November 14, 2011, 9:58 am / Categories: Winter Gear
Jamie Pierre grew up in Minnetonka, Minn., about a mile from my parent’s house. He went to the same high school as my wife, and I shared a chairlift once years ago with him at a Minnesota ski area. Even then, Pierre was eyeing an icy cliff he planned to leap, pointing at a small rock outcrop with his ski pole and scoping a launch. As a journalist, years later, I interviewed Pierre after he set a world record jumping a 255-foot cliff in Wyoming. “It’s what I’ll always be known for, good or bad,” Pierre told me at the time, in the 2007 interview. “But what I hope is that people will remember me as a skier, and not just a stuntman.”
It is a sad day in the ski world, and memories of Jamie Pierre are on many people’s minds. Pierre, age 38, was killed in an avalanche accident yesterday at Snowbird, Utah. He was reportedly snowboarding with a friend in the resort’s South Chute area when he triggered the avalanche, according to a report on Powder magazine. He was carried “hundreds of feet through steep rocky terrain and reportedly went over a small cliff band and came to a stop only partially buried,” Powder reported.
Snowbird is not yet open for the season. Pierre and his partner had hiked into the ski area for an early-season run. At least four other avalanches involving skiers and snowboarders were triggered in the Alta and Snowbird region of Little Cottonwood Canyon this past weekend, according to the Utah Avalanche Center.
The article below, originally published in 2007 in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, is a profile I wrote called “An Unhinged Flight into White.” It is on Pierre and his infamous leap in Wyoming back in 2006. We send condolences to Pierre’s family and anyone who knew the man. He was an icon in the skiing world, and he leaves behind a large family in Minnesota.
“An Unhinged Flight into White”
Published November, 20, 2007
The morning dawned gray and breezy at Grand Targhee Resort, a powder-ski haven in the Tetons of Wyoming. But Jamie Pierre was up early and waiting for the first chairlift ride of the day, skis on and standing with a film crew as the lift motor rumbled to start.
It was Jan. 25, 2006. The mountain was choked with snow, a wonderland of cornices and cliffs and trees submerged in a quilt of white. Pierre, a Minnesota native and a professional extreme skier, was pondering a stunt that had been on his mind for years. He rode the chairlift and quietly envisioned a move so huge that it had the potential to change his life. Or, it could just kill him outright.
“I was praying and thinking and trying to relax,” he said. “Maybe I was looking for a sign.”
In an hour, Pierre — a daredevil as well as a lifelong Lutheran — got his sign from above. God gave him a hint, a thumbs-up, he said. He then skied out of bounds off the backside of the resort, pushed with his poles at a cliff’s edge, and leaped into an abyss.
Pierre fell more than 250 feet through the air, spinning, skis flipped to the sky, plummeting upside down.
He dropped for four long seconds in a roar of wind, granite wall racing by, before landing on his helmet-less head in an explosion of white. Dead or alive, Pierre’s multi-year obsession to jump the highest cliff while on skis — and to hold the world record — was finally met.
The trajectory of events that led Pierre from Minnesota to the cliff’s edge in Wyoming — from obscurity to ski stardom — began decades earlier. Born Feb. 22, 1973, Jamie was Pam and Gerard Pierre’s third child.
“He always had a fearless, happy glint in his eye, even as a toddler,” said Pam, 61, who eventually raised eight children at the family’s home in Minnetonka.
Jamie climbed trees at a young age. He learned how to walk and immediately tottered into a swimming pool. At age 2 he stood on the pedals of his older brother’s bike and coasted unguided across a road.
“We knew he was extremely adventuresome right from the start,” said Pam. In fifth grade he stepped into downhill skis for the first time at Hyland Hills in Bloomington, Minn. Young Jamie tucked for speed and went straight down the hill, his dad waiting at the bottom to tackle the bundled boy before he could crash into a chalet.
Soon Jamie was flying off ski jumps and moguls at Buck Hill, Wild Mountain, Afton Alps and anywhere else his parents or a school club could take him.
After high school, when classmates were heading to college, Pierre drove to Gunnison, Colo., to live with his brother. He worked nights at the front desk of a lodge, and skied all day at Crested Butte Mountain Resort. He was a ski bum, happy and poor.
In 1992 Pierre moved to Salt Lake City, lured by Utah’s famously deep snow. He cooked pizzas all winter. He flew home for the summer to save money for skiing.
“All my children had unconventional career paths,” Pam said. “Jamie took a circuitous route to find his dream.”
That dream started to materialize in 1999, when Powder magazine published a black-and-white photo of Pierre leaping a 40-foot cliff at Snowbird Resort in Utah. He was developing a reputation as a big-air specialist, someone who had the rare combination of focus, fearlessness and an innate ability to stay balanced in the air.
“Jamie was a good skier, but nothing stand-out,” said Mike Kessler, a Los Angles writer who profiled Pierre in 2005. “But his cliff-jumping skill distinguished him.”
What started with 50-foot drops grew to 60, then 75, then 90 feet. He learned to front-flip off giant rock walls, somersaulting through the sky before touching down in deep snow. He upped the ante, to 100-foot crags in Utah, where the snow was so deep that Pierre could land on his back and ski away unscathed.
“People thought he was a little unhinged,” said Sam Moulton, a former editor at Skiing magazine [now an editor at Outside magazine]. “He was obsessed.”
Pierre began to question how high he could go. What were the limits? By 2003 he was launching higher than ever, clearing a 165-foot cliff in Utah’s Wolverine Cirque. In March of 2004 it was a 185-footer in Engelberg, Switzerland. “He was becoming known as a stuntman on skis,” Moulton said.
Pierre picked up sponsors. He did magazine photo shoots. He was living his dream. He starred in films by Warren Miller Entertainment and Teton Gravity Research, a household name in ski circles. In 2005, at age 32, Pierre married Amee, a Utah native. They had a baby girl, Clementine, and settled into life in Cottonwood Heights, a suburb of Salt Lake City.
But something was missing. Pierre wanted to make a final mark, to push further. And thus, on that January morning, Pierre boarded the chairlift at Grand Targhee. He hiked out of bounds. A dozen cameramen were on-site to record what would be the highest ski jump of all time… or Pierre’s final moments.
He leaped. He spun. He plummeted, head driving into the snow like a stake. A long moment passed. A snow cloud settled below the immense rock wall. An impact crater scarred an otherwise immaculate expanse of snow, but Pierre’s body was nowhere in sight.
But he didn’t die. He was buried deep in the snowpack. He was uninjured, cradled in a dense pillow that had saved his life. “There was something divine there,” Pam said. “Something guided him.”
Today, Pierre is still skiing. He’s refocused on challenging runs instead of big air, including a notable descent on Mount Emmerich in Alaska last April. “The plan is to ski more, fall out of the sky less,” he said.
In a cameo during this fall’s Warren Miller film “Playground,” Pierre is filmed flying 50 feet from a rock in Utah. A voiceover retells of the Grand Targhee stunt, which, at 255 feet, remains the world record.
“It’s what I’ll always be known for, good or bad,” Pierre said. “But what I hope is that people will remember me as a skier, and not just a stuntman.”
—Stephen Regenold is founder and editor of www.gearjunkie.com.
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