Athletes achieve new heights in the big mountain freestyle movement

09 Mar 2023

The backcountry culture of Jackson Hole

Winter/Spring 22-23

Written By: Melissa Thomasma | Images: Keegan Rice

When you step off the cherry-red tram atop Rendezvous Peak — the highest point within the boundaries of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort — it’s not difficult to understand where the envelope-pushing idea of big mountain skiing came from.

With miles and miles of peaks, couloirs, sweeping ridgelines, and steep valleys beckoning, it’s easy to see why some of Jackson Hole’s most celebrated skiers and snowboarders have left the constraints and guidelines of the resort behind. Though ski mountaineering accomplishments stretch further back into the sport’s history, what’s come to be known as the big mountain freestyle movement began to take shape in earnest in the 1990s. Growing out of extreme skiing culture in the 1970s and 1980s, big mountain skiing quickly evolved into a unique and exhilarating scene. As the name implies, big mountain skiing (and snowboarding) typically revolves around the descent of a significant mountain — all the way from the top to the bottom. Unlike the carefully groomed and safety-mitigated experience of skiing in-bounds at a resort, big mountain freestyle skiing invites a creative approach to navigating a variety of natural features like couloirs, cliff bands, cornices, and extremely steep pitches. Athletes have continued to create and fine-tune extraordinary approaches to navigating these unmanicured mountain elements: breathtaking jumps, daring turns, and even gravity-defying flips. The thrill, of course, is matched by the athlete’s responsibility for safety and skill — there’s no ski patrol to lend a quick hand in a pinch. Jackson Hole, unsurprisingly, has cultivated some of the world’s most respected and talented big mountain freestyle skiers and snowboarders. Travis Rice — Jackson Hole native and star of the 2008 film, ”That’s It, That’s All,” and the 2011 film, “Art of Flight” — is one of the most noteworthy big mountain snowboarders on the scene today. “We will never know our full potential unless we push ourselves to find it. It’s this self discovery that inevitably takes us to the wildest places on earth,” Rice observed in “Art of Flight,” reflecting on the growth and opportunity that he has discovered throughout his career. Of course, Rice is far from the only boundary-pushing big mountain adventurer who holds Jackson Hole near to his heart. On any given day, world-renowned skiers and snowboarders are reveling in the exceptional snow and terrain both within and outside the boundaries of local resorts. Celebrated athletes like Lynsey Dyer, Jess McMillan, and Forrest Jillson have all claimed podiums around the world, and yet return to the peaks around Jackson Hole. Rooted deep in the valley’s rich history of climbing, mountaineering, and thrill-delivering snowsports, it only makes sense that big mountain freestyle skiing flourishes in Jackson Hole. Generations of athletes have been drawn to the spectacular peaks, the world-class snow, and the limitless opportunity to explore and achieve.
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