Yūgen: A Snowboarding JourneyYūgen: A Snowboarding Journey

Story: Marie Knowles
Photos: Jesse Levine & Eric Parker

May 3, 2019

When Rafael Pease set out to create just another snowboarding film, he didn’t know it would turn into a three-year odyssey across borders and cultures to explore so much more. Yūgen is the result. A journey of conversations with those that live and have lived for generations deeply connected to the ecology of the mountains. We caught up with the Chilean environmentalist and founder of the Connections Movement to find out more about the project.

Tell us about Yūgen.
I started the project near the end of 2015 as an idea of going out and snowboarding with my friends; just another snowboarding film. But as the filming process began in Japan I realized there are dozens of similar films that come out yearly and decided to go a completely different and experimental route. It’s a documentary film that explores the connection we as mountaineers and environmentalists share with the natural world. We traveled across the world to capture the true essence of being one with the mountain. Experiencing the untold stories of the ecological conscious that resides deep in the soul of the mountains, told through the perspective of the people who live there. Yūgen is an ancient untranslatable Japanese word that helps define that indescribable feeling one shares with the universe and nature.

How long did it take to make and what did that entail?
The film took three years to create, from pre-production to it being exported. Between all of that there was a lot of filming in various countries, a lot of suffering, planning and waiting on weather and money. Trudging gear into unseen locations, the crew working tirelessly to capture the story. I was also finishing two degrees at the University of Colorado so I didn’t have a lot of free time to travel and go on expeditions but did take all of 2017 off just for the film.

What were your expectations of the journey and what took you by surprise?
I started out with no expectations because at the time I had absolutely zero experience in creating a film. As time went by my expectations fluctuated greatly as there were highs on certain expeditions and lows on others. You can’t win them all and that’s the beauty of the mountains, losing and winning are part of it. I’d say there were a lot of experiences that took me by surprise, especially in the production side of things for the film. I had no idea how much work it was going to be and how many obstacles off the mountain actually existed in this industry. Weather is always a tricky one and meeting new cultures is always delightful. Being able to hang out with people who are so in tune with their land was extremely eye-opening and humbling.

Why were these stories untold?
The stories have been told for generations in an internal circuit, for the most part. The stories have changed over time due to the climate and environment changing. I’m hoping I can do a decent job of bridging the gap and shining a light on how mountain culture has changed due to factors such as political stances and the climate changing.

What impact has the film had so far?
The film has had a much larger impact than I ever even imagined. I enjoy how the first 12 minutes show no snowboarding; the purpose of this was to get the ‘shred bros’ to tune out of what they are used to. This film was not created for a specific audience; it’s meant for anyone who loves nature and the outdoors. I hope the film has had a positive impact on the majority of people who have seen it. I’ve been to about 40 of the screenings and have noticed a wide demographic – anywhere from crowds of kids to senior citizens, people who don’t know what a mountain looks like to those who have lived in them for generations.

What have you learned from making Yūgen?
Yūgen definitely helped define how stubborn and overly ambitious I can be at times and it has taught me patience. It has opened my eyes to new ways of connecting with people and showing others a new aspect of the mountains.

What does it mean to you to connect with nature?
Well, for me, connecting is a very natural way of understanding one’s surroundings. Connecting with nature is a basic concept where you are understanding or attempting to understand what is going on outdoors and being one with it.

Where to next?
Next are a lot of things and places. Since the end of Yūgen I’ve traveled quite a bit for the tour. I went to Japan for a short film project. I have a couple more trips left to go before I go home to Chile in June, where I begin a new film project which is currently in pre-production. This one won’t take three years [laughs]. It will be a 15-minute film depicting the deep psychological, political and physical aspects of climbing high mountains that have been closed off by the government to mining, water and hydro-electric companies.

"Yūgen is an ancient untranslatable Japanese word that helps define that indescribable feeling one shares with the universe and nature."

Rafael getting a first descent of one of the faces he has had his eyes from a distance. While Jesse is on an adjacent peak snapping a photo.

Crossing a stream deep in the Patagonian jungle that flows out into the Pacific.

A view of the football field where the crew would join the local kids before and after their expedition into the mountains behind seen in the background.

Rafael hanging out with the kids, with many different dialects to speak the only communication was laughter and sports.

A special Yurt dinner with eagle hunters, artists, archers, musicians and more talented Kyrgyz people.

Watch Yūgen