I had connected with him during a spring trip from Colorado to visit my college buddy Nathan Wallace and ski Mammoth, maybe even some of the legendary peaks of the surrounding High Sierra. Nathan had been backcountry skiing with Pondella all season and I jumped right on their train. The highlight of many descents we did was an overnight mission to the north couloir of a mountain called Red Slate, an exposed and aesthetic line right off the summit, one of the crown jewels of the area. It was the scariest and most exhilarating experience of my young life.
The images Pondella captured there were stellar—steep, technical skiing with a wild backdrop of soaring rock faces. We knew we had the goods—this was the kind of cutting-edge skiing we wanted to see in magazines.
The ponytail is just a memory now, but the skiing isn’t, and today Pondella is one of the world’s most accomplished adventure photographers and a ski mountaineer with an extensive list of descents on six continents.
Passion can take you a long way; in this case, from the sunny smog of the Los Angeles suburbs of Pondella’s childhood to the world’s great ranges. For 25 years Pondella has been at the forefront of modern freeskiing—AK big mountain skiing, technical high-elevation ski mountaineering, pure Cham-style steep skiing, remote wilderness expeditions, park and pipe shoots—with the covers and campaigns to prove it. His subjects and ski partners are a Who’s Who of generations of great skiers—Glen Plake, Chris Davenport, Shane McConkey, Andreas Fransson, Seth Morrison, Eric Pollard, Chris Benchetler, Hilaree Nelson, to name more than a few.
Pondella has built his career on images that embody light and dark, bright colors, palpable textures, majestic backdrops, snow flying around and catching light, an angle-emphasizing composition, and a skier at a decisive moment. While he has his share of heavily setup, nighttime strobe shots or Red Bull events in his decades-long history, his signature ski images are made on slope, in the backcountry, about 10 feet from a ripping skier on steep and exposed terrain.
“I think the on-snow perspective is what defines my work,” he says. “Ski mountaineering is the passion—camera or not—but I love documenting the experience.”
In 2011, I made the mistake of accompanying Pondella and Davenport on one of Davenport’s missions to ski all the 14ers in the United States. The target was White Mountain on the California and Nevada border, at 14,252 feet, the third-highest in California and a marathon day that started on dirt in a rugged desert canyon seven miles away and 7,000 feet below.
Just under 14,000 feet, fading fast after seven straight hours of grinding uphill, I looked across the slope at Pondella and he was accelerating, lengthening his skinning strides until he was loping like a wolf, as if the summit was food. There may be better big mountain skiers and better endurance athletes, but Pondella is as strong as anyone in the mountains. He’s basically just tendons and a cardiopulmonary system with a predator’s instinct and a camera.
Anyone who has ever tried to shoot skiing with a wide-angle lens knows how it flattens terrain and shrinks mountains. But that’s the key to Pondella’s greatest ski images—he doesn’t shoot out the door of a helicopter or from the other side of the valley with a huge telephoto lens. Instead, he prides himself on shooting a descent while skiing, camera in hand and close to his subjects.
For him it’s a selfish choice. “I hate to water down my ski experience for the photography. I take pride in skiing for fun first,” he says. “If I’m shooting skiing, then I’m skiing. There’s not many kinds of sports photography where you have to be doing the sport to shoot it.”
That choice is what leads to intimate views of the action in dramatic locations—leveraging his own passion and skills to ski the lines that produce cover shots. In the moment, on a big descent, the photography disappears into the skiing. Pondella mentions a shot of the late Dave Rosenbarger, a stunning image of him setting up a rappel on a teetering pinnacle below Chamonix’s Aiguille du Midi tram that ran as a full spread in Powder. “I don’t even remember taking it,” he admits. “I’m so in the moment that I’m basically shooting unconsciously.”
Pondella’s origins and evolution as a specialist ski photographer were almost as pure. When I ask him if he ever had a backup plan he laughs and says, “There never was any kind of plan.”
There might be better big mountain skiers and better endurance athletes, but Pondella is as strong as anyone in the mountains. He’s basically just tendons and a cardiopulmonary system with a predator’s instinct and a camera.
He grew up skiing Mammoth and got into rock climbing his senior year of high school. By the time he attended Regis University in Denver he was climbing and skiing at Berthoud Pass as often as he could between classes. As a fine art major he dabbled in photography, but was mostly shooting home video of friends skiing powder on the pass, just documenting fun days afield.
After graduating, Pondella moved to Mammoth, waiting tables at night and skiing most days. The Mammoth ski scene in the ’90s was tiny, but with the mentorship of freeskiing masters Glen Plake and Darren Johnson, Pondella’s local rat pack was strong and skilled. The style Plake and Johnson pushed was big, powerful turns on 210-ish Super-G skis, annihilating Mammoth’s open alpine terrain and variable California snow with speed and sound technique.
Pondella began taking a camera along in the High Sierra backcountry with friends, still just documenting for fun. One day in 1996 he met David Reddick lapping Chair 23, and the longtime photo editor and art director at Powder encouraged him to submit images.
I had done some writing in college and that summer we submitted a story and photos about our spring couloir frenzy in the Sierra—the same that led to our descent of Red Slate—to the mag. Powder ran it, along with a shot of Wallace dropping into Red Slate that was a real standout in the photo issue.
And that was it for us. Wallace became his idiosyncratic version of a pro steep skier for Oakley and later Black Crows. Pondella started getting calls to shoot pros with ski-film companies. I moved to Mammoth, tried to keep up with them on backcountry beatdown after backcountry beatdown, and became a correspondent for Powder.
Around 2000, Pondella quit waiting tables for good. He’d gotten a call from Matchstick Productions to shoot stills on a Europe trip with McConkey, Davenport and Wendy Fisher. Soon he was linked up with Red Bull, a professional relationship that would endure over the next two decades.
As Pondella evolved as a photographer he also grew into bigger and more technical skiing, expanding his mountaineering skills and soaking up ski knowledge from the athletes, guides and locals on his work trips. After Wallace moved to Chamonix in ’99, it became a regular stop on the annual Pondella Gnar Tour that would typically include Alaska, Europe, Japan and increasingly more exotic expedition-style trips to big mountains in places such as Svalbard, Norway, Peru and Sochi, Russia. A partnership with Red Bull ice climber Will Gadd took him everywhere from Iceland’s waterfalls to the remains of Kilimanjaro’s glacier and icebergs in the middle of the ocean.
But pushing boundaries eventually comes at a cost. “You play in the mountains as long as I have with athletes who are pushing it, things are going to happen,” he says. “I’ve probably lost at least 20 friends. Some of the best stuff I’ve done feels like a big scar now.”
Pondella lost ski partners and legends of steep terrain such as Arne Backstrom, Dave Rosenbarger, and Andreas Fransson in separate mountain accidents within years of each other, and says his own personal close calls are too many to count.
There aren’t many cutting-edge skiers still getting after it in their 50s. Have the losses changed Pondella’s risk calculus? As a husband and later-in-life father, is he downshifting? “I skied some great peaks here in Mammoth this winter, just for fun,” he says. “My son Blaise is ski racing now and skiing with him is what’s fun right now…I think that window’s closed for a while, but my love for skiing and shooting it hasn’t diminished.”
The operative phrase there is “for a while.” He laughs, the same cackle I’ve heard so many times on so many steep and beautiful mountains, and continues, “Maybe I’ll make a comeback in my 60s.”