Show business

Egan’s not just adventure skiing these days, he’s teaching, too

JOHN EGAN Storied career JOHN EGAN
Storied career
By T.D. Thornton
Globe Correspondent / December 2, 2010

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Daredevil snow sports enthusiasts know John Egan as an icon of extreme, the embodiment of huge-air, impossible-descent adventure skiing.

Even if you don’t recognize him by name, you’ve witnessed Egan in action if you’ve seen any of the epic don’t-try-this-at-home ski flicks.

Egan has launched off cliffs and soared across crevasses from Chile to Greenland. He’s achieved more than 30 first runs in the desolate, 70-degree pitched mountains of Turkey, Russia, and Romania. In 1990, a house-sized cornice at Grand Targhee in Wyoming broke away from beneath John and his brother Dan. The brothers not only survived, but they completed the run so stylishly that the death-defying footage became the single most-used segment from filmmaker Warren Miller.

Egan, a 52-year-old Boston native, has called Sugarbush home since he hitchhiked to Vermont as a teenage ski bum, earning $50 a week washing dishes. He now runs the resort’s four-season Adventure Learning Center, and is available for private lessons that max out at $659 for a full day of skiing. Yet this is no cushy late-career change. Egan can pinpoint the exact moment in 1994 when he decided to transition from entertaining people to educating them.

It was at Snowbird in Utah. Everyone who was anyone in extreme snow sports had gathered to show off and party — Olympic athletes, pro racers, ski-film legends.

“We were on fire,’’ said Egan. “Rock stars.’’

After an all-out day of one-upmanship, everyone agreed to take it easy on the final run.

Except for Egan and a buddy, who waited until the others went down to corkscrew off a sheer rock outcropping they had been eyeing all day.

“We went flying, a 25-foot drop into the woods,’’ Egan recalled. “What we didn’t know was there was another guy who took off after us. He careened straight into a tree. Punctured his lungs. Dead.

“The harsh reality of wowing people hit me in the head like a ton of bricks,’’ Egan said. “From that day on, I never skied to that level in front of people. I would dumb it down, try to teach them something.

“And you know what?’’ he said. “My available energy to give to other people just tripled. It was off the charts. Since then, it’s been an interesting ride, bringing people to the next level.’’

Early rise Egan’s ride began around age 5 or 6 while growing up on Richwood Street in West Roxbury.

“I couldn’t ski,’’ he said. “I was determined to ski. I was going to learn, and I was going to do it right now.’’

Part of the problem was lack of snow. So Egan and an older brother dragged their Flexible Flyer sleds to the gas station three blocks away and hauled plowed mounds of gray snow to sculpt a backyard ski hill.

John thought it wasn’t worth the trouble unless they could soar off a jump. So they dragged the picnic table over and built it into the run.

When Egan began taking lessons at Blue Hills and later Cranmore, he was “bored to hell.’’ To him, the instructors seemed to go out of their way to drain the experience of fun.

The way Egan liked to learn was the way his grandfather taught him: Dr. Frederick Gillis was Boston’s superintendent of schools, and when he wanted to educate John about math, he incorporated the lesson into building a tree house.

“After that, math made sense,’’ Egan said.

Upon graduating high school in 1976, Egan lost his job as a valet at Anthony’s Pier 4 over what he mischievously recalls as “a slight driving infraction.’’ Restless, he hooked a ride to Vermont with a man who happened to be an accountant at Sugarbush. After Egan blathered about his goal of moving out West to ski, the driver sold him on the virtues of northern New England, where harsh, diverse conditions tend to produce better all-around skiers.

The accountant helped Egan land his dishwashing gig at the Golden Horse Lodge. The money was lousy, but it included room, board, and — key perk — a season pass.

“For a kid from Boston with no job and no means to get anywhere, that was a cool job,’’ Egan said.

Egan’s ski-anything style got him noticed. He won races. The hardcore locals talked about him in reverential tones for his ability to seek out hidden, off-piste gems no one had considered skiing.

When the filmmaker Miller scouted Sugarbush in 1978, Egan was immediately signed up for that winter’s project in Europe.

The first shoot was scheduled for an avalanche danger zone where stunt skiers had just finished scenes for a James Bond movie. Also on the set were extreme skiing pioneers whose posters Egan had hanging in his room back home.

“Everyone was like, ‘OK, rope up,’ ’’ Egan recalled. But he hadn’t even thought to bring a safety line. Perplexed crew members asked John how he had crossed a massive crevasse to get down to the location.

Egan shrugged and told them he did what he always did — he just backed up to a takeoff point where he felt confident he’d build up enough speed to clear the icy gulf.

In rare air Egan’s career progressed in leaps and bounds, flying high through the 1980s.

His most harrowing experience? A 1992 trip to Siberia, where the helicopter inadvertently dumped the crew on the wrong peak of “a frozen Jurassic Park’’ with 22 active volcanoes. They triggered an avalanche that woke up sleeping grizzly bears, yet lived to tell the tale after a six-hour crawl down.

These days, when Egan teaches survival at Sugarbush, he stresses the importance of not confusing “extreme’’ with “reckless.’’ He tells students some of life’s most important ski runs are the ones you never take.

“I think that’s why I’m still alive and some of my buddies aren’t,’’ he said.

After a while, it became a struggle for John Egan to be John Egan. He was always expected to be “on,’’ and was often trailed on the slopes by an entourage of hangers-on.

“Today, the only time it really bothers me is when it bothers my family,’’ Egan said, emphasizing he’s grateful that his sons, 13 and 8, can tag along to work.

Egan had freelanced in various teaching capacities at Sugarbush. A few years back, Win Smith, the resort’s owner, hired Egan to give his son a challenging day on the slopes. After the 16-year-old returned home exhausted but elated, Smith said he knew he had to land Egan full-time to run the mountain’s education programs.

“John’s got this infectious personality that just makes people feel good,’’ said Smith. “He’s as good with a beginner as an expert skier.’’

Now that young extremists have access to outlandish ski videos on the Internet, Egan said his name recognition tends to trend upward, to fathers closer to his own age.

“It’s always humorous,’’ Egan said. “I take pride in that. But I also feel bad for the kid who’s going to get dragged home and subjected to watch 16 John Egan videos just because his dad insists I was once in vogue.’’

Not long ago, Egan was waved over by a parent who wanted to impress upon his young son who John was. To make his point, the father mentioned the trail Egan’s Woods, a double-black diamond glade that Sugarbush christened in John’s honor years ago. The dad told his son that the guy standing right there in front of them shared the same name as that fearsome ski run.

“The kid looks at me, eyes wide, and shouts, ‘That is so cool!’ ’’ Egan recounted.

As Egan flushed with pride, the youngster added the kicker, not really grasping the chronology of the situation.

“Wow! I can’t believe your mom and dad named you after a ski trail!’’