Worshipping someone other than Ullr. Jamie Pierre in Salt Lake City, UT.
Worshipping someone other than Ullr. Jamie Pierre in Salt Lake City, UT.
here is a God. The snow report for Alta, Utah, says 127 cm of fluffy, white, heavenly goodness and I’m waiting patiently at the gates, so-tospeak. The entire Wasatch range—Mecca in the minds of true powder devotees—is digging out after a legendary dump at the exact same time that I happen to be in Salt Lake City on a story assignment. Yup, I am coincidentally here for the storm of the year. Somebody upstairs is looking out for me is my habitual first thought, grinding through traffic toward Little Cottonwood Canyon without a care in the world. I drive past a few Mormon, Baptist, Hindu and other assorted temples on the outskirts of SLC—a reminder that I’m here on a mission to interview one of 130 million American Christians (40 freakin’ per cent of the entire
population!) who interpret the Bible literally and therefore believe that mountains like the Wasatch Range—and by extension every snowflake
What separates Jamie Pierre, the man I’m here to interview, from the majority of these masses is that he’s also a damned-good skier, if I
Ends of the Earth. Chad Sayers in the Patagonia region of Chile.
and all the skiers soon to be snorkeling through them— were created by God, and not even all that long ago.
can be such a blasphemer. I’m more than just that, actually. I’m a Darwinist, atheist, realist sonofabitch who shouldn’t be
thanking any divine being for a powder day even in jest. I curse the Catholic upbringing that served up tasty KoolAid during my youth until I head-crushed the Dixie-cup at university and started studying evolutionary biology. I know, for instance, it’s scientific fact that orographic lift is responsible for all the snow. And, for all you agnostic fence-sitters out there, I also know for a fact that God neither invented orographic lift, nor is He administering it with invisible puppet strings and snowy cloud-breath. Why does this deity even deserve capital letters, for Christ’s sake? I plan to bring up this and several other points with Pierre, the world record cliff-air master renowned for his piety on and off the slopes. Hopefully, in case he takes offence to my line of questioning, he also embraces pacifism.
Pierre sans puppet strings in the Alta, UT, backcountry.
e’re supposed to meet at the base of the resort. I pull in excitedly only to find that it just… happens… to… be… tracked out? ¶ There is no God! What the hell? Jamie, tall and toqued (that would be “beanied” in the U.S.), finds my confused body pacing the base of the Collins chair. He explains that the resort opens incrementally on days like this, meaning if you’re not there when a lift cracks, you lose. We’ll find a stash, he assures, but we have to sniper the subsequent openings chronologically. One lift to the next, we ascend, awkwardly discussing anything but the Holy Trinity. He mentions how it feels to be known as the guy who did the crazy jump. In 2006, the then-32-year-old launched off a cliff near Grand Targhee and four seconds later—after pondering his existence the entire way—cratered 75 metres below, on his head, somehow suffering only a cut lip. “Some guys in Jackson mocked me by making a bumper sticker that said ‘Jesus would have stuck it,’ ” he laments. ¶ “Jeezus H. Christ!” I interrupt. “Look at that crown!” I’ve broken the ice inadvertently, gawking at a huge fracture across the valley on Mt. Superior, which, according to lift-line banter must have been the avalanche that demolished a few cars last night. In the same way I get amped on hearing the names Richard Dawkins or Stephen Hawking, Pierre lights right up when Jesus is mentioned. “What more beautiful a place is there to praise the Lord, than in the mountains on a powder day?” he asks. I don’t say “Somewhere untracked” out loud, knowing that he’s making a courageous statement to a writer who could nail him to the cross just for the sake of ratings. But Pierre obviously doesn’t care what anybody else thinks: “I’m living my life for the Lord, for my family, and for myself,” is his mantra. His wife and two kids, evidently, are the only ones on that list not present to confirm this.
Divine intervention at Brighton, UT.
Pierre isn’t the only skier in the limelight brought up on religion. As with most of these folks, first appearances are deceptive—it’s not like you’ll find them peddling Bibles in the lift line (in Canada, at least). I remember my first encounter with the brothers Treadway, and it wasn’t at church. Once the clouds of two-stroke and other smoke cleared from the trailhead these Christian rebels turned out to be the some of
flood via a personalized letter: “I have safely bounced through rock gardens, flying thirty feet between bounces, and landed on the only patch of snow in sight,” one passage read. “[God] has let me choose my own path and make my own mistakes, all the while guiding me to become the best person I can be.” I was moved, but for my science mind it was too much quirk and not enough quark.
nicest guys I’d ever met. Daryl, in particular, comes across as the kid next door, but I learned from a hut trip in Pemberton last year that he can rip like nobody’s business. Unfortunately it appeared that God wasn’t along on that particular trip—the only thing we were praying for was snow. It wasn’t until I started poking around for Daryl’s theological opinions that they spilled out like Noah’s
With all due respect—and they deserve plenty—I’m ultimately sorry that skiers like Treadway and Pierre misconstrue blind luck for blind faith. It’s a dangerous embrace. But if this is what makes the world a better place I’ll endure it. However, I still can’t buy into worldrecord attempts being safetynetted by miracles, Sure more than one mortal has
prayed to God above a gnarly line, mustering enough confidence to drop in. And plenty of epitaphs have been written about the subject. But if reliance on angelic intervention supercedes reliance on skill and experience, then, well… good luck with that. Those who ski safely away from such folly are, sadly, all-too-often reaffirmed of God’s hovering presence in a circular argument as weak as last season’s snowpack. Those who don’t ski away simply won’t be around to re-think their beliefs—which might be the biggest tragedy. My lift companion might be one of the exceptional cases who pushes things far enough that even unwavering faith can’t override an instinctual sense of survival. That, and a promise to return home every night. Perhaps that’s why Pierre not only scoped out his skyscraper cliff for years in advance, waiting for perfect conditions, but once he’d skied away from it he had promised to tone it down to “sub 50-footers.” That mandate has slowly evolved to “plusor-minus 50,” because this guy likes to go big.
Act of God, or Darwin Award? Pierre in the Alta, UT, backcountry.
Chad Sayers, Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park, B.C.
or the record, I’ll be the first to admit the brothers Treadway, Jamie Pierres and Chad Sayeres of the world—to name but a few—are infinitely less judgmental than myself, having been raised on noble virtues that they’re still living. However, it’s neither their job nor vocation to ask questions and get hard answers—in fact, like most acolytes, a lack of interest in the big questions might be one of the reasons
Holy cold smoke. Sayers on Rogers Pass, B.C.
they persist with Christianity: it’s easy. My goal in this particular case is to understand why these skiers—and all other non-atheists for that matter—go about following and promoting a dogma based on no evidence. As in zero, like the unequivocal freezing point dictated by physics. It’s this undying allegiance to the dangled promise of an afterlife that makes me want to splash some Utah powder into my guide’s face. But he’s out ahead
busting a boot-pack to this cliff above the Dry Fork zone and trying to score me a photo. On the untracked side of Alta’s boundary, Pierre stands calmly atop an abyss, while I cower on my belly over a cornice 10 metres away. “Same place as [Scott] Markewitz and I nailed that Powder spread last year,” he offers, which is surprising because I’m not used to athletes divulging coveted stashes to near-strangers. Tossing a snowball into oblivion, the skier asserts his mantra: “When it comes to skiing, faith for me plays the biggest role… God’s got a plan.” He goggles up. “Our life on earth is short, but life in heaven is for all eternity.” Jeezuz. This is too foreboding for me. Balance, edging, snow crystal structure—all are better dealt with empirically, not by divine intervention. At least in terms of making sure this photo op doesn’t turn into a rescue op. He’s planning to land right in a sun-baked start zone, and if Pierre’s got a special gift for survival it better be wrought from years of experience—not from miracles. As righteous as I sound, I’m still a spiritual person, meaning I understand that my conscience is primed to deal with situations beyond the moment. As in: there’s something special about a powder day beyond a certain number of centimetres. As in:
Tibetan prayer flags are cool to hang from your porch but don’t need to be prayed to. Spirituality and conscience, however, are nothing more than survival mechanisms, evolutionarily speaking. These are not proof of God, in the same way that the beauty of mountains, snow crystals and that cute liftie girl don’t prove that God exists. Bottom line, again: there’s zero proof of the existence of any god, which makes it surprising that so many people believe in her (why not a her?). Don’t get me wrong: I feel a great deal of kinship with these faithful skiers because they’re equally passionate about life and skiing. And I respect their
eternal resolve, especially when faced with the pressure of the day-to-day bro scene and the fearsome press like myself. But when it comes to leaps of faith, I’m keeping my own skis on the snow, and digging in my edges. “Three… Two… One… dropping,” says Pierre. No prayer, no homage. His subdued tone is as routine as any heathen. He styles the jump, sticks it, and doesn’t die. It might have been over 50—factoring in the
crater—but he made it look easy. I get the shot and that’s the first thing he asks after digging himself out and booting back up to do it again. Then the whole paradox hits me. This guy knows how to send huge air. He went the biggest ever recorded, after all. The fact that the entire bowl didn’t run to ground today doesn’t prove there’s a guardian angel present. But I suspect that Jamie Pierre already knows that. After
all, these mountains are his church, where he worships daily. On the flip side, because so many variables are involved in this miniature bout with God’s big nature, there’s also no way I can prove that physics, or a butterfly farting in China, dictated the outcome either. It’s impossible to argue on behalf of either side, and in any event, what would be the point? Especially when there’s skiing to be done. ×
Published on May 25, 2011