SNOWBIRD SKIER JACK PILOT FLIES ON HIS OWN TRAJECTORY
Most Snowbird locals recognize 38-year-old Jack Pilot. They might not know him by name, but they’ve seen the skier with the white, full-face POC helmet and empty Mammut backpack in the tram line or noticed the guy pedaling a Trek commuter bike in an orange safety vest up Little Cottonwood Canyon whether it’s dumping snow or 96 degrees. They might not have noticed the busser clearing their table at Snowbird’s Steak Pit, but they’ve probably seen the video clip of him skiing off of a 70-foot cliff called Ace of Spades.
“Everybody knows Jack,” says Sage Cattabriga-Alosa, of TGR fame, who lived with Pilot in Bend, Oregon and Salt Lake City, Utah. “He’s there every day and usually shreds solo.” Last season, Pilot skied 180 days straight. “He’s my example of the real skier guy,” says Cattabriga-Alosa. “He’s the guy skiing every day.”
Born in France and raised in Big Sky, Montana then Driggs, Idaho, Pilot found the perfect training ground at Grand Targhee, with deep snow and cliff band after cliff band of 20 to 60 footers. In the air, Pilot found a deeper state of consciousness, which he describes as “firing on all cylinders.”
“When I started skiing with him, I stopped ski racing,” says Cattabriga-Alosa. “I said, ‘I’m skiing with Jack; I’m hucking.’”
Pilot and Cattabriga-Alosa moved to Bend, then Pilot followed Cattabriga-Alosa to Salt Lake City in 2002. He fell in love with Snowbird’s complex terrain, which took years of daily tram laps to reveal itself fully.
“I doubt 90 percent of the people who know Jack actually know what he’s up to,” says Snowbird skier Marcus Caston, a rising star in the professional skiing realm who’s widely regarded as one of the most hard-charging skiers of the day. “If you ask what he’s skiing that day, he says something vague like, ‘Been skiing Baldy—the snow’s great,’ totally neglecting to tell you he just sent some 60-footer four times.”
A couple of years ago, Caston was filming an inbounds film segment at Snowbird when he heard Pilot was set to drop a big cliff; Caston dragged his film crew to the spot and suggested the cinematographers document the action. Pilot jumped a 70-foot cliff, airing over a tangle of branches at the take-off and landing on hard-pack snow. “It was one of the sickest things I’ve ever seen with my own eyes, says Caston. “He didn’t land it the way he wanted to and wanted to do it again so he could make it perfect for video cameras, but he was really concerned that he was taking up our time.”
Jamie Pierre saw Pilot’s passion and took him under his wing. Pierre’s serious and bold approach to skiing and his pure, simple style of sliding across the snow greatly influenced Pilot. The two skied together for almost a decade until November 13, 2011 when Pilot watched an avalanche sweep Pierre to his death at Snowbird—the zone was off-limits at the time; the resort was not open for the ski season and avalanche mitigation efforts (p. 36) had not yet commenced. Pilot was overcome with grief after the incident. “Jamie’s death forced me to be smarter and more selective when I am skiing,” says Pilot.
Over the years, Pilot has broken his leg at Alta trying to do a double flip and his arm at Snowbird, but, says Cattabriga-Alosa, “Jack is real’ calculated. He’s not one of the guys who is pinning it around doing sketchy stuff all the time. He’s a very dialed-in guy and he sends it big when conditions are right.”
Pilot listens to his gut. He refers to an area in Wolverine Cirque that Pierre often turned to for thrills. Something about the cliff never felt right, so he’s avoided it. Pilot used to think he had a photographic memory; he hikes around Little Cottonwood Canyon in the summertime, scoping new “projects” and familiarizing himself with landing zones. He says he won’t huck more than 100 feet. “I’ve never seen anyone keep it together over 100 feet,” says Pilot, who has hit what he estimates was a 99-foot cliff. His unit of measurement? “I eyeball it,” he explains.
Ever since Pilot read an interview with Evel Knievel in which the stuntman credited a full-coverage helmet with saving his life, Pilot entrusts his own to a full-face helmet. “It saves me from injury on a daily basis,” says Pilot. “And in heavily gladed areas, it prevents me from getting pistol-whipped by branches.” He gained the name “Backpack Jack” for the empty backpack he skis with every day. He tried carrying a towel in the pack as a half-hearted effort to protect his back—his rigid back protector limited his range of motion, he says—but most of the time, the pack holds nothing, which, Pilot admits, makes no sense. The man possesses no shortage of quirks.
“Anybody that goes that big all the time has got something going on in their brain that I can’t understand,” says Caston. “The fact that he flies under the radar makes him all the more mysterious to me.”
Pilot is a huge fan of pro bull riding. He even went to Las Vegas to watch the Professional Bull Riders World Finals. He also loves to play tennis. He listens to Oasis, though not while skiing; Pilot used to ski with a Walkman but found himself zoning-out in snowbanks for far too long. Working nights for more than a decade, Pilot has evolved into a night owl. He rarely starts skiing before noon—don’t forget he bikes up the canyon—but pins it until last tram. With his new bike (his old set-up looked “borderline homeless”), he’s shaved off 38 minutes from his once 90-minute commute, which Pilot estimates adds up to an extra three-and-a-half hours of skiing per week. Now, he even stands a chance at passing the road bikers on the steep climbs. At the restaurant, he has no desire to transition from bussing to serving. “Sometimes I’m so bad at talking to people,” says Pilot. “I have trouble navigating conversation.” In fact, he’s so soft spoken that hearing him often requires leaning in closely.
It’s not what you might expect from a skier in a full-face helmet who stomps brag-worthy airs on the daily, but Pilot skis for no one but himself. “Jack’s not there for the show, he’s a silent assassin of huge airs in the woods by himself,” says Caston.