J.T. Holmes is a professional skier and extreme adventure sportsman. He has years of professional skiing experience competing world wide. This year J.T. combined three of his favorite sports, speed riding, skiing and base jumping to descend the Eiger Mountain in the Bernese Alps. His journey took about three minutes and 60 Minutes was on hand to document his epic adventure. A few of his previous extreme athlete jobs have included participating in action adventure films for Warren Miller Entertainment, filming footage for extreme sports videos, wingsuit flying in movies such as, Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon, helping stunt teams coordinate speed flying scenes for movies including, Fast & Furious and Godzilla. Back on the ground, J.T. is the Director of B.A.S.I.C.S., Being, Aware, Safe, In, Critical, Situations, a program service through the High Fives Foundation. The B.A.S.I.C.S. program promotes safety and awareness through world class coaching of action sport athletes and create videos that promote critical thinking to winter sport enthusiasts of all ages.
Examiner: What’s the process for you that goes into preparing to descend the Eiger and some of your other big projects?
J.T. Holmes: The Eiger is a great example because the check list was incredibly long and thorough. Even the safety checks on the top of the mountain were critical and extensive. In regards to physical preparation, my sports are gravity sports and they don’t require a lot of physical fitness-strength. It’s not like I am powering the mountain. I do yoga and a lot of hiking, cycling and swimming. I swim in Lake Tahoe in the summer. I will wake up and swim about 1.7 miles, a pier to pier training. I prefer exercising outside so what I choose is specific to the season. I’m the guy that needs to be in nature and when you’re dealing with nature you take the offerings that exist for any given day. Some days that might be a perfect single track trail for mountain biking, or perhaps it’s a group of friends that are going road cycling. I recently got a brand new Santa Cruz Bronson mountain bike which is just awesome. It’s amazing how balanced it is and the traction I get. It’s really rejuvenated my stoke for mountain biking.
Examiner: I’ve been in that bike shop those bikes are beautiful. Do you go to the gym at all?
J.T.: Typically in the Fall I will do a bit of plyometric stuff but in general it’s more about working on my flexibility which is something I struggle with. I’ve had some injuries over the years. I also grew quite quickly so I’m naturally quite stiff. I combat that with stretching, and yoga. Typically the first thing I do after waking up in the morning are hamstring stretches. I lie down with my feet up against the wall and my gluts up against the wall and stretch my hamstrings. Everything works a lot better once I’ve got loose hamstrings.
Examiner: Do you work with a physical trainer?
J.T.: I do not work with a physical trainer although I should and I may do that going forward. But at the moment I don’t.
Examiner: Do you incorporate and meditation, visualization or other mental focusing skills into your preparation?
J.T.: I don’t mediate but yes I visualize. I practice route sighting a lot with skiing and ski-gliding. What this involves is I take a photo of a mountain and I memorize it like it’s a trail map. When I get to the top of the mountain suddenly it’s inverted. All the landmarks are now opposite than how they are in the photo. For example, a landmark that was on the left side of the photo is going to be on my right as I look down the mountain. That’s a technique I’ve been using for years. As a professional skier for ski films like Warner Miller Entertainment when I go to Alaska or Squaw Valley and I am at the top of a mountain often I can’t see the whole thing. So I memorize it from the photo that I took. I also use really good binoculars with an image stabilizer. I survey the mountains I descend from all different angles available to me. I spent years looking at the Eiger through my binoculars. Sometimes I would just ski around and get different vantage points or ride different chair lifts. I took the Jungfrau railway to help me survey the landmarks on the Eiger from a different vantage point. When I do this I am not just surveying landmarks but I’m observing how the snow is sticking to the mountain. Prior to my Eiger run there was a storm that came from the southwest that worked well it was positive snow. I had a perfect understanding of what kind of storm cycle that I would need and then I was able to call in the production team to complete the Eiger objective.
I use a lot of visualization and use of landmarks. Then a lot of training is gear intensive. My gear needs to be like a second skin, a comfortable old glove. I need to be at one with my gear, not compromising comfort in order to gain performance. I prefer to use the same parachute that I’ve been using for twelve years rather than the new fancy one that has a little more performance. My logic is to decrease the amount of variables. There are certain variables I can’t control, but the one’s I can control are the one’s that I need to be as comfortable with as possible. That’s why I use tried and true equipment. I choose a piece of gear and stick with it. When I get a piece of gear and I don’t like it I get rid of it. Usually with a parachute, a speed wing or a pair of skis first impression is everything. I either bond with it or not.
Examiner: When you near a big project date how do you keep your mind calm enough to sleep well in the days and nights before leading up to the event?
J.T.: That’s a very good question. I have a hard time with that and I can have a hard time with sleeping before a big event like the Eiger. What I make myself do is completely disconnect after dinner. I scratch looking at e-mails, phone and whatever. I disconnect. A good book helps me. If that’s not working sometimes I will use an over the counter drug like Ambien, or more frequently when performance is near I will take an Advil PM just as a sleep aid. I find that over the counter aids are a good choice nearer to when I will be doing technical performances because the over the counter aids are a little more mild. I will not plan any kind of high risk physical performance for days when I am going to be jet lagged. When I arrive in Europe and there’s a nine hour difference I have a hard time falling asleep and then have a hard time waking up in the morning. I arrived in Switzerland a month prior to the Eiger event.
Examiner: You don’t utilize any natural skills to quiet down your nervous system such as rhythmic heart breathing?
J.T.: That’s something that I’m going to be doing more of. I was invited to the Red Bull High Performance Camp where they teach those skills. The athletes that attend are taught through effortless breathing they can slow their heart rate and it helps them fall asleep very effectively. I’m extremely curious about it. At the time of the Red Bull invitation the week prior to it Erik Roner had a fatal accident and my head wasn’t in the right space to go. I had witnessed Erik’s accident so I skipped camp. But I’ve picked up some ideas from other athletes who have attended. I have found them to be effective. Do I use them regularly? No, because I haven’t been properly trained in them. But I do experiment with them. I absolutely do believe that there’s a lot to be gained there to help my sleep.
Examiner: Who are the folks that make up your team of experts that you consult with regarding weather conditions, terrain conditions, etc?
J.T.: Mountain guides, locals, helicopter pilots, skiers those are all the people that I source for information, even border line pester for information. After I finally completed the Eiger stunt I think that there were a certain few people who had been receiving my very regular phone calls that are probably pleased to not see my number on their caller i.d. anymore. (Laughing).
Examiner: What have you done or currently study to understand weather conditions, types of snow and topography to formally empower your knowledge and increase safety awareness?
J.T.: It’s experience. As a skier I learned quite a bit about what the snow’s going to do, and layers of snow. When I become an airborne sportsman I’m very much in tune with the wind and altitude. Through paragliding and other paragliders’ I’ve learned a lot about weather, wind and how temperature affects the air and when turbulence occurs. I started paragliding a few months ago and since I’ve started that sport I’m blown away by how much I don’t know about weather and weather patterns. It’s a fascinating field that I’m enjoying learning more about.
Examiner: When you jump the rush of adrenaline that produces extreme clarity is frequently described as being in a flow state. Before taking off on the run or jumping from a platform do you feel a place of centeredness? Or is it after you take off the experience demands your full attention and brings your mind to this place of heightened awareness?
J.T.: Certainly I feel a heightened awareness before going because one thing I really notice is how observant I am. I pick up pieces of knowledge, or rather pieces of information about what conditions are that I might not other wise have noticed. Whether it’s a pattern of the way a bird is flying around, I am aware of what’s happening with the bird. If the bird is flapping it’s wings it means that its working to fly. If the bird is soaring or coasting that means that the wind is coming up the mountain and it’s helping the bird achieve with ease. I notice are the birds playing? There are certain birds particularly in the alps that recreate. They will be doing barrel rolls, flying in formation or flying interesting little lines. If it’s a good time for them to be playing it may or may not be a good time for me to be playing. But there is information there to be had. I notice every little thing whether it’s the texture of the snow beneath my feet or noise.
The mountain guide on the Eiger project made a comment after we completed the project that I hadn’t really even noticed at the time but, when he was helping me put on my ski’s I clicked my ski in but didn’t like the sound that the binding made. So I took it off and cleaned my boots more and just clicked in again until I heard a very familiar sound that I am completely familiar with. Little things like that, noticing visual cues of the shimmer of the snow gives me information as to what the sun is doing to the snow. There is a heightened awareness there, flow state absolutely. Before I drop in on a ski run or a wingsuit flight or anything that’s high speed and high risk I use my cognitive brain. I use everything that I have learned in all my best logic. I’m thinking about do I have the right equipment for the job? Do I have the ability to jump from point A to point B? Do I have the right amount of speed so I land the landing and clear the rocks but not land too far? I am thinking about all these things. Do I make two turns to check my skis or one? Or do I just go straight and tuck to get as much speed as possible? There are all these things I contemplate. It’s all this logical thinking and then 3-2-1-Go.
Once I take off I’m just doing it, yet I have a plan and I stick with that plan. I look for my landmarks and carry out the route as much as possible. I try to live the visualization that I have of the whole thing coming together beautifully. But what typically happens is my cognitive brain kind of gets pushed a little bit to the side and I just go with it. I stop thinking so much and I react to the situation. Some of the most beautiful skiing I’ve seen is when people are just slightly out of control. I love watching skiing that is slightly out of control. That doesn’t mean that I am watching a skier like Bode Miller although Bode is an amazing skier who skies on the edge of control that’s why his name comes to mind.
But you can see a child who’s going too fast and is just reacting. The child keeps finding ways to slow down and his jacket is flapping in the wind and his eyes are probably watering through his goggles. That’s beautiful skiing because the skier is kind of relaxing and pulling things off to stay balanced. I’ve been doing this now for twenty years and the best skiing I see out of myself is when things kind of went a little different than planned and I’m reacting.
Examiner: It’s sensory spontaneity.
J.T.: It’s cool and I kind of have that moment of “holy smokes,” that gives me that kick in of adrenaline as I’m trying to pull things off. I am in a sensory spontaneous mode. But I look back and realize how capable I was in that mode. I’m able to perform better than I could have imagined. Certainly better than I could have planned for. But that’s fun stuff and that’s what I think Steven Kotler in his book, “The Rise of Superman” was writing about.
Examiner: When you prepare to zip down a mountain skiing or flying you spot previously determined alternate routes?
J.T.: That’s correct. Anytime I’m in the mountains I identify safe zones. If you look at my Eiger descent it looks totally radical but I incorporated three sports during those runs. I could have stopped at phase one or phase two, although not at phase three. Once I launched my glider off the top if I had missed my mark and hadn’t landed on the right landing site on the Eiger to cut away the speed wing and start skiing I could have just flown on down and gotten back in the helicopter and gone back to the top. If I had missed my landing I would of at least flown down and landed safely. In phase two, okay I’ve landed and cut away the glider, now I’m on my ski’s and I’m cruising along towards the edge of that cliff. There was enough time to stop. I could have slowed down and just stopped at phase two. If though I had reached the last 100 ft. because I was going so fast I would not have been able to stop before reaching the edge, at that point I am 100% committed, and I’m cognizant of passing that point.
Examiner: What is the history of the wingsuit? Who thought it up and how was it tested?
J.T.: In general the pioneers of wingsuit flying were French. There was a guy named, Patrick de Gayardon that designed early day wingsuits. Then there were also friends of his who were all wizards and incredible sportsmen and pioneers.
Examiner: Were they doing the same type of combined stunts that you do shifting from skiing to flying?
J.T.: No they were just skydivers, sky surfers and base jumpers. Several of the guys had a pretty decent knowledge of several airborne sports including paragliding, skydiving or base jumping. It can be argued who was the inventor of the wingsuit but in all those conversations Patrick de Gayardon is going to come up.
Examiner: I’m assuming there were some failures in this process?
J.T.: Patrick de Gayardon died but it didn’t have anything to do with the wingsuit. He made a rigging error and his parachute was unable to open. de Gayardon made one of the first wingsuits that was really easy to fly and was great for consumers. Before him there were two guys, Robert Pecnik of Croatia and his business partner, Jarl Kuosma of Finland who formed a company called Birdman, Inc. They developed a suit called the Birdman Classic that was the first wingsuit offered to the general public. There were failures along the way. There was an Austrian guy named Franz Reichelt who jumped off the Eiffel Tower in 1912 in something he thought was a wingsuit, he died. Humans trying to fly is nothing new. The design and materials have evolved a lot and wingsuits have become extremely easy to fly and get incredible performance out of. I first began flying wingsuits around 2002. When I started flying the wing suits weren’t that good. You had to be really skilled to get a lot of performance out of them. Now it’s different. It’s kind of like a sixteen year old being able to buy a Ferrari and that’s not always a good plan.
Examiner: Is it a problem people buying the suits and not being experienced enough to fly them?
J.T.: I think so because people get into these wingsuits and they feel a great deal of confidence quite soon. It doesn’t take much and you’re ripping. There’s so much visibility now with wingsuit flying because people have Go Pro cameras and are able to share through YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and all these platforms. There is all this information out there and the ability to see all these different wingsuit pilots whether it’s at the local parachute center or the local base jumping destination. The norm has become rather high and it didn’t used to be that way. You get a lot of people feeling a lot of confidence without a lot of experience and they can get themselves into trouble.
Examiner: Which is interesting in that extreme sports are built around a sense of free form and “Watch me, can you do this?” Yet it can be quite dangerous.
J.T.: That’s just it I’m not into regulating bodies. I’m not into limiting progression and having some kind of body establishing guide-lines and saying, “You can’t do this until you’ve completed a per-requisite skill evaluation.” That’s why I started my program with the High Fives Foundation. The B.A.S.I.C.S. program acronym stands for, Being, Aware, Safe, In, Critical, Situations. Frankly we just want to get people to use their heads at least just a little bit. To understand how much training happens behind the scenes. You can go on the news feeds on the internet and see amazing footage of a quadruple corked flip on ski’s now. Or people flying their wingsuits really low to the ground. In every single sport the bar is rising higher and higher and our mission at B.A.S.I.C.S. is to show people what the pre-requisite skills are. We show an Olympic gold medal freestyle skier doing simple flips into a swimming pool. Or a snowboarder talking about avalanches and helmets. We then go out to schools coast to coast and show the videos. We made one called, “Helmets Are Cool.” The latest video is called, “Choices.” It’s all about making smart decisions. We all unfortunately know it’s very important.
Examiner: It’s great role modeling on your part. Some people in your position may have an attitude of each person needs to look out for themselves. You’ve taken the position of making yourself available to engage with the next generation of extreme athletes and attempt to reach them with educational information that could save them from serious injury.
J.T.: It is my way of giving back and it’s in a way that’s not saying, “Don’t do this, don’t do that.” Because when you’ve got that adventure gene you’re going to do it anyways. We use our visibility to share a good message. “Please think of things in a step by step way. Please wear your helmet. Please take note of all this information that’s around you when you are out in the back country skiing.” It’s been fun and it’s been hard work but rewarding.
Examiner: In the book, “The Rise of Superman,” professional outdoors-man Jimmy Chin is quoted, “The greatest athletes aren’t interested in the greatest risks. I mean sometimes they’re taken, sometimes not, but those physical risks are a by-product of a much deeper desire to take creative risks.” Do you agree with him?
J.T.: I agree that the risk isn’t the goal. The fun is the goal and the redefining what’s possible is the goal. I love combing sports. Have you ever gone rock climbing with a base rig?
Examiner: (Laughing) No.
J.T.: Have you ever gone skiing? That’s fun, but have you gone skiing with a base rig?
Examiner: (Laughing) No.
J.T.: That’s really fun. Maybe it’s not a base rig but a parachute, the speed riding wing now that’s a hoot. Actually that makes things safer because if there is an avalanche and I have that parachute I can most likely just hold on with my two hands and lift up and fly away and avoid it. Just in a sense of mountain transportation I can ski powder on the North face of the Aiguille du Midi in Chamonix and I’m only exposed to the dangerous zones for a minute or two. Whereas if I were to ski the same place without a parachute I would have to get out the rope and set an anchor and repel. During the whole process of rigging or repelling I would be prone to avalanche, rock fall, all these things.
Sometimes the creative process of pioneering something new can work out a way for things to be safer. So it’s very true we’re not there seeking risk.
Examiner: Is there a new generation of base jumpers coming up?
J.T.: There is a new generation of base jumpers coming up. Base jumpers come from all walks of life. I see base jumpers that are new and doing everything right. They are taking a considered approach. They are thinking about each step of the process. They are developing their skills, jumping out of airplanes, learning the parachute landing techniques. And I see the other kind that are just flying by the seat of their pants.
Examiner: The lower percentage, wing and a prayer group?
J.T.: I think in general most base jumpers coming up are good smart kids, young adults or even older adults. It’s not necessarily a young athletes sport. That’s the other thing about my High Fives Foundation program, I’m out-lining by example. I’m showing what learning curves can look like and these things can transfer to any sport. When I was learning to base jump people pointed their finger at me like I was kind of some absolute nut that was doing things way too fast. But I had a risk evaluation process and criteria developed through fourteen years of professional skiing. I was able to learn fast. So when I see people getting into the sport doing very advanced flights very quickly at an extremely accelerated learning curve I’m the guy that says, “Hey take a look at this and let me help you with that. This is my e-mail address if you have questions.”
Examiner: J.T. thank you for taking the time for this interview. It’s been fun and informative.