“Vaya a la cumbre” translates to “go up a mountain.” The saying is basically the Chilean version of the English idiom “go jump in a lake.”
The title is one hint that there is more going on with the film that premiered this weekend at The Meeting than your typical ski flick.
Made by Zach Ornitz and Ollie Nieuwland-Zlotnicki, two former Aspenites who went east to pursue graduate degrees, “Vaya a la Cumbre” is the story of a father-and-son duo from Aspen who run a remote ski area in the Chilean Andes. Its worldwide debut was Saturday night, playing before the highly anticipated Teton Gravity Research film “The Dream Factory.”
With no electricity, the lodge at El Arpa is built to withstand an avalanche, unlike the building that didn’t survive a slide in the area in the early 1980s, when veteran Aspen ski instructor Toni Sponar first made a run at running a resort on the land he bought.
With son Anton, the Sponars restarted the ski area about 10 years ago, heading south after each winter comes to a close in the Northern Hemisphere.
“Vaya a la Cumbre” tells the Sponars’ story — it’s one of hardship dealing with snowcat maintenance and the financial difficulties of running the resort. But it’s also a tale of chasing your dreams.
“It speaks to the aspirations of anyone living in a skiing community — who doesn’t want to own their own ski resort,” said Ornitz, who was a photographer for the Aspen Daily News for six years before he left to earn a master’s degree at Syracuse University in 2010. The film is his master’s thesis.
Ornitz and Nieuwland-Zlotnicki formed Sent Productions after making a film about skiing New Hampshire’s Tuckerman Ravine. Ornitz said both he and Nieuwland-Zlotnicki were drawn to that project by a feeling of missing the Colorado mountains.
The story about the Sponars had been kicking around for a while, and was originally conceived of by Nieuwland-Zlotnicki as an article that would be pitched to a ski magazine, Ornitz said. However, with Ornitz studying multimedia production, the format shifted to film. It runs 23 minutes long, cut down from 150 hours of raw footage collected on a trip to the Andes in summer 2011.
The overall goal, said Ornitz, who now lives in Boulder and keeps a day job producing video for the University of Colorado, is to bring a storytelling ethic to outdoor film making.
“There are a lot of very talented action-sports production companies,” Ornitz said. “They shoot visual poetry. ... I think we can add to that conversation with the telling of stories.”
Ornitz and Nieuwland-Zlotnicki made the film for under $10,000, Ornitz said. They have submitted it to outdoor film festivals, as well as more traditional film festivals such as Sundance and Tribeca. After the festival run, in about a year, Ornitz said they will post the film online for anyone to watch.