Skip to main content

Pro Skier Jess McMillan Reflects On Her Life On the Slopes

12/20/17 by Emma Walker

Imagine what kind of skier you’d be today if, instead of being sent to regular daycare, you’d spent your childhood skiing the steeps in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. That’s what kind of skier Jess McMillan is.

"Neither of my parents skied," McMillan explains, “but I was a product of my environment.” Skiing at Snow King, she adds, was the cheapest form of daycare when she was growing up in Jackson.

"It really shaped who I am, growing up shredding with my friends," McMillan says. She has fond memories of those days, which instilled a sense of community in her. “You could fit more than two of us on a chairlift because we were so little,” she remembers, “and then we’d shred down!”

Growing up on the slopes definitely gave McMillan a head start when it came to skiing, but it also meant making some sacrifices early on. When other kids were dabbling in soccer or swimming, McMillan was focused on skiing. She became the J3 Youth Downhill Skiing Champion and was on her way towards training for the Olympics.

Jess tried to take a break from skiing in college, but it drew her back in. Marmot / Selko Photo

That focus earned her a ski racing scholarship at the University of Utah, but McMillan was wary of ending up without a Plan B. Eventually, she decided to take a break from skiing and transferred to the University of Montana at Missoula, where she dove headfirst into whitewater kayaking. She took to it immediately.

"It was gravity, once again, but in water," she explains. McMillan’s comparison is telling: for most people, transitioning from being a ski racer to a serious kayaker in the span of a season or two would be nearly impossible. But for McMillan, it was a natural fit, thanks in large part to her desire to be part of the whitewater community.

McMillan learned and made friends quickly. Almost immediately, she was kayaking class V rapids, something that takes many kayakers years to master. Within a couple of seasons of starting to paddle in Missoula, she says, she was "kayaking with some of the best people in the world—whether or not I should have been."

By the time she was running big rapids, McMillan says, she had the skills she needed, but she didn’t have the experience yet. After losing five friends in boating accidents, she began to question whether the level of risk was acceptable to her anymore. "Instead of seeing the perfect line, I was seeing all the danger, all the things that could go wrong," she remembers. It started to weigh on her.

"It’s that high-hitting action, where you’re in a flow state. That’s one of the biggest parallels I can draw, is that everything else melts away," she says of the similarities between the sports. Plus she says, “it creates friendships that will last.” The friendships McMillan has made over the course of her career, both in skiing and kayaking, have been hugely influential for her. (In fact, kayaking was how she met her now-husband.)

Eventually, McMillan got back to her roots. She started a ski team at Missoula—where she also earned a degree in finance and recreation management—and got back into competitive skiing when she was 24 years old.

McMillan entered her first competition in 2006 and went on to become the Freeskiing World Tour Champion and US Freeskiing Champion in 2007 and 2008. These days, McMillan has more or less retired from competition and has her dream job—skiing in Warren Miller’s legendary films.

Thanks to her work in Warren Miller movies, Jess gets to travel all over the world in search of amazing lines. Marmot / Selko Photo

One of her favorite things about being in Warren Miller movies, she says, is that they’re fun to watch whether you’re a seasoned pro or a newbie skier—the stoke is high. "It’s a community sport that anyone, any age, can go out and do," she says, “and I think they show that in the films.”

It’s McMillan’s love of skiing, along with her Jackson roots, that set the precedent for her relationship with Marmot. As a Jackson native, she grew up admiring local legend Doug Coombs, a longtime Marmot athlete who was killed in an accident in France in 2006. (Coombs’ wife, Emily, now runs a nonprofit foundation bearing his name in Jackson.)

"When I look at my career," McMillan explains, “I’ve always tried to follow in his footsteps, and Marmot has always been part of that.”

Part of McMillan’s effort to build community among her peers is her women’s ski camps. The camps are geared toward women who are intermediate to advanced skiers but have never been ski touring or mountaineering. They cover everything from walking into a gear shop and figuring out what you need to skiing backcountry or lift-accessed backcountry terrain. "Women want to do this, we want to have these amazing experiences, but it’s hard to gain the experience you need to get out there in the first place," she explains. Now, McMillan says, the women who’ve attended her camps are calling one another up to ski and climb.

The community McMillan is helping to create is global. Wherever she goes, whether it’s in Eastern Europe or South America, McMillan runs into someone she knows at the airport. "With skiing, you create this community that goes across oceans," she says, “Which is so cool!”

Skiing is definitely in McMillan’s DNA, but, as she points out, she’s made it this far in life in part because she’s a careful decision-maker. For a long time, as she was doing avalanche safety talks, she thought it was odd that she talked about what it was like to be caught in a slide but never had been herself.

Jess enjoys teaching clinics in her hometown of Jackson Hole and abroad. Marmot / Selko Photo

And then she was. After being caught in an avalanche in Cordova, Alaska (the footage is now used in an avalanche safety video), McMillan realized that all her training had paid off: she did everything right, from knowing her safety zones to skiing out of the slide at a 45-degree angle.

"Watching the footage later, it made me realize, ‘Whoa, that’s a big level of risk I’m accepting.’ You know it, but you don’t really know it until you’re there," she says of the experience. It’s a combination of education, experience, and skill, she says, that has brought her to this point in her career.

In addition to her skiing chops, McMillan opened an athlete-oriented gym and pilates studio in Jackson, which has been going strong for three years. "I wanted to broaden my career and use my brain," she says, “I kept thinking, ‘How can I contribute to my community?’” McMillan is about to embark on a new chapter as the events coordinator at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, where she’ll get to take an early tram every morning before work.

"The Marmot attitude is to be really humble and let your actions and accomplishments tell the story," McMillan explains. “They’re showcasing the idea of sharing the stoke—it’s not just about one person, but about the whole community.”

Originally written by RootsRated for Marmot.