Weekend Warm-Up: Solving for Z

Usually, times when you think you have it all figured out instead turn out to be times when you’re actually in the greatest danger.

In the Patagonia film Solving for Z, International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations (IFMGA) guide and father Zahan Billimoria walks the line. The film asks, between our own perceptions and the reality of the hazards, how much space exists?

“As a veteran, you feel like ‘I’ve really narrowed that gap and I can perceive what nature is telling me; I can read the signs around me,’” Billimoria begins.

Seconds later, he triggers an avalanche on a steep mountainside. His helmet cam goes black. Thus, Solving for Z begins.

Risk, repeat

It’s not curtains for Billimoria, of course. The seasoned Jackson, Wyoming-based guide has climbed, skied, and trekked professionally for well over a decade. Now 42, he’s contended with a lot of loss.

In 2010, an avalanche buried and killed his best friend, Wray Landon, while skiing in the South Teton, Wyo. Two years later, two other friends, Steve Romeo and Chris Onufer, died in an avalanche while skiing a remote peak on the west side of Jackson Lake. In April 2015, A. J. Linnell succumbed after a plane crash near Challis, Idaho. Then, in May, he himself almost disappeared off the north face of Mount Moran. A snow slough pummeled him and his three partners during a couloir climb, killing two.

Each climber had also been a father.

So when Billimoria (also known as “Z”), makes decisions in the mountains, he’s executing a fraught and careful calculus.

 

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Where Billimoria usually cuts trail, there are no runouts, just thousands of vertical feet of exposure. Misreading the conditions, committing a simple error, or making a snap decision can lead to disastrous consequences, like the one he suffered on Moran.

“It doesn’t take much to have a consequential accident in big mountains. But even if you take all the precautions, sometimes you just have bad luck,” he said.

The biggest problem with skiing in avalanche terrain, he told Patagonia, is that the only feedback you ever get is the kind that can kill you.

“In all accidents, it’s always someone misreading the situation,” Billimoria said. “But just how much you misread the conditions does not necessarily correlate to the outcome. You could misread it just a tiny bit and have a deadly outcome. Or you could’ve screwed up royally and gotten away scot-free, be pounding beers at the bar later, and be none the wiser.”

‘Solving for Z’ runs the mountain mission gamut

The texture of Solving for Z is similarly frenetic. Watch Billimoria and his cohort plan and execute a variety of trips, from initial planning stages through execution and debrief.

Dense and consistent voiceovers and interviews from Z himself render it a more formidable cautionary tale than many similar entries.

Of course, it’s also part stoke video and part therapy session. When face-melting alpine splendor and crushing loss are both part of the equation, profundity that defies language is bound to set in at times.

Ultimately, it’s all in a day’s work for an IFMGA guide and family man. Judging by his sign-off at the end of the 27-minute film, we’d look for Zahan Billimoria to keep on “Solving for Z”.

Sam Anderson takes any writing assignments he can talk his way into while intermittently traveling the American West and Mexico in search of margaritas — er, adventure. He parlayed a decade of roving trade work into a life of fair-weather rock climbing and truck dwelling before (to his parents' evident relief) finding a way to put his BA in English to use. Sam loves animals, sleeping outdoors, campfire refreshments and a good story.


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