On May 10, somewhere just shy of the summit of the South Sister, OR, Jess McMillan stopped hiking and wondered whether she was having fun at that moment. It had been one of those days—you know, the kind where you wake up at 3 a.m. after having climbed and skied five volcanoes and some 23,000 odd feet of vertical over the previous six days and you’ve been hiking for 11 hours in snow-magnified spring heat, and you’re almost out of water. She was exhausted. Not to mention a raven had unzipped her pack and helped itself to her entire lunch a few hours earlier. “At least he didn’t like gels or Shot Bloks,” she recalls.
Photos by Ian Fohrman in Jackson Hole, WY
Luckily, McMillan’s strength reserves run deep. The blonde 33-year-old big mountain skier, born and raised in Jackson Hole, grew up ski racing and hiking Teton Pass. After earning degrees in forestry and business while on the ski team at University of Montana, she succumbed to “the typical ski racer burnout,” and moved to Ashland, OR, to focus on kayaking for two years. She couldn’t stay away from Jackson long, though, and soon found herself on the hill coaching. One day she realized she wanted to be skiing, not standing there watching others do it. After a fourth place finish in her first freeskiing contest at Snowbird, she took second place in the IFSA World Tour the following year, and won the whole tour in 2007.
Her current successes—filming for Warren Miller and Storm Show the past two years while remaining a dominant force on both freeskiing tours and balancing various ski mountaineering projects—are no doubt due in part to her notoriously difficult training regimen and a serious work ethic.
Jess is an incredibly hard worker and dedicated to her sport,” says Crystal Wright, one of McMillan’s ski partners in Jackson and 2012 Freeskiing World Tour Champion. “I love skiing with her because I am continually pushed and always working toward being a better skier. Also, she is one of the toughest ladies I know mentally and will push through anything.”
McMillan became a certified Pilates instructor a few years ago and teaches classes in the summer months before heading down to Las Leñas, where she has skied each of the last eight years in a row. She then focuses hard on ski season training in the fall, which means four days a week at the elite Mountain Athlete program in Jackson doing everything from lifting, sprints, jumps, rope climbing to crossfit, plus three to four days of Pilates and either a run, hike, or bike ride four days a week.
“Over the years everyone has called skiers athletes,” says McMillan. “But big mountain skiers don’t typically train like world cup ski racers, and at the time I wasn’t training that way either. I decided that if I was going to call myself an athlete and allow others to call me an athlete, I wanted to be an athlete. The training has made me feel more like an athlete mentally and physically.”
It’s also made her incredibly resilient. A high-speed tomahawk early in the 2011 season left her with seriously injured C-1 and C-5 vertebrae in her neck, to the point where some specialists considered her lucky to be alive. Her doctor predicted an eight month recovery, but she rehabbed hard and by April was feeling strong and getting restless. It had just dumped four feet in Jackson and she had been eyeing Fat Bastard—a notorious whopper and TGR movie mainstay—for some time. She sent it and had a small tumble but considered herself healed and went on to place first at the Chilean Freeskiing Championships a few months later.
This determination, plus her positive attitude made her a natural choice when Chris Davenport was looking for partners for his Volcano Tour this past spring. “Jess has as good an attitude as one can have out in the mountains,” says Chris, “She is really strong and confident, a tough woman, and willing to push herself. But her optimism and stoke is really what was so important for this project.”
McMillan and Davenport were the only two to do the whole tour—15 volcanoes in 14 days for a total of nearly 80,000 vertical feet and 141 miles of skiing on every volcano from Mt. Shasta in California to Mt. Baker in Washington. They lived in and drove a huge motorhome, were sponsored by Whole Foods and consumed many Hulk Smoothies (ingredients in this concoction include Maca powder, bananas, and kale) and were joined by various friends for different peaks with up to eight people staying in the RV at one time.
During such a grueling trip, the fact that McMillan experienced only that one exhausted, questioning moment on South Sister is especially impressive. As she rested and contemplated, Davenport poked his head over the ridge from the peak just above, and yelled, “Are you coming?” Jess sighed. “Yes, I’m coming!” Chris hollered, “Well then keep walking!” “I’m walking, damnit,” she muttered, and continued upwards.
Soon she was ripping her signature powerful turns back to the land yacht, forgetting she ever even questioned herself. “You get to the top, and you ski down, and it’s amazing corn and you’re like, yeah, I was having fun the whole time.”