Flight by night at Howelsen Hill

When you visit the new Steamboat Orthopaedic and Spine Institute (SOSI) building in Wildhorse Plaza, take the stairs. There you’ll find a breathtaking, two-story photograph of a ski jumper soaring over downtown Steamboat at night. Highlighting the clinic’s entry stairwell, the photo was commissioned to illustrate some of Steamboat’s best attributes, including passion, athleticism, community, the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club and Howelsen Hill.

Flight By Night at Howelsen Hill by Noah Wetzel

“When we were planning the building, our interior designer presented us with the idea of a mural for the 30-foot stairwell,” says SOSI partner Dr. Patrick Johnston, explaining how the artwork came to be. “Our partners wanted to feature a local photo from a local photographer, and we discussed ideas of a landscape versus an athlete. Ultimately, it came down to wanting to feature a local athlete in a photo that was distinctively Steamboat.”

With ski jumping unique to only a handful of places in the country, including Steamboat, Dr. Johnston envisioned a photo of a ski jumper in mid-air with the town, river, and the mountain in the background. The next step: finding a photographer. So the partners tracked down local international adventure photographer Noah Wetzel. “I love Noah’s photos,” says Dr. Johnston. “He has such a talent for pulling an action shot into a beautiful landscape and making it even more unique by using flash lighting.”

Wetzel was more than game to give it a go but knew it would be difficult. “I wasn’t sure it would be possible to pull off his vision,” he says. “I knew it was going to be pretty complex, with no guarantees. They were looking for it to be a permanent part of the building and that was pretty intimidating. But despite all that, I wanted to try.”

The first step was finding the right jumper. For that, SOSI lined up local high school senior Annika Belshaw, the daughter of local surgeon and SOSI friend Allen Belshaw, who has been training with the Winter Sports Club since she was 9 years old. This year she’s training in Europe and competing in the Junior Worlds in Lahti, Finland, and the World Championships in Oberstdorf, Germany. Everyone was excited about her involvement. “So many orthopaedic offices have jerseys and pictures on their walls of famous athletes that are almost all men,” says Dr. Johnston. “But there are some incredible female athletes that deserve to be recognized and we wanted our wall to be a testament to that.”

Jumper secured, next came planning the shot. The combination of shooting at night with flashes, the subject moving through the air at nearly 60 mph, captured over the backdrop of the city lights, required careful planning and skill. It took Wetzel several recon trips to Howelsen Hill to work out the details with the city and Winter Sports Club staff and to find the perfect spot on the jumps to shoot from. He also had to plan what equipment and camera settings would work best. Realizing he needed the widest horizontal frame possible to capture the jumper—and fit the narrow, 30-foot-tall-by-8-foot-wide vertical ratio of the mural—he decided to shoot separate images and create a composite. The first image, the action shot, used a shutter speed of 1/5,000th of a second, as well as two, powerful 600-watt strobes positioned to evenly light the jumper from both sides. This, he hoped, would provide a clear outline to work within Photoshop when compiling the composite image.

Wetzel used a radio to hear communications between the coach and the spotter on the stand, whose responsibility was to let Belshaw know when the landing was clear. When she took off, Wetzel could also hear her whooshing down the ramp and then launching into the air, but he couldn’t see her until she was overhead. Based on the sounds, he had to calculate exactly when to fire the shutter to capture the moment in the space of about 3 feet of air, which would position Belshaw over the horizon and not cut off the tails of her skis.

Flight By Night at Howelsen Hill - Noah Wetzel - Wall Sign

Noah’s second shot of downtown Steamboat Springs lit up below, was from the same position, using a tripod and a long shutter speed to capture the city lights. Back in the studio, he stitched together several views of the town to achieve the vertical ratio and then added the jumper into the image.

The result is well worth every step you take up the stairway. And no one agrees more than those involved, from Wetzel to the high-flying Belshaw. “I couldn’t be more stoked with how it turned out,” says Wetzel, who says he put about 150 hours went into this project.”

“It’s super cool,” adds Belshaw, who hopes to go on and win the World Cup. “The town below is where I’ve lived my entire life and the jumps are where I’ve become the athlete I am today. It means a lot to represent my hometown.”

Dr. Johnston is thrilled as well to see his vision of Belshaw soaring over Steamboat come to fruition. “Noah did an incredible job,” he says. “It’s truly a spectacle. I’m so happy to have it be one of the first things people see as they walk into our office.”