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The ‘pioneer’: Ski mountaineer, author and photographer Jan Reynolds

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Jan Reynolds has taken many trips to the Himalayas during her career. She was part of the first group to circumnavigate Everest and even attempted to summit the world's tallest peak via hot air balloon. COURTESY OF JAN REYNOLDS


Editor’s note: The U.S. Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame is inducting the classes of 2021 and 2022 at Big Sky Resort on March 24 and 25. To commemorate the event, EBS published a special section with profiles of each inductee. Grab a copy on the shelves to read more about the athletes who have shaped the winter sports that help make Big Sky a world-class community.

By 1989, Jan Reynolds had NCAA Nordic skiing championships, an Olympic appearance, multiple first ascents, a world record, and various magazine covers and TV interviews under her belt. Reynolds was pushing the boundaries of free-heeled skiing in some of the world’s harshest environments in any way she could.

Not only that, but she published a dozen books between 1990 and 2013 about the cultures she encountered while adventuring. This month, she’ll be inducted into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame at Big Sky Resort. 

Jan Reynolds has more than a lifetime’s worth of achievements, and is still adding to the list. COURTESY OF JAN REYNOLDS

Talking to Reynolds, now 67 years old, is like peeking into the fountain of youth—she asked my advice on backcountry ski spots to explore while she’s in Big Sky and had to take a break during our call to wax a pair of skis for a friend. She doesn’t believe in limits, whether they’re set by age, gender or expectations. In fact, she rarely sought out first ascents or world records, but rather went on adventures she wanted to go on and realized the gravity of her accomplishments afterward. 

In 1980, Reynolds skied China’s 24,757-foot Muztagata on an expedition sponsored by National Geographic. When she returned, NatGeo informed her that she had set the women’s high altitude skiing world record for the descent, a record she held for eight years. 

“When I was in my 20s, all I wanted to do was train hard, climb hard and ski hard with those who wanted to do it at the level I was doing it at,” Reynolds said. “I had nothing to prove—I was just having my own demented kind of fun.”

Reynolds often took lightweight telemark or Nordic ski gear on her expeditions. There weren’t very many people ski mountaineering big objectives in the 1980s; fewer were “free-heelers” and even fewer were women. That left Reynolds to blaze her own trail. 

“I’m often called ‘the pioneer’ because I was doing expeditions with all men,” Reynolds said. “There weren’t really any women doing what we were doing at that time.” 

Reynolds spoke fondly of other women who followed her footsteps into the male-dominated world of professional snow sports, noting her respect for the late Hilaree Nelson, an inspirational ski mountaineer and mother who died in 2022 on an expedition in Nepal. 

“[Being inducted to the Ski Hall of Fame] is not gonna change me one way or the other,” Reynolds said. “It means I’m able to bring up others… I want to bring up those that might not have as much representation: women and free-heelers.”

Jan Reynolds excelled in nearly any outdoor sport, as emphasized in this Outside Magazine cover photo. COURTESY OF JAN REYNOLDS

During her heyday, Reynolds was the it girl for outdoor adventure sports. Esquire magazine named her the athlete of the decade in 1984 and she was featured on some of the largest magazine covers and on television talk shows in the U.S.

Reynolds ticked off most of her early objectives with her partner Ned Gillette by her side. In 1982, the North Face approached the pair and offered to sponsor their expeditions and gear. They became the first professional athletes employed by the brand, something other outdoor companies weren’t yet doing, according to Reynolds. North Face now sponsors 87 athletes, and Nelson was the team captain at the time of her death.

“I was one of the first two athletes hired by the North Face when women weren’t really noticed,” Reynolds said, noting that she was offered equal pay to her partner. “We kind of put mountaineering on the map in the U.S. It was really cool to move backcountry skiing forward.”

In the mid ‘80s when she and Gillette split, the brand dropped Reynolds and kept her former partner. She explained that companies weren’t open to giving her leadership because she was a woman, so she continued on her own trips, funding them through writing and photography. She cataloged stories on her expeditions and provided imagery to be published alongside her written work. 

Reynolds was forced to take a break from her expeditions when a back injury briefly left her unable to walk. 

“I really was grounded,” she said. “It gave me a lot of time to think. I wish everyone had time to really think about what it is they want to do with the short time we have on this planet. I could still write and I had to work.”

The injury led her to write longer stories about the cultures of Indigenous people she spent time with on her travels. She published the first two books in her “Vanishing Cultures” children’s book series, “Himalaya” and “Sahara” in 1991, and continued the series after her recovery with five more books. 

Throughout the following three decades she continued her pursuits—athletic and journalistic explorations in Morocco, the Himalayas, the Amazon, Bulgaria, the Alps and beyond, while publishing numerous books including “The Glass Summit,” her 2013 autobiography—while simultaneously becoming a mother. 

She’s still an avid adventurer, skiing frequently around her home in Stowe, Vermont, and through her nonprofit, GOOD FUN-D, continues to travel and write about Indigenous cultures around the world. She interacts with teachers and students through her social media, and is beginning to release free books to help break down the barriers for American children to learn about other cultures. Currently, she’s working on a book about a water tribe in Indonesia. 

“I try to stay fit, keep up my strength and keep having fun,” Reynolds said. “A lot of it is to be able to get my work done. To do the work I want to do, I have to be strong and nimble. I’m living the same life, I’m still out there doing things and I do what I can do at my age.”

To stay up-to-date on Reynolds’ projects, she recommends following her Instagram @janreynoldsauthor. 

Jan Reynolds in 1986. COURTESY OF JAN REYNOLDS

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