Is cliff jumping the future of skiing, or just an awe-inspiring freak show on the margins of the sport?
I met skier Jamie Pierre for the first time on a Thursday morning last March. Within 90 minutes, I saw him flip off a 40-foot cliff at Snowbird and land on a tree buried in the snow. It hurt him like hell, but he broke no bones nor punctured any internal organs. Two hours later, at Alta, he got into a screaming argument with his friend and photographer Lee Cohen before popping off a 50-footer. Eight minutes after that, he tried to board a midmountain chair without showing his season pass. When a lift supervisor demanded to see it, Pierre snarled, "Do you know who I am?" The supervisor, who naturally found Pierre's comment rude, answered, "No, asshole, do you know who I am?" A sneering Pierre tore open his coat and thrust the pass toward the liftie in a manner that could have led to blows, but didn't.
Early the next morning, Pierre hiked from Brighton to a cliff above Wolverine Cirque. As Cohen and I aimed cameras from an aerie above the Alta side of the cirque, Pierre attempted an American cliff-jumping record of 160 feet. During his stunningly long free fall, he pulled a Lincoln loop-reaching toward his tips and cartwheeling forward from the takeoff while somehow managing to rotate his torso. He stuck the landing. It was by far the biggest, most impressive air I've ever seen.
Fifteen minutes later, while hiking out, Pierre had a seizure, likely due to the minor concussion he suffered on the landing. "I've averaged at least one concussion per year since the early '90s," Pierre tells me. He seldom wears a helmet: "If it's a matter of my body going instantly from terminal velocity to zero, a helmet isn't gonna help much."
Pierre goes bigger than anyone alive, but I wonder what good it does him. Is hurling your meat off massive cliffs any way to make a name in skiing?
It's hard to say. Pierre's 160-vertical-foot Lincoln loop occurred almost 10 years to the day after Tahoe bartender Paul Ruff died in an attempt to set the world-record cliff jump. At the time, the recognized record of 140 feet was shared by two skiers: soft-spoken John Tremann, who later left extreme skiing to become a born-again Christian, and Chuck "Huck" Patterson, who has since become better known for his big-wave surfing. After inviting friends, photographers, and cinematographers to a 160-foot cliff near Kirkwood, California, Ruff, and his dream of selling the footage to tabloid TV, splattered on some volcanic rocks.
Nonetheless, skiers have spent the last decade going bigger and bigger. Canadian Jeff Holden became an immediate cover boy with a gargantuan 150-footer in Alaska a few years back. But just going big isn't enough-huckers keep tweaking the inhuman art of leaping into a void by throwing spins, tricks, and crotch grabs. A recent Nissan ad sells Pathfinders with footage of hospital-air flips by Micah Black, Kent Kreitler, and Shane McConkey.
The sport's obsession with catching air long ago brought us V-legged Finns yumping Nordic style in the Olympics and, more recently, rubbery teens flipping about in terrain parks. But executing practiced jumps off man-made ramps doesn't send a shiver up skiers' collective spine like feral cliffs do. Unlike jibbers and Olympic ski jumpers, cliff huckers never know if their leaps are makeable. It's skiing's ultimate mind game. Ruff's friends, for instance, had reservations about his plan. But they hesitated to tell him so, fearing they'd cloud the positive attitude he'd need for his attempt. Still, Ruff's brains interfered anyway. Right before popping off the lip, he appeared to heed a basic human instinct and made an inexplicable, certainly unplanned, check turn. It was a "Whoa! What the hell am I doing?" hesitation. And it crimped his trajectory. Without the check turn, he might have cleared the murderous rocks... and survived to see his jump surpassed by some other loon.
These days, the world record belongs to Paul Ahern of New Zealand. In 1995, Ahern jumped an asttounding 225 feet into wind-packed snow, cushioning the blow by filling his backpack with Styrofoam. The fact that jibbers such as Tanner Hall make six figures a year while virtually no one even knows who Paul Ahern is suggests that cliff hucking is in no way a ticket to stardom. It gets you short-term attention, sure, but it's a dangerously poor way to make a career.
Pierre, who turned 30 last February, is only now carving out a profitable niche. "This is the first year that I can afford my lifestyle, instead of busting ass all summer to pay back my winter vacation," he says. "Sponsors thought I was just a hucker and wouldn't last, but now people realize I'm here to stay." Pierre has proven sufficiently photogenic to deliver all kinds of contemporary freeskiing imagery. He's not just screwing up his courage and plopping off nature's skyscrapers. He also stomps gap jumps-the suddenly de rigeur practice of going huge horizontally. He was the first person to nail Pyramid Gap, a 93-foot span between tailing piles in the Wasatch backcountry, over which he nonchalantly threw a floating back flip. For the latest Teton Gravity Research film, he soared off a kicker and over the third story of the Snowbird parking garage. But cliffs are where his heart is. "I moved to the Rockies from Minnesota to ski big terrain, not angled ice skating rinks like we had at home. I wish I was a better park rider, but jumps aren't that impressive to me if someone else can do it. If you can do it too, I'm wasting both of our time."
Sometime in the next few months, Pierre plans to break Ahern's record. At first he didn't want to say where. But after reassuring him that neither I nor the other 10 million skiers on earth would try to scoop him, he revealed that he's eyeing a 235-foot behemoth off the back side of Grand Targhee. Does it scare him? "As soon as it's over 65 feet, it's all the same," Pierre says. "A 70-footer is the same as a 160-footer, pysche-wise and impact-wise. You just gotta time the free fall better."
Iffy physics aside-forget 160 feet, he'll still be accelerating at 235 feet-there's got to be more to such carcass hurling than timing. So I asked Pierre what he does up on the edge of the abyss. "I stomp my skis into the snow, double click my poles together, and say a Hail Mary," he says. "I'm a strong Christian. Pronouncing my faith is the least I can do for the Holy Spirit for taking care of me for so long."
I find it fascinating that Pierre, like Tremann before him, asks God along on his jumps. Few freeskiers I know of rave about Christianity. Those with film credits often act arrogant, with an outsized sense of entitlement. But the more you talk to Pierre, the more you realize his outbursts are due to the singular focus it takes to hurl his corporal being into space. "I come off as short-tempered," he says, "but I apologize as soon as everything goes well." He also goes out of his way to credit family, girlfriend, and peers for his success. Call him a rare breed. Or, given his habit of hucking cliffs, call him an endangered species.