MINDSET – Christian Pondella: Skier, Climber, Photographer. In that order.
Mammoth Lakes, CA
Action sports are still evolving as quickly as ever and the ski industry is no exception. As a photographer for Red Bull and senior photographer for Powder Magazine, Christian Pondella has had an eye on the evolution for nearly twenty years. His energizing work is legendary in the outdoor and action sports worlds, but when it comes down to it, the man just likes to ski. In the meantime he’s pushing the sport to a whole new level.
Ever since I started taking skiing seriously, ski mountaineering has been my passion. I was 19 or 20 when I started getting into the backcountry. I was skiing with a bunch of older guys at the time who were always out touring. They turned me on to the backcountry at an early age and that’s when I started skiing 14,000-foot peaks.
I was spending hours in the darkroom with this photography class I was taking. My friends were studying economics and majoring in business, but I wasn’t into that heavy schoolwork type-a-stuff. When I graduated I didn’t graduate with the idea – I want to be a photographer. I was young and just enjoyed taking photos for fun.
Ironically, after school, I moved to Mammoth. I was a ski bum…waiting tables, skiing everyday and climbing as much as I could.
I was out skiing by myself one stormy day on Lincoln Mountain. I happened to be skiing laps with this one guy who was a ripping skier. About halfway into the day we’re on a chairlift and I’m like, ‘What do you do?’ He says, ‘I’m the photo editor for Powder Magazine.’
Reddick has been the photo editor the whole time. He’s the one constant at the magazine. I sent him some photos and he gave me some advice and some good critique on the images. My first published photo was skiing the Red Slate Couloir. From the get-go my career was always kind of ski mountaineering based.
It was a breakthrough for myself and my good friend Hans Ludwig – who’s a writer and moved to Mammoth close to the same time I did. Hans ended up writing the story and they did a feature in the following issue on 3 or 4 of our backcountry trips. Since then both of our careers have taken off. Now he’s one of the editors for Powder Magazine.
When I started backcountry skiing it was Secure Fixes, alpine boots and Kastle 213’s. I can’t tell you how many hundreds of miles I’ve skinned in Secure Fixes. Totally brutal. I remember skiing with Glen Plake and Daryn Johnson 15-18 years ago and those guys were on homemade bindings and converting their Raichle’s into ski mountaineering boots. Finally ski manufacturers are figuring it out and making high performance gear to get out in the mountains in a safer, better way.
The light went off in my head – wow, I’m getting paid to do what I would be doing even if I weren’t getting paid to do it. When Chris Davenport was working on his Ski the 14ers project in Colorado, I went out there 3 different times to photograph it. Even though I had already been making a living as a photographer that was a defining moment…back in Colorado, skiing 14,000-foot peaks…back where it all started for me.
I’ve been told that ski mountaineering is the biggest growing aspect of the sport right now. Ten years ago the big craze was twin tips, jibbing and park skiing. There was a huge focus on it, but the reality is, not many people do that in the ski world. When you look at the big picture of skiing, especially when you go to Europe – and it’s starting to take off here – everyone ski tours. I think it’s something that relates to a bigger market. It’s a bigger aspect of the sport that more people can actually do.
I stare at the mountains from my house. Having the Sierras in my backyard is key for what I do. More recently we’ve been into doing bigger, longer, faster days. Whether with John Morrison or the Mammoth Crew, we’re doing big days in the Sierra that 10-15 years ago would have been overnight trips. Were more into pushing ourselves physically and mentally sometimes doing 9,000 to10,000-foot days.
The people I’m skiing with aren’t into setting up all these shots – we’re more into just getting out and skiing. A lot of times I only bring a small body and one camera lens. I don’t have a whole bunch of extra weight and that allows me to stay fast and mobile and shoot from the hip per se.
I probably ski without a camera more than I should, considering that’s how I make a living, but you have to keep it balanced. Bottom line is: I just love to ski.