Jackson-born Jess McMillan started alpine ski racing when in elementary school. She continued all the way through college, dreaming of one day perhaps racing in the Olympics. But, the Olympics didn’t happen and skiing got to the point that it wasn’t fun for McMillan anymore. Post-college, she decided she wanted to be a pro kayaker and, investing time in that, went three full years without so much as stepping into a ski.
Of course McMillan couldn’t stay away from skiing forever. She did return to the sport, albeit as a free skier rather than an alpine racer. And then she took the free skiing world by storm, winning the 2007 International Free Skiing Association Women’s World Tour. Most every year since 2007, McMillan has continued to be in the top 5 at the end-of-season rankings.
McMillan hasn’t only rediscovered her love of skiing though, but also teaches and inspires others. From January 13-17 (with the 15th being a rest day), she’s one of the star instructors at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s second annual Elevate: The Women’s Ski Camp. A second Elevate women’s camp is March 3-7, 2014 (rest day is March 5).
The week before the first camp, we got Jess, now 35, a regular star in Warren Miller films and a certified Pilates instructor, to sit down just long enough for an interview. We had to talk fast though.
Did you really not touch a ski at all for three whole years?
I was literally not on skis at all for those years. “Burn out” isn’t quite the right phrase, but I raced competitively for 14 years. There were Olympic dreams and all of that. After college I needed a change of pace and went looking for a new identity. I needed a pretty significant break to fall in love with skiing again.
What’d you do during your break?
I chased a kayaking dream. I wanted to be a pro kayaker, and live that kind of Endless Summer life, where I was just running rivers around the world.
And how’d that go?
I got really good at kayaking really fast and then I had five friends die boating in one summer. That was a big awakening for me.
What do you mean, “awakening?”
I didn’t want to die.
But today you speed down mountain faces so steep and toothy that snow can barely stick...
I have more experience and training as far as skiing goes. My skill set is much deeper. I’ve been skiing a lot longer than I’ve been kayaking. Kayaking, I became a kayaker really fast. Within four years of starting, I was kayaking with some of the best in the world. With skiing, the tools I have in my kit--they are a lot more powerful than I have for kayaking.
Also, for me, kayaking is like being in a constant avalanche. Skiing, you can almost always stop. Yes, kayaking you can eddy out, but when you’re in a rapid you’re in a rapid. The water keeps flowing.
I moved back to Jackson.
And then it started snowing. I was like, well, I better start skiing.
Was it love at first turn again as soon as you stepped back into your bindings for the first time?
Not quite. It happened one day on the mountain after I had started coaching junior racers. Coaching is a natural for adults that are former racers. I was watching the kids racing and I had an awesome moment. I can’t say what it was, but I just had this thought that I knew I wasn’t yet done with my ski career.
Had you heard of extreme skiing at that point?
No. But I’m fortunate some great women skiers who were competing on the circuit live here in Jackson. Sometime around then Kit [DesLauriers, the 2004 and 2005 U.S. Freeskiing World Tour Champion] told me I should try it.
Were you a natural from the start?
In my first competition I didn’t actually qualify for the finals.
Was that hard for you?
I’m super competitive, so, after my first three runs—which are the ones that qualify you for finals—I wanted to know why I didn’t qualify. I wasn’t contesting it; I just wanted to know so I could get better. I went to talk to the judges. Talking to them, they said I could do a fourth run—a finals run; fortunately for me, unfortunately for her, a woman in front of me who did qualify for the finals had hurt herself and that opened a space for me. I ended up fourth.
What did you think about free skiing?
I was so hooked. It was the most amazing thing I had ever done. Instead of having to be right in a racecourse and make every single turn perfectly, you can have some imagination. I’m still hooked.
Taking the fact you’re a woman out of it, you’re one of the best all-mountain skiers in a town full of exceptional skiers. You can ski anything at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. But what’s your recommendation for intermediate skiers?
That’s easy. Grand is my favorite intermediate run of all time. I don’t think there’s a better run out there. It has a really nice pitch. There is a ton of room. You can go as fast as you like. Also, it’s south facing, so in the afternoon it’s nice and warm. It also has the most beautiful view of the valley. It’s just fun.
Where do you send advanced skiers who want to scare themselves?
Shoot! This is Jackson. They can go most anywhere. But I like Tower 3, the Alta Chutes, Expert Chutes, Corbet’s. Or they can try to chase a local down the mountain. We’ve got crazy good skiers here.
Arguably, Corbet’s Couloir, which often requires a mandatory air at its entrance, is Jackson’s most famous run. Do you remember the first time you skied it?
I don’t remember. I wish I did! I remember the first time I skied S&S though. (Editor’s Note: S&S is just to the east of Corbet’s and makes Corbet’s look like a bunny slope. S&S’s mandatory air entrance is double that of Corbet’s and also about as big as the eye of a needle.)
After all the crazy lines you’ve done, S&S must have been easy?
It was terrifying. It was 2008, so the year after I had won the world tour. It was last bell and I was skiing with Wild Bill, who skis S&S every year on his birthday. We had been riding up the tram and looking at it and looking at it. We finally went out to the lip of it. Wild Bill, who must have been close to 60 then, goes out to the edge and hangs his ski tips over, which is terrifying. We’re talking about maybe doing it and then he just drops in and disappears. I was left standing up there. I must have counted myself down like 10 times. I’m telling myself, “I’ve won the world tour. I should be able to do this.” Eventually, I dropped in. The landing was perfect. Wild Bill was my training partner for the rest of the season.
Is S&S easy for you now?
It never gets any easier.
You’ve skied Jackson Hole Mountain Resort your entire life. Now that it’s been recognized by SKI magazine readers as the #1 Overall Resort on the Continent, it’s not really a secret anymore. What do you think the most under-rated aspect of the area is?
Jackson is certainly on the map. But, I don’t think most people who haven’t been here know that we’re still a small town and everyone here helps everyone else out. It may feel like this huge resort, but, at the same time, everyone will say, “Hello.” It still has that small town camaraderie to it.
And now for the most important question: You’ve just had a killer day on the slopes. Where do you après-ski?
That’s tough. On the weekends, I go to the VC (the Village Café). Weekdays, I like The Spur. It’s just too busy for me on weekends.