Ski photographer's life behind and in front of the camera

Posted: Friday, December 17, 2004

OGDEN, Utah - Gary Nate pointed his Nikon at a secret stash of Snowbasin powder, the canvas painted only by two sets of perfect tracks. The clear blue sky formed the backdrop as skier Tom Leavitt, longish hair meticulously spiked, waited for his cue.

''OK, go,'' Nate said, and Leavitt pushed off. His turns - smooth, quick and uniform - paralleled the other tracks perfectly until he brushed by the photographer, missing him by inches as planned.

Instructions are brief, almost unnecessary, in this photographer/subject relationship, which began with Nate's first ski film, 1972's ''Skiers to Match the Mountains.'' That day, Nate was taking promotional photos for Snowbasin. But watch 14 of the legendary Warren Miller's best ski movies and you'll see footage of Leavitt filmed by Nate in some of the exotic locations Miller is famous for.

''Find something you'd do for free, then find somebody to pay you for it.''

Nate, a treasure trove of one-liners, many culled from Miller films, was dispensing advice like that to business managers in the early 1970s when he decided to ''stop giving it and start taking it.''

Leavitt, who learned to ski at Snowbasin when he was 4 years old, was a pro mogul skier at the time. Nate's cousin, Dean Perkins, was an Olympic skier who was good friends with Stein Eriksen, the Deer Valley icon. Nate, longtime Ogden resident, picked up a camera, pointed it their way and made his dream come true.

Soon after that film, Nate was hired by winter-sports filmmaker Miller, where he has worked (if you can call it that) for ''more than 20 years.''

''Any more makes me sound old,'' Nate says.

Leavitt - after recuperating for four years from a hang-gliding accident that left him in a coma and very nearly destroyed the right half of his body - joined Nate and quickly started performing stunts like leaping from a helicopter, a hot-air balloon and Snowbird's tram.

These days, Leavitt lives in Ogden, works for his family's mortuary, races boats, guides tours of the backcountry around Snowbasin and Powder Mountain, and skis 100 times a year. But he hasn't made it into a Warren Miller flick for five years.

''They kind of retired me,'' Leavitt said. ''I thought it would last forever.''

''I'll never retire. There's just transitions,'' Nate said.

Nate still shoots for Miller occasionally and promotes the Logan showing of Miller's annual movie. But his filming for Miller has been cut back, partly because of a young guard of photographers and partly because the process has changed.

Ski resorts now pay for slots in the movie and, for liability reasons, many of the wildest stunts are purchased from independent filmmakers, Nate said, ''as opposed to years ago when we would just go out and get creative.''

Among the stunts Nate devised and Leavitt performed was a 30-foot drop from Snowbird's tram.

Leavitt can also be seen abandoning an in-flight helicopter in 1985's ''Steep and Deep,'' which Nate still lists as his favorite Warren Miller movie.

Leavitt reminisced about the time he had to pull Nate and his camera out of the way of a semi-truck - Nate was busy filming the truck - that was sliding toward them on an icy road. Nate remembered the time Leavitt disappeared into the deep snow after leaping from a hot-air balloon.

The long all-expense-paid trips are now just memories, and the duo has made, in Nate's word, a ''transition.''

Leavitt misses those days, though he insists it's ''not as exciting as it looks.'' The hiking, the preparation, the standing around - ''OK, go'' - and then repeat.

''But I got to get paid to go to some of these places and ski,'' he said.

For Leavitt, a fitting illustration of his transition away from ski films was the location of his last appearance: Snowbasin, his first resort and likely his last, on a run known to locals as FTG.

The 45-degree, S-shaped run begins at the tip of No Name Peak and falls relentlessly to the ski area's base. Now, he takes paying customers - he runs TNT Adventures with his wife, Teresa - to runs like that in and around the resort he calls the best in the world.

Leavitt grew up at Snowbasin, hearing about Vail, Aspen and Whistler and dreaming about skiing around the country. He got his chance when he started competing on the pro mogul circuit, but only found out how good he'd had it all along.

''I'd go to these other places and ski and say, 'It's not as good as Snowbasin,' '' Leavitt said. ''They had better lodges, but now they don't.''

Lodges, gondolas, more lift-accessible terrain. Snowbasin has certainly changed since he began. Over a bowl of hot chili, from a perch that includes views of Ogden Valley below and the Needles above, Leavitt is hardly pining for the good old days.

''I love it. It's great. I don't miss waiting for a greasy hamburger in a line that stretched out into the parking lot,'' he said. ''Not a bit.''

He rarely gets recognized now, and no one's paid his way to Switzerland in several years, but he's got a season pass to the world's best resort and plenty of hobbies - flying and boat racing among them - to keep his adrenaline pumping year-round. His 80-year-old father still frequents Snowbasin.

''I hope I'm still walking when I'm 80,'' Leavitt said.

He won't say how many years that'll be.

''Just say I'm 20,'' Leavitt said.

Nate, characteristically, pulled out a pair of one-liners to dodge the age question.

''My mom always said she'd lied about her age so much she couldn't remember how old she was.''

And, ''Warren Miller calls me the world's oldest teenager.''

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