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Lost in Time: Contemplating the Details in Skiing & Photography

From a young age, Sofía Mejía Llamas has been enamored with the details that surround her. Growing up in Argentine Patagonia, throughout the summer season and warmer months, she got lost in the trees on the vacant lot next to her family’s home. She collected insects and lizards from the forest and driftwood and stones along the lake, often studying their shapes, colors and patterns.

“The land next door became my little escape,” she says. “I knew it very well. That little forest really felt like it belonged to me.”

In the winter, Sofía often found peace in the silence of the season. She recalls weekend days and nights spent at home with her family—a fireplace fire burning while snow fell outside and live concerts on DVD, rented or bought by her father, played inside.

During windless snow storms, Sofía remembers walking along the roads in her neighborhood to the grocery store and other local shops. In the early evening hours, the waltz of the snowflakes in the streetlamps fascinated her.

“They were illuminated by its glow,” she says. “I remember the silence of those moments, stopping in the middle of the road, the orange color of the snowflakes—as each streetlamp cast them in a spotlight—and the big, fluffy shapes of snowflakes stuck together as they fell slowly from the sky.”

Listening to Sofía recount tales from her childhood, it’s easy to draw parallels between how she has seemingly always seen the world around her; how she moves through it now as a skier and outdoor adventurer; and how she chooses to capture it through her camera’s lens. As a human being, athlete and artist, Sofía leads, explores and creates with a childlike wonder and curiosity, never wandering too far from the present moment.

A woman wearing a red jacket and a yellow beanie holding a camera in a field of tall grass, smiling and looking off to the side Image of Sofía Mejía Llamas via Nolan Yoshiaki Isozaki(Se abre en una ventana nueva)

Sofía grew up in San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina, a sprawling city in Northern Patagonia surrounded by Caribbean-colored lakes and rivers and the almost-always-in-view Andes Mountains. It is an outdoorist’s paradise. Though Sofía enjoyed—and still does enjoy—spending time outside in all four seasons, it was winter that truly captured her heart from a young age.

“Winter is a little magical,” she says. “In winter, the world feels so unnatural. You get to fly over the trees on chair lifts and glide through them on skis. It feels like you’re a superhero, like you become something that is not natural.”

Bariloche, home to the largest ski resort in the Southern Hemisphere, is a popular winter destination for Argentines and residents of neighboring countries. Sofía’s parents worked hard to give her and her brother opportunities, and when she was around 7 years old, they signed her up for ski school at Cerro Catedral.

Though she instantly loved skiing, Sofía did not like ski school, with its rules, structure and push for competition. From the start, she craved the freedom to explore and ski on her own, simply for the joy of it. So after two seasons of ski school, with her parents’ okay, Sofía called it quits and started skiing independently as well as with family and friends.

“From then on, I woke up on the weekends and took the bus to Catedral,” she says. “I didn’t have a ski locker or anything, so I had to carry all of my stuff [on the bus] with me. I would listen to music on the bus, and at a young age, I remember feeling as though I’d gained a little more independence, since my parents gave me that freedom—they trusted me—to go to the mountains on my own.”

Moving forward, most winters in Bariloche looked the same—each with its own excitement—for Sofía. She continued to ski independently, all the while building her experience, knowledge and skills.

A landscape view of a ski lift, with snowy mountains in the background Image via Sofía(Se abre en una ventana nueva): Cerro Catedral in Bariloche

Somewhere along the way, as a teenager, Sofía picked up her father’s film camera, a Canon AE-1, out of curiosity and started taking photos. She swiftly developed a passion for the process of capturing details and moments through film.

“It makes you stop and really connect with the things that are in front of you, the things that you are seeing, that you wouldn’t otherwise spend the time looking at if you didn’t have a camera in your hand,” she says.

The more she photographed the world around her, especially outside, the more Sofía drew parallels between photography and skiing. The commonalities she sees are reflected in the way she pursues both.

“When I’m skiing, I’m really connected to how my body is moving,” she says. “I think photography is the same in that I need to really look at and focus on what I’m taking a picture of. Everything around you pauses a little bit when you’re skiing or taking pictures because you’re putting all of your attention into what you’re doing.”

Tomi Doll, a longtime friend of Sofía’s, has adventured outside in all seasons with her and seen her process as a photographer, and skier, in action. “It was routine many times that, upon arrival at a new place, Sofi’s preliminary exploration of that place was with her camera,” he says. “It was her tool to interpret that place. She always seemed lost in time, absorbed in what was happening around her, connecting with a place in a way that I have never seen in any other.”

A woman wearing a green hat backwards and a red Osprey pack, holding a camera to take a shot. Image of Sofía "behind the lens" via Alan Schwer(Se abre en una ventana nueva)

Photography grew to more than a hobby for Sofía. Following secondary school in Bariloche, she studied image and sound design at the Universidad de Buenos Aires. Her studies weren’t technical. Instead, her professors encouraged her to think critically about what and how she communicated through each photograph or series of photographs.

In Buenos Aires, Sofía went out with her father’s film camera and photographed the details of objects and scenes she encountered, such as statues in parks and vendors and their wares in neighborhood markets. During her winter and summer breaks in Bariloche, she experimented more with outdoor photography.

Then, at 21 years old, Sofía decided to take up work in the ski industry and spent her summer break—winter in the Northern Hemisphere—in Aspen, Colorado, at Snowmass. “I went to Aspen to work one season as a ski instructor for the experience,” she says. “But when I got there, I realized the job was actually super fulfilling and allowed me to be outside all day.”

One season in Aspen turned into five. From 2012 to 2017, Sofía returned to Colorado every December through March for work. Since then, she has also worked as a ski instructor in Argentina, Japan and California and has taught skiers ranging in age and level from 3 years old to 60 years old.

The little girl who didn’t like ski school grew up to be a ski instructor. However, Sofía’s experience with ski school as a child now informs how she approaches her classes and students—and is part of the reason why she has continued to pursue this profession.

“After my first season, I realized I wanted to keep instructing to share my love of skiing with other kids—and encourage them to enjoy it, too,” Sofía says.

“As a kid, I just wanted to slide down the slopes, fly through the trees and have snacks in hidden places with my friends. Every year, I decide to come back to this job because there’s no better feeling than getting to share my love for the mountains with kids and teach them how to use the terrain and ski in a creative way, with the mountains as their playground.”

Much of Sofía’s approach to skiing correlates with her approach to photography—and vice versa. Sofía sees skiing as an art form itself. It is a vehicle for exploration and movement and a form of self expression. “It’s like dancing,” she says. “You can learn the steps to make you more efficient on the dance floor, but you must never forget the essence of the way you dance—or the way you move and ski and how you use the terrain to express yourself while you’re skiing.”

She continues, “I think what I teach in skiing and how I ski apply to the camera as well. We can get the tools and technique and the efficient way of doing things. But also, it’s about trying to never forget the essence of it and the expression you want to have or convey with it.”

Tomi sees the heart of who Sofía is—the little girl who fell in love with skiing and the joy of it—in how she skis. “Sofi skis as if she were a little girl, without worrying about what those around her think, enjoying every moment and sensation,” he says. “You will see her waving her arms like a bird and hear her shouting with happiness, and you can imagine the smile on her face without even seeing it.”

On the one hand, Tomi notes the freedom he sees in how Sofía skis. On the other hand, he shares how he has seen her progress immensely as a skier. Sofía is someone who loves and enjoys the mountains and also respects them deeply, always seeking to learn more about them and understand how to approach and move about them.

A bird's eye view of a freshly snowed over mountain Winter photography via Sofía(Se abre en una ventana nueva)

While Sofía teaches inbounds at ski resorts, she enjoys backcountry skiing the most, something she first experienced with friends during her second season in Aspen nearly 10 years ago.

“It was a great first experience,” she says. “For me, it was all about doing something so different. It was nighttime. There was a full moon. The conditions were very cold, and skiing down with the moon was amazing because you could actually see very well.”

Backcountry skiing encompasses the same freedom—and sense of exploration and adventure—Sofía found outside of ski school as a child. Over the past decade, through tours with friends and colleagues as well as AIARE 1, AIARE 2 and AIARE Avalanche Rescue courses in Colorado and Argentina, Sofía continued to gain and hone necessary experience, knowledge and skills.

In time, as she became better versed in the backcountry, Sofía also started taking her camera along on outings. Through backcountry skiing, she found herself more deeply connecting with the landscapes around her and the details within them. She wanted to slow down and capture what she was seeing, what she was experiencing.

Tomi recalls his first backcountry tour with Sofía on Cerro Tronador near Bariloche. “You could tell it was still something quite new for her. However, she gave it her all,” he says. “In the morning, she woke up before our departure and took some incredible shots at sunrise. From that first traverse to the last time we went out together, her growth in the mountains was constant and enormous. She is always motivated to learn—from the terrain, the technique, the material, the dangers.”

Laura Nitzsche, a friend who has adventured alongside and created art in collaboration with Sofía in recent years, echoes this sentiment. “Sofi exudes a beautiful energy every time you go out with her,” Laura says. “She is very funny, but at the same time, she takes everything she does very seriously. On the ascent, she is focused, aware of her surroundings, applying all her knowledge about the snow and the journey … She is very proactive. On the way down, she turns into excitement and euphoria, into laughter and pure fun.”

A person wearing a blue jacket with the hood up stands on a snowy mountain with their hands in their pockets Image via Sofía(Se abre en una ventana nueva): Cerro Tronador near Bariloche

Over the years, skiing and photography have opened doors for Sofía to travel to and through diverse places; connect with and befriend different people (athletes, artists and others); experience unique cultures; and take on interesting assignments.

“Both have really opened my mind to understand different ways of thinking and being—and to embrace those differences as well. I think that’s a very rich thing for your mind. The more I have these diverse experiences the more I can say through the way I ski or through the way I take photos,” she says.

The combination of skiing and photography has also allowed Sofía to connect with great athletes and interesting people who were looking to get photos in the mountains. “Not every photographer knows how to navigate the cold, windy conditions and various terrains,” she says. “Not every photographer can get to those places because you need to understand those places—be it on skis, on foot or something else. So my experience in the outdoors, especially in winter, has granted me some unique opportunities with really cool people.”

One of those people is Laura. Together, the two have collaborated on projects, based in adventure and art, throughout Patagonia.

Laura says, “Sofi has an authentic, original style. She makes art without being conditioned by ‘what pays,’ what is ‘in style’ or what people like most. She creates unique photos and videos that are recognizable as her style. In a simple image of a tree branch, you see her reflected, her sensitivity, her unique perspective.”

In November 2022, Sofía traveled south to El Chaltén, Argentina at the invitation of a guide, a friend she had worked with at Cerro Catedral, to photograph a trip he was leading on the Southern Patagonian Ice Field.

“We hiked for three days on the glacier, and for me, it was one of the most amazing experiences,” she says. “Not only was it one of the most amazing places I’ve ever seen in my whole life, but also, it was such a challenge for me technically [to capture photos in the way I wanted to capture them] and physically.”

The group hiked 30 kilometers every day, usually for 12 hours, in intense weather conditions with technical equipment on glaciers, rocky mountain passes, snow, a little bit of everything.

“It took so much effort, and it was so hard to do because of the cold, the wind, the nonstop group nature [we were all linked together with ropes] of the expedition,” Sofía says. “I’m so proud of myself because I’m happy and stoked with the photographs I took and that I was able to take them, even though the whole trip was physically challenging, too.”

Two small groups of people waling along a snowy trail, with stark, jagged, snowy mountain peaks in the distance Image via Sofía(Se abre en una ventana nueva): Southern Patagonian Ice Field near El Chaltén

Challenges and all, moving forward, Sofía hopes to do more of this. More combining of outdoor adventures, especially skiing, and photography. She wants to continue doing so personally and also further developing this combination professionally.

Every time she goes out in the mountains, Sofía learns a little bit more—about skiing, about photography, about the world around her, about other people, about herself. And although fear often dances with her desires, she has a sense for where she needs and wants to go.

“I feel that, instead of ski instructing, I want to start using skiing as a tool to advance my photography,” she says. “I would love to go on more adventures, explore more national parks with my van, ski more and take on more projects with athletes in the outdoors.”

The open road, the uncarved trail, the mountain freshly coated in snow agree with Sofía. No matter the season, outside is where she feels most alive, most like herself. She lives, and thrives, outside the lines.

“I’m excited and scared at the same time,” she continues. “I know I have this door in front of me that I just need to step through—with my outdoor gear, my skis and my camera—and go find new adventures. It’s exciting knowing that the opportunity is within reach, and it’s scary in that I feel I need to decide with confidence whether I want to cross that threshold or not.”

See more of Sofía's photography and follow her journey on Instagram at @chacay.av(Se abre en una ventana nueva)

Featured image via Segundo Botti