The upper limits
Big mountain skier JT Holmes on flying down cliffs, conquering fear and stretching the boundaries of skiing
Whether gliding down steep Norwegian mountainsides in a wingsuit, launching off a cliff in skis and landing with a parachute in Utah or ski BASE (Bridge, Antenna, Span, Earth) jumping off the Silver Legacy in Reno, JT Holmes is ever exploring the limits of skiing—and of his nerve. The 29-year-old professional skier was with extreme skier Shane McConkey this past spring when McConkey died during a ski BASE jump in Italy. From his home base in Squaw Valley, Holmes shared with the RN&R his thoughts on losing his best friend and skiing partner, as well as what it’s like to jump off a 6,000 foot mountain, film with Matchstick Productions and conquer fear.
Describe the type of skiing you do.
I’m what they call a big mountain free skier, or just a free skier. I’m climbing steep mountains with cliff faces and interesting terrain features like chutes and trying to ski the mountains really creatively, following the natural terrain features and catching air and going really fast.
Do you map it out before you jump?
I do. It’s a big mental game there, where you’re memorizing the mountain, instead of just skiing spontaneously. You try to plan where you go because you’re skiing among such hazards that if you got off route, you can get yourself in big trouble. So you use landmarks to guide you down the mountain. And the more you play that mental memorization game, the better you get, which is kind of cool because it lends this sort of skiing to more experienced skiers. Some types of skiing, like half-pipe or terrain-type skiing, it’s less mental ability, it’s about being young and made of rubber. I’m a young veteran now, but I’m skiing better than I ever have, and I’m putting a lot of that into my mental experience and ability to evaluate danger.
How long have you been skiing professionally?
Since I was 15. That’s when I started to veer away from race and freestyle teams. I followed a lot of pro skiers around and learned a lot from them. I’ve always been fascinated by gear and developing ski equipment. … So far I’ve just been talking about normal skiing, not parachuting. I’ve only been parachuting since 2002. The parachute skiing is what we call ski BASE jumping. That’s skiing off a cliff and opening a parachute. It may or may not involve a flip or a wingsuit flight, but it involves skiing off and opening a parachute. And it’s great. We can ski off cliffs no one else can because we don’t have to land at full at full speed. We can land nice and soft.
I saw the segment on 60 Minutes where you were wingsuit jumping in Norway. It was amazing. Can you describe what you’re doing?
We’re wearing a flight suit, but it’s essentially just clothing, like tent material, nylon, and it makes your body similar to that of a flying squirrel. You have material going from your hands to your hips and material between your spread legs, and it creates a wing. It fills up with air and allows you to glide and fly. You have to be going quite fast for it to work.
What’s the highest you’ve jumped?
About 6,000 feet. That was in Norway. Recently, a jumper opened a new exit off the Eiger in Switzerland that’s 9,000 feet.
Are you going to try that?
Oh yeah, I’m going to go there for sure.
You’ve been called an innovator of base jumping. Why is that?
I think that my friends and I approach BASE jumping with a little bit of an out-of-the-box thinking. We think about what can be done rather than what we can do that has already been done. Four years ago, I developed a simple piece of material that allows you to do double parachute jumps. So I brainstormed, got together with a friend of mine, and we made it. … My friend Shane McConkey and I wanted to ski off a cliff and then fly in a wingsuit, so we had to develop a way to get rid of the skis to jump. … We were able to complete this project no one else had done before and allowed us to have our own creative expression on the mountain. Kind of put down some proud tracks no one else had done before. It’s a feeling of accomplishment, like climbing a mountain no one has before, like you’re the first. It’s cool to be first sometimes.
Tell me more about wingsuit skiing.
You want to transition from skis on the ground to flying with nothing on the ground and no more skis. We ski down, do a couple of flips just for fun, get rid of the skis and fly down in your wingsuit until it’s time to open a parachute and land softly. And you look back up and go, “Wow, in the last minute and a half, I covered a lot of ground.”
And you guys were the first to do that?
It’s really tough to say. This one I’m sure we were the only two who had ever done a wingsuit ski BASE jump, but in general it’s hard to say you’ve pioneered anything because there’re so many Europeans who’ve been doing wacky things in the mountains for decades. At the same time, the challenge is doing—with no data to work from … you’re pioneering it at least for yourself.
Do you have a most memorable or exhilarating jump?
There’s a lot of them, and so many are exhilarating in their own ways. There are certain canyons in Norway you can fly your wingsuit out of that are tremendously visual. You’re completely engaged by mountainside, it’s overwhelming to see terrain going by on both sides and below. It’s fascinating, this rugged landscape, and big mountain, too. If I had to choose any one BASE jump experience it would be skiing off the Eiger in 2004 for Matchstick Productions. That was a very climactic moment. It’s an iconic mountain, it’s huge. Just to ski on the Eiger is a treat. Skiing the northwest face, we had great snow quality that day, just flying off this huge cliff, was like flying off the edge of the world, and all you had to bring yourself back is your parachute. It’s just fascinating.
In general, the best BASE jump is the last one you made. It sticks with you and run it in your head over and over again. My last BASE jump was the Squaw Valley tram—there were beautiful conditions, good friends below, had the crowd cheer me in…. It’s fun to run these thoughts and moments through your head again.
I understand you were with Shane in Italy last spring when he died, and I’m really sorry for that loss. Do you mind talking about that?
We can touch on that.
For anyone who may not know, can you tell us a bit more about Shane?
Shane was a hero in skiing. He was the ski industry’s probably most loved professional skier. I think part of what really, how he garnered everybody’s respect was not only being called the best skier in the world, and I wouldn’t argue with that. But more than that he changed the way we ski through innovations in skis. He designed new skis that let people have a much better skiing experience. For that, every skier in the world is grateful, or should be. Most people, because Shane was a popular guy and had great charisma, knew who he was and gave credit where it was due for his out-of-the-box thinking. He had this ability to follow through on projects and make these wacky skis people thought, ‘That’s not going to work.’ But he had the vision, resources, good sponsors to lend a hand and come together. Shane’s given us the gift of a better ski experience.
And he was your skiing partner.
He was my best friend. In skiing and BASE jumping, we were constantly going and having a good time.
Even without witnessing such an accident, most people would be terrified to jump off the kind of mountains you do. How do you push past the fear and go for it?
That’s mental strength, really. It’s not even so much mental strength. You need to have trust in your thought process. You think to yourself , “OK, well I’m really scared right now. My hands are trembling, my heart’s racing; I’m totally scared.” But you say “Let’s think this through. I’ve evaluated every jump of this mountain. I know I have the ability to outfly the mountain, a safe cliff to work with, a safe landing area. I’ve packed my gear properly, and I trust my ability to fly.” I think skiing has taught me that mental process of evaluating a mountain. It’s the same thing on a smaller level. You think, “Can I realistically jump from here to there? What are the conditions for the takeoff, for the landing? Is the landing area safe or dangerous? Am I precise enough to land in the correct place?” We do that a million times a day when we’re skiing. … You build confidence in the thought process, and after a while you have the confidence that you can evaluate a mountain and that you can do it safely.
Do you ever get a bad feeling and turn around?
I do. Sometimes I look at it and go, “I don’t like that. I don’t like the snow built up there, there might be an avalanche there. I think that takeoff has too much rock. I’m not going to do it.” Even when you know it very well may have been possible, you just say no and think maybe you can ski the next day.
You mentioned Matchstick Productions. How did you get involved with them?
It’s been a great working relationship with Matchstick. When I was 15 or 16 years old I started skiing very well. I was 100 percent focused on skiing as well as these guys around me who were so good. I wrote Matchstick Productions a letter and said, “Hey guys, give me a shot,” and they did. I’ve been doing films with them for 12 years.
How long do you see yourself doing this?
I think I have another decade in me. … I keep skiing better and better every year, even by a little bit. I think the BASE jumping has really added to my ability to ski well in consequential situations. When the mountains are big, and there’s really danger, I have a level head, and that’s not something younger skiers come by as easily. And Shane was the best skier in the world at 40 years old. Well he was 39. I’m 29. I feel like maybe by the time I’m 39 I can be as good as Shane McConkey.
What are your plans for the winter?
I’m competing in the Freeride World Tour, and it’s an elite competition circuit in the style of free skiing I’m doing .You have 25 to 30 of the best skiers and 25to 30 of the best snowboarders, and we meet in four different locations: Sochi, Russia; Chamoix, France; Squaw Valley, and Verbier, Switzerland. We start in Russia the 18th of January … and end in Verbier in March. There’s a quite a bit of time in the middle there, which I’ll spend skiing.