University of Vermont

University Communications

Going Big in the Backcountry

Alumni duo, skier and filmmaker, join forces for award-winning documentary

Aaron Rice
A shot of Aaron Rice from “2.5 Million,” Tyler Wilkinson-Ray’s documentary about Rice’s attempt to not just break the existing world record for “human-powered” skiing, but exceed it by 500,000 feet. (Photo: Courtesy Tyler Wilkinson-Ray)

Over the past several years, young alumni Aaron Rice ’12 and Tyler Wilkinson-Ray ’12 have taken to the mountains out west on audacious quests. For Rice, that meant attempting to ski 2.5 million vertical feet under his own power in one year, largely in Utah’s Wasatch Range. For Wilkinson-Ray, it meant a move from Vermont to Telluride, Colorado, aspiring to turn avocation into vocation as an outdoor filmmaker and cinematographer.

Those two quests become one in “2.5 Million,” Wilkinson-Ray’s documentary about Rice’s attempt to not just break the existing world record, but exceed it by 500,000 feet. This is “human-powered” skiing. No lifts, snowmobiles, or helicopters, just Aaron Rice on a pair of backcountry skis, doggedly ascending and gracefully descending day after day after day.

The film has earned accolades, including a Best Documentary Powder Award, a Vimeo Staff Pick, and a place in the Banff Mountain Film Festival, gold-standard of the genre. Banff comes to the Flynn Theatre Thursday and Friday, Jan. 25 and 26. Sponsored by Skirack, the Banff screenings are a Burlington tradition—picture a puffer jacket and trucker hat gala—with proceeds helping fund UVM’s Outing Club.

Rice will be on hand to speak at the showing of “2.5 Million” on Friday night, and the Thursday program will include a different film focused on a UVM alumni athlete. In “Stumped,” Maureen Beck ’09, an accomplished rock climber despite missing her lower left arm, is featured as she attempts her first 5.12 climb. Beck will speak on Thursday. 

Rice and Wilkinson-Ray were both active in the Outing Club during their UVM days. But despite travelling in similar circles, they didn’t know one another well. Mutual friendship with Vasu Sojitra ’13 would provide the connection that led to the film. Wilkinson-Ray’s documentary “Out on a Limb” chronicles Sojitra’s life and remarkable skill as a paraskier, tackling backcountry powder on one leg.

After setting his sights on the world record, Rice called Wilkinson-Ray about possibly documenting his journey. “Tyler is especially skilled with storytelling in his films,” Rice says. “I’m a good skier, but I’m not hucking 40-foot cliffs; so, I knew this was going to be more about the story.”

In an early scene, Rice pulls his gear out of the back of his Honda Odyssey, green-and-gold UVM Euro sticker on the bumper. With characteristic understatement, he walks past the camera and says, “Day one. I’ve got a lot of walking to do. Wish me luck.” So it begins. Across the next calendar year, Rice climbs on his skins, skis, and scarfs 6,000 calories daily; periodically, Wilkinson-Ray, following the same human-powered rules—no helicopters, no snowmobiles, no crew of camera Sherpas—joins him on the journey.

The film takes viewers from Rice’s home terrain in Utah to the peaks of Patagonia, where he chases snow and vertical feet through the summer. On a human scale, we’re there through the moments that test the athlete’s resolve, all against the sublime mountain backdrops we expect from a Banff Festival film.

For Wilkinson-Ray, “2.5 Million” was a passion project. With work for Columbia Sportswear, Hoka One running shoes, National Geographic, and others, Wilkinson-Ray’s commercial film work has taken a firm hold. Now a partner with Wilder Studio, he was on more than a hundred flights last year to shoot film at locations worldwide.

As for Rice, he’s now living a lower-altitude life, putting his degree in environmental science from the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources to work as a staff scientist with Stone Environmental in Montpelier. When he took on the “2.5 Million” quest, part of Rice’s motivation was placing an exclamation point at the end of several years of post-graduation ski bumming. He says he would joke with friends about “maybe finally getting skiing out of his system.”

Happily, that’s not the case. Living in Waterbury, he often skis before work and, as of mid-January, already had 35 ski days in for the season. Asked where he skis, Rice pauses a few beats before answering. “I don’t want to totally blow up the spot,” he says. “But there are valleys up in Waterbury and Stowe that have some amazing backcountry runs.” 

Ticket information for the Banff Mountain Festival Tour at the Flynn Theatre and more on climber Maureen Beck.