Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Written by Katie Bacon
Extreme skiing legend John Egan has made a career of testing his limits - and teaching others to test theirs, too.
To understand John Egan as a skier and as a person, it helps to understand the story behind the hot-pink one-piece suit he had a habit of wearing as he was filmed skiing some of the toughest lines on the planet. The suit was a gift from John’s idol, Patrick Vallençant, a French extreme skier who had several first descents of slopes previously considered too steep to ski.
On John’s first trip to ski in the Alps, he would trail Vallençant and his crew, climbing up a couple of hours behind them and then skiing the same spots. One day John ran into Vallençant off the mountain, and told him that he and a friend had been following the French skier around. Vallençant had noticed, and admitted that his group had waited for John on the far side of a couloir, wondering how he would cross it without a rope. As John remembers it, Vallençant asked him, in his French accent: “‘How did you get down the other day? We wait and laugh for over an hour because you never come!’ And I said, ‘Oh, that was scary, man, you had to climb back up an extra 150 feet and get more speed and jump over it.’ He said, ‘You jumped? You jump, we ski!’” After that, John started guiding with Vallençant, and representing his sportswear company, Degré7. In early 1989, Vallençant shipped the pink suit, made by Degré7, to John, along with a note. The suit was still stuck in customs when Vallençant died in a rock climbing accident.
The way John thinks about it, that suit saved his life twice. Once he was wearing it when he was caught in an avalanche. Another time, in what has become perhaps the most famous clip in ski movie history, John and his brother Dan were skiing fast in unison, John behind Dan, down along the edge of a cornice at Wyoming’s Grand Targhee. John saw Dan hit what looked like a puff of snow, and heard a loud cracking sound. A block of snow the size of an eighteen-wheeler started crumbling away right in front of John, leaving him with the tips of his skis over a thousand-foot abyss. Instinctively, using the tails of his skis as springboards, he changed direction midair, landing back on the snow—but just barely.
The clip of John defying death became the opening segment of Warren Miller’s 1991 film Extreme Winter, and the pink suit went on to become a uniform of sorts for extreme skiers. (As John told me, “Back in the day, pink was not a big color for guys. One-piece pink suits really were not. So to wear that, you better ski like a badass.”) Over the years, as the Egan brothers built their own extreme skiing entertainment business, they would sponsor other skiers—but only if they wore the pink suit. “I can’t tell you how many great skiers have worn that pink suit,” John says. “Patrick’s magical powers went with it, I guess. I felt like the suit was a good omen.”
John grew up testing the limits of speed and danger, but as a drag racer, not a skier. His best friend’s father raced cars, and John would spend weekends at his house or at the racetrack, tinkering with motors to try to get them to go faster. By the time John was twelve, he had a go-cart that could reach 98 miles an hour in a quarter mile. He also raced bikes, and, as he grew older, a pro stock car. He tried to keep his mother in the dark about it all by storing his trophies at his friend’s house. “My mom had no idea what I was doing on the weekends, but one day she found all my trophies, which had the name, date, and how fast you went, and she flipped out. She was not happy at all.”
Meanwhile, the Egan family—five boys and two girls—grew up skiing at Cranmore in New Hampshire, and at Blue Hills, near where they lived in Milton. But it wasn’t until John decided to ski-bum at Sugarbush instead of going to college—another choice that did not sit well with his mother—that he started on the path to extreme skiing.
When John arrived at Sugarbush in 1976, the head of the ski school was Sigi Grottendorfer, an Austrian ski racer who spent the rest of the year teaching at Portillo in Chile. Instructors could follow Grottendorfer from Vermont to Chile and back, which made Sugarbush an appealing place for excellent teachers for whom skiing was both their year-round livelihood and their passion. As John describes it, “You had the best of the best here, and they were all sharing their secrets. But it was nothing that was pretentious. They were like, ‘Hey, kid. Try this.’ They saw potential, and they shared what they knew.” It was at Sugarbush that John first started “exploring the woods and the landscape and not really worrying about how to get down a trail, but how to get down a mountain.” It was also at Sugarbush that John first started making a name for himself. Tom Day, who grew up in Montpelier and would go on to film John and Dan and now films for Warren Miller Entertainment, remembers hearing about “this guy John Egan,” and then coming to Sugarbush and seeing him from a lift. “I saw him ski down under the chair and was blown away. It’s his combination of power, fluidity, control, and how fast he can ski and keep it together. He flows like water down the hill,” Day said.
Around the same time, John started skiing out West, and got a job driving an eighteen-wheeler and delivering produce around the country. The schedule suited him perfectly, since he could drive during the growing season and ski during the rest of the year. But he kept on returning to Sugarbush, and in 1978 was discovered there by Warren Miller, who had asked around to find the best skiers on the mountain. John appeared in the film Winter Fever, the first of his seventeen Warren Miller films, and also the beginning for him of skiing as a profession, not just as an intense hobby.
In the early 1980s, John skied on both the pro mogul tour and the pro gate-racing tour. But he found over time that his heart wasn’t in it—those types of competition didn’t capture what he loved about the sport. “I’ve never really cared about being better than the other guy. I wanted to be better than I was yesterday; I wanted to push my limits and see where my limits were. Really for me it was a challenge between me and the mountain.”
It was John’s brother Dan, younger by six years, who showed John that extreme skiing could be a career. Dan brought a business degree and marketing expertise to the partnership, which helped them build Egan Entertainment Network, as well as businesses running extreme skiing clinics and guiding other skiers. But he also matched John’s sense of daring, and their blood connection helped them figure out together how to take on ultra-challenging new slopes while skiing in fluid unison. (Dan points out that there’s lots of footage of the brothers skiing in side-by-side couloirs, separated by thick walls of snow, yet matching each other turn for turn.) If the two climbed up a slope together, they’d talk about what they saw along the way and how to ski it. And whichever one was “feeling it” that day would head down first. “Both of us have a unique way of approaching the unskiable. Between the two of us, one would unlock it for the other. Having that mirror image was what other skiers didn’t have,” said Dan.
Together, John and Dan guided groups down first descents in remote parts of the world, from Greenland to Kamchatka to the tip of South America. These trips got at the very heart of why John has chosen to build his life around skiing. “We went to these remote places that were difficult to ski, and tried to ski them before other humans had skied them. It wasn’t about going somewhere and proving we were the best skier. It was about doing these things that made us feel good. I think that was the biggest point of skiing to me—I was drawn to what was left to explore,” he said.
Even when John started a family, he kept on exploring the world—in the early years he’d often bring his son Johnny with him, and by the time Johnny was three, he’d already skied on three continents. When he was nine, he climbed with John and twenty-four of his clients up to 15,000 feet in the Andes and then skied down. (Johnny is now an extreme skier based out of Montana.) But around the time John and his wife had their second child, Willy, Win Smith—in his new role as majority owner of Sugarbush—made John a proposal: why not work at the mountain full time, and see if clients, after following him around the world, would follow him to Sugarbush? That is how John became the mountain’s “chief recreation officer,” a title that hints at the sense of fun and adventure he brings to his role helping people of all ages and levels find where their edge is—that place that’s challenging and a little bit scary. “That’s the best part about skiing and the best part of my job: I get to share what I love with people.” And these days, John continued, “I don’t have to go prove to myself that I won’t die on something each day, because I can get the same thrill out of making five people better.”
Over the years, his job has also expanded to include a more strategic role at the resort, along with helping to run leadership retreats drawing on his expertise making decisions in dangerous, tight situations. As Smith sees it, “You have to have a little bit of flexibility. He’s not a round peg. You have to find the things that are going to excite him, then he’s going to excite others. And the enthusiasm he has for this place rubs off.”
For John’s part, Sugarbush and the valley surrounding it are home. “He could ski anywhere in the world, but he’s chosen to make this his home mountain,” said Smith. Part of the reason is the sense of community John’s found: this is the place where he has raised his sons, where he’s built houses, where he enjoys the four seasons and the challenging terrain, and where he’s found a crew of friends who are as fun to ski with as anyone in the world. “It’s not always the mountain you’re on, it’s who you’re skiing with. There are people who will push my limits right here every day.”
John has been skiing extremes for forty years, a record of longevity especially impressive in a sport that is defined by the risks people take and that values the newest and flashiest tricks. This past spring, John and Dan were recognized for their pioneering place in the world of extreme skiing when they were inducted into the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame. The beginning of the video introducing the Egan brothers hinted both at the unique flair they’ve brought to the sport and at how much the sport has changed: “Decades before GoPro, YouTube, and cell phone video, these crazy brothers from New England were jumping cliffs and skiing steeps.”
When asked what has played into that longevity, and what has enabled him to ski at the edge for so long (though that edge may have necessarily shifted a bit as the years have passed), John comes up with a range of reasons. Maybe it’s the way things slow down for him while he skis—he explained that it somehow feels as if time is being stretched, the way it is during action scenes in The Matrix. “There’s a mellowness to it, a zen-ness, a peacefulness and enlightenment that allows you to live through a lot of dangerous things,” he said. Maybe it’s the attention he’s paid over the years to what’s around him (observing how snow is affected by temperature and the mountain’s pitch) and within him (listening to his gut instincts). “There’s that sixth sense that allows you to say, ‘Today’s not the day that I’m going to go do that situation over there.’ I had really good partners. We made a lot of good decisions out there, we trusted each other, and we didn’t do things we thought were silly. We always thought we were calculated about what we were doing.” Maybe it’s that he has lived so much of his life at high speed that when he needs to he’s able to intuit how to move, instead of pausing to think. “By the time you take a second to think, life has already happened, that cornice is breaking. It didn’t stop while you stopped to think. It didn’t stop at all until it hit the bottom.” Or maybe it’s just, as he said, the “luck of the Irish”—or the luck of the pink suit.
That suit, with its late-’80s style, was retired from the ski slope a while back, and passed along to someone else in the Valley. But the next time you’re out and about in the area on a cold day and see someone working on their burn pile, look closely. He just might be wearing a piece of skiing history.
John and Dan Egan checking out their lines on the set of a Warren Miller film.
John, up close and personal
Dan and John Egan at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame induction ceremony in April 2017
John giving some pointers on Rumble
John teaching woods-skiing techniques