Photograph by Taylor Glenn Jess McMillan taking a time out at the top of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in the infamous Corbet's Cabin.

Girl of Grit

Words by Jennifer Walton 

She’s the girl of big lines, steel nerves, and infinite energy. A Jackson native who has redefined herself a number of times, Jess McMillan grew up skiing on Jackson’s town hill, Snow King, because her parents—non-skiers—used the popular and steep hill as extended day care and Jess never blinked. When they retrieved her at day’s end, they were greeted by a kindergartner who wondered why it was time to leave. She wanted more.

From Snow King, she moved up the ranks on the ski team in Jackson, and she dreamed of being an Olympic athlete. But that was when her dreams were confined to gates and courses. When it was evident that she might not be able to make that dream a reality, she struggled with how to resolve this new path. About that Jess says, “I didn’t think I’d ski again. what was the point? If I wasn’t good enough to be an Olympian, then why ski at all?”  That’s before she set her sights on the big lines in the big mountains.

But the transition from gates to freeskiing wasn’t a direct one. “I tried everything; I walked onto the soccer team in college, I even tried tennis (and I’m terrible at tennis, by the way).” Jess was looking for something that challenged her like skiing. The interlude was whitewater kayaking, aggressive whitewater kayaking—the class-5 rivers and 100-foot waterfalls sort of kayaking. She says, “I loved pushing myself mentally and physically, and being in some of most remote places in the world with just my team. Often that team included my husband! But I began to understand that I was operating in a world with the highest consequences.” Four years into her newfound sport, she lost five friends to the river and, again, Jess switched course.

Cliffs, couloirs, and crevasses called her home. Her discovery of the world of big mountain skiing erupted into an addiction so pure and joyful, it drives what she does every day and it takes her places most sane people would never go. Huge lines, high-angle powder (unfathomable 50° pitches), and speed. Oh, the speed. It looks risky, and it is, but Jess confronts that risk with thought and evaluation. Jess studies her lines and she says, “If I can’t visualize it, I don’t do it.”
Since becoming a freeskier and entering freeskiing competitions all over the world, Jess has stood on podium after podium while collecting international freeskiing medals. For nearly a decade, she’s been ranked as a top ten international big mountain freeskier, and continues to hold the most freeskiing titles, male or female.

Preternaturally disciplined, multi-sport talented (her tennis failures notwithstanding), unfazed by rigorous ski conditioning, and saturated with Teton spirit, Jess skis like a warrior and is always dreaming of bigger lines next time. But, when you meet her, what is most striking is how humble she is. The first time we were introduced, it was simply, “Hi. I’m Jess.”

The joy of skiing and the personal challenges she faces every day are a large part of what drives Jess up and down those mountains, but so is the community. “I’m skiing with my heroes. The people whose posters I had on my wall growing up. Now they are my friends and my teammates in the mountains.”

Sure, this new iteration of Jess is about challenging her limits, but just as much, it’s about tapping into the flexibility and adaptability that will give her the strength to walk away when she needs to. She says, “I’m not afraid to walk away; the mountains will be there tomorrow.” As much as big mountain skiing is about the adrenaline spikes, it’s also about discipline. Jess is conscientious on the mountain, acutely aware of the impact of her decisions.

The Grand. The Grand was something that most in Jackson had assumed Jess had skied since she’d skied so many peaks all around the world. But she hadn’t, not until 2015, when she and her ski partner decided to do it. Her partner is so easygoing, talented, and communicative (read: instills fabulous bouts of laughter) that days spent together have bonded the two for life. “We trust each other. He keeps me alive and makes me feel good at what I do. We summited the Grand and it was one of the best days I’ve had in the Tetons.”

And then there’s her life outside of the mountains. Even though she lives  in the spotlight that comes with being a professional athlete, Jess wants to be seen as “just Jess.” Sure, on paper, there are the sponsors, the awards, the accolades. In life, there’s the ambassador for Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, the business owner, the Pilates instructor, the local, the wife, the daughter, the sister, the best friend, the ski bum, even the mortgage (well, that’s paper too). “Sometimes people I meet think I travel all over the world as a big mountain skier without any responsibilities, which is definitely not the case.” Remember the mortgage?

In Jackson, she can be “just Jess.” For some in town, she’s their Pilates instructor. many of her clients don’t know about her life as a professional skier. And she loves that because it allows her to happily set aside that role. her Pilates business is the perfect complement to her lifestyle and sponsors view her as the quintessential four-season brand. She has been able to fine-tune what “ups” her fulfillment factor and it shows. She’s stronger than ever, and loves skiing now more than at any other time in her life.

Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s 50-year history intersects in so many ways with Jess’s history. At 37, she has been issued a JHMR ski pass every year for almost her entire life. When she speaks of the resort, the Kemmerers (owners of the resort), and reels off names of friends (including her husband) who work in practically every department on the mountain, it is with more than memories—it’s with an appreciation and a sense of gratitude.

The Sami people from northern Scandinavia and Russia use over 150 words to describe snow and ice. In Icelandic folklore, there are a dozen references to snow goddesses. Since the inception of his prolific ski entertainment company in 1949, the legendary Warren Miller has put just two girls on his coveted film posters—athlete, adventurer, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort ambassador, and Jackson native—Jess McMillan is one of them. Yes, a snow goddess if ever there was one.