By Emily Stifler, Explorebigsky.com Managing Editor
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Last winter, on a visit to Big Sky, world-renowned skier Jamie Pierre spent an afternoon scoping the Kircher Cliffs, a quarter-mile long, 150-foot tall cliff band just above the Dakota Territory at Big Sky Resort.
“He traversed under the whole thing checking out every possible takeoff and probing every possible landing,” said photographer Travis Andersen, who became friends with the professional skier last winter. “He was fully intending to go hit the biggest spot on that cliff band… I’ve never seen any one even consider that. He looked at things differently than anyone else.”
Pierre, who described himself as calculated, wasn’t willing to do it then because the snow wasn’t right. But, Andersen said, Pierre “had confidence and an attitude like ‘Oh, yeah the right day next winter we’re going to come hit this thing.’ I had no doubts he’d do it.”
After living 15 years in Salt Lake City, Pierre moved to Big Sky this July with his wife Amee, a Montana native, and their two young children. He was killed four months later, on Nov. 13, in an avalanche while snowboarding in Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah. He was 38 years old.
Having only lived in Big Sky a few months, Pierre had little time to make an impact on the community. Even so, he made friends easily, and had already embraced the lifestyle, climbing peaks, learning to bowhunt, and camping with other families.
“It was like he’d always been here,” said local skier Liz Welles. He often showed up at the post office, the grocery store, or at community events with his three-year-old son Royal in tow.
The family joined the Big Sky Christian Fellowship and regularly attended services at the chapel. Their daughter Clementine started kindergarten at Ophir School this fall.
Pierre moved here in part for the awesome terrain, which he said was untapped by pro skiers, and in part because he wanted to raise his kids in the friendly mountain community. He was set to sign contracts as a ski pro with Moonlight Basin and the Yellowstone Club, and work as an ambassador with Big Sky Resort. He’d also connected with the Big Sky Youth Empowerment program for at-risk youth.[dcs_img width=”300″ height=”270″ thumb=”true” framed=”black”
author=”photo by Travis Andersen” desc=”Pierre stylin’ the Headwaters, cropped from original”] http://www.explorebigsky.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Jamie-Headwaters2.jpg
The news of Pierre’s untimely death made national headlines and was plastered across ski websites worldwide. More than 30 pages of Teton Gravity Research forums read again and again, “RIP Jamie, you will be missed.” Saddened by the tragedy, many in the Big Sky community were left wondering how they could help support his family.
A Minnesota native, Pierre became famous for launching massive cliffs on skis, and eventually set a world record with a 255-foot drop in the Grand Targhee backcountry in 2006. He skied professionally and filmed with Teton Gravity Research, Rage Films and Warren Miller Entertainment.
Growing up with seven siblings, Pierre was raised evangelical Lutheran, with a midwestern mother and French immigrant father. Pierre was a fearless child with a curious nature and a happy demeanor, said his uncle and godfather Jim Smith.
The family was close, and the kids were told they could do anything they put their minds to, Smith said. “There were no preconceived notions about how they should live their lives, except that they would have a life of faith.”
Pierre loved skiing at nearby Buck Hill, where he often jumped the retaining wall and snowmaking berms alongside the racecourse. After graduating high school in Minnetonka, he first visited Montana on a road trip to see the West, and soon after joined his older brother Chris in Crested Butte.
A few years later, the brothers moved to Salt Lake City, where Jamie built a reputation as a serious partier with a bad-boy attitude who hucked big cliffs. He met his wife to be Amee in 2002, and experienced a reawakening of his faith in 2003, the same year he launched 165 feet in Wolverine Cirque outside of Alta.
By the time he had an adult baptism in 2004, he’d toned down the partying, but the cliffs kept getting bigger. Pierre believed God was watching out for him on his jumps.
When he first came to Big Sky to ski with Big Sky Youth Empowerment in 2009, Pierre’s reputation preceded him—but his friends, including those he met in Big Sky, say he’d been misunderstood. By that time, Pierre and Amee had started a family of their own, and were looking to move out of Salt Lake.
By 2010, the year they decided to move to Big Sky, Pierre had retired from the biggest jumps. On his many visits that winter, he left an impression around town as a humble and genuinely nice person, a committed father and an impressive skier. He was enthusiastic about the area’s awesome terrain and about getting involved with the community.
“He was super good dad,” said Andersen, a father himself. “I talked to him probably once a week this summer, and he was always doing something fun with his kids, every single time.”
Pierre’s faith was strong, and in Big Sky, he and pastor Doug Timm became buddies. “My life message is not skiing. I want my life to be a proclamation of Jesus,” Pierre told the pastor. “If I can use skiing as a platform for that, that’s what I want to do.”
“He was always open, and he had fun talking to people,” said photographer Ryan Turner, who grew close with Pierre this summer.
As the season’s first avalanche fatality in the U.S., Pierre’s death shocked many. Neither he nor his partner had checked the avalanche report that morning, which warned, “conditions are ripe for someone to get caught in an avalanche.” Although both were expert skiers, neither of them carried any avalanche rescue equipment, and as usual, Pierre did not have a helmet.
They hiked up Alta and traversed into Snowbird, places they both knew well. The resorts were still closed, and the ski patrols hadn’t yet conducted avalanche control work that season. While hiking out of the Peruvian Cirque area, the pair remotely triggered a fairly large slide that covered their tracks. With many other skiers out that day and new snow atop a weak, early season snowpack, this was one of at least a dozen significant natural and human triggered avalanches in the area.
They gained a ridge above the Gad Valley, and Pierre dropped into South Chute, a 40-degree slope at 10,300 feet with a northwest aspect. The narrow chute avalanched almost immediately, carrying him nearly 800 feet and raking him over rocks and a small cliff. He was partially buried and died of trauma during or right after the fall. Snowbird ski patrol and Wasatch Backcountry Rescue helped with the ensuing evacuation.
In Big Sky, and throughout the ski tribe, Pierre’s death left many questioning if the rewards are worth the risks.
“Anytime someone like that goes down I start thinking about that stuff,” said Andersen. “Whether it’s Shane [McConkey], Doug Coombs or Jamie, you’re like, ‘What? That’s impossible. How could that happen to him?’ Then you start thinking if it can happen to them, it can happen to me easily… Taking risks is inherent in skiing.”
These are profound and important questions, Pastor Timm says:
“Here we have a dedicated Christian man in the prime of his life who left behind a wife and kids. That raises questions in any person’s mind about the nature of life and death and God. You think about whether God is real, whether He cares, whether we’re just atoms, whether we have souls, and whether life goes on after death.”
Timm says the church wants to support Amee. “We are going to walk with her, and be a family to her.”
Others have expressed the same sentiment. Kristin Cooper, a Big Sky local who also grew up skiing Buck Hill, wants Amee to know “even though we don’t know her that well, this is a community of likeminded people, likeminded women particularly, and we want to be there to help her in any way, especially with the kids.”
Pierre Family Benefit Fund
A funeral was held on Nov. 19 in Salt Lake. In lieu of flowers, an account has been set up for the Pierre family at Big Sky Western Bank. Checks should be made out to: For the Benefit of Jamie Pierre Family. They can be dropped off or mailed to P.O. Box 160486, Big Sky, 59716 Attn: Kayle Quillen. For more information call Kayle at (406) 556-3201. Any well wishes for the Pierre Family can be mailed to P.O. Box 161114, Big Sky, 59716. A box is also set up at Ophir School’s front desk.