Sine Qua Non (Si-Ni-ˌKwa-'Nan) : noun
1. Absolutely indispensable or essential.
2. The absolutely needed.
Sine qua non can be translated literally as "Without which, not” – a reference to the people, places, and things that are inherently necessary – the crucial elements required to create something else.
At James, we find inspiration in the idea of the indispensable. The people that make it all happen, and the tools they rely on. Yesterday, today, tomorrow. Everyday.
In Sine Qua Non – Volume 2.1 we catch up with indispensable mountain guide and producer Clark Fyans. Without Clark, there would be no “Art of Flight” as we know it. There would be fewer photographs, not nearly as many guitar riffs, and less people with amazing stories.
Check out the story below to dig deep into his journey from Head Heli-ski Guide at Chugach Powder Guides to guiding and producing for Red Bull Media House.
Destined for Denali.
Growing up outside of Salt Lake and skiing since he was just a toddler, Clark knew that he was going to be a heli-ski guide at just 12 years old.
Clark started skiing at Alta almost as soon as he could walk, got his EMT and avalanche training as a junior in high school, and by 18 was handling explosives for avalanche mitigation. In 2001 he made the decision to head to Alaska, threw all his stuff in the car and hit the road.
In his own words, moving out there he "was kind of naive, yet remained kind of blissful." He drove up there without fear because he thought there was a calling, even if it meant racking up his credit card, and paying a local homeowner $50 a month to set up a camper in his backyard during temperatures as low as -40.
Clark spent his time in Alaska split between two major professions: guiding Denali – part 1 of the infamous Seven Summits – and guiding daily heli-ski trips for up to 74 straight days.
His stint as a guide on Denali began in 2001. As the first mountain in the Seven Summits – the highest peaks in each of the seven continents – climbers rarely stray far from the route to the top, yet Clark found himself drawn to a series of couloirs in the opposite direction. Finally, 6 years later, he found the opportunity to put his mark on the mountain – skiing off the summit alongside Chris Davenport and a small crew, making the first ascents of those couloirs and earning the right to name them.
For many skiers, being a heli-ski guide is a dream rife with fresh snow and blue-bird days. But behind the scenes, hundreds of little things must go right every morning to keep clients safe, prepared, and focused on making the day one of the best of their lives. A typical day for Clark involved waking up before 6am, heading to the hangar, going through 2 1/2 hours of planning for the weather, winds, clouds, and flight paths, not to mention the snow conditions – all before heading out to attack the mountains while keeping the entire crew safe and locked in.
"When you go through situations that extreme with people, it accelerates the friendship super quickly... you develop bonds and trust that last a lifetime."
The call up.
As fate had it, Clark found an emerging niche in guiding trips for film and photoshoots. His big break came after the crew from Brain Farm Cinema struck out in British Columbia and followed the conditions north.
It turned out that Travis Rice and Curt Morgan had already gotten Clark's info from a mutual acquaintance. After an incredibly successful first 3 weeks they brought him on to be the full-time guide for the groundbreaking film, The Art of Flight. By the end of the 2 year production, Clark's in-depth knowledge of the terrain and knack for getting everyone in just right spot had elevated him to a producer role as well.
The transition came naturally, as Clark had always been one of the few guides who always carried a camera in his pack. When he started in Alaska, Matchstick Productions, Warren Miller, Brain Farm, Teton Gravity Research, and a host of other film production companies would all make annual Alaskan filming trips. However, most guides weren't thrilled about going out with productions because they didn't get to ski as much. For Clark, guiding filming trips introduced a whole new level to the game, becoming a hub where he could try to elevate, get to new locations and shooting positions, and talk to the directors of photography about light, lenses, and gear.
Making movies brought an entirely new challenge and required a much more fluid and dynamic approach. On one trip to Chile, Clark and the crew from Brain Farm arrived to a long window of sub-par conditions. Another region looked promising, so Clark had to figure out how to pick up and take off by the next evening with 2 helis and a sixteen person crew.
As a guide and producer for these dynamic productions, every day was different and offered new challenges. The trips and descents are way more complex and the stakes are exponentially higher. Clark grew to become known as a problem solver – and with a lot more money at stake – an indispensable part of making sure that the crew safely and efficiently captured what they were after.
Without which, not.
There are 2 crucial items that guides always carry : a knife and a lighter. Both are essential tools and feats of human ingenuity that cavemen didn't have.
In Clark's words "a super sharp blade, fire at a touch, it's kind of like a little bit magic that you hold in your pocket." For Clark, every day is different. Every challenge is a puzzle and you're trying to figure out how to balance it all; the aspirations of the athletes, the needs of the production crew, all layered on top of safety.
These simple, indispensable tools are the foundation for tackling issues as they arise – for solving problems in the now – from the moments of extreme need to the seemingly trivial.
"When you're in your 20's and don't have experience, you are not acting and making decisions based off of fear. You aren't afraid to put yourself out there, even if you get hurt or make a mistake. As you grow more experienced, you have to learn how to continue to operate without fear being a factor."
For Clark, confidence and clear decision making – free from the fear of potential consequences – have been essential tools throughout his journey. But he also would not be where he is today without a focus on perseverance. In his eyes, to make a mark you need to do so on your own timeline. You have to play the long game and focus on the incremental improvements day in and day out, and no matter how good you are you still have to challenge yourself.
Stay tuned for Volume 2.2 as we dig further into Clark's current day-to-day living just off the beach in Marina Del Rey, working as Supervising Producer of Feature Films at Red Bull Media House, and passion for documenting it all through the lens.
**Archival photos of Clark in Alaska provided by Scott Serfas and Adam Clark.