Extreme Skiing Passion Still Runs Deep For the Egan Brothers, 25 Years After Their Defining Moment

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Sugarbush Photo

WARREN, VT. — Maybe John Egan shouldn’t be here.

There’s more than reasonable evidence suggesting that somewhere along the line, Egan’s path could have taken a different turn, that this pioneer of extreme skiing, now in his late-50’s, might have met his fate in any one of the daring locations around the globe that he’s managed to challenge on skis.

But here, indeed, he is, escaping the bitterness of an early March wind chill at the base of Sugarbush in the Castlerock Pub, bustling with a late-lunch crowd hoping to avoid the the arctic atmosphere that has descended upon northern Vermont, only one day after what turned out to be an all-too-brief warming respite.

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His brother, Dan, isn’t here, but only because he’s out in Big Sky Resort at the moment, conducting ski clinics that will keep him in Montana for the better part of the month. In fact, getting the Egan brothers together these days is nearly impossible, which is an unfamiliar dynamic seeing as the two were almost inseparable during their extreme skiing heyday.

Considering that 2015 marks a landmark anniversary for the duo, each brother laments that he hasn’t been skiing with the other this winter. Twenty-five years ago, that was a normal occurrence. The Egan Brothers were frequent contributors to Warren Miller’s annual staple of winter films, skiing in their signature synchrony, down some of the planet’s most intimidating peaks.

In 1990, the brothers were shooting for Miller at Grand Targhee in Wyoming, when Dan triggered a cornice collapse that left his brother, trailing his turns, on death’s door. It certainly would have swallowed up most extreme skiers, pulling them with it in a freefall over the edge of the mountain. But not John, whose mid-air turn back into snow would cement his legend in the genre, and turn into the most-viewed segment for the filmmaker, appearing in countless films from there on out.

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“It had snowed, I don’t know, for a full week, prior to the accident,” Dan recounted, “and when the sun finally broke, it was pretty late in the day, and we went up there to ski it. We were unaware that a piece of the mountain was missing and that was the cornice overhang. Patrol never said anything to us, the cameraman was set up across the valley and got a great shot of it.

“As I was skiing down — I was in front, John was in back — as I was skiing along the ridge, I saw a big hole and I jumped over the hole, and the hole was right on the edge of the mountain. So, when I hit, when I landed off that little jump, the whole cornice broke. The cornice, without exaggerating, was the size of two semi-trailers. I didn’t realize that the snow was breaking from under me when I landed. It just felt like a big wind drift. I sort of did a double pole plant to pull myself up and out of it. That was the momentum that carried me back to safety, and John got – for better or worse – a better view of it because it broke right before him.

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“I was really unaware of what happened, unaware that he was turning in midair, unaware that the snow fell away.”

The clip made its way into the 1991 film, “Extreme Winter,” as the opening sequence, in which Miller narrates John’s exploits by saying ”He gets his heart out of his mouth and makes turns as if nothing had happened.” Dan relayed it the same way.

“Once he was back on snow, he indeed didn’t stop skiing. He was yelling, which was pretty normal for us, so I didn’t think much about that. Until we stopped and he said, ‘Dude, dude, turn around look what happened.”

Safe to say Dan was done for the day after that. John wasn’t, though.

“He had so much energy, he was so amped up about what happened,” Dan said. “There’s a shot in that sequence where John skis into a tree, just explodes off a jump and into a tree, and that was right after that.”

In many ways, that inability to succumb to the surroundings is what has driven John since he moved from Massachusetts to Vermont as a teenager in the 70’s, an awareness that tends to be increasingly absent in many of the high-flying, risk-taking extreme athletes of today, often resulting in tragedy. Perhaps the most infamous case is Shane McConkey, an athlete who continued to push the limits to such a degree that he was considered little more than a ticking time bomb right up until his death during a BASE jump gone wrong in 2009.

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“The fear of what could go wrong has always been a driving force for me. People say ‘you’re fearless’ and I don’t think so. I think I decipher and dissect what’s going on,” John said. “Fear is healthy. It’s good for you. It’s not good for you not to be afraid. It’s good to be confident and understand what could happen. Living in fear is not good, and letting fear run your body and your body language is not good. But understanding why you would be fearful of that avalanche — too narrow, too steep, too icy — those things will let you solve the problem so that you’ve solved the fear issue, you’re not backing away from it.”

Both Egans have long felt that responsibility to deliver the message of corralling fear through clinics and other teaching methods aimed at not only changing their clients’ views of skiing, but also discovering limits and broadening the mountain experience. It was, as Dan puts it, always meant to be their path in life.

“In a lot of ways I sort of do think it was our calling,” he said. “Because there’s no good reason why two kids from Milton went to ski around the world.”

The backyard boys

I don’t feel so bad whimpering about the cold following a morning session down some Sugarbush staples when John Egan agrees with my assessment. March has come into Vermont as a lion, and a freezing one at that, but it didn’t stop that morning’s session of the resort’s Mountaineering Blazers session, which on this day, essentially consisted of Egan giving a private lesson to a young boy.

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John is readily available most days at his Sugarbush home base, ready to take clients on a skiing exploration of the Warren, Vt. resort’s terrain. As Sugarbush’s “Chief Recreation Officer,” he’s in charge in a number of youth and adult learning programs that give a unique perspective and access that traditional ski schools can’t match.

“We have one of the few ski schools in the country that employs real mountain guys from as far away as Chamonix and all across the U.S.,” John said, “People that have guided snowcats, heli, backcountry trips, and we teach that to our youth here, which is really cool.”

It’s a far cry from how John and Dan learned how to ski, whether it be under the watchful eye of their father, who used to chaperone bus trips from the Boston area to Mount Sunapee, or at home in West Roxbury, where the brothers would drag snow from the Mobil station at the end of Richwood Street and pile it on a picnic table at home for some backyard shenanigans. The family was an intermediate skiing family, according to both Dan and John, and made frequent trips to North Conway, N.H., where they stayed at the Oxen Yoke Inn on Kearsage Road and took lessons at nearby Cranmore. After the family moved to Milton, they frequented the Blue Hills ski area.

“We weren’t really what I could call by today’s definition a skiing family,” Dan said. “We were an outdoor family, we sailed, we skied, played sports.”

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And sailed. The Egans were avid sailors, always fooling around in the waters off Castle Island in South Boston, a factor that led indirectly to John’s move to Sugarbush four decades ago.

By the end of high school in 1976, John was working at Anthony’s Pier Four on the Boston waterfront before abruptly quitting on the Third of July, with the backdrop of the Tall Ships floating in the distance of Boston Harbor. He ended up on Cape Cod with some friends, and happened to be looking for work on the docks when he noticed a guy on a sailboat wearing a skiing hat with a cooler full of beer. John figured he could offer his services and help him out, both with the boat and the beer.

John told him he was itching to move out west and become a ski bum, much to the man’s dismay, imploring him that to become a hardened skier adapting to the elements, he had to master the craft in the unforgiving conditions of the East Coast. It so happened he was the accountant for Sugarbush, still holding onto its reputation as “Mascara Mountain” in those days, and he helped John land a poorly-paid dishwashing gig at The Golden Horse Lodge and a season pass at the nearby mountain.

Within two years, Warren Miller arrived in Warren, scouting skiers for the next year’s film. John immediately made the cut and ended up appearing in 17 of his movies over nearly a 40-year stretch.

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“Once I learned his 800 number I never forgot it,” John said. “I called it all the time.”

John yet had his brother by his side by the time he made it to the big screen, but he did pick up another partner in a way after reading a book that had just a much profound effect on his life.

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“Denise McCluggage’s ‘Centered Skiing’ was so helpful out west,” he said about the book which features a mix of sports psychology and mediation in its approach to skiing. “I’d see these lines and I’d see the perfect run down through there, and I’d jump into that vortex and just do it.”

Centered skiing is at the core of John’s approach to life, a mountain zen of sorts. “It’s a way of thinking about skiing that gets the emotions and the kinesthetic lined up,” McCluggage told “Skiing Heritage” in 2004. When you watch skiers, the really good ones are in tune with the mountain.”

John has adapted this line of thinking into what he calls, “Egan’s law of perpendicularity,” arguing that we need to adapt to the mountains even as our equilibrium has us used to living in a flat world. Skiers should have the view of a goalie on the ice, he said, moving left and right, never taking his eyes off the rink, leading to a metaphysical experience with nature.

“In skiing, you’re actually traveling through space and time, something people dream of their whole lives,” John said. “You have become part of a physics equation. You are actually momentum. You are speed. And you need to react and move proactively.”

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Dan was on the move to college at the time, and, like many younger brothers, aimed to reach the heights of his older sibling. He played soccer at Babson College, took classes in the summer, both so he could ski during the winter and keep his eligibility intact, and began to join his brother on road trips in the mountains.

“I interrupted that a few times,” John said. “I said ‘Dan, we need you. We’re going heli-skiing, we’ve got your trip covered, plane ticket, meet us in [British Columbia]. “You’ve got to remember this kid grew up in high school watching his brother on the silver screen in these movies,” John said. “So it was something he looked up to and obviously wanted to do.”

In 1987, Dan graduated and made the move to Sugarbush. It was not a good winter for snow, John said.

“He looked at me one day. I said, ‘How was work?’ He said, ‘Good, I quit. Let’s move out west and become ski bums out there.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I think you’re right.’”

The brothers were on the move to Squaw Valley, where Miller would find the two and put Dan the first of many films for the duo. They became part of the inaugural North Face Extreme team, and hooked up with the DesLauriers brothers, Vermont refugees themselves from Bolton Valley, to begin what would be an 18-year relationship of conducting ski clinics.

Dan also brought a new sense of what this all meant for the Egan brothers financially.

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“He took on the end of, ‘I see something here, I see potential,” John said. “‘I can market this and if I can organize a couple of these clowns, we can actually make a living doing this stuff.’ He really brought a different view to it, jumped in with both feet and really made a name for himself in the industry.”

At the time, the skiing industry was not doing well. Phil Mahre had retired, and the US Ski Team was in shambles with no big names to market.

Enter the VHS, and the Egan brothers’ ticket into your living room.

“For the first time, niche sports could go into your home,” Dan said. “When we started making movies, they were film, they weren’t video, they were distributed on video, and we had to find skiers that owned VCRs. Today, that’s hard t believe.

“I always tell kids the VCR machine to me, is what YouTube is to them. And without it we don’t have a career.”

Soon, what the brothers dubbed the “World Wide Wild Tour” was off around the world, skiing from continent to continent, all under the watchful eye of the camera. Upon returning, Dan brought his “multimedia extravaganza,” which consisted of a boom box, VHS tape, and a carousel of slides, to the REI store in Reading, where he made a presentation before a very small audience. But the outreach coordinator liked what he saw, and soon, the Egans were in every REI store in the country, and Dan’s video production company was born. Today, in addition to skiing, the company also specializes in producing Olympic-level sailing events. He likes to joke that the things that would carry him through life, his father taught him by the age of five.

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“It was always going to be a business for me,” Dan said. “That’s how I approached it when John and I had always dreamt of doing a business together. We didn’t know what it would be. He sort of held my feet to the fire by saying, ‘Go make something out of this.’ He was definitely the voice behind, ‘Go get it done, Dan.’ And he’s such an entertaining character that it wasn’t hard to market John.”

Only a couple years later, one dramatic moment in Wyoming nearly changed the script.

“The cornice break on Grand Targhee on Mary’s [Nipple, an out-of-bounds peak] really defined John and I in our career, I think,” Dan said. “And I think one of the reasons why we survived that was because the thing that defines our skiing is our spontaneity, and I think that’s what saved us both that day.”

Edging the Extreme

How have they survived this long?

How have the Egan brothers managed to maintain their legacy in a skiing and riding world littered with renegades making the next 100-foot cliff jump?

“We definitely have a different approach,” John said. “I think it’s one of the reasons why we’re still around. I’ve seen a lot of it — either where people are very careful and they understand the risks, and then they get to a point where they’re famous enough where they’re not climbing what they ski or snowboard. They get in a heli-ride to the top and they ignore a few of the things you did along the way. We used to climb everything we skied. We knew what the snow conditions were. So you can see where all of a sudden you’re a bigwig and you get heli-rides everywhere and just start dropping things you don’t know. I’ve seen that take people out.”

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The responsibility of preaching safety has long been a mantra for both Egans, particularly John, as he watches his 17-year-old son, John, begin to take the reins of the next generation of extreme skiing. In addition to being the captain of the ski team at Harwood Union High School, John coaches in Sugarbush’s “Diamond Dogs” freestyle program, aimed at advanced skiers looking to develop their mogul, aerial, and park skills. He finished eighth in the world last year in the Junior International Freeride Tour, a placement his father said was “not bad, right?”

John, Jr.’s skiing prowess is no surprise, considering he grew up on the road with “Uncle Dan and his Dad.” By the time he was three years old, when most of us are just getting our children on the bunny hill, John, Jr. had already skied on three continents. At age nine, he climbed 15,000-foot elevations in the Andes with 24 adults. After graduation, his father said he plans to move out west and pursue the movie aspect — perhaps film school at Montana State. Along the way, he grew up with Tom Day, who would go on to become head cinematographer at Warren Miller, and “Johnny seems to like the way they live and work together,” his father said.

It’s a gift passed down, wrapped with a knowledge for the elements that many rushing to skiing stardom will unfortunately bypass.

“We really try to instill how we made it through our career, 40 years working in the industry alive, and pass that on to the next generation. And it seems to be the next generation and the next generation,” John said. “After being in the industry for over 40 years, I’ve seen a lot of silly, stupid mistakes result in serious injury or death. It’s hard to see that when you’ve known a kid since four or seven years old, and then you watch him do something silly when he’s 21. It really hits you at home.”

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While he admits that watching athletes huck triple flips off of 100-foot cliffs can be cool to watch, call John old school, but he likes watching quiet, solitude skiing documentaries about finding yourself in the mountains like Jeremy Jones’ “Deeper” trilogy or Kit DesLauriers’ quest to ski off the Seven Summits, the highest point on each continent, a feat which the Westport native became the first to accomplish.

“The” ooh, ahh moment,’ the coolest moment in the film is that big huck the guy does over the railroad, off the building, the double back flip over the trees and lands in a field,” John said. “Those things are what people get excited to see, but they don’t see the hours that goes into those things.”

In John’s eyes, that nonchalance on film translates to a wide-eyed audience not nearly prepared to take a similar plunge, and resulting in injuries and death. He also notes that he notices audiences getting up and leaving Warren Miller-style movies during intermission. “That says to me this movie isn’t holding their attention. It’s not interesting, we didn’t tell enough stories. We just showed the pictures. And a pretty picture is a pretty picture. How many pretty pictures can you look at more than once?”

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John notes how the modern avenue of urban skiing has really brought the sport back to the public, how the X Games really changes the equation for extreme skiing. He admits that many of the feats pulled off today would never have entered his or Dan’s minds, not because they felt they couldn’t do them, but because the rate of evacuation back then was nothing compared to what it is now. “Nobody was going to pick us up if we did a double back flip and it didn’t go well,” he said.

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“I’d like to think that we were safe, but I’d like to think that safety followed us, in a way,” Dan said during a brief stop in Boston before heading to Val D’Isere, France, for another round of ski clinics that run through April. “Because when you’re jumping off cliffs for a living it’s hard to define yourself as safe. We definitely took precautions, but what the producers liked is that we could ski so close together.”

That harmony stretches beyond the screen when the brothers talk about each other as well.

“We were always wondering what was possible on skis,” Dan, who lives in New Hampshire when he’s not traveling the world, said. “John’s move to Sugarbush in the mid-to-late 70’s defined our future because between ’76 and ’79, somehow, the kid with Olin Mark 4’s and rear-entry Hanson boots was on the pro tour. I don’t know how it happened.”

When Win Smith, former executive vice president of Merrill Lynch, purchased Sugarbush Resort in 2001, he made sure to keep John on staff, eventually creating a variety of ways to have the public ski with him. That includes the “Adventures With John Egan” in which John will taken visitors through whatever level of expertise they feel comfortable with at the Warren mountain.

“It’s always interesting because you know the people that ski just to say, ‘I skied with you,” he said, “they kind of know more than they want to learn. It’s hard, but that’s an awesome challenge for me and I love trying to crack that code. But most people will become repeat customers and come back because they did learn something.”

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Dan finds the same repeat business in his own clinics, whether they be at Killington in Vermont, or across the Atlantic, preaching balance, not talent.

“Both of us have a very different approach to skiing that traditional ski school, which is from the feet up,” Dan said. “John and I tell you to ski from the head down. We’re going to get in your head, get you psyched, get you motivated, and we’re going to show you, what we see, and why it looks different to us to ski through the trees a different way, or down a mogul run or down some steep chute.

“I think John and I both change your paradigm on what the mountain looks like. That’s where we are very much common. We are going to change how you see the mountain. If you see it differently, you’ll ski it differently.”

Consider it double vision of sorts. John’s to pursue the centered skiing aspect of his life, Dan’s to focus on picking up the camera and monetize the Egans’ exploits.

But Dan has no qualms in lending all his gratitude to his older brother.

“The root of all my skiing comes through John,” he said. “He learned to ski through centered skiing, that was his big breakthrough in the late 70’s. and that centered skiing movement affected me because I saw the results in him and I adapted my skiing. Skiing for him was a place where John finally found himself. I think that’s where he became who he is. Me, I was in organized sports and doing different things in my teens, but for John, he finally found skiing at that level, it was waiting for him.

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“My brother, John, is an extremely gifted skier, he’s unique. He’s a special skier. I’m a great skier. I am good, but John is very unique. He has something that me and others don’t see in everybody else.”

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