"I don't want to lecture you," said Mike Pithy, NBC's unit manager at Whiteface Mountain, "but it is very dangerous going up there, very dangerous. Getting off the first chairlift is tough, getting off the second is tougher and coming down is even worse."
It was a Pithy description of the trip ABC cameraman Gary Donatelli makes each morning to his position at the top of Whiteface Mountain, a trip Pithy was discouraging some inquiring reporters from making.
Pithy was standing outside the ABC truck, the communications crossroad on the mountain. A hand-lettered signpost with arrows pointing in every direction noted: "Innsbruck 9,020 miles."
The arrow pointing to the top of Whiteface was blank.
It is one thing to take the chairlift at 11 in the morning with the temperature 10 degrees. It is quite another to take it at 7 in the morning as Donatelli has for the last 19 days. "It was so cold this morning," he said. "I saw the first robin of spring frozen to the ground."
Donatelli is 28 and has been an ABC cameraman for five years. He is 6-foot-4 and weighs 220 pounds. He says, "I was volunteered for the job."
It is 40 minutes to the start of the women's downhill, the same amount of time it takes to ascend two chairlifts 3,200 feet up to Donatelli's camera position. From the air, the course looks perfectly groomed, smooth and fast.
The lift pases over one of ABC's 25 camera positions. Though the camera, wrapped in an electric blanket, is not in use today, it is running, the only way to keep it warm.
The lift continues upward, into the clouds and the cold. At the top, the thermometer on the wall of the starting gate reads zero.With the windchill factor, Donatelli figures it is much colder.
Greg Ciccone, who is working with Donatelli, learning to become a cameraman, has an inch of icicles hanging from his beard. He says sometimes it gets so cold the rubber bands on his braces freeze.
The skiers are going through their prerace rituals, limbering up. One is jogging in place. Annemarie Moser-Proell, who will be the first down the course and the first in the standings when the race is over, is sitting in the snow, a friend's arm wrapped around her shoulders.
Donatelli is stationed by the door to the starting gate. Moser-Proell's name is called, she snowplows down the embankment, zooming into focus in Donatelli's lens.
Donatelli is operating a 36-pound hand-held camera, a minicam.He is one of five cameramen covering the start of the race. The toughest part of his job, he says, is fixing the temperamental equipment in the cold. His role is "to get reaction shots, to show whether they are nervous, praying, crying.
"They isolate our camera into a tape machine, and we just keep shooting," he said.
"Most of the footage is not used live, he said, but cut for shows for replay at night. "It is a weird feeling to sit in the hotel night and watch what you did in the morning," he said.
After seven hours on the mountain, Donatelli tries to "get to sleep by 10:30 if I'm lucky." He gets up at 4:30 every morning. It takes him at least half an hour to put on his long underwear, wrestling tights, pants, ski pants, socks, thermal socks, turtleneck, sweater, gloves, glove liners, jacket, goggles and hood.
"It's like saddling a horse," he said.
Donatelli has chains on his boots for traction.
Daniel Lamothe, the cameraman tied to a special platform built for ABC at the top of the 90-meter ski jump (the architect of the jump, which resembles a giant mine shaft, objected that the platform ruined the line), wears the same outfit plus battery operated socks.Lamothe says his job "has its high points."
And its lows. The night before his first stint at the top, he had a nightmare that he was shooting a 360-degree pan of the area, a beauty shot, and fell off.
Donatelli, a wrestler at Indiana University who once tried out for the Olympics, "used to dream about going to the Olympics" too, but not quite like this.
If he lives. Last February, ABC broadcast a ski championship from Lake Placid as a test run for the Olympics.
"Five guys fell down the mountain," Ciccone said. "I fell 400 to 500 feet on my back. The only thing that stopped me was they were making snow and there was hoses across the trail. I caught them, kind of like the way an airplane gets caught on an aircraft carrier."
All the cameramen workin on the mountain ski. (ABC people ski them messages and coffee) but Donatelli hasn't taken a run. "I'm no Franz Klammer," he said, "I'm nobody. I'd like to ski down every day, but I'm afraid I'll fall and that's not what I'm here for. If I fall down, I'll fall down on the job."
Falling down on this job is no joke. One day last year Donatelli was walking to another camera position carrying a 45-pound amplifier. The weather had been cold, minus-20 degrees, but it had turned warm and the snow was melting. "I was walking along a path, a path I had walked many times before, and I fell through the snow up to here," raising his arm above his head.
"I could see a hole four feet above me. I looked down and my feet were at the tops of the trees. I didn't want to know what was happening.
"I threw my stuff out and managed to crab walk out of the hole. I was pretty scared because I didn't have a radio. I knew there was a guy coming after me. So I started calling, 'Richie, Richie, look out.' And just then I hear this voice go, 'Ahhhh.' It was perfectly timed."
Donatelli says "There's a reason the younger people are up here. It's easy to get a heart attack. I was carrying equipment 1,000 feet up to the start of the men's downhill, and I felt like I was getting a heart attack, and I'm only 28."
He says he would not want to see "a middle-aged married guy up here." Besides, he says, "They've paid their dues."
In the camera business, you start at the top and work your way down.
"That's right," Ciccone said. "In 15 years we'll be inside at the hockey rink, wearing a sweater and keeping warm."
The race was over and the crew was wrapping up for the day. As one got onto the chairlift for the ride down to the bottom, he surveyed the scene, smiled and said: "The crisis in Lake Placid, Day 7: ABC held hostage." s