'Death Is Like A Scar': Extreme Skier JT Holmes On Escaping Avalanches and Losing His Best Friends

US free rider JT Holmes in Chamonix, eastern France
U.S. free rider JT Holmes in Chamonix, France, January 31, 2010. Holmes found himself buried by an avalanche in the Sierra Nevada in February 2016. Jean-Pierre-Clatot/AFP/Getty

January 14, 2016, the Sierra Nevada mountains, California. Extreme athlete JT Holmes is skiing with friends at around 7,400 feet, when he triggers an avalanche.

Holmes, who had helped pioneer and popularize ski BASE jumping—skiing straight off some of the world's most formidable cliff faces with a parachute—becomes enveloped in the drift, eventually losing consciousness.

Holmes had been present in the Dolomites, Italy's Alpine region, in 2009 when Shane McConkey, his best friend and mentor, failed to release one of his skis on a base jump and fell to his death. Then in April 2014, Holmes lost Timy Dutton, who he mentored, in a skydiving accident in Acampo, California.

After around seven minutes under the snow, Holmes was pulled out—miraculously, with no serious trauma. Here, he relives his experience for Newsweek, and talks about the pain of losing his closest friends on the slopes.

Can you relive the accident?

I didn't have any trauma whatsoever with my head. I didn't have any trouble with my brain. I got away with that one.

I was in Lake Tahoe in the backcountry. There had been some temperature changes and fresh snow, and different wind conditions. We were with a group—we had two professional mountain guides, and another EMT (Emergency Medical Technician). And everybody had experience in backcountry skiing.

We started out in the morning; we practised with our avalanche equipment. And we discussed protocol for if an avalanche were going to happen. So we were pretty heads up. We had also had done snow evaluations by digging a snow pit. We noticed that there were definitely some potentially bad areas of snow, but nothing that was bad enough to not go skiing at all. We started really conservatively on some south-facing slopes that had a more solid snow pack, then we went to a north-facing slope.

That was where I triggered an avalanche. I was the fourth person on the slope. The others had skied the slope and then traversed out to the right, where we had agreed to meet, because it was safe. But when the avalanche happened, my skis were facing to the left and there was actually a tree in between me and the safer zone to the right. I tried to escape to the left, which also offered a high point for escape. But it proved to be the bad move, it would have been better to have gone to the left. The avalanche actually propagated over there. I nearly escaped, I was very close but it caught me and I was now in the avalanche and going fast.

There was no escaping it at that point. It went over a small cliff band and that was when I started to do a little tumbling. And then I came to rest at the bottom of the slope. And at that point I was buried only up to my shoulders. But I couldn't free myself. I knew, potentially, there was going to be another wave of avalanche coming. And if that happened I'd be buried. And sure enough, no sooner did I think it might happen than it did. But I did actually think to get a good breath at that point.

Most people would panic. How did you retain your senses?

I've been taught what to do in the event of an avalanche. I know that if you are going to experience a burial or any kind of a hold-down from a big wave when you're surfing, any time you are forced to hold your breath it's much better to hold your breath than exert energy. I used to play water polo and I was on the swim team in high school. I could swim 75 yards underwater without coming up for air. And I always knew that if you try to swim it fast, it won't work because you are going to burn all of your oxygen. So I just tried to relax and not breathe and remind myself I could survive for quite a while without any oxygen. And I knew that I couldn't do anything about it anyway. I was just trying to breathe and stay calm and I didn't try to make some Herculean effort to get out of there, because I knew there was no way you could bust out. So I ended up under there, and you can't move anything, a fingertip or a butt cheek. And eventually I lost the battle between my lungs and my mind. My mind was saying don't breathe, and my lungs really wanted to breathe. Eventually I was breathing through air that wasn't there, and I passed out.

How long was it until you were pulled out?

Between six and seven minutes. I was conscious under there for at least two minutes, four or five unconscious.

After something like this, is there fear about going back out?

If you ski in the backcountry long enough, you will have incidents with avalanches. That doesn't mean you're going to have a burial, it just means you'll definitely have experienced them around. This just happened to be one that caught me. I evaluate and analyze exactly what happened, and then move on as a more experienced, more knowledgeable mountain man. I make better decisions and with more knowledge and experience. No, there wasn't really much trepidation. I learned a lot from it, from the way that the elements of the situation created that outcome. But I didn't really take a break.

I started with just skiing. When you're skiing you're making quick decisions at high speed. And so it was really great training for any other airborne sport or any other high-speed sport you are going to do. I became a quick learner at all these other sports. When I was 22 I started parachuting, and within six or seven months we did our first ski BASE jumps. A pretty aggressive learning curve, but I also have a good ability to evaluate conditions in the mountains and make good decisions.

What was it about ski BASE jumping that attracted you?

There are certain things we like as skiers. We like to feel the carving of the ski, the acceleration. And we like to catch air. If you're doing sports like BASE jumping or ski BASE jumping, you're suddenly getting a great big dosage of the acceleration and air time. Skiing is definitely my number one passion. By being able to use parachutes in ski BASE jumping or ski riding, which I'm doing now with an open parachute, you get a great, added dimension on your skiing. Certain obstacles that other people have to avoid, you can ski right off them. If it's a cliff or even a forest, you can fly right over a forest. It really opens up a lot of the mountain.

When you fly with wingsuits, you are flying. But when you do a wingsuit ski BASE, when you ski off a cliff with a wingsuit, or even just just with your own body and go for a flight by disconnecting your skis, it's actually different than normal BASE jumping. Normal BASE jumping feels like you're stuck in an elevator shaft. You fall straight down, it feels like that rollercoaster sensation. But when you go ski base jumping, it's more like you get shot out of a cannon, which is pretty fun. You're already moving fast, horizontally.

How do you get over deaths in the sport?

It comes back to learning from what happened and using that knowledge to make better decisions going forward. We're pretty familiar with those sorts of events, how to debrief them and figure out what happened. How do I get over it? You don't necessarily get over it. I've sometimes compared it to having a scar. At first when you get a bad cut on your face and it leaves a scar, you feel it. When you look in the mirror it's all you notice. Eventually it just becomes a part of you and you don't really notice it, even though it's there. It hasn't necessarily gone, but it's not your focus after a while. These are dear friends. Shane's wife and child are like family to me. I'm very lucky to have them, they are just lovely people. And we value his legacy.

How did you become a mentor to Timy Dutton?

I had known Tim for three years. He grew up here and I was also a coach at the Utah Olympic Park, where he would train. I was training there and I was a coach. I always knew Tim but we weren't close friends. But I always liked him. After Shane was gone, he became my best friend. He had already done some air sports, some skydiving. And so we kind of hit it off, and he became a partner. It was nice to have a partner in that sort of stuff again, because there were a couple of years where I didn't really focus on airborne sports or ski base jumping. I took a couple of years off I think. Only from ski BASE jumping. Anyway, it was fun to get to do some of that stuff with him again. What really brought us together was we were on the freeride world tour, travelling the world and competing as peers. And living in the same town.

What was the nature of his drug problem?

I'm not sure what drugs it was specifically, but from my understanding it was all of them. (A Powder Magazine tribute to Dutton mentioned "heavy drug use" as a teenager). He had a drug problem, would be the best way to put it. He cleaned himself up, got his life back together and as I recall when he was ready to compete again, when he was freshly clean and sober he went to the registration desk at the North American freeskiing championships. They asked him for money and he didn't have any, so he told them, you can just take it out of my winnings. And they let him compete, and he won. (Laughs). Then he won the next competition as well, and that basically catapulted him into a flourishing ski career.

How did you move past the death of another close friend? (Dutton died when he collided with another skier in mid-air, around 30 seconds after leaping from a plane. Holmes broke the news to his mother).

That one still stings quite a bit. Tim was to me what I was to Shane. We were best friends. But there was also an element of leadership, mentorship, because of the age difference. I was seven years older than Tim, Shane was ten years older than me. When you have to make phone calls like that, it's horrible. I called Tim's mum, I called Shane's mum, I called Shane's wife. I don't think I'm very good at making those phone calls. But I don't think there is really a right way. There is no "how-to" manual for that stuff.

What was your involvement in The Horn? (The Red Bull TV series showing the work of the Air Zermatt team as they rescue climbers on the Matterhorn).

I have spent a lot of time in Switzerland. I did another multi-sport descent of another Swiss postcard mountain, the Eiger and documented that with Anderson Cooper in 60 Minutes. And that took a lot of dedication, being in the Swiss Alps. I have been rescued by Swiss rescue teams. When it came time to promote the show, they thought it would be good to have me involved as a spokesperson, because English is my first language as opposed to the stars of the show who are mostly speaking Swiss-German, although they do speak great English. I also went out and did some training with them, which was really cool. I tagged along on two rescues.

Was it strange to see danger from the opposite perspective?

It was very cool. Amazing how their lives were in each other's hands, and yet the equipment they rely upon is so simple. Just as simple as can be. It was really fascinating to see the level of efficiency they work with. One of the calls we went on was a downed helicopter that was out there, on a glacier. They had already got the person out of there—he was fine, but they just wrapped up his helicopter in a rope blanket, a tarp, and had it out of there in six minutes. The way they work is so efficient.

So it's more about human intuition than technology?

Yup.

Where are you going next with the sport?

When you are kind of the first to a new, blossoming sport, you have greater margin for error. Then later, after years and years and years of raising the bar in the same sport, the margins just get slimmer and slimmer. If you look at what was an amazing wingsuit flight ten years ago, versus what is considered an amazing wingsuit flight now, you're spending a lot more of the flight far away from the ground. Now, people are flying below the line of the treetops for thousands of vertical feet. It's really aggressive, and there have been a lot of people crashing and dying.

By always being early to what's next and fun, I have been able to enjoy the more adventurous, pioneering side of the sport, rather than the super hardcore moments. If you look at what snowboarding in a halfpipe was 15 years ago versus today—the early snowboarders didn't even wear helmets. Nobody was going to get hurt.

Now these guys are going 20 feet out of a 20 foot halfpipe. That's 40 feet, if they mess it up they could get a traumatic brain injury or break their back. It's pretty aggressive. I'm always keen on the new, fun sports. Speedriding is that for me. It allows me to combine skiing and flying without ski base jumping. It's far safer and far more efficient. So I am focusing on my speedriding. As far as ever slowing down? Yes, there will be a day for sure. But I don't know when that is.

All six episodes of The Horn are available now via the Red Bull TV app and at redbull.tv.