Story and Photography by Matthew Bieker
Jeffery Taggert “JT” Holmes, 36, is a professional freeskier and stuntman whose sponsors include Squaw Valley, HEAD, Red Bull and GoPro. He stars in the recent 60 Minutes film “Taking on the Eiger,” which focuses on his pioneering work in B.A.S.E. jumping and wingsuit flying, techniques that use free falls and parachutes to ski previously inaccessible terrain. (Anderson Cooper was the CBS correspondent on the film.) Holmes’ stuntwork appears in “Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon,” “Spiderman 2” and “Godzilla,” and he has starred in commercials for Porsche, Ford, Pirelli Tires, Hotels.com and Coors Light.
Despite his success as a daredevil, however, Holmes almost lost it all when he was buried by an avalanche in the backcountry near Donner Summit last year—an accident in which he lost consciousness under the snow, but was rescued by the eight avalanche-trained friends who were skiing with him.
Now, the Squaw Valley local reveals how he got to the top—and survived the ride down.
Do you think you’d be the same guy if you grew up in Colorado or even similar ski environments? You know, the thing about skiing in the Reno-Tahoe area in general, and Squaw Valley specifically, is that you have some of the best programs for kids to develop their skills. You also have very efficient chairlift systems, so you’re getting more laps, you’re getting more runs in than really anywhere else in the nation. With mileage on the skis comes confidence and with confidence comes performance.
I think a lot of people have this idea that you have to be born different to be adventurous at all…But it sounds more like it was incremental for you. If you relate it to a ski hill, everything starts with a green circle and then it goes to a blue square, and then the black diamond and eventually the double black diamond. I believe that everybody has the adventure gene within them, and it’s just a matter of what level you take it to.
For some people, an adventure might be to go on a lengthy walk with the dog and maybe see some new terrain. Maybe the adventure is that they got kind of a nicer car and felt some exhilaration from pressing down on that accelerator. Some of us, we really find a lot of rewarding experiences from big adventure and we take it further and further and pursue it as a passion of life and, subsequently, a career.
When did you go pro? Well, I made my first (Warren Miller) ski movie in 1995 when I was still in high school. By the time I graduated high school I had sponsorships—I had money coming in. It was just clear to me that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and that college could happen on the side. It was a decade of picking up classes whenever I could, and skiing my heart out.
I read about your experience with the avalanche earlier [last] year. Having had this past year to reflect…do you have any advice? How have things changed? When you have a near-death experience… you certainly come out with a different perspective on life and the fragility of life and the preciousness of it, and the absolute emphasis on not letting something like that happen again. I simply learned from all of the factors that contributed to the outcome of the event itself, both good and bad. I learned from those and will carry that with me in mountains moving forward. I also was witness to how tough that would have been on those around me, those that love me.
How were you able to attain an almost peaceful mindset in a situation like that? It’s being calm under pressure, it’s training—that wasn’t my first time in a very critical situation. I have some level of training with avalanches. I knew certain things that my gut instinct would want to do that would have been totally useless—so I avoided that.
But kept a presence of mind? Yeah.
Final question: Do you have any advice to the next generation of skiers, seeing what you’ve seen this past year? You don’t ever get to take things back. You don’t ever get a second chance to make any single decision in life so, you know, use your head. Even if it’s just a little bit, use your head.