to the game at the time, and when Reuben asked me to help I jumped on the chance, knowing it would be an invaluable learning experience. This year, after I was asked to be part of the 2014 Photo Challenge myself, I’ve been thinking a lot about those three exhausting days, and some of the memories that stuck out of the madness.

Coming into the contest, Reuben had already lost one athlete: Geoff “Gully” Gelovich had tomahawked himself down some rocks a few days prior, but Kenny and Stephen Matthews showed up ready to ride…even if it did look like they had just stumbled out of the bar. Sarah Leishman, as usual, was the most enthused that first morning at registration, but between Reuben’s thorough scouting and the tenacity of the group, things immediately began shaping up as we headed into the bike park (sans Gully).

Towards the end of the second day, Reuben decided we were going to spread a bear-attracting scent (yes, they make it) around a section of Black Velvet, the theory being a berm would look even cooler with a monster black bear in the frame. Being the photo assistant, the task of actually applying the scent obviously got stuck to me—as did the bear scent itself, which refused to wash off my hands and left me glancing nervously at any bush-rustling.

I returned to find Reuben setting up his tree-climbing equipment, and after a half-hour of finagling got him about 15 feet up—too far to make any changes himself, and with not enough light left to get the climbing gear set up again. So, when he decided he had too long a lens for the shot, it was up to me to facilitate the switch—meaning I had to catch a $2,000 lens dropped from 15 feet up a tree, and then somehow shimmy his fisheye back up that distance.

Stephen Matthews helping Kenny Smith make his way to the top of the now-world-famous “V”...with some help from early morning whisky and a plug of Grizzly.

I dropped the lens hood on the trial run, but Reuben—maybe because he appreciated my hard work and saw some potential, maybe because he had no choice—decided to trust me, and when the hefty, multi-thousand-dollar Nikon lens dropped I focused every bit of hand-eye coordination I had. I couldn’t let Reuben down.

The universe was kind, and I caught the lens. I soon found myself standing on the seat of a bike leaned up against the tree, fisheye in my mouth and bear hugging the trunk. You know the movie scenes where one guy is falling off a cliff, and his buddy is just finger tips away from saving him? Handing off the lens felt like that, and with a lunge Rueben was able to snag the fisheye, swap it out and get off the shot just in time.

The bears never showed, but the image still made it into the final slideshow. Thinking about, that might have been a good thing—my hands still had a hint of bear scent a few days later.

A few hours before Smith and Rueben headed off into the sunrise for that iconic valley shot, we were all sleeping on Whistler Peak. Kenny, Rueben and Stephen slept on the benches of the mouse-dropping-infested warming-hut; Sarah and I opted to sleep on the deck. The rest was brief, however: while it was still dark, Sarah and myself took the night shift with Reuben, shooting under one of the greatest meteor showers in the last decade. As morning rose, the dawn patrol crew headed off to put our names in the history books.

The night—well, technically morning—before, Sarah had ridden a section of the Peak Trail sans headlamp, only the pop of 1,100-watt flash to guide her through near total darkness. It took a few attempts and a couple hours of struggle, but little did we know the true endurance test wouldn’t start until after Sarah nailed the shot.To preserve the star-trail effect, Reuben instructed us not to walk by the camera, effectively leaving us stuck on a mountain, in the open, for well over an hour. As we waited patiently for the camera to finish up, I discovered that rocks don’t make good pillows; when it turned out the shot wasn’t what Reuben originally intended, I discovered that failure is part of the photography game. In fact, now I see it as one of the biggest thrills.

Party on, Wayne. Kenny Smith celebrates a successful first descent. Party on, Kenny.

On the second-to-last evening we were ripping down A-Line, each loaded down with about 40 pounds of camera gear. Mid-hit over a tabletop, Reuben caught his pack on his bars, throwing him off balance, off the trail and onto $20,000 worth of lenses. To much dismay, Reuben was significantly injured and required a prompt visit to the hospital. The following day started out with sore bones and torn skin for Reuben, but he pushed through—bruises or not, in Deep Summer tradition the show must go on.

Now in its sixth year, the Deep Summer Photo Challenge has showcased some of the best photographers in the mountain bike world, both up-and-comers on their way to success and legends who had long ago achieved it. For me, challenging myself as a photographer isn’t so much about winning; it’s a celebration of the art and creativity we all get to be a part of. Deep Summer has always been the perfect representation of that; even if it meant getting smothered in bear scent.

When it came time to show the slideshows, Reuben’s was slated to finish off the night, and I am unashamed to say that watching it on the big screen for the first time brought tears to my eyes. Everyone’s show that night was incredible, and I’ll never forget the moment Mitchell Scott announced we had won.

Looking back, the three days with Reuben are a blur for the most part. I remember passing out from sheer exhaustion on the cold tile floor of our condo halfway through the weekend, wondering if we were going to be able to pull it off. This year I know I’ll still be exhausted, but I also know how valuable those memories will be.

And whether I can pull it off? That remains to be seen.