Ultrafit: An unhinged flight into white

  • Article by: STEPHEN REGENOLD , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 20, 2007 - 3:24 PM

Minnesota native and extreme skier Jamie Pierre holds the world record for a free-fall flight of 255 feet off a mountainside in Wyoming's Tetons.

The morning of Jan. 25, 2006, dawned gray and breezy at Grand Targhee Resort, a powder-ski haven in the Tetons of Wyoming. But Jamie Pierre was up early and waiting for the first chairlift ride of the day, skis on and standing with a film crew as the lift motor rumbled to start.

The mountain was choked with snow, a wonderland of cornices and cliffs and trees submerged in a quilt of white. Pierre, a Minnesota native and a professional extreme skier, was pondering a stunt that had been on his mind for years. He rode the chairlift and quietly envisioned a move so huge that it had the potential to change his life.

Or, it could just kill him outright.

"I was praying and thinking and trying to relax," he said. "Maybe I was looking for a sign."

In an hour, Pierre -- a daredevil as well as a lifelong Lutheran -- got his sign from above. God gave him a hint, a thumbs-up, he said. He then skied out of bounds off the backside of the resort, pushed with his poles at a cliff's edge, and leaped into an abyss.

Pierre fell more than 250 feet through the air, spinning, skis flipped to the sky, plummeting upside down.

He dropped for four long seconds in a roar of wind, granite wall racing by, before landing on his helmet-less head in an explosion of white.

Dead or alive, Pierre's multi-year obsession to jump the highest cliff while on skis -- and to hold the world record -- was finally met.

The trajectory of events that led Pierre from Minnesota to the cliff's edge in Wyoming -- from obscurity to ski stardom -- began decades earlier. Born Feb. 22, 1973, Jamie was Pam and Gerard Pierre's third child.

"He always had a fearless, happy glint in his eye, even as a toddler," said Pam, 61, who eventually raised eight children at the family's home in Minnetonka.

Jamie climbed trees at a young age. He learned how to walk and immediately tottered into a swimming pool. At age 2 he stood on the pedals of his older brother's bike and coasted unguided across a road.

"We knew he was extremely adventuresome right from the start," said Pam. In fifth grade he stepped into downhill skis for the first time at Hyland Hills in Bloomington. Young Jamie tucked for speed and went straight down the hill, his dad waiting at the bottom to tackle the bundled boy before he could crash into a chalet.

Soon Jamie was flying off ski jumps and moguls at Buck Hill, Wild Mountain, Afton Alps and anywhere else his parents or a school club could take him.

After high school, when classmates were heading to college, Pierre drove to Gunnison, Colo., to live with his brother. He worked nights at the front desk of a lodge, and skied all day at Crested Butte Mountain Resort. He was a ski bum, happy and poor.

In 1992 Pierre moved to Salt Lake City, lured by Utah's famously deep snow. He cooked pizzas all winter. He flew home for the summer to save money for skiing.

"All my children had unconventional career paths," Pam said. "Jamie took a circuitous route to find his dream."

That dream started to materialize in 1999, when Powder magazine published a black-and-white photo of Pierre leaping a 40-foot cliff at Snowbird Resort in Utah. He was developing a reputation as a big-air specialist, someone who had the rare combination of focus, fearlessness and an innate ability to stay balanced in the air.

"Jamie was a good skier, but nothing stand-out," said Mike Kessler, a Los Angles writer who profiled Pierre in 2005. "But his cliff-jumping skill distinguished him."

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    1973 - Born in Minneapolis.

    1984 - First ski outing (Hyland Hills, Bloomington).

    1987 - Visits brother at college in Colorado to ski on spring break.

    1990 - Graduates from high school; moves to Crested Butte Mountain Resort, Colo.; becomes ski bum.

    1993 - Moves to Utah, makes pizzas, skis.

    1995 - Competes in first extreme skiing competition.

    1997 - Performs front flip off 50-foot cliff.

    1999 - First published photo of Pierre appears in Powder magazine.

    2000 - First ski film appearance.

    2002 - Appears on cover of Powder magazine's November issue.

    2003 - Skis 165-foot cliff in Utah's Wolverine Cirque. Appears in first Warren Miller film, "Cold Fusion."

    2004 - Skis 185-foot cliff in Engelberg, Switzerland.

    2006 - Skis 255-foot cliff at Grand Targhee, Wyo.

    2005 - Appears on cover of Skiing magazine's March/April issue

    2007 - Pioneer ski descent of Alaska's Mount Emmerich via Northeast Couloir.

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